My writer once said that it was better be
a foolish man who knows what he wants
than a smart man who doesn’t know what he wants.
I later asked if they simply meant it was better to be
a person who knows what they want.
It was only during that transitional period
that I realized what they meant.
Werner hopped up to a crouch, flipped his sunglasses up over his head, and stared at Atienna. “Atienna?” He squinted at the others. “Gilbert too? And Klaus! And Carl—”
Something was off. Atienna sensed it immediately. She knew—had felt —how much Klaus’s ‘death’ devastated Werner. Klaus’s ‘death’ had been a trigger his chlorowheat spiral. For him to just engage in this casual greeting was… unsettling. But still. Atienna was overjoyed to see him. Finally, a reunion—a familiar, comforting face in this strange land.
Werner, she tried, are you okay?
Werner did not answer.
It was unlike him not to answer. Additionally, despite his proximity, she could barely feel him. The surreality of the situation only increased as she thought on it further. There was an odd distance between them now that she could only liken to the distance she maintained between herself and those outside of the ones she cared for.
“What the—” Gilbert rose to his feet. Relief rang clear in his voice. “Are you just going to name everyone?”
“Well, I didn’t want anyone feeling left out…” Werner came to a stand with him. “Why are you all hiding here?”
“Why? We’re trying to figure out what the fuck is going on here!” Gilbert snapped before sighing. “Well. Glad you’re alright. Can’t say the same about your get-up.”
Werner frowned and looked himself up and down. “The ‘get-up’…? Hey… what’s that supposed to mean…?” He pointed to a black spot on the lapel of his shirt. “This?”
It took a moment for Atienna to realize that the spot was in the shape of a cat’s face. Carefully stitched on with black thread—eyes, whispers, mouth, and all. A childish design that Atienna could only imagine Werner wearing if it had been made by herself or one of the other four. And yet—
Werner continued, “J-man’s the one who designed this for me—”
J-man? J… Jericho?
“You know what I mean.” Gilbert waved a hand and took a step forward. He gestured down the alley. “What the hell is all this? What country are we in? What the fuck is going on?”
Werner cocked his head. “What country…?”
“Yeah.” Gilbert grimaced. “The signs are in Common and Virgoan, but Atienna says she has no clue where we are.”
“Common?” Werner placed a hand to his chin. “Virgoan? What’s common about that—”
“I mean… what the hell is this?” Gilbert continued, waving his hand even more erratically. “Why? What’s the point of dressing us up like clowns?”
Gilbert paused, lowering his hand slightly and then waving it again with a grimace. “Yeah. It’s weird. I know. Let’s not make a big deal out of it because it’s probably not going to stay here forever—”
Werner cut him off by slapping his own hand against Gilbert’s raised one.
Gilbert froze, stared, processing.
Atienna knew that Gilbert was too shocked to notice what she just had just seen—Werner’s hands were ungloved. Werner, she tried again.
“Oh! Waking up in weird clothing and not knowing where you are? Ten-four, good buddy.” Werner nodded, retracting his hand. “That was me just last week.”
Atienna frowned deeper, reaching out to him with more might through their connection. She tried a bit more desperately this time. Werner.
Werner turned and studied her.
“Ten-four—what?” Gilbert did a double-take, holding his own hand. “What—you’ve been here since last week?”
Werner looked back at him. “Huh? Well, yeah, but I’ve been here longer than that—” Abruptly, he reached down and swooped Alice—allegedly—who was walking circles around his feet, up into his arms. A smile broke across his face. “There, there. Aw, look at you, you sweet little dude. Aww, meow meow—”
Klaus’s jaw quite literally dropped.
Carl appeared only mildly disturbed.
Atienna—she was familiar with Werner’s occasional smiles, and she was aware of his fondness for animals. He had always kept these aspects of himself carefully controlled. And while she had always hoped for him to reach the point where he was able to comfortably express these feelings openly, this was rather bizarre and extreme. Still, she refused to look at the dots—to connect the points together. The answer was not something she wanted to acknowledge.
Alice let out a loud meow before squirming out of Werner’s hold and bounding down the alleyway. Werner reached out for her but ultimately did not give chase.
“Aw, damn. There he goes again.” Werner sighed. “I know you can’t force cats to do things they don’t want to do—you can’t control them—but I’ve seen that little guy wandering around all by himself these past few days. I’m worried about him, you know? And Kaiser’ll be disappointed. I promised to bring him a friend. I think he gets lonely when we’re not home.”
‘Past few days’? A ‘week’? The puzzle pieces were incongruent.
“The Kaiser…?” Klaus whispered. “The Kaiser’s…. here?”
“Well, no. Not here.” Werner thumbed behind him. “He’s at my place like usual. Wait, no. Nico’s taken him to the clinic…”
Carl perked up. “Nico?”
“The Kaiser’s in the hospital?” Gilbert interjected, eyes wide.
“For a routine check-up,” Werner confirmed before crossing his arms and rubbing his chin. “I’m a bit worried honestly. Nico says he’s been eating too much but I don’t think he’s been eating enough. He hasn’t been eating all that much recently. I make him something from scratch everyday… Maybe my cooking isn’t good enough?”
“Nico—” Carl interjected. “What’s this about Nico—”
Gilbert held up a hand. He ignored when Carl swatted it away. “Werner, what the hell are you talking about…?”
“No, where the hell is Nico?” Carl demanded. “Where’s Cadence?”
“Nico’s at work,” Werner replied. “He got off early today though, so he’s with Kaiser at the hospital right now like I said. Caddy is coming around tomorrow.”
