The first vitae ray that took a life had come from a conducting äußerer Blitz 43 rifle. The release of an externalist’s conducted vitae was usually deafening even in the midst of the battlefield, but the ray that came from the barrel had been soundless. The man’s name tag had read Anton. He was young and thin, and he did not even scream. The next one was Ivan. The one after that Lucas. Names faded. So did feeling.
Remorse never shown. Orders never doubted. Here, things like morals held little value and little meaning. Here, appearances nothing yet everything —
But where was ‘here’ was the question.
Perhaps, ‘here’ was death.
But here could not possibly be death because ‘here’ he could think. Therefore, ‘here’ could be nowhere else but alive. A simple process of elimination.
As if to answer his question, a fuzzy silhouette passed by a dull yellow backdrop right before his eyes. A yellow light. He reached for it and pulled at it until he surfaced in a small room with peeling walls. A singular v-bulb swung above his head. A ragged curtain was drawn to his left. A young woman stood in front of the curtain and tended to a metal cart piled high with metal tools. Conductors. A white bonnet was tied around her mousy brown hair, and red crosses were just barely visible on the lapels of her blouse.
“Greta.” Werner identified. He clenched his fists and felt the rub of his gloves against his skin. They hadn’t taken them off. Good.
The nurse turned, and her eyes lit up with relief. “Werner, you’re awake!” She slipped her head outside of the curtains and seemed to call for someone. Shortly after, she pulled back in and walked over to his bedside. “How are you feeling? You were grazed by an externalist’s conductor. I did my best, but…”
Werner brought himself up to a sit. “I’m fine, Greta. Thank you.”
A throb at his shoulder gave him pause, but he pulled through it without so much as a grimace. His shoulder was exposed to the cold air. A splotch of skin there was shiny and was a paler shade than the rest of his skin.
“You need to rest, Werner!” Greta urged as she hovered over him, hands not quite touching. “I healed your injury the best I could but I could’ve missed something.”
Greta was a skilled specialist. Her knowledge of the human body and deep understanding of how vitae particles affected it and her affinity for vitae had shot her skyward at the military academy. She passed her State Conducting Exam with flying colors but failed terribly at the military interviews which was why she found herself at her current post. A medical nurse serving on the eastern border. Wasted talent. It just went to show how important appearances were. Even if one had skill, if one did not have demeanor or appearance paired with it, it was all meaningless.
“Like I stated before. I am fine, Greta. Your work is always exceptional.” Werner returned. “I need to give a report to the Captain. When will I be able to leave?”
She took an uncertain step back. Leave…? But…”
“That’s the first thing you say to someone you haven’t seen in over a year, Werner?” Gilbert stood arms crossed across from him now. The curtain was still billowing behind him from his entrance.
Gilbert was a man of average stature. He stood a head shorter than Werner and had spiked brown hair that was barely tamed beneath his military cap. His jaw was square, his eyes gray, his brows thick. His smile, canine as always. His dull, dark periwinkle military uniform was caked with dirt and mud. At his waist was his conducting rifle, which looked in need of cleaning.
“Gilbert,” Werner said. He was somewhat surprised. But he pressed, “What happened?”
“With the battle?” Gilbert quirked a brow. “Well, it was a success. The Aquarians were annihilated. The one that…” He eyed Werner’s shoulder. “… did that to you escaped and headed down to where we were. Shot dead on sight.” He clicked his tongue and kicked the dirt floor. It was slick with rain and so it sent mud flying everywhere. “Lucky bastard.”
“I see. Good.” Werner nodded. He watched Greta walk over to her metal cart. She crouched to reach for something on one of the lower shelves. When she stood, she was holding his uniform. Neatly folded.
“Yeah.” Gilbert scoffed. “Now we’re what? Closer to that tiny little vitae reservoir? If you can even call it that.”
“Gilbert,” Werner said warningly. He accepted his uniform from Greta and nodded. “Thank you, Greta.”
She pulled back with a shy smile and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe all three of us are standing in the same room again. It feels like it’s been forever.”
Gilbert chuckled. “Yeah, the old crew is back together. Say, how’s our resident medical professional doing then?”
Greta looked downcast suddenly, but she covered the expression with a brush of her hair. “Well, I’m nothing special.”
“You are serving your country to the best of your capabilities, Greta.” Werner replied. “You should be proud.” He came to a stand. “Would you fetch the head medical officer for me? I would like to see if I could be discharged.”
“But…” Greta looked a bit startled. When she met his eyes, she glanced away. “Oh, of course. I can’t keep officers away from the field, after all.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you to change then.” And with that, she swept outside.
Gilbert was left staring at him with a frown. “Way to ruin a reunion.”
“This is not the time for reunions, Second Lieutenant Kraus.”
In response, Gilbert rolled his eyes and headed for the curtain with a half-hearted wave.
Only when Gilbert completely disappeared from his sights did Werner allow himself to cradle his throbbing head in pain. He stumbled forward, grabbing the medical cart for support. His reflection on its gray surface was foreign to him. His face looked several shades to pale, his features too sharp. His hair looked too light. And his eyes looked as if they should have been brown or green or black instead of blue.
“You finished yet, Werner?” Gilbert’s voice came from behind the drawn curtain.
Werner took in a deep and straightened himself. He put on his uniform and took care to smooth out all the creases before dusting off all of his medals. He finished it off by combing back his hair, putting on his military cap, and straightening his gloves.
