Werner has been set on an operation to infiltrate the anti-Aquarian-Capricornian movement and to investigate two possible True Conductors associated with it: Matthias Alfhild and Constanza Groth. Accompanying him are Nico, Gilbert, Dunya Kramer, and Nikita Knovak. Soon, he discovers that his childhood friend Greta is also part of the movement.
After successfully breaking into a deeper level of the AAC with Gilbert, he is put on an operation that involves infiltrating an Aquarian-Capricornian diplomatic building. Inside he discovers the Capricornian Acting Kaiser and the Aquarian Premier working together shortly before the building is caught up in the duel between ELPIS leader Iota and Rho and Nu. After saving Matthias from the ensuing chaos, Werner is invited into Matthias’s inner circle where he is pulled into a chlorowheat smoking ring.
However, Werner’s familiarity with chlorowheat is—
It began as a suggestion from a physician.
Following the incident with Scorpio during the Week of Blindness, Werner found himself plagued with insomnia. While this development could have been interpreted as negative, he decided to approach it with a methodical perspective used it to his full advantage: the first few restless nights at his new office position in the capital were spent pouring over transfer documents, getting brackets in order, and signing packets detailing renovations to the damaged capital buildings.
The similarity between pushing papers and delegating orders was narrow, but it was familiar enough for him to adapt, adapt, adapt to the new surroundings—as he should. He completed a 3-week backlog of conductor shipment cataloged within the first three days of his arrival and subsequently started filling out the weekly conductor inventorying reports—which had been put on backlog during the Augen’s protests—to Ophiuchus
The transition was not completely smooth however and his wakefulness became readily known to the other five. Although they skirted around the cause of his sleeplessness—something he found both comfort and shame in—they offered numerous remedies:
Olive: “You could try sleeping during the daytime instead?”
Cadence: “Go out for a late night walk, Captain. Or if you’re feelin’ like squeezin’ out of your shell, grab a drink at a bar. I know the ones in the capital aren’t as sparkly as the ones in the Twin Cities, but ‘ey!”
Maria: “Change where you sleep, my dear Werner! Sometimes sleeping outside on the roof is good, no? Or maybe sleep in the water fountain outside your office? There are many things to try!”
Atienna: “Perhaps you could try reading an encyclopedia? Most people consider it to be dry material, so it could be the perfect remedy, don’t you think?”
Jericho: “Suggestion: stare at the ceiling and ‘not think’ until you fall asleep. That is what Alice had me practice when I was younger. It works: 25 percent of the time.”
The quietly amusing and simultaneously shameful situation changed when Werner’s fatigue began to spill over into his paperwork and errors populated. Although he managed to catch these—once with Jericho’s assistance—before he sent the papers off for finalization, errors were still errors. Accordingly, he began to more actively pursue managing his insomnia. He didn’t perform his daily experimentations of different methods of falling asleep, however, until the others were asleep. It was not a difficult feat. Most were asleep by 0125 hours, which was when he retired to his sofa and closed his eyes.
Admittedly, as Nico had highlighted numerous times, closing one’s eyes and ceasing to think—or trying to—was not equitable to rest. It was, however, more yielding of results than simply staying up and going over paperwork he’d already gone over.
As soon as Werner shut his eyes, as always, that pulse would hammer out from his chest in the absence of any distractions. Sometimes the pulse was a comfort, but most times it was not. Trying to push it away only brought intense migraines and an overwhelming sensation of being watched. Therefore, he had no choice to allow the pulse through as well as the accompanying thoughts:
Protect, protect, protect.
Was Olive satisfied with the progress regarding his conductors and research? Did Cadence practice enough of her reading and setting a good example for the children? Was Maria engaging in trouble again? Did Atienna have time to relax and to enjoy reading properly in-between her dealings with Cvetka and Leona? Was Jericho sleeping enough and socializing well in the ELPIS Department?
How about Gilbert? Nico? Brandt, Bergmann, Kleine? Viktoria? Ludwig? Fenrir? Ulrich? Mother? What of his fellow office associates?
Protect, protect, protect.
When Werner did finally manage to drift off to sleep during these times, he was always visited by Otto. Fifteen times Otto appeared with orange lilies blooming out from a festering wound on his stomach. Twelve times he came with eyes sprouting up his limbs and consuming his face as the sound of tick-tocking spilled out from his mouth along with blood. Ten times he came accompanied by other familiar faces whose name tags Werner had collected during his time at the Border Force. The worst of all of these appearances was when Otto appeared alone just as his normal self, just like he’d looked during that evening on Ziegenberg Ridge: afraid, hesitant, hopeful, searching for reassurance, searching for protection.
“Lieutenant, why?” this Otto would ask before his skin would peel away to reveal Scorpio’s pleasant smile. “You’re no longer empty, but is what’s filling you any better?”
Upon startling from these dreams, Werner would check his pocket watch only to find that at most twelve minutes had passed. The first series of nightmares admittedly startled him, since he rarely dreamed. While nightmares and dreams from the others came to him on occasion and he dealt with them appropriately, his own seemed almost unmanageable.
Werner did not disclose these instances to the others directly—although the developments eventually did reach them eventually.
“Maybe,” Olive had mumbled following two more of Werner’s restless nights, “you could try going to the doctor? I remember Alice prescribing some stuff for me when I was younger to help me sleep… yeah. It could help. Maybe.”
Cadence had blanched at the thought. “Well, I dunno about poppin’ pills. Ya know that stuff’s cracked half of the time. It ain’t like Francis’s epinephrine. Not a one-shot cure-all type-a deal. Ya become reliant on that stuff. Seen with my own two eyes—in the business, I mean.”
“Find a person like Alice,” Jericho had suggested. “Someone who can help. Like her.”
Werner had agreed with Cadence’s sentiment since he found relying on medicinal regiments unpleasant given their possible side-effects. He much preferred enduring health ailments on his own unless doing otherwise proved absolutely necessary. His displeasure with v-cigarettes shared similar relation.
In the end, Werner selected the choice in-between Olive’s and Jericho’s suggestion: visiting a physician. Doctor Moritz Euphorieson. The man was a highly decorated medical Conductor holding the rank of a lieutenant colonel. His frame was wire and his hair thinning and as white as his lab coat. Capture in a wooden frame on the man’s desk was a photo of a younger version of himself standing behind a collection of young adults in similar lab coats. Among them, Werner spied the familiar Dämon Forstchritt.
Werner tensed, looking over Euphorieson with suspicion before trying with feigned surprise, “Amazing—is that Dämon Forstchritt there with you? You knew her?”
Euphorieson merely sighed and shook his head: “Ah, yes, she was my student. Ambitious and passionate with very unorthodox ideas—definitely—but her heart was in the right place. Progress is always shunned in the beginning. She was taken away to Ophiuchus to do bigger and better things. The young ones always leave home behind.”
