Werner–disguised as his alias Dieter Traumson–is infiltrating the Aquarian Capricornian Movement alongside Gilbert, Nico, Dunya Kramer, and Nikita Knovak. Their purpose is to investigate two potential True Conductors in the movement as well as dismantle it if it proves to be dangerous. Along the way, Werner learns that he must prove himself to the movement in order to become a true member. He also discovers chlorowheat being distributed amongst the ACC.
In-transit, Taurusian Waters, Alpha’s (Stolen) Vessel
“Alpha, Nu and I’ve been running around all of Signum trying to avoid Iota and now you’re asking us to pick up more children?”
Alpha smiled pleasantly and shrugged. “It’s up to you, Rho. The choice has always been yours.”
Rho hummed to herself as she listened to the ship creak around her. “Where is it this time?”
“There’s a showcase for talented young potential Conductors being held at the end of the month,” Alpha replied. “Near the southern border of Capricorn.”
Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
“What did you say your name was?”
“Dieter Traumson,” Werner answered with a good-natured smile. “But you can just call me Dieter.”
“That’s certainly a unique name. You can call me Milkovich. Pleasure.”
The man sitting across the bar from Werner was middle-age with a high nose and a prominent brow. The burn scars that ran up from the nape of his neck to his face marked him as a Reservoir War veteran as did the badges of honor he wore proudly on his chest.
Despite the man’s impressive repertoire, he was not a suspected True Conductor. Therefore, even though Werner held respect for the man, he had no pressing interest in him. Even so, appearances of interest needed to be maintained—because sitting in-between them on a bar stool was Constanza Groth. The suspected True Conductor: a person of interest.
This was the first time Werner had seen her here at this particular meeting location. It served as an important marker of possible progress.
“I like you.” Milkovich nodded at Werner. “Could’ve used more boys like you back then. Would’ve made the days go by easier.” He mulled and took a sip of his beer. “Or maybe not. That’s not a very pleasant thing to say, is it? Wishing you were back there…”
Werner still personally believed that there were better tasks to complete on the field than engaging in idle chatter. However, given that idle chatter could serve as a morale booster and ease nerves, Werner supposed it was an acceptable pastime.
Werner chuckled. “Well, I’m quite a shot myself. I might just be a glorified mailman, but back in my academy days I was a legend.” He mimicked a gun with his hands. Excessive, Cadence.
It’s part of the flair, Captain.
Milkovich returned the chuckle with a barking laugh.
Werner continued to smile but noted that Constanza was staring at him. After a moment, he turned to her and asked casually, “Is there something on my face, Constanza? Oh, thanks for inviting me to this meeting too. I appreciate feeling included. It’s like getting”
Constanza spread her arms slightly. “You earned it.” She nodded across the bar. Nico—in his disguise as Nikolai Valse—was leaning against the wall there and scowling alongside two older men. “You’re friends with that Aquarian over there, aren’t you? You two are nothing alike. I’m surprised you get along. Where did you say you met again?”
“We’re a bit different.” Werner agreed with a chuckle. “I’m the type who likes to settle down with a woman, and he’s the type to go running off after any girl who catches his eye. Different lifestyles so to speak. And that’s fine.”
Nico glanced over at him, eyebrows knitting slightly.
“Is that a bit of animosity I hear?” Constanza asked.
Cadence, Werner thought, eyes narrowing this is not the time to bring up personal issues. I’ve said this before and I do not want to say it again. You should resolve—
His thought ended abruptly as a smile cracked across his face. “It’s all teasing. No hard feelings. It’s how we communicate.”
“You.” Milkovich nodded at Groth. “You said your name was Groth? Constanza Groth? Any relation to the chairwoman running for Head Chairman?”
Constanza arched her brow again as a laugh rumbled her chest. “Do you know how many times I’ve been asked that question? She’s a distant cousin. That’s all.”
“Must be interesting publicity,” Milkovich noted.
“Speaking of publicity,” Constanza drew, “How do you both feel about the publicity that the ACC’s been getting recently? It feels like we’re swimming
“Publicity is for people who have time for,” Milkovich grumbled immediately. “You have better things to do than dance in the public eye.”
“Publicity is important to any movement,” Werner replied with a shrug. “Like I said earlier, the public is what supports a movement. The media’ll always paint you as either an unworldly saint or evil incarnate. Appearances are important, so whenever newsie is nearby, it’s good to work with them in any way you can.”
Constanza studied them both for some time before she reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope. She slipped it to both of them with a jerk of her head. “I like both your perspectives. Different meeting place is written down. No extra gift this time either though. Look forward to seeing you both there.” With that, she departed.
Werner watched her go.
It had been like this for well over two weeks now. Werner had been going from ‘exclusive’ meeting location to ‘exclusive’ meeting location alongside Nico, Gilbert, and Kramer who had received similar cryptic messages from Constanza Groth. Knovak had not managed to obtain the primary invitation so he was still situated in the Aquarian-Capricornian tavern they’d first gone to.
The first series of ‘exclusive’ meetings that Werner had attended were hosted in the lobby of a local inn just across the street from the one he was stationed at. The meetings there had a lower number of attendants than the meeting at the tavern, but Werner had deduced that too was just another false front.
These meetings often culminated in planning a protest in front of the diplomatic building at the center of town. Werner had attended all of these protests dutifully, of course, alongside Kramer and Gilbert. Occasionally, he would spot Otto—the peacekeeper, not his Otto—among the reporters that skirted the scene. The protests were notably less chaotic and violent than the ones
* * *
The next meeting was held in the backyard of an old couple’s luxurious vacation home. While Gilbert perused the wintery garden displays and chatted amiably with other attendants, Werner surveyed the small shooting range that had been built wide and long in the expansive backyard. It had been three weeks since he’d last been able to practice firearms, so they looked very tempting at the moment. The old couple had been generous enough to leave their range open to the ACC members, so there were two men and two women already taking up shooting—including Kramer. The ranges themselves were quite narrow and long, although they were also slightly snowed in. Still, Werner’s fingers itched for practice and perfection.