“Caddy? What?” Gilbert held and shook his head. “Why are you acting so…?” He side glanced at Klaus then squinted at Werner. “Maria?”
Werner’s brows rose. “What about Maria? She’s been really busy recently, hasn’t she?” He looked to Atienna. “You’ve been really busy lately too, right? You should relax sometime—”
Gilbert eyed Atienna and thumbed Werner. “Am I talking to Maria?”
“I…” Atienna tried. The question felt personal. “I don’t know. I can barely feel him… but Maria isn’t like this.”
Gilbert didn’t look convinced.
“Maybe it’s…” Klaus whispered, tensing, “…Scorpio again?” He paled, looking nauseous. “All of this is just a set up by Scorpio… ”
“Can’t be,” Gilbert replied. “We took care of him.” He made a face. “I think.”
“You took care of him…?” Klaus stared.
Gilbert waved a dismissive hand.
Werner eyed Klaus.
Klaus tensed, then saluted. “Reporting in, Captain. I’m very sorry for my… unexcused absence, sir. I apologize for any trouble I’ve caused. I promise you I wasn’t deserting but—”
Werner chuckled. “Far out…”
Klaus’s eyes became wide as saucers. “What’s… far out?”
“Your acting,” Werner replied. “That’s for your advanced class, right? For that play you were telling me about—”
“I-I’m not acting or lying or playing, Captain,” Klaus stammered. “I know it sounds far… fetched, but—”
“Kleine, shut up for a minute,” Gilbert muttered.
“That was rude…” Werner frowned, crossing his arms again. “You seem like you’re in a really bad mood today, Gil…”
“Gil?” Gilbert stared again.
The dots were connecting. Atienna did not want them too. However—one wouldn’t be wrong in thinking a dot connected in a dream was not significant at all… right?
“Hey, you still need us, mister?” an unfamiliar voice cut through their conversation.
Atienna glanced down the alleyway towards the sound and saw a group of adolescents crowded at the mouth there.
Werner glanced at them then back at Gilbert, Klaus, Carl, and Atienna. He waved back at the adolescents. “Nah, I got it taken care of!”
“You sure?” one of them pressed. “You paid us—”
“Yep, go have fun!” Werner shouted back. When the children left, he stopped waving and turned back to them. “Do you guys mind helping me carry my supplies back to the Wibele?”
“Back to the what…?” Gilbert did a double-take. “Go where?”
“You know—to my shop,” Werner replied. “Slash home. My shop-ome.”
“Aw, come on,” Werner said. “I’ll feed you. We can catch up as we walk.”
Gilbert looked back at Atienna.
Atienna kept her gaze trained on Werner’s face as her thoughts stray to her recent encounter with Chiamaka. She didn’t want to connect the dots.
“We can’t go anywhere, Werner,” Gilbert informed him. “Some… ‘officers’—I don’t know what else to call them—kept demanding to see our IDs. They didn’t seem to be asking about conducting licenses—not that I even have mine. Shit. I lost everything. Fuck it. We just need to get out of here—”
“ID?” Werner cocked his head again before he dug into his apron pocket. “You mean like this?” He presented a familiar-looking card to them. Captured in the photo at the corner there was a smiling image of himself performing a V-sign with his hand. The rest of the card read—
CITIZEN IDENTIFICATION CARD
NAME: Werner Waltz
RESIDENCY: Harvest in the Grainery
KM LEVEL: 2
[ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✧ ]
Atienna felt a coldness take hold of her stomach.
“You have one too…” Klaus murmured.
“We’re all supposed to have one,” Werner said, re-pocketing it. “You’ll get in trouble if you don’t. You know that.”
“Well, we never had ones to begin with,” Gilbert said.
“What do you mean? You just showed me your upgraded card last month after you passed your KM-test,” Werner replied. “I marked the day in my calendar and everything. We had a party to celebrate. Remember?”
“What?” Gilbert’s brows met.
Werner laughed. “Well, I don’t remember either actually. Hm—so you lost your IDs?”
“Lost? No,” Carl snapped. “We never had one to begin with!” He whipped to Gilbert. “What the hell is wrong with this guy?”
Werner stared at Carl, looking somewhat apprehensive. The expression was gone as quick as it came, however, and he smiled. “It’s okay. I’ll tell Nico, and he’ll get new ones for you. It happens, you know.”
He began to walk towards the mouth of the alley.
“Werner, where the fuck are you going?!” Gilbert gave chase. “We can’t go out there. We’ll be detained—”
“By the officers? It’s okay.” Werner waved him off. “I’ll talk to them if anything happens. I know all the officers in the area. Baked cakes for their weddings and anniversaries, so we’re all friends.”
Flipping his sunglasses back over his eyes, Werner exited the alleyway before Gilbert could catch up to him. Gilbert stopped at the line between the alley and the sidewalk there. He moved forward then back then forward then back before he swore and stormed out after Werner. He signaled Klaus, who cast Atienna a hesitant look, to follow suit. Carl swore too before giving chase. Atienna remained standing in place for a moment as her mind spun.
Letting out a breath, she finally headed out the alleyway herself.
As soon as Atienna stepped out onto the sidewalk and into the sunlight, Werner plopped a heavy brown bag into her hands. The bag read FLOUR. She peered over at Carl and Gilbert and saw that they too were carrying similar bags. Klaus, on the other hand, was carrying a dozen milk cartons in a big crate.
Werner bent down to pick up three large bags labeled SUGAR at his feet before he jerked to the side with his head. “Off we go!”