A sufficient answer.
“Anyways, what brings you here, Captain Waltz?”
With difficulty and reserved shame, Werner explained his condition. This honesty was necessary. Embarrassment and hesitation could be folded aside for later. He disclosed the following afflictions: insomnia, headaches, parasomnia. In addition, he was required to disclose that he was one of the many infected during the Week of Blindness. Such disclosure was the new routine for medical consultations in Capricorn now.
After running through a physical—during which Werner had to remove his gloves—the doctor offered him a package of tea that contained trace melatonin and other natural sleep-inducing agents paired with a Sagittarian hot oil ointment. He subsequently suggested for Werner to come back for something stronger if the tea and ointment didn’t prove effective.
The tea did as the doctor promised. After drinking a full cup, sleep dragged Werner with painful difficulty to its murky and dark depths. The ointment was also effective: numbing the throb pounding out at his temples. But the dreams remained. Otto remained. Protect, protect, protect remained.
Then his dreams began to bleed into the others. Olive woke up several nights shouting and kicking and summoned a disgruntled Derik into his bedroom . Cadence’s reactions were milder but the bags under her eyes told a different story. This was one of the ugly aspects of their connection, and Werner felt ashamed for putting such a burden on them. The responsibility was his own.
“It’s fine, Werner,” Olive would mumble. “It’s not that bad.”
Cadence would agree: “It really ain’t a thing. Not like ya haven’t seen a thing or two from us.”
“Your dreams are not ‘terrible,’” Jericho would add, offering his usual thumbs-up.
Werner knew, however, that those were merely words of comfort from those who needed to be comforted. So, shortly after, he revisited Doctor Euphorieson—late at night as to not alert and unnecessarily worry the others. They needed to focus fully on their tasks at hand, and his ailment was merely a distraction to that. Besides—protect, protect, protect.
The doctor welcomed him warmly and handed him the upgraded medication—a small bottle of pills—with very little discussion. Upon receiving the pill bottle, Werner inspected its contents through its transparent case and took note of the black, oval-shaped capsules inside. He was very well aware of the assortment of medication that would be prescribed to his division members: pain pills for minor injuries, anesthetic for severe injuries, stimulants during raids, v-cigarettes for alertness. These particular pills, however, were unfamiliar to him.
“It’s a mixture of oxycodone, morrowheat, and some other trace compounds,” the doctor explained casually. “It’s a product that’s quite popular in Argo—”
“Morrowheat?” Werner frowned, lowering the bottle, eyes narrowing. “Argo?”
“Medically prescribed,” the doctor answered. “It contains only 3% morrowheat. Less than the minimal 15% allowed by Ophiuchus’s Medical Department.” He amended: “Given our slightly improved relations with them, a traveling merchant was able to bring it over—”
“Has this been approved by—”
“It’s been approved on the lowest level by our own health chambers—yes—though it’s only been approved for capital use so far. Bureaucracy. It hasn’t been presented to Ophiuchus’s Medical Department—yet—but that deadline’s not until five years down the line.” The doctor thrummed his fingers. “Captain Waltz, please remember that I am both your doctor and your superior. I want what’s best for you, but I also would appreciate your trust and respect. This is the medication we usually prescribe to those who were afflicted during the Week of Blindness. Yours is not a unique case.”
Werner’s hand began to itch at the subtle accusation. “I apologize if I offended you, Doctor Euphorieson. This is my first time having to rely on… these types of things. I merely want to be cautious.”
“Ah, I see.” The doctor nodded as if in understanding. “Two pills a day will keep most of the bad things away.”
* * *
After returning to his office that night, Werner sank down on his sofa and stared calculating at the pill bottle. Unscrewing the cap, he stared into its mouth as he considered the manner of approach. In order err on the side of caution, he considered only taking one pill as opposed to the recommended two to gauge its effects. He reconsidered a moment later: taking less than the prescribed amount, however, was also a risk in itself. After twelve additional minutes of consideration, he spilled two capsules into his palm and downed them with a glass of water before relaxing back onto his sofa.
Sleep took him slowly, hazily, gently in a cloud of warmth.
When he opened his eyes again, sunlight was seeping in through the blinds. Absentmindedly, he reached out to catch the warm rays in his gloveless hands.
It was quiet and pleasant. Everything was right: his chest felt light, and his head shrouded with a cloud of clarity. Slowly, he reached under his pillow to pull out his pocket watch. 0400 hours.
This was effective.
However, he didn’t wish to become overly reliant on it. Additionally, he preferred to keep it a personal matter. After consulting with the doctor over the phone, he opted to take medication every other day instead of the daily recommendation. It felt wrong to break that regimen, but at the same time he was placing down his own regimen to follow. As for keeping it a personal matter: thankfully, the others were all abiding to their unspoken new rule of privacy respect which kept most of them from prying too deeply. Keeping the medication switch secret proved to be somewhat difficult. The former privacy respect rule paired with him keeping a razor-sharp focus on work, however, held efficient enough.
Werner understood that in standard settings keeping matters secret from the larger party was a dangerous course of action, but this was a small matter. Cost-benefit analysis pointed Werner in the direction to go. There was no point in taking up the daily thoughts of the others with this small matter.
With rest finally coming to him, Werner’s performance at work improved, and he was better able to attend to the needs of the others. Additionally, the prickling feeling of being watched and the itching at his palms became dulled in the early mornings he took the medication. This was especially helpful when he had to present early morning reports to his associates and higher-ranked office associates.
Following the first week of taking the medication, he opted to start taking the pills daily: cost-benefit analysis. His work efficiency skyrocketed further, and he gained the moniker ‘Cold Eye of all things clerical.’ After his fourth week on the medication, however, he began to notice that the pleasant feeling he would usually awake with after taking the pills ebbing away. The unease that remained in its place felt even more intense and crippling than what he’d felt prior to taking it. The nights of Otto’s visitations increased as did the nights when he’d be plagued with memories of running through the southern trenches during his first years of service. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t catch these ones from spilling into the other five.
As the medication’s efficiency faded, Werner visited Doctor Euphorieson once more—again: late at night, 0130 hours. The doctor greeted him warmly as always; and following a brief discussion, he handed Werner a brown packet withdrawn the medicine cabinets.
Werner unraveled the packet to inspect its contents and immediately stiffened. “Is this morrowheat?”
“No, it’s chlorowheat,” the doctor responded calmly. “This was purchased in bulk from the merchant who was traveling through Argo last month—as I mentioned previously.”
Chlorowheat: the new drug that was a cross between morrowheat and sorrowheat. The one Cadence had used as a bargaining chip to escape Argo during the Scorpio incident.
“It has untapped medicinal potential and is more highly effective in pain relief than the medication I gave you.”