Cadence was preoccupied with the developments on her end this past week, and Werner had insisted that she remain focused on her own situation. Thus, she was not synchronized with him strongly at this time. After weighing his options, Werner decided to keep to himself and head to the shooting station. He was not quite as adept as maintaining Dieter’s cheerful persona as Cadence was—something that he needed to account for—so it was best not to draw eyes for now.
As Werner readied himself at a shooting station beside Kramer who offered him a curt nod, he reached out to Jericho through the soft haze that clouded their connection. Jericho’s image appeared at his side and nodded once upon understanding the purpose of the call.
Pay close attention to the way my arms are positioned, Jericho, Werner thought as he loaded his weapon. You should become proficient at firearms on your own merit given what we’ve discovered about the effects of chlorowheat.Although this lesson was the main purpose of the synchronization, Werner also had concerns regarding Jericho himself. The encounter with Taurus and then subsequently Rho and Nu had occurred only three days ago. He had heard about the fallout from Cadence. As he’d suspected, the fallout had been disastrous.
Werner lined up his shot and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the bullseye on the target board on the mark.
“You never miss,” Jericho noted. “I didn’t miss with my suitcase earlier. I missed with my conductor.” He frowned. “More than once—”
“Rumors on the field are one thing but seeing it with your own eyes is something else,” Kramer muttered beside Werner. “I see how you gained your moniker.”
I heard about that from Cadence. Werner answered Jericho first. Given that you were in an emotionally compromising state of mind, that isn’t surprising. Remaining calm and level-headed during distressing situations is the best way to ensure that you hit your target. He readjusted his stance. However, this is not a kill-on-sight situation—
Yes, I understand.
We need either Rho or Nu alive if we encounter them, Jericho.
Yes. But. They’re working with the one—
A hot rush went up to Werner’s head, and before he realized it, he was pulling the trigger before he’d properly lined up the shot—
The bullet ricocheted off a nearby steel safety barricade right back to the bullseye on Werner’s target board.
“I never pull the trigger unless I’m certain,” Werner replied to Kramer as he reloaded the pistol. Although that was a particularly fortunate shot. Not that there was such a thing as fortune. Then again, he appreciated Jericho’s applause even if it was unwarranted and undeserved.
Will we still plan for Olive’s birthday? Jericho inquired after watching him fire several more rounds, each of them snapping through the very first bullet hole. The cake.
Of course, Werner returned seriously. We’ve already invested this much time in preparing for the event. We must follow through. Hopefully we can maintain the surprise. Cadence will be able to teach you how to keep things more close to yourself so Olive doesn’t discover it too soon.
Of course. Jericho perked up slightly at this before offering him a thumbs up.
That gesture of his had always been particularly infectious, and so Werner had to concentrate not to physically reciprocate it. Instead, he focused on lining his shot up once more and firing.
A whistle pierced Werner’s eardrums followed by—“That’s an impressive shot.”
Werner lowered the pistol and turned to find a familiar young man squeezing his way between himself and Kramer. The man had wild, barely tamed sweeping blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes. His jaw was sharp, his nose prominent; and he somehow looked old and young at the same time. He was dressed in a loose navy overcoat, and his cheeks were only faintly pink from the cold.
“Care to introduce me to your friend, Natalya?” the man nodded at Kramer as he addressed her by her alias.
“Oh”—Kramer gestured to Werner— “This is Dieter Traumson. Dieter, this is Matthias Alfhild. I met Dieter here during one of the other ACC meetings. We were both new to the ACC and happened to be staying at the same inn. Matthias here is—”
—a potential True Conductor, Werner recalled as Kramer explained how she’d first met Matthias. Werner already knew all the details. She’d met him after accessing the ‘second-level’ of the ACC meetings. He’d approached her and animatedly chattered about how ‘Aquarius and Capricorn were stupid apart but even more stupid together.’
“I heard from Constanza that you’re very passionate about what the ACC stands for,” Matthias barked as he looked Werner up and down. He wiggled his fingers. “She says you’re very mysterious. And very funny.”
He knows who you are. Your ‘cover identity.’ Jericho stared at Matthias threw their connection. Intuition.
Jericho tensed slightly. Don’t trust him, Werner.
Don’t worry, Jericho. I won’t.
Relief came through their connection at this. Admittedly, it was a pleasant feeling. Then came Jericho’s thoughts—He knows Constanza.
It was unsurprising that he knew of Constanza since she appeared to be the ACC member tasked with doling out invites to private meetings. However, the fact that two suspected True Conductors knew of each other was a development of note. There was no such thing as coincidence.
He is a suspected True Conductor. She is a suspected True Conductor. Intuition. They are connected.
There is a possibility.
Will you bring them to the saint candidates, Werner…?
Werner remained silent. Jericho remained silent too but he didn’t lessen their synchronization.
Matthias cleared his throat loudly. “Well, you are passionate, aren’t you? Oh, are you one of those strong, silent, mysterious types?”
“Of course, I’m passionate,” Werner answered more stiffly than he’d intended. The word ‘passion’ always left a sour taste on his tongue nowadays. “It’s natural to be passionate about the future of your country. Aquarius and Capricorn are already in bad waters publicity wise individually. I believe an author named Kovich once wrote that countries are stronger when they are united in their isolation rather than united in unity.”
“Huh?” Matthias stared. “No idea what you’re saying.”
Werner inwardly berated himself. Literature reference had not been the route to take with the personality Matthias had. An incorrectly selected appearance.
I liked what you said, Werner, Jericho interjected.
Werner appreciated and was reassured by the thought, although it didn’t help his situation.
“Anyway! I also heard that you were a Transmutationist,” Matthias drew a moment later, leaning against the wooden divider and arm rest in front of them. “And not just any Transmutationist. And intraneous user! Talk about rare.” He paused, thrumming his fingers against the splintered wood. “How would you like to do something else other than waving around signs all day?”
* * *
“So Dieter Traumson,’ huh?” Gilbert smirked. “Shouldn’t the name be ‘Fun Werner’ instead, Werner?”
Gilbert seemed to be in a positive mood.