After a short time of walking, Werner stopped them in front of a small building with red brick exterior and a large large window taking up most of its front. A flickering v-light sign hung at the corner of the window. OPEN, it read. What Atienna could only assume was bakery’s name was painted in swirling letters over half the window-space—
“Werner, what the hell is this…?” Gilbert gawked.
“Shop-ome,” Werner replied. “Like I said! I know you haven’t been here in a while, but meine Haus ist still deine Haus!”
Beyond the window and past the letters, Atienna could see the interior of what appeared to be a small bakery shop. The floors were checkered pastel blue and white. A handful of white, circular tables dotted the floor space. White shelves were pressed up against the right wall, while a window display of an assortment of sugary treats—slices of cake, heart-shaped macaroons, animal-shaped cupcakes—sat in the far corner. Beside that display was a checkout counter.
Werner pushed through the door, placed the bags of flour in his hands on the nearest table, and walked over to the OPEN v-light sign. He pulled the switch at the bottom, and it flickered off.
He then gestured for them to set down the bags and cartons down on the tables too before he rounded the counter and headed through the back door behind it. Klaus sank into a seat and looked around the store silently.
In the silence of Werner’s absence, Atienna could hear a faint, strange sound buzzing out from the odd-looking radio that sat on top of one of the shelves. Trumpets, guitar, fast drums, and other instruments Atienna was certain only Cadence would be able to identify clanged out from the radio and formed what Atienna assumed was music.
“Sounds like shit.” Carl grimaced as he walked over to the radio.
Werner re-entered the room with four platters of cake riding on his arms. White, black, pink, and green. He cranked up the volume to the radio as he passed by and delivered plates of cake paired with forks to all of them.
Atienna received the green one but she didn’t focus on it. Instead she stared at Werner. Klaus meanwhile picked up his fork uncertainly before eyeing Gilbert who shook his head.
Carl covered his ears. “What is that racket?”
“What? It’s funk, Carl,” Werner said to him. “Funk. They’re calling it the music revolution. Isn’t Caddy’s new song a funk one?”
“Caddy?” Carl pressed. “You mean Cadence?”
“Yeah—how is she by the way? How’s the set up for the opening tomorrow night?”
“The set up for tomorrow night?” Carl repeated. “What—”
“Yeah!” Werner nodded but did not explain. “You’ve got to convince Caddy to sing this song. Sure, it’s not hers but I think she’d be willing to play it if you said you liked it—oh, here’s my favorite part!” He cranked the radio even louder and began bobbing his head to the beat while mouthing the lyrics and strumming his hands in the air.
“Lieutenant,” Klaus whispered, gripping his fork like a lifeline, “what’s going on…? What’s wrong with the captain?”
Atienna slowly rose from her seat, drifted over to radio, and turned a knob on the device with the intention to turn it off. There is static and then a voice rings out—
CAN YOU HEAR ME, ATIENNA?
Atienna froze and pulled away.
ATIENNA. DO YOU HEAR ME? CAN YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
She reached for the device again—but Werner was at her side, turning another knob on the device. That static died down.
“Why’d you change the channel for?” Werner asked, peering at her curiously. “Do you not like it, Atienna?”
Atienna stared. “Did you hear…?” She looked back at Gilbert, Carl, and Klaus who appeared just as confused as Werner was. Curious, but unnerving. Nothing seemed real. “I…” She collected herself. “I just had a question for you, Werner.”
“Oh! Well, I probably don’t have an answer,” Werner replied as he took a seat at the table adjacent to Gilbert, “but I can try.”
“Right…” Atienna offered a small smile and sits across from him. “I was just wondering… You were asking Carl to talk to Cadence for you… but you could talk to her yourself, can’t you…?”
“Well, I could give her a ring,” Werner replied after humming, “but it’s always her agent who answers.”
“Agent?” Carl parroted. “Peacekeeping agent? You mean the glasses guy? The one with the suitcase that keeps hanging around Francis?”
Werner cocked his head. “No, I mean Stefano.”
“Stefano?” Carl recoiled. “You mean the poor bastard that that Scorpio bastard fucked over?”
“Werner,” Gilbert interjected, “there’s something seriously wrong here.”
Werner’s smile slid from his face as he looked over them all. “Why do you all look so serious all of a sudden…? Was the cake not good?”
“Look, Werner,” Gilbert tried, leaning towards him and sharing a glance with Atienna, “do you remember being cut recently? Maybe by a knife or bitten by an animal or—I don’t know—”
“Huh? No.” Werner wiggled his fingers. “I’m real careful when I’m working.”
Atienna slowly reached for his hand. There was no shock of electricity as she had hoped at the contact, but she could feel him ever so faintly. He was there—here—sitting in front of her.
She turned over his hand over in her own as she reassured herself of this fact. There was not a scratch on his hands. At this confirmation, Atienna looked up at Gilbert whose lips were pulled into a tight line.
“What are you doing, Atienna…?” Werner asked.
Atienna released his hand and smiled. “I was just… checking to see if you were cut…”
“Oh.” Werner smiled back. “Aw, thanks for worrying about me. Like I said, I’m real careful. But…” He examined his hands. “I was scratched by Kaiser the other day.”
Gilbert tensed. “You were cut by the Kaiser…?”
“Do you think the Kaiser was infected?” Klaus whispered. “Like how Nezche was?”