“Has this been approved by—”
“It hasn’t reached the first-level approval yet—but we’ve been approved to prescribe it in minimal doses within the capital to approved individuals. The only known side-effect that we know of so far is that it may interfere with one’s ability to conduct, but that shouldn’t be a problem since you’re not going to be in a situation where you need to be using your conductor, right?”
“The medication I gave previously does contain 1% chlorowheat. It’s a very potent pain killer when applied properly—as I’ve said. If you’ve felt relief while taking the medication, then I assure you that it was from the chlorowheat. There’s nothing more effective than this.”
Werner’s frown deepened.
“I understand if this unnerves you, Captain Waltz, but I assure you it’s safe. This isn’t the first time I’ve prescribed it.” The doctor took the packet from him and headed back to his cabinet. He pulled out a long pipe from the back there and began to measure out the chlorowheat on a scale at his desk. He proceeded to fill the opening of the pipe with crushed chlorowheat. “If you truly don’t feel comfortable, then you can try one dose under my supervision here. I can’t control what you do, after all, but you’re my patient so I do want the best for you.” He returned to Werner’s side, extended the pipe, before carefully looking him over. “I have to ask: if you’re so reluctant now, then why did you come to me to begin with?”
Werner tensed as the throbbing desire returned. Protecting the sanctity of his country. Protecting the other five. Protecting others outside of them. He was at a crossroads again, and it was agonizing as it always was. He couldn’t do all at once with his current means which meant that he—
His head pounded as that word wormed its way further out of his heart and his pocketwatch ticked with its thrumming rhythm.
As moonlight spilled through the doctor’s office windows, Werner accepted the pipe and was guided down into the long black sofa pressed along the walls. The doctor lit the leaves on the end of the pipe and instructed Werner to take a drag, hold, release. Werner did as ordered. The chlorowheat had a simultaneously sweet and bitter taste.
Smoke clouded the room.
“I’m surprised at how you take it, Captain Waltz,” the doctor noted. “Do you smoke v-cigarettes by any chance? I didn’t take you for that type.”
Cadence had smoked cigarette after cigarette when she was overriding him during the incident with Scorpio and Werner himself had smoked a v-cigarette exactly once following that, so his ability to take up the chlorowheat without much difficulty was not unusual—
Before the thought could complete itself, a wonderful, sublime, euphoric feeling seeped into every part of his body—arms, fingers, legs, toes, head—out from his lungs. He could feel his breathing slow, slow, slow and his head begin to buzz and float away as his arms became heavy. He sank down into the couch and everything—protect, protect, protect; the itch on his palms; the fear; the worry; the anxiety; the work; the contradictions; thoughts—sank with him.
When Werner was shaken awake by the doctor, sunlight had replaced the moonlight pouring in through the windows. The pleasant lightness that currently lifted his chest and head felt so much different than the lightness that followed after he’d taken that other medication. If he were to describe the previous medication as taking him to the clouds, then this chlorowheat had allowed him to touch the stratosphere.
“It would be best to take the chlorowheat using the pipe designed for it since it would better deliver the dosages,” the doctor said, pulling away and then returning with a small brown packet he retrieved from his desk. “But if you’d like to be discreet, I can teach you how to prepare it yourself. You might need to increase the dose every so often due to increasing tolerance, but we’ll discuss that when the time comes to it. Let’s start you off at 4 mg a day.”
* * *
Seven days a week, 2000 hours: finish off remaining paperwork for the day.
Seven days a week, 2030 hours: attend dinner with either Nico, Gilbert, or eat alone.
Seven days a week, 1915 hours: return to the office and go through the paperwork of the following weeks until the others fell asleep.
Six days a week, 0130 hours a week: retrieve the chlorowheat from where he’d hidden it in his desk drawers and drift off after finishing the dosage.
Werner at first took a methodical approach to dosages. He followed along with what the doctor suggested; and when that wasn’t enough, he steadily began to increase the doses by 2 mg exactly. In addition to this—in order to resist the addictive properties of the chlorowheat that he was certain existed—he abstained from using it for one day a week.
This was another reason why Wednesdays were different. Wednesdays followed the Tuesday nights when he’d abstain from taking chlorowheat. This was why cake on Wednesdays were so important. The more-than-acceptable chocolate cake made the day pass by in a more manageable way.
Yes. He was in control.
Following his connection opening with the other five, he had begun to feel like he was steadily losing control of everything bit by bit, piece by piece. The first synchronization meeting accelerated the feeling while the Twin Cities exacerbated it. The Week of Blindness—in colloquial terms—was ‘the final nail in the coffin.’ The True Conductor hunting task was the hammer on the nail. It was a crack that had grown into a complete fragmentation. Although, admittedly, perhaps—as a voice that whispered in the back of his head always said—the cracks were already there to begin with.
In exchange for the loss of control, however, he had gained things he held close and things he would never relinquish: his pride in Olive and Cadence, the companionship he found in Atienna and Jericho, and the ease he found in Maria. Regardless, the slipping feeling remained. The only method to free himself from those unpleasant feelings was this: the chlorowheat. It was his umbrella in the rain.
Dosages measured, time of intake exact, impact of effect regulated. Everything. Complete. This—he had control of.
Polovinastadt, Aquarian-Capricornian Border
“Cheers to Dieter Traumson!”
Werner tried his best to hold his glass steady as Matthias smashed his own glass into it. Beer sloshed onto the wooden table between them as the other man pounded on the table and whooped. Around them, men and women also lifted their glasses up and cheered. As Werner surveyed them he noted that Greta wasn’t here this time either.
Despite it having been a week since the ELPIS incident in the diplomatic building on the border’s edge, Dieter still brought Werner and other high-ranking members of the ACC to his house to celebrate every few days. Constanza had even pulled Werner aside numerous times to thank him for his act.
“Dear Dieter, dear Dieter,” Matthias sang, “you really saved my life, dear Dieter!” He reached over to grab a newspaper that was being passed around the room and showed it to Werner. “Not only that but—”
THE KAISER AND THE PREMIER SEEN TOGETHER AT THE DIPLOMATIC BUILDING. MORE THAN JUST A FRIENDLY MEETING?!
Below the detailed article was a photo of Premier Onisim Tarasov and Acting Kaiser General Watzmann walking down the inside steps of the diplomatic building side-by-side.
“How did you even manage to get a photo of this?” Werner laughed despite the unease he felt.
This development could exacerbate tensions Capricorn had with other nations, after all.
Still holding his beer, Matthias stumbled over to a table alongside the wall, pulled open the drawers, and slipped on the conducting glove he pulled out from it. He wiggled his fingers and in a flash of blue light he conjured what appeared to be a faded photograph of five silhouettes standing at the foot of the Serpens Establishment. He crinkled it a moment after and stuffed it into his pocket. “I used to be one of the best spies in Aquarius’s Yastreby—that’s what you can consider our version of your Watch, by the way. Spying and gathering evidence is my forte.”