Fifteen minutes earlier, they had held a briefing meeting with Kramer and Knovak. Accordingly, Werner had provided everyone present with the information that he’d been invited to another off-shoot meeting. Supposedly this one was one where they would finally take a course of action other than protesting. Gilbert reported he’d received a similar invitation, but the same did not apply for Nico nor Kramer. Needless to say, Knovak received no invitation either and was still operating at ‘level one’ meetings.
After finishing up their briefing, the Aquarians had headed to their room while Werner, Nico, and Gilbert had retired to theirs. Now they were preparing for the night.
“Don’t be childish, Gilbert.” Werner resisted a sigh as he sank down onto his bed. “It’s merely a persona.”
“A fun-sona,” Gilbert noted from where he sat at his own bed rest across from Werner. “Hell, wish I could be this Ansel Meyer. He lost his arm in an accident but he doesn’t have a problem in the world.”
Werner looked up at Gilbert with a frown.
A shirtless Nico entered the room with a damp towel thrown over his wet head.
It felt a bit unusual sharing a room with them. It felt somewhat more personal than sharing space in the trenches where everyone was packed close together. While a stiff, tense distance occupied that place, here existed an intimate casualness that unnerved Werner. He supposed it was not as intimate as the space he shared with the other five, however. But again, this peace felt false.
“The shower’s open,” Nico noted as he sank down on his own bed beside Werner’s. He glanced back at his bed and arched a brow. “Wait… room service didn’t come this morning, did they? Did you make my bed, Werner?”
“Yes,” Werner replied. “It was a mess. You should try to make your bed in the mornings. It saves room service time.”
Nico dipped his head and chuckled sheepishly. “Sorry…”
“It’s fine,” Werner replied. “I don’t mind doing it.” It was a therapeutic way to spend extra allotted time.
“I’m pretty beat.” Gilbert sighed, falling back onto his bed. “I’ll shower in the morning. Shower’s all yours, Werner.”
Werner moved to open his luggage at the foot of his bed. As he searched through his items there, his mind went to Olive’s bird back in the capital. It was quite unfortunate that he had to leave her there. However, bringing her along just because of sentimental value was foolish. After all, he wouldn’t be able to properly protect her here—
Werner paused as he was halfway through pulling out his sleepwear. Then, he carefully shifted through all of his folded clothing inside. After fifteen seconds of this, he removed all items from his luggage and set them nearly on his bed.
Something was missing. The small sewn pocket tucked away in the corner of his suitcase was empty. Had it slipped out? No, impossible. He was careful.
Had the others gone through his things? No. They’d always respected his privacy and space. The Aquarians then? No. It was best not to jump to conclusions.
“What’s wrong?” Nico asked, peering over at him.
Werner remained silent and slowly resituated his luggage. “Some of my belongings are missing.”
“Your pocket watch?” Nico asked with concern as he rounded the bed to stand behind him. “I thought you always kept that with you.”
“I do,” Werner replied. “I still have it in my pocket. It’s another personal item I brought with me.
“Shit.” Gilbert frowned. “Maybe room service was messing around after all. I can give ‘em a holler if you want—”
“No.” Werner shut his suitcase after ensuring that everything was in order. He pulled his thoughts close to him. “It was nothing important.”
* * *
That night, Werner was revisited by Otto for the first time in a very long while. It had been approximately two months since Otto had visited him in his sleep. It had been two months since Werner had ever dreamed, and so the dream—the nightmare—came with rugged force.
Otto’s bisected body came crawling in through the hotel window, moaning and groaning with tearful eyes. But Werner could not move to help him. No. He was bound tightly to his bed by an invisible force.
Otto crept closer. “Lieutenant…” he whispered. “I’m dying, Lieutenant.” Closer. “Help me.” Closer, until he was at the foot of his bed. “Please, Lieutenant. I don’t want to die.” Crawling up his bed. “Am I dying, Lieutenant.” Stradling his body and gripping him tightly. “Please.” Right above him—face bloodied and bruised.
Otto’s eyes widened and his eyeballs spilled out from his sockets revealing the face of a ticking watch. Tick-toc. Tick-toc. Scars then sprouted across Otto’s face from his eye-sockets and then across his entire body. The scars widened and widened until they formed an almond shape, and out from that almond shape grew eyes. All wide and blue and staring directly at Werner.
Soon the eyes spread all across the room, growing like mushrooms on every surface available. Those eyes–Werner knew them well. The one on the lamp belonged to Magda Rath. The one at the foot of his bed belonged to Herr Rath. The one in the corner of the ceiling belonged to the first Anton he’d killed. The names he’d forgotten and the feelings he’d discarded rattled him with full force as all of their eyes bore into him. In the distance in-between the tick-tocks of the clock, he could hear the thunder of the battlefield.
* * *
“You look like shit, Capricornian,” Knovak noted as Werner emerged from his room and entered the dining lobby the next morning.
Kramer was seated beside Knovak at the central dining table and offered Werner a nod as he entered.
“You look like shit, Aquarian,” Gilbert returned as he entered the lobby behind Werner.
“No one looks pretty in the mornin’,” was Nico’s response as he filtered into the room. He paused, then added, “Well, some people do.”
Although the latter two comments were reassuring, Werner felt his palms itch at the former statement. So, he briskly walked into the bathroom and readied himself for the day. The mirror hanging above the sink reflected back his slightly pale face and the blue tattoo crawling up his cheek.
After showering, rinsing his face, and coming back his hair, a quick snap of his fingers and Cadence’s conducting resolved the issue as he donned Dieter’s appearance.
* * *
Mornin’ Captain, Cadence greeted Werner with a two-fingered salute as he began to make his way to the new meeting area alongside Gilbert. Rough night last night?
I apologize. Did I wake you?
Cadence shook her head then shivered as she watched fog escape from his mouth. Saints, it’s cold here. She spied the winter landscape and squinted against the white.
Werner nodded subtly. I do recall enjoying that activity with Gilbert and Greta when I was younger.
Bet ya were a cute kid, Cadence replied.
Werner allowed himself to chuckle briefly.