“I told you already, Kleine.” Gilbert sighed. “We took care of Scorpio.” He paused, and Atienna could see the gears in his head turning. “But there could’ve been a new one… And he could’ve gotten to the Kaiser…” He looked up. “And—wait—when would you have come into contact with the Kaiser? And what does this have to do with…” He eyed Atienna. “And if he was infected, it would be infecting you… right?”
“Infected? Me?” Werner placed the back of his hand on his forehead. “I don’t feel sick…”
“No, that’s not…” Gilbert waved his hand. “I’m talking about Scorpio’s spores. His mediums—”
“Spores? I don’t use any mushrooms in any of my recipes, but—oh! A mushroom-shaped cake is genius! Medium is the perfect size for that kind of thing—”
“Huh? Are you upset? Don’t be embarrassed. Your mushroom idea is great—”
“Wha—I’m not embarrassed!”
“Then why are you getting so worked up for…?”
“For fuck’s sake!” Gilbert slammed his hands on the table. “Because I’m not talking about fucking mushrooms!”
Werner startled and scooted back in his chair. “Geeze, Gil… I’m sorry I misunderstood you. You know I don’t mean to…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll try to understand it better if you’d be willing to explain it to me again…?”
Gilbert shut his mouth immediately. He faltered. “I—no. I’m sorry.” He fell silent.
Atienna thought Gilbert’s and Klaus’s propositions were interesting but perhaps in the wrong direction. Or perhaps she was the one looking in the wrong direction.
Atienna turned to Werner and tried again, “You said you woke up in strange clothes last week and didn’t know where you were, right? Could you tell me about that…?”
Werner stared at her blankly before brightening. “Oh yeah! I was going to tell you about that. You all missed the roller blade event here last week! It was a great time. There was music and food and dancing and—well—alcohol—”
The door behind the counter abruptly flew open and someone shouted—“What the hell is all this noise?”
A young man stepped out of the doorway.
Atienna’s ears rang. Her surroundings faded in and out.
She was no longer sitting on the chair in the bakery but on her knees in puddle. Her hands were wet—but not from the mud caked all around her. They were wet from the blood of the man who lay dying in front of her. The boy. He whimpered and asked if he was dying and begged for her to write for him. As he passed away, Atienna offered him an empty promise—
In a blink, Atienna was back—back and staring at a ghost.
Gilbert was standing, his chair toppled over on the floor.
“O-Otto…?” Klaus rose to a shaky stand. “Otto…?”
Otto Vogt, dressed in the same uniform as Werner, greeted them with a frown. “What? Is it my birthday or something? Why you here, Klaus? I thought you said you were gonna be at the library ‘cause you had exams. You faking out on me?” He waved his hand and nodded at Werner. He thumbed the door. “The freezer door’s frozen again, boss. Broke right after Safiyah and Rath got off their shift.”
“Safiyah?” Atienna stiffened.
Werner, who was busy picking up Gilbert’s fallen chair, popped up to a stand at this. “Again, O-man?”
Otto turned on his heels and exited back through the door.
Werner followed him, flipping his sunglasses back over his head and pausing at the threshold of the door to signal the rest of them to follow. Gilbert and Klaus remained frozen in place. Atienna, on the other hand, hesitantly but curiously followed Werner through the back door.
‘Otto’ and Werner.
Werner, at ease.
Behind the door lay a kitchen-like area. There was a sink, a station that Atienna assumed was for kneading bread, a shelf stock with bread and sweats, a table stock with strange machinery, an oven. A calendar hung on the right-side wall over the sink and it looked like there was a telephone nailed to the wall too. Odd. In the far corner of the room was a doorway containing a set of stairs that lead upwards.
Werner bypassed all of this and headed to the back wall where Otto stood waiting in front of a large metal door. The door’s hinges were frosted over as was its handle. A freezer? A very odd and large-looking one.
Atienna followed behind Werner with Carl, Gilbert, and Klaus at her tail. She scanned the room carefully before allowing her eyes to settle on Otto as she neared him.
“I tried kicking, shaking, screaming.” Otto sighed, arms-crossed. “No sugar. We have an order for tomorrow that I need to take out and put in the fridge. Unless we want to give the lady an ice-cube tomorrow.” He snorted. “Would do her some good. She needs to take a chill pill.”
Klaus and Gilbert stared at him. Atienna stared too.
“Hm…” Werner stared at the door in thought as he stroked his chin. Then he brightened, snapping his fingers. “Oh, I got it!” He reached for a knife hanging on the adjacent wall and flipped it in his hand—he nearly dropped it.
“So you’re going to try to cut through metal with a knife,” Carl muttered. “I thought Cadence said you were sharp.”
“Huh?” Werner glanced at Carl for moment before returning his attention to the door. He tightened his grip on the handle of the knife.
Oh dear. Was this really happening?
“Werner…” Atienna tried. “I don’t think that will work—”
Indigo light suddenly leaked out from Werner’s fingertips and crawled up the blade of the kitchen knife until the silver was entirely consumed by the color.
Atienna tensed, mind racing. That was not Olive’s conducting. And Werner was not wearing a conductor. That knife was not a conductor. Still—he was conducting without a conductor. Impossible. He would die—they would all die—if that were the case.
“Shit,” Carl swore, eyeing Werner distrustfully. “He’s a damned saint candidate.”
No. Atienna knew that conclusion was inaccurate.
“He’s not a saint candidate,” Gilbert grumbled, eyeing the knife in Werner’s hands apprehensively. “But… Werner, what the fuck was that conducting?” He looked back at Atienna. “Is this normal…? I know the kid can do it without a conductor and you guys can do it sorta too, but this…?”