Benì flashed through Werner’s mind briefly. That Cancerian man—Werner had been unable to protect him as well—
“But this isn’t enough, is it?” Matthias boomed, running back to the table and slamming his glass down onto its surface. “They’re going to say that I forged this, aren’t they? We need cold hard proof. We need those papers we were aiming for!”
The other ACC members burst out cheering and Werner joined them for appearances.
Matthias threw a foot up on the table much to the exasperation of a Constanza who was lurking in the far corner of the room with a frown. “We’ll discuss all the other details at our lower-level meeting tomorrow, but we’re going to re-execute our plan again next week. Security’ll be tighter, but that just adds a bit more pizazz anyways.”
* * *
As per usual after the ‘meeting’s’ end, Matthias took Werner down to his basement that was already flooded with chlorowheat smoke. Werner didn’t need to concern himself with the other five catching light of these visits since this meeting and all other ones were always hosted at the dead of night when they were all asleep. The chlorowheat filling the room acted as an additional dampener to the connection.
After reaching the center of the smoking den and seating himself on one of the many couches, Werner received a pipe from Milkovich who was already there. Werner ensured his proto-conducting ring that was keeping his transmuted appearance of Dieter over himself was snug on his finger before he took a drag of the pipe and fell back into jubilation.
The amount of chlorowheat he was taking with Matthias was variable and unmeasured compared to the doses he measured out rigidly himself. At times it was too little allowing Otto to seep through the cracks. At other times it was too much; and he was pulled into a deep abyss where not only did protect, protect, protect not exist but also almost nothing else. After emerging from the fog after these latter instances, he would always be able to faintly recollect the remnants of what he assumed was a dream. They always involved a Sagittarian woman with a rope of black braided hair. He couldn’t remember if she spoke, but he did remember that she would always do the same thing: with an agonized expression, she would sink to her knees, hold his hand, and double over weeping.
A peculiar side-effect.
Still, Werner maintained control. He could remove himself from the situation whenever he needed to. Partaking was merely bolstering his cover and he needed to further earn Matthias’s trust.
Someone abruptly threw a newspaper down on the table in front of Werner. It read—
PEACEKEEPERS NOW STATIONED IN POLVINASTADT FOLLOWING ELPIS ATTACK!
Peacekeeping agents from Ophiuchus’s ELPIS Investigations Department and International Relations Department have arrived in Polovinastadt this past Wednesday following ELPIS sightings at the location. This intervention is further exacerbating the tensions—
Unable to focus on the article’s contents, Werner looked away and took another drag. It really was different: taking it from the pipe.
“They’re everywhere now,” Constanza half-mumbled. “The peacekeepers from the ELPIS Department…”
“From International Relations, probably.” Milkovich grimaced. “They only come when ELPIS attacks—I mean, really? Can’t they see that our governments are the ones pulling strings? Looking for the problem outside when it’s really coming from inside.”
It felt nice not feeling Jericho’s dull pulsating anger whenever ‘ELPIS’ was mentioned.
“International Relations isn’t so bad,” Matthias drew slowly, after taking a puff beside Werner. “Their first chair has done a lot for Signum in the last couple of years. It’s the only reason the Aquarian-Capricornian border conflict got smoothed over so fast.”
“Yes. He’s much better than the other candidates,” Constanza agreed. “I’m probably voting for him when it’s my time to go.”
“Wasn’t too long ago that you both were saying the opposite,” another woman muttered.
“Well, people change,” Matthias replied, almost pouting.
Eventually as time passed on, people slowly began to filter out of the basement leaving just Werner, Matthias, and Constanza. Werner himself was lying pressed up against the corner of the sofa and half curled around his long smoking pipe. Everything was coated in a pleasant haze that was just as pleasant as the smoke occupying every single corner of the room. If possible, Werner would have liked to remain in this state for an extended period of time.
“You know, Dieter,” Matthias said suddenly, “do you ever just not know what you’re doing? You have an idea of your goal, but it’s just a fuzzy image far away. You need to accomplish that fuzzy thing within a certain time frame or it’s just no good. Bah! Why can’t we take our time? Why do we need to strive for things? Why can’t we just take it easy?”
Werner blinked slowly in confusion as the question slowly came together in his mind. Matthias tended to ask these types of bewildering, open-ended questions during in the den. During most of these instances, one of the other ACC members answered; and whether the answer was sensible or not, Matthias always reacted positively. Kramer had deduced it was a test of some kind, and Werner personally agreed.
“Dieter,” Matthias whined. “Come on. Answer me. I want to know what you think.”
With difficulty, Werner turned over the question before he tried vaguely without quite grasping the meaning behind his own words: “I believe striving for goals acts as a guiding tool in proceeding through life. Wandering without an exact destination or goal can become a burden in itself. Freedom without restriction will make it easier for one to deal with or break out of restriction when it presents itself. The same could be said vice-versa.” He’d read that somewhere from one of Atienna’s books—he was certain.
Matthias hummed. “That’s a good answer. I think. What are you? A philosopher? What was my question again?” He laughed. “You know, you’d think that being one of the head people of something like the ACC would let you connect with people better but it’s really the opposite. All these tiers, ranks, levels—it all just increases the height. Makes it harder to see people below you. I wonder if that’s the problem the Kaiser and the Premier have.” He laughed long and hard. “They’re too tall for their own good.”
Werner lowered his pipe and looked across the table at Matthias. The man met his gaze, and Werner was able to take note of the bag’s under his eyes in the dim light.
Werner took another deep drag of his pipe and laughed too.
* * *
“Hey, Werner, anything else happen at that last ‘underground’ meeting of yours? Besides that second raid plan?” Gilbert asked one day as they were all turning in for the night.
They had just had their daily debriefing with Knovak and Kramer an hour earlier so the question had come as a surprise to Werner. He reasoned Gilbert hadn’t been paying attention fully during the meeting.
Nico, who was already tucked in bed, offered him an apologetic expression. “Sorry that the rest of us haven’t made any more progress on the infiltration end, Werner.”
Gilbert scowled and sighed. “Fucking frustrating that I haven’t been able to move past this dumb-ass level. Thought it was the last one but I guess not.” He nodded at Nico. “At least you and Kramer managed to get to where I’m at in the dumbass secret level bullshit, Nic.”
Nico chuckled. “Wish we could say the same for Knovak…”
“Yeah.” Gilbert rolled his neck. “Don’t hate the guy but he’s not the best in these types of situations.” He jerked his head at Werner. “Really—sorry you have to deal with this bit on your own.”
“There’s no need for an apology,” Werner replied. “I believe the only reason I’m allowed to attend these more private meetings is due to my involvement in aiding Matthias during that ELPIS attack.”
“Just luck, huh?” Nico wondered aloud.