They arrived at the meeting building shortly after. It was hosted in a small coffee shop at the far edge of town with a dining area only slightly larger than a kitchen dining area.
This meeting attendants was notably a much smaller group than the times before. There were only around twenty individuals here—among them Milkovich, Constanza, and Matthias who all gathered around a circular wooden table at the center of the room.
Werner kept to the walls alongside Gilbert. As he surveyed the room, he took note of the familiar and unfamiliar faces.
A young woman suddenly entered the area from the backdoor on the opposite side of the room. She carried with her a tray of coffee and sugars which she precariously balanced by pressing against her waist. There were red crosses on the lapels of her blouse that were barely visible due to the mousy brown curls of her hair.
Werner’s heart skipped a beat. He felt his chest tighten as he inspected the woman’s face further. There was no doubt about it. It was Greta. Greta in the flesh. What was she doing here?
What the? came Cadence’s commentary. What in saint’s name is she doin’ here?
Werner remained calm to the best of his abilities as he tried to adjust to her presence. After noting how she went around greeting everyone warmly and offering them a cup of coffee, Werner came to a succinct conclusion: Greta was a member of the ACC. Given the atmosphere of this meeting and her way of holding herself, she was a prominent member.
Didn’t really take her for the political type, Cadence drew.
Werner’s ears rang.
Protect. Protect. Protect.
Gilbert appeared to have finally noticed Greta too because he tensed sharply beside Werner.
“What the hell is she doing here?” the man hissed under his breath, taking a step forward—
Protect. Protect. Protect.
Werner reached and grabbed his wrist. “Stay calm.”
If Gilbert acted out rashly now, the entire operation would fall apart. They would lose track of these potential True Conductors. And if Werner lost track of them and was unable to bring them in by the deadline, then the other five would be—
“Wern—Dieter, it’s Greta!” Gilbert pressed.
Woah, Gil needs ta turn it down a notch. It’s a kink in the road but—
Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.
—Captain? Are ya doin’ okay over there?
Gilbert was right. It was Greta. And Gilbert and Greta were both important to him. He needed to—
Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect. Protect.
Silently, Werner pulled Gilbert outside of the warm darkness of the building and into the cold morning light. The snow was blinding white and only intensified the headache that was beginning to pound out from the back of Werner’s skull. Pushing the pain aside, he slowly guided Gilbert along the wall of the building and met his gaze.
Gilbert’s eyes were wide and wild as he fisted Werner’s button-up. “It’s—”
“I know it’s Greta,” Werner responded quietly as he felt the room spin. He tightened his grip on Gilbert’s good arm. Unwittingly, he drew blood.
Gilbert flinched and jerked his arm. “What the hell, Wer—that fucking hurts!”
Werner paled and released him. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “But we still need to maintain our cover—even with these developments.”
“‘Even with these’—” Gilbert recoiled before he gestured towards the door. “She’s hanging in there with crazypeople probably! What if the same thing that happened in the capital happens here?”
“I understand how you’re feeling. I feel the same—believe me,” Werner pressed. “But look—the closer we are to her, the better we’re able to look out for her. If things go south, then we can pull her out. But right now things are looking pretty north.”
Gilbert glowered at Werner before falling back against the wall. He ran his “That damned Geminian’s word magic makes me want to sock you sometimes, Werner.” He dropped his hand and hug his head. “She never said anything about this over the phone. I don’t get it.”
“We haven’t spoken with her in some time,” Werner agreed. “Many things have changed with you and me, Gilbert, so it’s not unexpected that things have changed for her as well.” He eyed Gilbert’s arm where his nail marks were prominent. “Does it hurt?
Gilbert shrugged, rolled down his sleeve, and rubbed his stub. “It’s fine. Just don’t want to lose another arm. Don’t worry.”
Werner turned to find Cadence’s image still flickering at his side. Thank you, Cadence.
Cadence offered a two-fingered salute but her concern rattled through their connection.
Two minutes later, Werner re-entered the building with Gilbert after they further composed themselves. They were immediately greeted by Greta who offered them two cups of coffee. Werner accepted his with a smile and a two-fingered salute, while Gilbert stared. Greta stared back at him before flushing slightly.
“Is there something—”
“Dieter!” Matthias exclaimed suddenly from the central table. “Come here!”
Werner joined the man at the table alongside Gilbert. He subtly eyed the distance between Constanza and Matthias before turning his attention to what was laid out at the table. A large paper was pressed flat there and displayed what appeared to be the layout of some sort of building.
“The layout for the new diplomatic building that just finished construction earlier this week,” Matthias explained. He nodded up at Greta who was still offering coffee across the room. “Courtesy of Greta over there. She works as a medical officer for people who work in the building and managed to sketch this all up right from memory.”
Gilbert whipped to stare at Greta then at Werner. Werner met his gaze evenly.
Protect, protect, protect.
Matthias barked out a loud laugh which earned him a slight glare from Constanza. “I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast, so that’s super impressive!” He cleared his throat before tapping the paper. “A diplomat from Aquarius and a politician from Capricorn are coming here this weekend to allegedly do some more peace talks. I—for one—have doubts.”
“The plan is to infiltrate the diplomatic building during one of these meetings and steal the notes from the meeting,” Constanza continued. “We’ll publicize whatever we find. Good or bad.”
Werner took note of the fluidity from Matthias’s sentence to Constanza’s.
“Whatever they’re talking about there, the people of our country deserve to know.” Constanza pressed her palms flat against the blueprints. “The building has very high security, but…” She glanced up at Werner. “…with a conducting-type like yours, we might be able to slip through the first layer.”
Werner looked across the table at Gilbert then side-glanced at Greta who’d joined them at the opposite side of the table.
Protect, protect, protect, protect—
But protect who? Gilbert? Greta? The other five? It was contradictory. It was impossible to do it all.
“Are you all in?” Matthias asked, extending a hand. “We’re going to try to do it as peacefully as possible. We aren’t the Augen.”
A pause of silence.
“We all lost people during the Week of Blindness,” Constanza added.
Murmurs of agreement resounded.