Atienna shook her head.
“Conducting?” Werner cocked his head. “Conductor? What are you talking about?”
Klaus silently pointed to the knife before eyeing Otto again.
Falling to a crouch, Werner waved it around in response before sliding it straight through the frozen lock of the door. A hissing sound emanated before the metal melted completely. After the deed was done, he pulled back and shook the knife, dissipating the light. Grinning, he gave the handle of the freezer a big tug. It popped open.
“Nice, but should you really be wasting your VPs on something like this?” Otto asked, pulling the door open the rest of the way and entering inside.
Cold fog spilled out from behind the door, and the chill shook Atienna to her core. She pulled her towel closer around her. Gilbert, Klaus, and Carl pulled back shivering too.
A moment later, Otto emerged from the freezer carrying a very tall white cake decorated with birds on its side.
“I mean, we really need you next week for the showdown, boss, so it’d be better if you conserved your—” Otto paused. He eyed Gilbert and then Atienna before he shut his mouth. “Er… let’s talk about it later.”
“Huh? Why? Don’t worry.” Werner beamed as he pulled out his ID and waved the card around. He pointed to the stars at the bottom of the card—[ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✧ ✧ ]. “I’ve still got enough for next weekend and then some!”
Otto placed the cake on the table behind him before he swiveled around and kicked the ajar door closed. “Yeah, well, we can open the freezer now,” he said, “which is fantastic, but now we can’t fucking lock it because you busted the lock.”
“Ah…” Werner pocketed the card, rose to a stand, and placed his hands on his hips. He scratched the back of his head as he stared at the broken lock. “I didn’t think about that…” He perked up. “Oh, but you know what? I’m pretty sure Ollie can fix it. He might come by this weekend since the bar is opening up. You’re coming too, right?”
“J-man might be coming too—”
“Oh fuck that.” Otto huffed. “I was going to come but not if he’s coming. I fucking hate that guy!”
Werner frowned. “Hey. He’s my friend—“
“I came across him last week at university. Tried to throw a piece of that seed package from my lab class in the trashcan—missed. I was obviously going to pick it up and throw it away but that bastard got to it before me. The fucking bastard picked it up, looked at me straight in the fucking eyes like I was getting in his fucking way, and fucking obliterated it before walking away. Like he thinks he’s too good to even talk to me. Now everyone thinks that I’m the asshole, when it’s obviously him—”
Werner chuckled. “Aw, he just cares. That’s all it s.”
“’Care’ my ass.” Otto scowled deeper. “Why the fuck was he at the botany building anyways. Bastard.”
The conversation felt surreal.
Otto seemed to notice all of their stares. “What’s with the hairy eyeball? What’s up?” He glanced Atienna and then nodded at Werner. “What’s she doing here anyway?”
Gilbert studied Werner and then locked eyes with Otto before saying, “Otto? You’re Otto Vogt.”
“What?” Otto arched a brow. “Yeah. Unfortunately.”
“You can’t be,” Gilbert said. “Otto Vogt died last December.” He grabbed Werner by the wrist. “Werner, we need to get out of whatever the fuck this is.”
Atienna tensed. He was being too rash.
Otto gawked. “Er. What…?”
Werner pulled himself away from Gilbert. “Gil, what are you talking about? You’ve been acting kind of different since this morning. Not knowing the ID thing and then talking about weird clothes…”
Otto glanced between them before his eyes widened and he stumbled back away from them. He lunged for Werner’s collar a moment later and pulled him back and away too. “Boss, it’s fucking VNW.”
“VNW…?” Werner stared at Gilbert then Atienna.
The look he gave her made Atienna feel as if the distance between them had increased exponentially.
“Oh, I am blowing this joint,” Otto grumbled, releasing Werner and heading towards the exit door. “I have a midterm for plant anatomy class next week and I cannot afford my head to be on cloud-nine. You should leave too, boss. Your head’ll get messed up if you hang out with VNWs.”
Otto was gone just a moment later. Werner was left looking on after him.
“Werner, that isn’t fucking Otto,” Gilbert insisted, grabbing Werner’s arm again. “Otto’s dead.”
Werner frowned back at him. “Why would you say something like that, Gil…? You really do have VNW…”
“What is VNW?” Atienna pressed, placing a hand on Werner’s arm and gently prying him from Gilbert’s grip. “What do you think VNW is, Werner?”
An expression of relief took over Werner’s expression at the freedom. He opened his mouth then shut it before placing a hand to his chin in thought. “I… probably would be really, really bad at explaining it. But that’s okay. When Nico comes home later, he can explain it to you.”
“Werner.” Gilbert held him by the arm—gently this time. “We have to stop a war. Whatever this is—it’s not… I don’t know. We can’t just wait around. We need to get back home—”
“Huh…?” Werner stared at him blankly. Then he asked, “What is… ‘war’?”
The next hour saw Atienna and the others to waiting at the front of the bakery while Werner busied himself with cleaning. Atienna offered to help with sweeping the floor, while Klaus offered to wipe the windows. It was busy work. A distraction, really. No matter time or place, it seemed as if routines always fell the same way.
Werner turned on the radio as they cleaned. Strange music again. Whenever the music amped up, Werner belted out into song and played air instruments. Klaus and Gilbert looked disturbed by the sight.
Other than that, it was silent.
Atienna knew Klaus and Gilbert were thinking about Otto. Carl on the other hand—Atienna assumes he was remaining silent out of respect.