Gilbert cleared his throat. “Uh—oh. Hey, Werner, one more thing. Promise that you won’t get pissed.”
Werner paused, turned, resisted pinching the bridge of his nose. “What is it, Gilbert?”
“We—well, I—somehow lost all the chlorowheat we were supposed to hand into the Ophiuchians later this week. Haven’t told Kramer yet.”
Werner tensed. “How?”
“I must have misplaced it somewhere or something…” Gilbert rubbed his neck. He sighed. “I swear I left it on my damned table here—”
Werner managed to keep his thoughts from slipping through the connection to the others who were just beginning to turn in for the night. “It’s alright, Gilbert. I can retrieve more evidence during my next several private meetings with Matthias.”
Gilbert arched a brow. “Thought they don’t let you take chlorowheat out from there.”
“I’ll find a way.”
Gilbert sighed before ruffling his hair. He collapsed into his bed a moment after and waved a loose hand. “Sorry again. Thanks for covering my ass.”
Werner merely offered a nod and relaxed slightly.
Admittedly, he had taken all the chlorowheat they’d received from Constanza for himself. With good reason. On days when he did not receive an invitation from Matthias, he would go out into the woods, roll up the chlorowheat he’d taken, and self-medicate before returning to the inn. Given that he’d somehow misplaced the prescribed chlorowheat that he had brought with him on this operation, this was the best way to stave off the protect, protect, protect that had only intensified after Atienna had successfully captured Louise, Maria had lost her ship and her children, Jericho had lost Benì, Olive had encountered Hideyoshi, and Cadence had her encounter with Taurus. Being only able to react to their pain instead of preventing it pained Werner more than anything. It was an absolute failure.
Werner knew using the chlorowheat product that was meant to serve as evidence was unacceptable. However, it was easily replaceable. Yes, this was sensible. He was still in control: directing what went where.
“Werner…” Nico called out suddenly as Werner was moving to turn off the lights.
Werner paused and turned to find that Nico had sat back up and was looking him up and down.
“Is it bad? The chlorowheat…?”
Werner glanced over towards Gilbert’s bed. The man was snoring heavily. Turning back to Nico, Werner nodded.
“Do they use it all in Matthias’s meetings?”
“Yes, but I don’t join them as I’ve said before.”
“That’s good… You know, Cadence…” Nico fell back onto his bed. “You probably know this already, but her parents…” He trailed off and stared at him for a while. “Be careful, Werner…
Werner offered the man a brief smile and turned off the lights.
* * *
Werner felt a quiet sense of relief when his invitation to Matthias’s residence came a day earlier than expected. Much to his surprise, however, upon entering the building, he found it in a state of disarray: tables overturned, plates and cups shattered on the ground, newspaper articles scattered everywhere.
Upon making his way into the living room, Werner registered several men and women working together to pin someone who was kicking and screaming to the ground. Tensing, he maneuvered around them and was able to register the face of the one being pinned. It was the secretary he had disguised himself as in order to enter the diplomacy building weeks earlier.
“Hey, Dieter!” Matthias grimaced from the top of the pile of men and women. “You came at a good—er, bad?—time.”
“You… captured the secretary,” Werner realized.
Protect, protect, protect.
“Bastard won’t stay down!” one of them snapped.
Werner pressed himself to remain calm. This situation needed to be handled carefully. He still needed to maintain Matthias’s trust; but the secretary—
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner’s eyes narrowed as he scanned the area fully. After some consideration, he ordered, “You don’t need ten men to hold down one. You’ll do more harm to yourself and to him than good. Have one pinning him down and four at his arms and legs.”
The ACC members exchanged looks—
—before moving to follow through with his commands. After fifteen seconds of struggling, they managed to successfully subdue the secretary and bind his legs and hands with conjured rope.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Werner pressed as Matthias unsteadily rose to his feet. “You said the plan was to be executed next week. The target was the documents of the secretary, not the secretary himself.”
“Yeah…” Matthias ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Some of the others got a little heated and went ahead and just did it. This… is still good though. Sorta. We can work with this.”
Such carelessness. Matthias was endangering not only himself but those around him.
Werner collected himself. “This will present us with more problems than solutions. This may even incite something between the governments given that the secretary was there on behalf of diplomacy. He needs to be returned—”
“It’s fine, Dieter,” Matthias insisted. “He’s already seen our faces. We can’t let him go. So, we should make use of this.”
The man turned and arched a brow at him before clapping on the back. “What’s gotten into you, Dieter?” He chuckled. “Do you need another hit?” He moved back towards the secretary. “Anyways, leave the thinking to me and help us carry him downstairs. We’ll get him comfortable and everything. Don’t worry.”
Being argumentative in these circumstances would most likely prove inefficient.
After a second of hesitation, Werner tensely obeyed the request and helped to gently carry the secretary into a separate room adjacent to the smoking den down in the basement. There, they bound him to a wooden chair and gabbed his mouth. Werner remained beside the man while the others who came with him filtered out of the room. The secretary whimpered as Werner drew near to him but relaxed when he pulled off the gag around his mouth.
The man gasped when freed and pressed, “P-Please… I have no idea what’s going on—”
Protect. Protect. Protect.
Werner’s chest twisted and his head pounded. His hand moved towards the bindings on the man’s wrists but he managed to barely stop himself. Now was not the time.
“You’ll be safe,” he assured the man, placing a hand on his shoulder. He offered him a glass of water which the man downed it in two large gulps. “I promise.”
The secretary merely shook his head and gasped. “I-I don’t know anything—”
Protect, protect, protect—
Werner did not stay for Matthias’s usual round of chlorowheat—highlighting and reassuring himself of the fact that he was indeed in control of his situation—and instead reported the development to Kramer whose expression became grave upon hearing it. Together they brought the matter to the attention of their Ophiuchian contact Otto Erinneridt. The man merely told them that they were already well aware of the situation and requested them to continue monitoring the developments. When Werner reported this situation into his superiors at the capital and Kramer hers, they received similar responded.
The apathetic response more than troubled Werner. He felt stuck and chained: unable to move. Contrarily, the need to move, to act, to save, to protect ate away at his insides. An unshakable impulse. It was what was right and had the best calculable outcome for the majority, after all; but following the impulse would merely endanger the other five. As always, there was only one thing to quell the desire.
* * *
During Werner’s next visit to Matthias, the man’s place was once again in a state of disarray: plates everywhere, furniture upturned, papers scattered on the floor. The only difference between this state of array and the previous one was that there was now blood splattered on the ground. Cautiously, placing one hand on the pistol at his belt, Werner followed the blood trail into the living room and found—once again—the secretary on the floor. Unlike before, however, the secretary was neither kicking nor screaming. Instead, the man trembled with a bruised face, bruised arms, lacerated legs. A toppled chair entangled with rope laid beside him.