“I had an uncle in the capital during the Week of Blindness,” one of the gathered men interjected suddenly. “A damned ELPIS whack job—a Specialist—just… wiped him off the face of Capricorn. Didn’t even have a damned body left to bury.”
Guilt curled in Werner’s stomach.
“Well?” Constanza pressed as Matthias extended his hand further.
“I didn’t join this movement just to sit around,” Werner replied, finally taking up the gesture. “Count me in.”
No, he could do it. He would do it. He needed to do it.
* * *
Upon briefing Kramer and Knovak on the developments of the ACC meeting—minus the encounter with Greta—Werner gathered together with those two, Gilbert, and Nico in the inn lobby to quietly plan their next steps.
“This is an opportune moment to turn the ACC over to our countries,” Kramer reasoned. “
“But we’ll lose the True Conductors,” Gilbert interjected hastily, tense as he glanced over at Werner. “Bad idea.”
Nico glanced between them both in confusion.
“This infiltration thing might just be another run of the mill ‘test’—so to speak,” Werner drew calmly, head pounding. His head had been pounding all day. “I don’t believe reporting it at this time is the best course of action. We may just be scraping the surface of the ACC. Concluding without enough evidence that Constanza and Matthias are the True Conductors we’re looking for would be an error with high consequences.” He paused, ruminating. “There’s also the fact that we haven’t found the source of the ACC’s chlorowheat yet or if there’s a larger source. There’s no point in recklessness.”
“The chlorowheat…” Knovak muttered. “You say it stops conducting.”
“Otto—” Nico swallowed then eyed Gilbert and Werner. “I mean—the peacekeeper wanted us to keep an eye out on any chlorowheat developments too, right? Since there’s been a problem with it recently?”
Playing along. Good.
Werner nodded again.
“So what are you suggesting?” Kramer pressed. “That you’re going to follow through with this plan?”
Werner nodded. “It’s a necessary measure. We’ll report everything to our peacekeeping contact, of course. I’ll take full responsibility for whatever happens.”
With that they concluded their meeting and headed back to their rooms. As soon as the lights were off and Werner closed his eyes in bed, however, Otto visited him again. His ghostly visage crept around Werner’s bed, hovered over his face, clawed at his face, clung to his body. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock–
Werner woke up in cold sweat. He checked his pocket watch. Only 0230 hours on the mark. The others were beginning to stir from rest due to the weight of his dreams—Werner could feel that. And that was unacceptable. It would hinder their daily performance. So, he opted to rise and start his day five hours early.
He headed to the lobby dining area and was surprised to find it already occupied by another person. Nikita Knovak was sitting at the middle table there whittling away a piece of wood with a small conducting blade. He glanced up at Werner dismissively but then paused and stared.
“You… don’t look good, Capricornian…”
Werner didn’t respond and instead poured himself a cup of coffee from the island serving table at the center of the room. After momentary hesitation, he seated himself across the table from Knovak.
Knovak stared at him and then at his neck where Werner presumed Scorpio’s mark was crawling again. “So.” The man deactivated his conducting blade and set it down on the table alongside the wood piece he was whittling away at. It was a bird of all things. “You killed a lot of my comrades, no? And then you—or your other person—saved my life. Then we were captured. Worked together. Then thrown into this hand-holding thing because of that.”
“I would like to apologize but doing that wouldn’t achieve anything. When we picked up our conductors under military order, we understood what we were agreeing to do. You’ve killed some of my men yourself. And now, like you said, we’re working together. There’s no room for interpretation here.”
Knovak grunted and remained silent for some time. Finally, he asked, “You know Mladen?”
“An ELPIS Leader named Pi was initiated into him,” Werner explained. That information wasn’t dangerous sharing.
“Fuck.” Knovak tapped the wood piece against the table. “And he’s still alive? This Pi?”
Werner swept the empty room with his eyes. “In a sense.”
“What about Mladen’s family?” Knovak continued. “He joined peacekeeper for them. Don’t they deserve to know what happened to him?”
Memories of his encounter with Otto’s parents flooded Werner’s mind. Their venomous words paired with their agonized sobs thundered loudly despite them being an echo of a memory. Tensing, he set down his coffee cup. “It’s unfortunate, but Mladen’s circumstances is surrounded heavily by ELPIS. If they ever did find out what really happened to him, they may end up detained. In this case, ignorance is best.”
“Better to know he dead then have—”
“—false hope,” Werner concluded.
“This place is fucking messed up,” Knovak muttered. “We serve. We protect. We are used.” He shook his head, sighed, collected his items, and rose from his chair. “I’m sleeping. You should too.”
Werner watched him go and continued to remain sitting there sipping his coffee. Around 0739 hours, Maria stirred from sleep and immediately synchronized in with him. Her surroundings were glowing with a warm, golden haze, and he could faintly see the sun peeking out on the sea’s horizon from her end of things. It appeared as if she was watching the sun rise.
“Werner!” Maria greeted him, arms thrown up high. She inspected him for a beat and fell into a crouch in front of him, still smiling.
Good morning, he greeted her.
“Did you not sleep?” she pried. “I do love seeing things, yes? But I also like sleeping from time-to-time. I don’t dream, but it is still worth it, no? Olive enjoys sleeping, yes? So does Cadence?” She reached out abruptly and cupped her hands around his face. He stiffened at the intimate gesture. “You should only do things you enjoy, no, Werner?”
In moderation, he replied.
Maria’s bright smile dimmed slightly. It was a rather unnerving sight. She drew quietly after a hum, “I do appreciate you, my dear Werner. You are one of my precious treasures, yes? You are filled with this ‘protect,’ but I will protect you too, no? We will share in this ‘protect’!”
Ridiculous and nonsensical as always. However—
Werner allowed himself to briefly close his eyes and rest into her hands. When he opened his eyes and checked his watch, it was 0945 hours.
* * *
At the end of the week, the ACC infiltration operation commenced. With Cadence’s assistance, Werner disguised himself as the secretary—a tall and lanky Aquarian young man who had a liking for striped ties—of the event planner. The actual secretary was temporarily taken out of commission by a unit that Gilbert was a part of. They—as Cadence put it—did it Twin Cities-style by inebriating the secretary to the point of black-out drunkenness late into the night before the operation.