The door to the bakery swung open half an hour after they finished cleaning. Nico—dressed in a beige brown uniform paired with a belt equipped with leather, dangling pockets—entered the store with a black cat—of all things—cradled in his arms. He smiled when he saw Werner but then scowled when he registered the rest of them.
Needless to say, it was a jarring expression to see on Nico’s face. Almost as jarring as seeing a smile on Werner’s.
“Fuck,” Gilbert swore under his breath from where he was seated. He’d been picking at the cake Werner had presented to him earlier. “Nic’s dressed like the officers we saw earlier…”
Carl grimaced beside him. His plate was empty.
Werner leapt to a stand from where he’d been organizing the cake displays and bounded over to Nico. He took the cat into his arms and pecked it on the cheek. “There’s my little man!” He swiveled around and held the cat out to Atienna and then Gilbert. “This is Kaiser! Meine king!”
“That’s Kaiser?” Gilbert held his head. “You were talking about a cat this entire time? A cat you fucking named ‘Kaiser’?”
The cat meowed.
“Yeah, because Kaiser’s my king!” Werner replied before glancing over at Nico. “And here’s my other king—” He drew Nico in close by the waist and pecked him right on the lips.
“Ah!” Gilbert let out a yelp as he leapt up from his seat. He jabbed a finger in their direction. “What the fuck! What the actual fu—”
Carl snapped up a second later and snarled. “Get your dirty lips off him, you Capricornian bastard!”
Atienna was only mildly surprised. She had seen dashes of Nico’s and Werner’s intimacy through their connection—though Werner hadn’t ever personally considered those shows of affection that. This was quite forward, however. She was not sure what to feel. This was something that she had hoped for Werner to achieve one day, but…
Nico arched a brow at them all and returned his attention back to Werner. “Vet says what I figured from the very beginning: Kaiser’s overweight—”
Werner gasped almost comically before putting his hands over the cats ears. “Liebling! How could you? You know meow man’s sensitive about that topic!”
“You did not just fucking call Nico ‘liebling.” Gilbert paled.
The cat—Kaiser—mreped in response.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re sensitive or not. The truth is the truth.” Nico rolled his neck and sighed before eyeing Atienna and Carl. “Why is everyone here? I thought you said she was coming tomorrow.”
“Nico…” Carl grimaced. “Don’t tell me your head is all fucked up too—”
“What did you say to me?” Nico glared.
Werner glanced between them. “Actually… Otto was saying that they might be suffering from VNW before he left. I found them in an alley all together and they didn’t have their IDs and—”
“What?” Nico stiffened. “All four of them?” He stares at Atienna. “Even her…?”
Werner locked eyes with Atienna and then nodded hesitantly.
Nico reached for his belt and pulled out a notepad and a pen. He nodded at Gilbert. “What’s your name, occupation, and what’s the date?”
“What?” Gilbert did a double-take. “Nico, you know what my name is. Not you too—”
“Answer the question.”
Gilbert took in a breath and then sighed. “Fine. First Lieutenant Gilbert Wolff of the Capricornian Army. Assigned to the capital before I went AWOL.” He points at Werner. “You’re Captain Werner Waltz, former member of the 212th Division of the Border Force before you were transferred to the capital too—”
“Border Force?” Werner interjected. “Oh—is that a new band?”
“What?” Gilbert sighed. “No!” He pointed at Nico. “You’re Nico Fabrizzio, underground doctor and combat medic for the 212th Division too before you moved with us.”
Werner stared at him, brows meeting. He looked concerned.
“As for the date?” Gilbert continued. “The paper’s say it’s fucking 1969, but last time I checked it was 1942.”
“Mhm. Personality shift and chronology confusion.” Nico scribbled down onto his notepad. “Hallmark signs. Probably in stage three or four.” He paused, glancing over at Werner with a frown. “Why didn’t you call me when you found them? Wait—how long have you been exposed to them?”
“What the hell is going on here?” Carl demanded before Werner could answer.
“Oh,” Nico answered nonchalantly, “You’re suffering from Von Neumann-Wigner Syndrome. Again.”
“You didn’t explain it to them, Werner?” Nico asked.
Werner scratched his head. “I figured you’d explain it to them better.”
Nico sighed. “Fine, Tesoro—”
“Tesoro?!” Carl recoiled.
Nico gave him an annoyed look. “Here’s the skinny—”
“The Von Neumann-Wigner Effect is a psychological condition,” Nico continued. “It’s a syndrome that can cause people who suffer from it to have mass delusions. We’re talking about creating alternate histories and identities. Dissociation. Delusions. Really detailed ones. It’s caused by the Tree and the atmosphere in certain areas of Ndoto. I won’t go into details. You’ll probably be overwhelmed.”
“I’m already pretty overwhelmed…” Klaus murmured.
“There are five stages,” Nico continued, ignoring him. “First: the germination stage. That’s when you start to feel sensations of deja vu, cloudy thoughts, confusion. Near the end of this stage you begin to experience historical amnesia.”
Atienna digested his words and placed a hand to her chin in thought.
“Second is the growth stage. That’s when you start to hear and see things that aren’t there. A common hallucination that people in this stage have is coughing up flowers. Third stage is flowering. That’s when you start to have delusions and dissociate from your identity. Oftentimes these delusions have real world basis. You might think that your neighbor is the leader of your country or the local newscaster is some political revolutionary. It all depends. Fourth stage is SF which is when these delusions solidify in your mind. Fifth stage is SD where you can start spreading VNW to others—though we don’t know exactly how yet.”
Atienna kept silent and began to study the others. Gilbert and Carl looked angry. Klaus looked confused.