Matthias was on top of the man pressing a rag to one of his many wounds along with several other ACC members.
Werner rushed to the secretary’s side immediately and pressed a rag on the ground to one of the open gashes. “Tell me what happened here.”
“Some idiots interrogated him without waiting for me.” Matthias grimaced as pressed the rag harder against a gash across the secretary’s abdomen. “He wasn’t being cooperative so they…”
Werner remained stolid. “He’s going to die if he doesn’t receive proper medical treatment. His wounds are severe. He needs to be taken to a medical Conductor or something similar—”
“No, no, it’s okay,” Matthias interjected. “Constanza is a medical Conductor—”
“Constanza isn’t here.”
“It’s okay.” Matthias insisted. “I-I can do it.” A second later he was scrambling to his feet and running over to a table alongside the wall. He dug out a conducting glove from the drawer and hastily slid it on.
Protect, protect, protect—
“Matthias—” Werner pressed. “Conjuring bandages will not be sufficient for these wounds. This is an ord—”
The secretary’s image flickered in front of Werner and abruptly became replaced by Otto: pale, shaking, trembling—just as Atienna remembered him from that day. Werner froze as his vision swam.
Suddenly, Matthias was at his side again. Otto was gone. Only the secretary remained.
“Oh! Matthias can do something that’ll really give your head a spin,” one of the other ACC members said, pulling Werner away. “Just wait.”
Matthias placed his conductor-gloved hands over one of the man’s wounds, and a soft cornflower blue light spilled from his conductors. The secretary’s wound began to glow the same color before the man’s skin began to slowly stitch itself over. Soon, the gash sealed completely.
Werner’s eyes narrowed as the healing light warmed his face.
Conjuring. Transmutation. A confirmation.
“Two conducting types,” another ACC member crowed in amazement. “Can you believe it?” She crowed. “Did you see the look on Dieter’s face? Absolutely floored!”
The dots finally connected. The null hypothesis of Matthias not being a True Conductor was now rejected. The alternative hypothesis was not completely accepted but the evidence had presented itself. Paired with this was the information that Constanza was a medical Conductor. Most likely she was a Transmutationist. Therefore—
Matthias finally pulled away from the secretary and fell on his back. He panted for a moment before glancing over at Werner. “It’s a genetic thing. Passed down in my family for generations.”
Werner regarded him before he forced his brows to rise. “Woah, that’s amazing… I’ve never heard of anything like it before.” He turned to the secretary who was shaking still despite his sealed wounds. “We should still get him to—”
“No, he’ll be fine,” Matthias insisted, glancing around at all the ACC members who tensed at the suggestion. His eyes narrowed as he straightened himself and looked over the secretary once more. “I don’t like how they got the information but they did get it.”
Matthias’s expression tightened. “I have no idea what the hell they think they’re doing. They’ve, Dieter, they’re…” He shook his head. “The Aquarian government’s sent the Yastreby to Leo to spy on the Leonian prince because they think that he’s the one who’s ‘testing Signum’s peace’ since he’s been saying that he wants to pull Leo out of the treaty. They’re pretty heated about it. Say that’s who everyone should be focused on. Not them or us.” He held a finger up in the air. “No only that. Not only that, but they were talking about jointly mobilizing a training exercise at the Capricornian-Sagittarian border to passively threaten Sagittarius to lift the tariff. That’s what the meeting at the diplomacy building was about.”
Werner tensed. This was developing too quickly, was beginning to become more out of hand than it already was, was growing beyond the ACC operation. He needed to report it immediately.
Matthias’s hand moved to his mouth and he mumbled, “They’re just causing problems for us now, but we should still try to use it to our disadvantage… right? Put it to the public.”
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner recognized the tension in Matthias’s shoulders and the way his gaze flickered from the secretary to the others standing around. A sense of losing control.
“Matthias, you need to at least call a physician or a medical Conductor for him,” Werner drew as he knelt down beside the man.
Matthias made a face. “It’s fine—”
“You are not a professional, Matthias. I’m not certain if Constanza is, but she’s not here either. You need to set an example as a leader. Your people who look up to you and will reflect you. What kind of movement do you want to lead?”
Matthias ogled him for a moment before looking over his shoulder and nodding slowly. He rose to a stand a second after and called out to one of the men: “Go grab one of our medical Conductors and bring them here.”
The addressed ACC member nodded stiffly before darting out of the room.
Werner remained tense. “What do you plan to do now?”
“Get another hit and think,” Matthias replied before nodding to the secretary. “Would you mind helping me bring him back down?”
“It may be best to leave him where he is to not exacerbate his injuries,” Werner replied carefully. “We can move him once the medical Conductor arrives.”
Matthias nodded. He ordered two ACC members to keep watch before inviting Werner back downstairs. Werner hesitated as he approached the threshold of the door that led down to the basement. He needed to report this to the Ophiuchian contact immediately—to Otto Erinneridt.
Otto. Otto. Otto.
Protect. Fail to protect. Protect.
No. It was too loud now. He knew needed to clear his head of these pounding thoughts first. If he didn’t then he could act irrationally and endanger the entire operation. Yes, this was sensible. Cost-benefit analysis.
With that conclusion solidified, Werner followed Matthias along with some of the others but paused momentarily to glance back at the secretary.
Protect, protect, protect—
No. Right now Matthias’s status as a confirmed True Conductor was the most important matter at hand. That and reporting this new Aquarian-Capricornian to the International Department’s liaison. Or perhaps it would be best for Capricorn not to? No—
Prior to any thinking he needed to clear his head.
Upon reaching the den, Werner took his usual spot on the sofa and carefully waited for the others to fall into their usual spots. Matthias took a seat on the sofa opposite of him and reached behind its back for something—peculiar. The man proceeded to procure three boxes. He handed one to Milkovich beside him before popping one of the remaining two open for Werner to see. Inside the box rested a vial of clear liquid and a syringe needle.
“This is even better than chlorowheat,” Matthias explained as he held the box out to Werner. “Some Transmutationist did some science vitae theory thingy-ma-jig to some chlorowheat somewhere in some warehouse and now it’s really something. Here. Try—”
Werner held up his hand to decline.
Some of the surrounding ACC members booed at him causing an unpleasantly familiar itching sensation to form at his palms. But it was negligible. This was going too far, he knew.
“Aw, come on, Dieter,” Matthias pouted. “You’re usually so fun. Once can’t hurt, can it?”
Werner again declined. He was in control. The dosages, the in-take, everything: managed.
Matthias waved his hand loosely in response before closing the box and shoving it into Werner’s hands. “Then take it for the road.” He proceeded to pop open the remaining box and extracted the clear liquid from the vial using the syringe inside. A second later, he was plunging the needle into his forearm. His head lolled back and his entire body fell limp.