The diplomatic building was tucked away behind a wrought iron gate that kept intruders and protesters out of its contained premises. The building itself was marble white and almost completely blended in with the surrounding snow. Seeing as it was a new structure, its pristineness was unsurprising.
The operation was a simple enter, retrieve, hand off, and exit. The extra middle steps were put in place due to the tight security around the building. Security was stricter than normal due to the presence of protestors, so it was required that every individual who entered the building showed a form of ID and logged their entry time as well as their expected exit time. If a person did not sign out at their logged time or if they did not update their expected exit time, the building would be thoroughly swept by security and a full investigation would be launched. While Werner admired the fastidiousness of these measures, at the moment they served as a barrier to him.
The second layer of security was that all papers were confiscated from office workers before they left the premises of the building. These papers would be handed to another secretary tasked with ensuring that the files were stored safely away in the main documentation archives. This particular secretary was named Franz Seiden, and it was who Matthias was currently disguised as through the use of Werner’s proto-conducting rings.
After Werner passed through security as planned with a disguised Matthias, they headed through the main hall. The building’s halls were floored with marble and lined with white pillars that were gothic in design. In-between the pillars were exposed panels of metal piping and insulation cables indicating the building was still not quite at its final construction stage. Faintly in the background, Werner could hear the faint ringing of telephones reminiscent of his office back in the capital.
As Werner headed up the main carpeted stairs with Matthias where they were to diverge into the east and west wings of the building, Matthias collided with an older man descending the steps beside them.
“Excuse me, sir,” Matthias muttered, dipping his head slightly. “Sorry that I—” His voice faltered and his eyes widened.
Werner glanced over at him and followed his gaze before he too froze stiffly and stared.
Acting Kaiser General Watzmann stood before them proud and tall—dressed in his crisp military overcoat yet wearing a business suit inside of it. Beside him stood another older man with a curling mustache who looked vaguely familiar.
“That’s the premier,” Matthias whispered beside him.
Aquarian Premier Onisim Tarasov. The acting head of Aquarius.
This was no simple diplomatic meeting.
General Watzmann returned Matthias’s stare. “Is there something the matter, Franz? I haven’t seen you around recently. Late nights at the office?”
Watzmann was familiar with the man who Matthias was disguised as, indicating that the general had been here for quite some time unbeknownst to the public eye.
This was getting sticky. Cadence, hovering ever so slightly.
“Franz?” the general pressed.
A cool brush of wind tickled the back of Werner’s neck. The familiarity of the airflow gave him pause, and his senses sharpened.
Clink. Clink. Clink. Clink.
Werner tensed at the familiar sound and turned his attention to a stack of wooden crates that were being transported through the lower hall. It looked as if it was full of old wooden construction material—some of which was deep black in color. It was a deep black that abruptly burst out into blinding pale tangerine light. A gate.
The wooden crates exploded open as three figures flew out from the gate. The wreckage of wood and dust caught their shapes in the wind, and Werner was just barely able to make them out in the dust cloud.
Iota was standing there against Rho and a young man dressed in a Monadic priest’s garb. In the man’s hand was a glowing vitae blade. Nu—newly initiated once more, most likely.
At the sight of Rho and Nu, Werner’s chest seized and simmered with fury.
It was them. The ones following the one. They don’t deserve to be aliv—
Jericho neared him, pulling on their connection. With difficulty, Werner held him at bay. He was conductor-less and without back-up. He was in no position to engage. Doing so would simply endanger Matthias and the others.
Shouts of alarm resounded as the dust cleared and Iota’s manipulated glowing white chains rose up high before crashing down onto Rho and Nu. They swept through the hall without care and discrimination, knocking several suited men and women off their feet and sending them flying into opposite walls.
“General, Premier, this way!”
Werner turned to find General Watzmann and the Aquarian premiere being led up the stairwell by half a dozen suited men. He tore his attention away from the world leaders to find Matthias looking between the ELPIS leaders and the former group.
“What in the world—”
Werner grabbed a hold of Matthias’s shoulder. “We need to abandon the operation,” he ordered tersely. “And recommence it at a different date—”
Werner launched himself at Matthias and shoved the man aside as a body flew up at them from below—flung by Iota’s whipping chains. The body slammed against the wall behind them before hitting the ground with a thud. Werner stared at the unmoving figure.
Protect, protect, protect.
He quickly made his way to the figure’s side and checked the woman’s pulse. Still alive. He then moved to pull the woman’s pistol from her belt and surveyed the battle at the foot of the stairs. At some point, a female security guard clad in only a suit and wielding what appeared to be a conjured gun had opened fire on Iota, drawing his attention away from Nu. Iota moved towards the security guard now after quickly swiping away the gun in her hands with his chains.
Werner tensed at this sight as he tightened his grip on the pistol. He knew there was no point in engaging in needless combat here. It would draw unneeded attention—
Protect, protect, protect.
The pulsating desire was intense and maddening. An itch that needed to be scratched.
Werner. Atienna appeared kneeling before Werner then, her gaze boring into him. She reached out and held his face in her hands. You need to get out of here. They’re not a priority. Getting involved will simply—
Yes, that was logical. Werner knew that. If this had been a year ago—no, several months ago—he would’ve made the rational choice to escape with only a moment’s hesitation. But now—
PROTECT. PROTECT. PROTECT.
Werner stared over Atienna’s shoulder as her eyes widened. Behind her, Iota continued to approach the security guard who was now backed up against the wall with his chains rising in the air like a viper ready to strike.
Before Werner could comprehend his actions, he was aiming his pistol at Iota, lining up his shot, and firing. Atienna disappeared as he did so, enabling him to clearly focus on the trajectory of his bullet. It whistled forward towards Iota’s head, but the man immediately flicked his wrist and brought his chains down just in time to deflect it. However, Werner had been expecting this. The bullet ricocheted off of his mediums and hit the exposed piping to his left.