“Long story short. Whoever you think you are and whatever is not real,” Nico spoke as if reciting from a textbook. “It’s a delusion caused by VNW. No, you’re not crazy. You’re just a little sick. It’s really common like the common cold or allergies. Stage five requires isolation or quarantine for the safety of others though. Thankfully, you can reverse VNW at any of the stages, so—”
“What?” Carl scoffed. “That’s a load of bull. You can’t be serious. You can’t think we’re that stupid.”
Werner and Nico stared at him before exchanging silent looks.
“It’s Scorpio,” Gilbert said. “It has to be. Or there’s another saint candidate—no, wait. This is an ELPIS thing.”
Nico scratched something down onto his notepad. “I’m assigning you to the Small Services to the Neighborhood District for treatment. You’ll receive new IDs, but they’ll be marked with restrictions since you have VNW. You’re to report in to the head doctor of the day. I’ll give you an informational packet first thing tomorrow morning. The doctor will take care of you—”
“Nico, you’re a doctor,” Carl said—insisted.
“No, I’m an officer with the Council of Guidance and Oversight,” Nico cut him off. “If I was a doctor then I’d be able to fix”—he thumbed Werner—“him.”
“Well, you did fix my broken heart,” Werner chimed, all smiles again.
“Read the room, Werner.” Nico held Werner’s gaze before sighing. “Anyways, that’s a good since your heart is the best thing about you.”
“Aw, do you mean that?”
“Oh my fucking saints.” Gilbert buried his head in his hands. “What the fuck is going on? I’m not fucking going anywhere. I am not fucking crazy.” He gestured around wildly. “This place is what’s fucking crazy. I’m dreaming. No—this—” He pointed at Werner. “They’ve fucked with Nico’s and Werner’s heads and turned Werner into a dumbass because they know he’s a strategist and—”
“What? Hey…” Werner frowned slightly. “That’s mean, Gil—”
Gilbert lifted his hand again. “Don’t call me Gil.”
“Oh… How about Bert?”
“What? That’s even fucking worse—”
“Gilbert,” Atienna tried, “let’s try to be calm about this—”
Nico slapped his pad down onto the table. “Sudden outbursts and warning signs for potentially violent behavior—I change my mind. I’m assigning you to quarantine and isolation immediately in the Small Services District.”
“Wait…” Werner glanced between Nico and Gilbert frowning. “I mean… they aren’t hurting anyone, Liebling. Do you really need to assign them to quarantine or isolation? Do they even have to go to the Small Services District? Only serious cases have to go there, right…?”
“If they’re a danger to the other citizens,” Nico replied, “then they need to be held and treated until they’re not a danger anymore.”
Werner pouted—a startling sight. “But, Liebling—”
A knock at the store door cut him off.
Nico moved to answer the door and began to converse in hushed whispers to whoever was standing there. Atienna tried to see who it was, but Nico was blocking visibility with his body. Werner appeared curious too because he approached the door with Kaiser in tow. His face immediately brightened—
“Shion! Is that you?”
Nico moved aside. Only then was Atienna able to see the person—the woman—standing in the doorway. It was the Sagittarian woman who had handed her the ID card. Werner put Kaiser on his shoulder and opened his arms wide before enveloping the woman in a hug.
Shion stiffened wide-eyed in his hold before an oddly pained and wistful expression took over her face. She returned the gesture and almost clung to him when he began to pull away. Atienna took note of it all.
“I haven’t seen you in a while! What brings you here?” Werner pressed. “Oh! Wait—you have really good timing! Nico and I were just—”
“I heard.” Shion offered small smile. “And that’s actually why I’m here.” She entered the store and studied them . Her gaze lingered on Atienna. “I’m… I guess you could call me Nico’s boss. I’m going to exempt you from reporting into the Small Services District temporarily. A lot of processes are changing. VNW naturally goes away on its own if affectees are continuously… shown the reality of things. So… no worries there.”
Nico scowled beside her and crossed his arms. He glared.
“Ma’am,” Gilbert began politely. He seemed to have calmed considerably. “Nico here is telling us that we have something called VNW and that basically everything we’ve gone through is just made up.”
“I know you’re very confused right now and angry… and maybe a bit afraid,” Shion said kindly, “but the best thing for you right now would be to go with the flow and take things as they come. Whether something is a delusion or not is up to the person who’s having the ‘delusion’, right? A person can be having a delusion and people outside of them might not even know it if they keep that to themselves.”
Atienna wondered what she was really implying.
“Delusions from VNW can sometimes be… really disturbing.” Shion gestured around them. “I think it would do everyone some good to enjoy the easy pace we have here. It couldn’t hurt. A cost-benefit analysis, right? What do you have to lose by staying here?”
Atienna looked over at Werner who was busy cradling Kaiser in his arms and scratching the cat’s belly. It seemed like Werner had checked out of the conversation entirely. She had never seen him this at ease before.
Atienna moved her attention to Gilbert, Carl, and Klaus. They seemed to be engaged in a wordless conversation. Gilbert finally looked over to her—for approval.
“We have a lot to lose actually,” Gilbert said flatly, “but we’ll play along with whatever this is. We’ll play.”
Shion nodded at him with a smile again. “You’ll have your IDs by the morning so you can travel freely—well, not freely. There will be some restrictions because of your VNW status. Speaking of which…” Shion turned to Atienna and held out her hand. “You have your ID, right? May I see it?”
Atienna hesitated. Her mind turned over different scenarios and ‘what if’s. What if this was real? What if this wasn’t? If it was the latter case, then nothing she did now would matter. If it was the former case…?