This would be good evidence, Werner thought to himself as he wrapped his fingers around his own gifted box. This chlorowheat issue was growing beyond Capricorn’s and Aquarius’s—no, Ophiuchus’s—control. It wouldn’t be long before his men serving in the borders and his family would be touched by this wave. It needed to be addressed immediately—no, wait. He needed to think more deeply about this: Cadence would be negatively impacted if this particular news of chlorowheat expanded beyond this den.
Mind buzzing, Werner returned his attention to Matthias.
Did the ones who Matthias was connected to believe that the man being in this state was acceptable? That it was safe? Werner felt sympathy for him. It was clear that he was addicted and had no control over his consumption of chlorowheat.
After a moment’s hesitation, Werner decided to pocket the small gifted box and declined the pipe of chlorowheat as it was passed around. He watched as everyone eventually took a drag and slowly sank into their respective places on the couches. His gaze then re-focused on Matthias who was sliding down the sofa and staring ahead at nothing.
Given that everyone here was heavily medicated, this opportunity to capture Matthias was near perfect—
Protect, protect, protect.
Werner studied Matthias’s dozing face as their prior conversation came to him suddenly. Could he really turn Matthias over to them just as Atienna had turned over Louise? Did he not also have an obligation to protect them too? Wasn’t that what Ludwig would do—protect and save them? What Gilbert would do?
Werner’s chest began to twist uncomfortably.
If he didn’t bring Matthias in, then he would be failing to protect the other five and his blood family. And what about the secretary? Louise? Hideyoshi? Benì. The Aquarian-Capricornian alliance. Everything: unraveling. It was mathematically, agonizingly impossible: there was no way he would be able to protect everyone—
Head pounding, Werner grabbed the pipe when it was passed around a second time. He stared at it as he tried to collect the thoughts churning inside his head:
He had to prepare more before moving forward to contain Matthias. He needed to confirm that Constanza was a True Conductor as well. He also needed to be cautious in reporting into International Relations. Being rash at this moment had the potential to cause the entire operation and the delicate political state of the continent to fall into disarray. This situation was not one that could be left to chance. It had to be controlled.
Werner took deep drag, and he could instantly feel of his worries being dragged away by ghostly hands. Right—it wasn’t as bad as he was making it out to be. Everything was okay. Taking another drag, he allowed darkness and nothingness to consume his thoughts—
“Werner,” came a whisper that stirred him from the short, temporary solace of the dark.
With difficulty, Werner cracked open his eyes and allowed himself to enjoy the butterflies that sprang out from his chest and fluttered at his fingertips.
“Werner!” The whisper was paired with a rough shake.
Werner scanned his surroundings in confusion. Matthias and several of the others were curled up on different couches around him. Unconscious or dozing. So who then…? With difficulty, he focused his attention on the figure kneeling in front of him. Mouse brown hair and red-crosses sewn onto the lapels of her blouse.
“Greta…?” Werner mumbled in confusion.
She took a hold of his hand and pulled him up to a stand.
Werner blinked in confusion: he was suddenly no longer in Matthias’s den and was instead crunching through the snow leaning against Greta. He blinked again: he was now sitting in a booth inside some restaurant. Greta sat across from him, offering a glass of water. In confusion, he accepted it and downed the glass in five gulps.
“What are you doing?” Greta whispered, reaching across the table and placing a hesitant hand on his shoulder. “Is… this part of your infiltration operation? Does Gilbert know?”
Werner stared at her hand for a moment before her question settled in. “Yes… Gil is aware. What he isn’t aware of is why you’re a part of the ACC. We’ve been looking for you. We were supposed to serve in the capital together, and now we’re on opposite sides.”
Something in Greta’s expression changed—Werner didn’t like it—and she said something that he couldn’t quite follow.
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“Werner, I know you have a lot of questions. I… have them too…” Greta paused, pulling her hand away. “What we’re doing with this movement—it’s good. We… We can’t just stand by and let them do whatever they want with our future… I can’t see you and Gilbert hurt out there anymore. I know you’re under orders, but you can’t report us in. It’s what they want, don’t you see…?” Her voice faded in and out again. “… don’t we deserve some peace?”
Greta was fuzzy around the edges now. Her expression changed again, and once again Werner didn’t like it. She reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Werner, how long have you been coming to Matthias and doing this?”
Werner stared. “You know about Matthias and his chlorowheat?”
“I-I heard about it,” Greta admitted, “but this is my first time seeing it. I was called to come check up on the secretary…”
“You being out here isn’t good for you,” Werner said. “We were supposed to be at the capital together.”
“What…?” Greta stared. “Werner, you’re not… making any sense…”
The world became fuzzy again and suddenly Werner was outside in the cold being pulled along by Greta once more. In the distance, his inn was coming into view.
* * *
Werner’s head became slightly clearer following his procession through the snow. Clarity gripped him somewhat fully once he was standing right in front of the inn. He looked around but couldn’t find Greta anywhere. He couldn’t find her footprints in the snow. Had he imagined her presence just like he’d imagined that Sagittarian woman? He couldn’t tell.
As he entered the hotel lobby and prepared to ascend up the staircase to his room, the desk attendant called out to him:
“You have a call again, sir.”
He drifted over to the phone booth in response and picked the device off the receiver. “Hello?”
“I already told you that you can’t contact me when I’m on this operation.”
“How can you be so cold?” Mother whispered. “Can’t you see that I’m just concerned? Can’t you be a little bit more empathetic?”
His palms didn’t itch, and her words seemed to float around his head and then exit somewhere. “May I ask why you’re calling?”
“Haven’t you heard the news?” she whispered. “Everyone’s talking about it over here.”
Werner shook his head, trying to dispel the haziness.
“Oh, I’m so glad you weren’t there, honey,” she continued. “It really was awful. But I’m sure if you were there, you would’ve been able to stop it, right? Yes, definitely. That’s most likely one of the reasons why there was so much collateral.”
“Glad? Huh? Weren’t where? What’re you talking about?”
“Werner, why are you speaking like that…?” Mother clicked her tongue. “It’s so… rude. You sound uneducated, and I know you’re not. I didn’t put all that money—”
“I apologize,” Werner replied automatically, leaning against the booth. “I haven’t been able to keep up with the news entirely.”
“Oh, honey, you can do better than that—you always have time. I’m talking about what happened at the Aquarian-Capricornian border! The attack on Joint-Outpost 12!” Mother sighed finally, sounding half-annoyed, half-upset. “By ELPIS.”
Werner paused, the fog in his mind reeling back with intense speed. That outpost at the border—that was where Kleine, Bergmann, and Brandt were stationed. He recalled Cadence telling him that a month ago.
“They took half the children there,” she continued, “and killed half of the units stationed there. Oh, it was awful. Werner, didn’t you see? I think I saw some of the people from your old unit on the list—”
Everything became clear instantaneously, painfully. Werner’s ears were left ringing.