The piping exploded, releasing a burst of hot steam that flooded the floor. Through the smog, Werner was able to see the security guard escaping. The smog would also serve to temporarily deter Rho’s conducting, he reasoned.
Only a second after Werner finished his thought, white chains shot out at him from the steam—as expected. He easily dodged to the side as did Matthias. The chains, however, then swept towards Matthias knocking him right off his feet before retracting back into the dust cloud below. Matthias subsequently cracked his head against a step and remained motionless.
Tensing, Werner darted over to his side and turned him over. He was bleeding from the temple and groaning. Werner shook the man gently. Nothing but a groan.
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner looped Matthias’s arm over his shoulder and struggled up to a stand. He prepared to move forward before he spotted the woman from earlier still lying motionless a step away.
Protect. Protect. Protect.
With effort, he pulled her over his shoulder too and began the struggle up the right side of the stairs as the echo of clashing chains and the whipping vitae blade echoed below him. Eventually, he reached the upper right wing.
The left side of the hall was dotted with clear windows that let in the white light of morning. The right side of the hall, on the other hand, was open and wall-less allowing Werner to see the battle rumbling below.
In and out from the dusty steam came Iota and Nu. Chains flying left, right, thirty degrees up, eighty degrees up. Every five seconds, Nu’s conducting blade would swing out and dismember one of the protruding links. That much Werner could see clearly. The question was what he couldn’t see.
As he continued down the hall in search of an exit, his strength eventually gave way and he temporarily set the woman and Matthias down to catch his breath. Immediately after, he registered a cloud of glowing white steam and smog crawling on towards him from down the hall. Before he could fully rise to a stand, the steam brushed against his gloved hand. Immediately, he felt a sharp pain. A second after, his hand began to flicker with indigo light and the light itself began to melt away—this pattern continued all the way up his arm down to the rest of his body. In the blink of an eye, Cadence’s transmutation was undone.
Werner lunged for the woman and pulled her away from the mist just as it skirted her hair. He pulled her and Matthias as far as he could away from the mist before he snapped his fingers and reactivated the transmutation.
A figure was blocking his way—staring at him with wide eyes. A woman. Mousy brown hair. Red crosses on the lapels of her blouse. Greta.
Werner tensed. Had she seen? Either way, that was secondary to the pressing issue—
“Werner?!” Greta gasped in shock. “Why are you—”
Werner rushed over to her side, clamped her hand over his mouth, and pressed a finger to his lips. Greta’s eyes widened and something akin to hurt crossed her face. Then, she nodded.
Protect. Protect. Protect.
Werner grabbed hold of the groaning Matthias again and looped the man’s arm over his shoulder once more before starting to reach for the unconscious woman. Greta held out a hand and took the woman’s other arm instead. She locked eyes with Werner.
“Follow me,” she said. “I know another way out.”
After exchanging a nod, they moved forward through the dust cloud as the building rumbled around them. Every so often, a glowing white chain would shoot over their heads and pierce through the ceiling above their heads. Rubble would rain down, but they continued to press forward.
Eventually they reached the end of the hall where a doorway clearly led to a descending spiraling stairwell. As they neared it however a loud clink-clinking, resonated through the air. Werner just barely managed to jerk Greta back before a figure crashed into the wall right in front of the exit.
It took ten seconds for the cloud of rubble and dust to clear around the figure, but Werner clearly identified the glowing blade in their left hand and the pulsating chains wrapped around their right. Nu.
Greta shivered beside him. “ELPIS…”
ELPIS. Nu. Connected to Alpha. The one. But—
With a flick of his wrist, Nu severed the manipulated chains from his wrist and turned to face them. His eyes narrowed at the conducting glove on Greta’s left hand.
—Werner. You should escape. Safer.
Werner tensed at this and then found his gaze drawn to the windows at his left. His heart quickened with excitement a second after, and the moment after that saw him to flinging himself, Greta, Matthias, and the unnamed woman out the window.
As soon as the glass shattered at Werner’s elbow, he was greeted with cold, whipping air and a blinding skyline. A second later, they were all tumbling down, down, down—
In an eruption of white, they landed in a thick pile of snow just below. Despite the cushion, the impact still jarred Werner. But the cold numbed the pain.
A risk, he thought as he wiped the snow from his face. But thank you.
Werner clambered out of the pile before helping Greta down as well. She stared at him with a bewildered expression but quickly moved to help him drag the woman and Matthias out from the snow. After hoisting the two up on their shoulders, they staggered their way through the open snow alongside a cluster of other panicking men and women.
Eventually they made their way past the gates and to the backside of a nearby bar. They rested Matthias and the woman against the wall of the house before sinking beside each other on the snow.
They sat for a long while in silence.
“Are you alright?” Werner finally asked, the buzz at the back of his head now a constant.
Greta met his gaze and glanced away. She nodded. “And you? Do you need any healing?”
“I’m fine, Greta,” he replied. “Thank you.”
“Is…” Greta tried. “Is he with you…?”
Greta looked over him again, her lips parting, but before she could say anything more, Matthias startled violently with a yelp. Werner tensed while Greta jumped. The man quickly surveyed the area in confusion before staring wide-eyed at Werner.
“….You saved my life, Dieter.” Matthias let out a sigh before falling flat on his back. He swore in Aquarian before closing his eyes. After a beat, he pushed himself up to a sit and stared into the distance.
Werner followed the man’s gaze and found the diplomacy building smoking out from its rooftop. An ironic and perhaps symbolic metaphor. Whether to feel somber or amused—
“What’s happening to the world?” Matthias grumbled. “Don’t people know about love and peace anymore?”
The latter few words rang through Werner’s mind and stirred something cloudy and distance.
Werner held Greta’s tense gaze for several moments before he turned and regarded Matthias. “I doubt even the people who lived in peace in the past even know what it is… don’t you think?”
Greta studied him, brows knitting in confusion. Werner’s palms itched at the sight.
Matthias let out another long, pitiful sigh. “I owe you my life, Werner! I’ll remember this—I swear it!”
Werner regarded him.
Protect. Protect. Protect.