Atienna finally handed Shion her ID. Shion took it with a warm smile before reaching for her belt and pulling out a stamping device. She pressed it onto Atienna’s card and handed it back to her. Spelled out across her ID in big bold letters was—
“We’ll keep in touch, Atienna,” Shion said before departing. “I promise.”
Nico continued to glare at them all after Shion left. There was tension in the air. Nico clearly didn’t want them there. Werner, on the other hand—
“You can stay with us for now, if you want,” Werner said, scratching Kaiser’s head. “I actually have a lot of food stockpiled for tomorrow since Caddy is swinging by and you guys technically don’t know where you live, right—”
Nico whipped around. “Are you kidding me? You want them to stay here? They’re VNWs—”
“Yeah, why not?” Werner replied. “You know what they say, Liebling.”
“And what do they say?” Nico squinted.
“They say…” Werner paused, looking back at him. “…‘you know what they say’… don’t they?” He cocks his head again. “Isn’t that the saying…?”
“I think maybe you mean ‘the more the merrier’, Captain?” Klaus suggested faintly.
Werner perked up and then claps. “Oh—that’s a good one, Klaus! You don’t have to call me captain, by the way. Just Werner is good.”
Dinner took place in the dining room on the upper floor of the building. The room had strange wallpaper—it was faded green and spotted with bright daisies. The dining table was wooden and round. The lighting was warm. There were photos of Werner and Nico hanging on the walls. There was a photo with Werner and Nico holding hands in front of a white altar; a photo of Werner dressed in a leather jacket, crouched in front of an odd-looking metallic bike, and surrounded a handful of other men and women dressed similarly perched around him; a photo of Nico standing in his uniform beside Shion in front of a rustic building. Atienna spotted Otto, Gilbert, and several other members of Werner’s old unit among the photos. Everyone was smiling.
The room was small but it felt full.
“J-man took those for us,” Werner informed her when he found her staring. “He’s really good, isn’t he? You remember J-man, don’t you?”
He ended up serving them an avalanche of pasta with white sauce paired with a fruity red wine. He chattered animatedly, unabashedly throughout the entire meal about seemingly whatever topic crossed his mind. He oftentimes more than not was corrected by Nico, Klaus, or Gilbert. His confident statements about staying safe during a thunderstorm by standing under a pole or a tree and screaming and charging when facing one in the wild bear were simultaneously alarming and amusing. He took the corrections with earnest stride, however, and paired them with complements like “Oh, is that how it is? You’re so smart, Klaus!” or “Woah, you’re so cool, Gil!”
Atienna knew these are things that he had always thought but had never said. These were things she had always hoped he would say. Which in itself was quite troubling…
The meal ended with a sweet slice of strawberry cake.
Afterwards, Werner showed them to the two rooms that they’d be sleeping in. One room for Carl, Gilbert, and Klaus and one room for Atienna herself. They were both small and Atienna could tell they were more used for storage than anything else. She deduced that one of them—the one she was to stay in—was actually Kaiser’s play room because there were random cat toys scattered around inside. That and Kaiser hissed at her as she entered.
“If you guys get spooked or anything because of the VNW or whatever,” Werner said earnestly before he left them, “you can come to our room. It’s just down the hall. Nico might be a little grump
Atienna watched with Gilbert, Klaus, and Carl as he departed down the hall.
“I did not need to know those two shared a room,” Carl grumbled once he was out of ear shot. He jerked his chin at Gilbert. “So what now, soldier?”
“I’m too tired right now to have a long talk,” Gilbert said to them before retiring to his room. “We discuss first thing tomorrow morning. Assuming we wake up in this hell land instead of the real world.”
Atienna did not fall asleep that night. She instead spent the time taking in the details of the room. There was cat-themed paraphernalia everywhere—cat posters on the wall, little paw print stickers on the ceiling. It was cute and endearing, really, and it gave her an odd sense of security. But… she still couldn’t fall asleep.
She wondered if she would wake back up in Francis’s room after she drifted off. She wanted to return to that familiar place, but she was also afraid to. It was a curious feeling. In this dream-like place, Werner smiled easily, Gilbert had his hand back, Otto was alive, Chiamaka was self-satisfied. In reality, those things did not exist. Unless… this was reality and that other place was a nightmare.
Oh—what a dangerous thought.
In the end, Atienna picked herself out of bed and headed downstairs. There she found Werner busily washing dishes in the sink beneath the bright v-lights. He was humming a tune absentmindedly to himself and seemed very satisfied with his task.
Atienna tapped his shoulder, and he jumped back with a loud yelp.1 He was wearing his sunglasses again, so she couldn’t see the surprise in his eyes. Odd time to be wearing it.
He broke out into a smile when he recognized her. “Oh, Atienna. You scared me there. Can’t sleep—”
“Werner.” Atienna pulled off his sunglasses. She then reached out and held his face and searched his eyes—searching for that sturdiness, that cold sense of duty, that gentle strength she had come to rely on.
Werner put his bubble-coated hands over hers. “Atienna.”
Are you there? Is this real?
The sink water roared in the background.
The soap suds plopped onto the ground.
There was silence.
Werner chuckled. “Is this a staring contest?”
a/n: no special utopialt thing this chapter but there is a sepcial footnote that you can check out if you find it in this chapter!! also sorry for any tense switching in these past two chapters. I tend to write faster in present tense so I do that when I need to get a chapter out & then edit it back to past tense when I’m done. I tend to miss things orz