Protect, protect, protect.
“Yes, that would be Emilia Bergmann, Klaus Kleine, and Alwin Brandt, right? Oh, honey, it was awful. It’s not your fault, honey. Obviously those three didn’t absorb anything you taught them while they were under you, so—”
Werner felt faint as he recalled Kleine offering him book suggestions, Bergmann offering him some of her rations when they were short, and Brandt offering to fill their stagnant time at the border with stories. He recalled them accepting to trust him in the Twin Cities and him accepting to trust them in the capital.
He had failed. Failed to protect them. His subordinates. His subordinates. They had relied on him, and he’d failed them. Just like he had failed Otto. And Louise. And Benì.
Protect, protect, protect.
Louise. Even though she was outside of his circle, she still deserve some semblance of protection. The people beyond the other five also needed to be accounted for. Instead, however, he had helped Atienna hunt her down. Soon, he was to do the same to Matthias. Doing otherwise, however, would result in him failing to protect Olive, Maria, Atienna, Jericho, Cadence. A failure on two paths.
He had failed to protect Benì. Otto. Talib. Emilia. Klaus. Alwin. The list of names grew and refused to fade. What was the point if he couldn’t successfully, appropriately protect them all?
Werner pressed his forehead against the booth as his head began to pound.
Werner straightened. Phone slipping from his hands, he turned from the booth and headed towards the staircase. He could still hear his mother’s voice echoing out from the swinging phone but protect, protect, protect, protect drowned out her voice.
Gilbert was descending the flight as Werner stormed up it. “Hell, Werner, you’re back early. Did you hear the news about the first chair of International Relations coming here? What happened to—”
Werner brushed past him and continued winding up the staircase. As he turned down the hall, he nearly collided with Nico.
The man caught him in surprise. “Hey, Werner, I just got a call from Cadence and she was askin’ about hearin’ from you—”
Werner brushed past him too and headed towards their bedroom. “Thank you, Nico. Later.”
Upon entering, Werner dug into his suitcase and calmly pulled out the four small brown packet of chlorowheat that he’d stolen and hidden away inside a sewn pocket there. Wordlessly, he exited and brushed past Knovak who was lounging in the resting hall. He proceeded into the adjacent bathroom and locked the door behind him.
Approaching the sink, he unwrapped one of the chlorowheat packets tried for a moment to measure out the prescribed amount by eye-ball estimation. Eventually, he discarded the attempt and moved to roll all the leaves up in a sheet a paper. His gloves impeded the action so he tore them off and tossed them to the side. His hand, however, shook so much that he wasn’t able to roll properly. In desperation, he simply licked the paper. He lost half the product on the sink but he swiped it up and dabbed it on his tongue—
Protect, protect, protect.
It wasn’t enough.
Calming himself, he steadily, successfully rolled up another batch of chlorowheat before igniting it with the lighter in his pants pocket. Hungrily, he took a drag. Something pleasant in his chest stirred—
No, he’d imagined it. He’d imagined it. It was just like the protect, protect, protect seeping on through: little whispers bringing with them disorder. None of the others were listening in. They couldn’t be. The chlorowheat prevented that. He could continue.
Werner sank to the floor against the basin of the shower and took another deep drag.
What steps could he take? What could he do? What was the answer? The solution? There were no orders to follow. No easier route to take. Everything was unraveling. He needed to maintain control. But—
Protect, protect, protect.
It still wasn’t enough. The thoughts pounded easily past the thin barrier provided by the chlorowheat.
He took another drag. And then another one. And another one.
Protect, protect, protect.
No. Still not enough. Developed tolerance: like the doctor had said. But if that what was the case, what was he supposed to do? He needed that umbrella—he needed that pleasant emptiness.
Werner held his head in pain for a moment before he paused and reached into his pocket. He pulled out not his pocketwatch but the small box Matthias had provided for him earlier. Wordlessly, he popped the lid open and stared at the vial and syringe inside.
Cost-benefit analysis. He needed this. This was required. He needed to get his thoughts and order and needed to suppress the impulse. If he didn’t take this then he would be a detriment to the operation, to the others, to everyone. This was a calculated and necessary sacrifice.
Werner pulled the syringe from the case and slowly extracted the same amount of liquid from the vial as he’d seen Matthias pulled out earlier. He was not familiar with applying medicine through needles, but Cadence had been taught how to do so by Allen in order to apply Francis’s epinephrine. Guided by those faint memories, Werner pressed the needle into his forearm just as he’d seen Matthias do. He paused then hesitated.
He was still in control. The dosage. The amount. The means of entry. It was all in his hands in both a metaphorical and literal sense.
With that, he slammed the plunger down and felt the heat of the liquid burn . His vision swam a moment after as—finally—familiar warm tendrils of euphoric pleasure began to curl out from the injection site and spread out like a fire to the rest of his body. Once the feeling rushed to his head, he let out a sigh of relief and tossed the syringe and vial onto the floor where they shattered into shards. He reached into his pocket to pull out his pocketwatch as he picked up the bud of chlorowheat that he had discarded earlier.
It was almost completely silent. Everything was distant and far away. Perfect.
Werner listened to the ticking of the watch that seemed to match the beats of his heart. Wait. No. His heart was beating slightly off-sync. Too fast. No, too slow? He couldn’t really think well enough to determine which one it was, but that was perfectly fine. Another development that was perfectly fine: his vision began to go in and out as a shiver wracked through his body
Darkness. Light. Darkness. Light—
The door across from him shook abruptly and a muffled shout vibrated the air. Boom, boom, boom. More shouting. The door splintered at the hinges.
The door flew open so hard that the knob of it cracked into the sidewall as it swung ajar. A collection of silhouettes crowded there at the threshold.
A familiar blood-curdling, agonized cry tore through the air. One of the other five—Werner knew. With difficulty, he forced his eyes open.
Standing past the threshold of the door was Cadence. Her watery eyes were wide in horror and her fingers entangled in her hair as she stumbled backwards unsteadily. She lunged forward at him a moment afterwards.
She shouldn’t be here, he thought. She would be found by Scorpio’s spores, tracked by his eyes.
Cadence was kneeling in front of him now, shaking him hard and shouting at the top of her lungs. Another figure pushed her aside. Nico.
“What the fuck…?” Knovak.
“—the hell is this?” Gilbert. “Chlorowheat?!”
“I saw him earlier”—Greta—“but I—”
“Werner, can you hear me?” Nico. “Werner—”
Briefly, Werner caught sight of Nico’s pale, worried face.
No, Werner didn’t want to return. Not just yet.
He didn’t want to feel the shame, the anxiety, the fear, the worry, the thoughts. He wanted to hold onto this state of mind that greeted him every time he took chlorowheat: everything slowing, everything fading, everything stopping, everything disappearing—