You only met him just recently, a voice whispered at the back of his head. There’s no need to protect him. You can’t. You need to turn him in—
Protect. Protect. Protect.
* * *
As expected, the ELPIS Investigations Department arrived only two days later.
“A little late, isn’t it?” Gilbert had grumbled. “I heard those ELPIS whackos disappeared right after they came.” He’d paused, then added, “No offense to Glasses on both accounts. He’s good.”
Despite their tardiness, the ELPIS Department ran a thorough investigation of the area and locked down all public meeting areas and prohibited large gatherings. This made it impossible for ACC meetings of any level—or so Werner deduced—to be held. It also made it impossible to find where Greta had gone off to after they’d lost each other in the chaos of the crowd following ELPIS’s appearance.
Gilbert was noticeably agitated by this. Werner admittedly was worried himself. And so, they used their newly allotted free-time to weave through the town to search for her whereabouts. The most they were able to find was that Greta had been transferred to this town one month prior while the diplomatic building was being constructed. She hadn’t told either of them this which was surprising. In the end, their search was fruitless.
Their peacekeeping contact requested them to lay low for the time being to allow the ELPIS Department to complete their investigation. Idle time once more.
Much to Werner’s surprise, however, only three days after ELPIS’s appearance in the diplomatic building, Matthias swung by the inn. Werner and the others all had to quickly don proto-conducting rings to greet him—Nico and Knovak opted to hide—and listened to his excited chatter about scouring the town to find them. He then proceeded to invite Dieter—and only Dieter—to his house for dinner.
“I have something that’ll blow your mind,” Matthias insisted.
Nico, Gilbert, and Kramer objected understandably on this front, but Werner reasoned there was opportunity here. Opportunity: gain deeper access to the ACC, investigate Matthias, more discreetly define the suspected True Conductors, develop further understanding on the influence of chlorowheat on the ACC, and—
“Greta might be there,” Werner had whispered to Gilbert later.
With reluctance, Gilbert nodded.
* * *
Matthias’s place of residence was small and reserved for someone of Matthias’s personality—or so Werner thought. There were barely any decorations up along the wooden walls, and the kitchen area at the entrance only looked like it had enough plates, utensils, and rooms for one person. As Matthias chattered animatedly about how ‘cool’ Werner had seemed back in the diplomatic building, he began to lead Werner to his basement hidden behind a red door.
As they descended, a familiar scent reached Werner’s senses, causing him to stop short at the foot of the steps. And all too familiar smoke was curling along the bottom of the floor there.
“Excuse me,” Werner said quickly. “Could you direct me to the bathroom?”
Matthias obliged and led him into a small bathroom on the first floor. Inside, Werner faced Dieter’s reflection in the tiny mirror.
Captain… Cadence’s anxiety seeped through their connection, straining on Werner’s already taut nerves. She appeared before him so strongly that he could see every detail of her surroundings—Francis’s exitless room, Mateo and Kent at her feet, Francis sitting in front of her reading them all a book.
Werner reached into his pocket and pried out the extra proto-conducting ring he’d stored there for emergencies. He quickly filled it with his vitae before removing the conducting rings already on his finger. The appearance of Dieter disappeared for a moment before it reappeared as he slid on the proto-conducting rings.
Captain, Cadence pressed, ghostly hand gripping his wrist tightly. Are ya gonna—
It’s only temporary, Werner reassured her. At the rate things are developing, we’ll all be exposed to chlorowheat at some point. I need to find these True Conductors quickly and get to the bottom of the chlorowheat. There might be a connection to Alpha here.
Cadence’s shoulders tightened, but her expression remained impassive. Werner, I believe in ya—I really do, but—
He reached out a hand and placed it on top of her head. I’ll see you soon.
With that, he exited the bathroom and descended into the basement. The misty fog surrounded him in an instant and a sleepy haze came afterwards. The others were still buzzing at the back of his mind, however—peering in with concern, anxiousness. Werner accepted their concerns but pushed them aside as he surveyed the room. The walls were covered in deep red satin. Blue mesh drapes hung around the central chandelier that sprinkled out green light. In the haze of the chlorowheat, almost all these colors were lost.
Lounging on the red sofa there was Constanza and Milkovich. Matthias was sitting opposite of Constanza. There were several other familiar faces present, but none of them were Greta. In the hands of everyone present were long black pipes that streamed out steady smoke.
Eyes glazed, Matthias beckoned him with a lazy finger.
Tense, Werner seated himself in-between Matthias and Constanza. The latter held out a pipe for him. With great effort—as Cadence’s fear, Olive’s reluctance, and Atienna’s apprehension filled him—Werner accepted it.
“Attaboy,” Milkovich mumbled from beside him.
“Where did you get this from?” Werner tried with a laugh as he inspected the pipe. “It doesn’t look like morrowheat at all.”
“That’s because it’s not. And I got it from a good business partner. Think of it as a big thank you,” Matthias replied, taking a puff. “Funny thing is that this thing has weird effects on conducting. Useful in that regard. Also good for recruitment because it’s so… good.”
Constanza nodded at him. “Try.”
Again, the other five whispered at the back of his mind compelling him to stop and reconsider. But he knew what he was doing. This was necessary. And he was in control of the situation. It was only once.
Werner pressed his lips to the mouth of the pipe and took a long drag. He held it in for exactly fifteen seconds before releasing it. He watched as the smoke curled up into the air and mixed in with the thick haze. Letting out a quiet sigh, he fell back onto the sofa and closed his eyes.
Only then did the other five completely fade from his mind. Along with them went the pounding protect, protect, protect. It was almost as if they were never present in the first place.
“You know how to hold your chlorowheat…” Matthias noted. “Anyways, Milkovich here was just about to tell us a story from the war…”
Werner was only half listening as all the tension in his shoulders eased away in a pleasantly familiar fashion. A sense of calm resonated out from his chest as he took another drag, and it slowly enveloped him in a blanket of euphoria.
No more Otto. No more ELPIS. No more Scorpio. No protect, protect, protect. The weight of the pocket watch hanging at his chest was gone too. Nothing existed here except absolute, wonderful, controlled silence.