Bodies lined the halls. Men on gurneys pressed up against one another. Men in casts and slings curled up against walls. Some groaned. Some cried.
Gilbert winced as he passed a soldier missing an arm and a leg. The medical Conductors could not get to them fast enough, it seemed. Werner did not look at any of them. There was nothing he could do for them now, after all. Nothing at all.
The head medical officer who was busy running up and down the halls cleared him. Greta’s work was exceptional.
“Can’t keep you away from the battlefield, can I, Waltz?” The doctor smiled good-naturedly before signing off the forms. The doctor looked him up and down in thought as he asked the question as if he was trying to diagnose something he could not identify.
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to imply. To serve is my duty.” Werner responded coolly. “Nothing more. Nothing less. You should know this. It should be the same for you.”
The doctor stiffened under his gaze. “Right…”
“His personal motto,” Gilbert provided.
“Oh, by the way, Lieutenant Waltz,” the doctor said just before signing the last paper. “You received a call while you were being treated from an… Officer Kortz? They said to tell you that there has been a complication with the Watch and asked you to see the Major.”
Werner frowned. He clenched his fist but then dispelled the motion with a flick of his wrist. “I see. Thank you for telling me.”
When the doctor left, Gilbert turned to Werner with a raised brow. “What was that about?”
Without looking at him, Werner responded, “That is classified, Second Lieutenant.”
Gilbert sighed. “Some way to treat a childhood friend.”
As they passed through the entrance of the hospital, Greta bid them a somewhat coy farewell: “I hope I don’t see you again before this is over.”
A medical Conductor — a medical professional — saying that she’d hoped to see a patient again would be inappropriate. Especially in the midst of battle. It was one of the times “see you soon” carried a negative connotation.
Their camp was one that was tucked away in the deep recesses of the woods just behind the hospital. At the location, the slender trees of the forest had begun to thicken. They formed a crescent shape around a large slab of rock that jutted up from the muddy ground. Tents dotted the clearing in between the rock and trees. Out from these tents rushed men and women — all in uniform, all with conductors hanging at their hips or slung across their backs. Other uniformed men and women hung out on the recesses of the camp. Chattering, laughing, listening, staring listlessly into the distance.
As Werner and Gilbert drew close, however, the cheering and laughing sobered immediately. The atmosphere chilled; the air thinned. The cold air of Capricornian winters seemed to be riding on Werner’s shoulders, and it froze those who he passed by in place. Those who could move offered straight-backed salutes.
Werner was aware of the effect he had on his men. It was this unyielding frigid presence that allowed him to command without question.
“Glad to see you’ve recovered, First Lieutenant.” One of the men said. He broke off from the group of soldiers he was hanging with and offered a stiff salute.
It was Private Fischer. A new recruit who had passed his State Conductor Test with an average score. What he lacked in skill, however, he made up for in dedication and passion. Truly, there was no soldier more loyal to Capricorn than he.
Werner said nothing, merely nodding at him.
“With all due respect, Lieutenant,” Fischer continued, “I think that Private Otto Vogt should be immediately discharged from service. It was because he failed to obey orders that–”
“Private Fischer,” Werner interjected. “You should be more concerned with your own performance. By saying these things, are you implying that I’m not aware of my own men?”
“Er, sir, of not course.” Fischer cleared his throat. “I meant no disrespect.”
Werner said nothing again. With that, he and Gilbert continued on their path to the tent.
“Can’t believe you like that jerk.” Gilbert scoffed not before Fischer was out of hearing distance. The bill of his cap was dipped low but his frown was still evident.
“Like is not the appropriate word here,” Werner informed him coolly. “Fischer has shown himself to be an exemplary soldier. There were discussions of awarding him an Iron Horn.”
“Well, good for him. Give him a damn medal.” Gilbert scoffed sarcastically. He paused and then thought over his words. “Don’t say anything.”
Werner didn’t, and so they headed for the large tent closest to the large slab of rock. Heads perked and stiffened as they passed. Whispers followed their footsteps.
As they walked on, sweat began to build on the back of Werner’s neck. He had been doing a lot of legwork, after all. It was a sizeable distance through frosted-over sludge from the hospital to this camp. He’d ventured through worse, however, and found his internal complaints unfitting.
He made to remove his military cap but stopped short as realization crept upon him. The heat he felt did not seem to come from his own body. Rather, it felt as if the heat was beating down on him from the sun.
A quick glance up, however, told him that that was not possible. The sun was hidden away by a thicket of clouds. Another quick side glance at a shivering Gilbert told Werner that he was alone in feeling such sensations.
He attempted to calm himself, to not allow his confusion to show on his face.
The pounding in his temple returned full-force abruptly, and a gut-twisting nausea punched him right in the stomach. It took all of his energy to keep his back straight and trudge forward. Foot after foot, foot after foot.
Keep up appearances. Appearances were everything. But what was wrong with him? A fever? Was there a chance that the medical officer had missed something in his medical evaluation? No. It was Greta who had healed him, after all. But there was still a chance that something might have slipped from her attention when healing him. And nothing — Werner knew — could be left to chance.
Because of all of these sensations, it took him a beat to realize that Gilbert was staring at him.
Werner stared back. “What is it?”
And just like that the nausea and headache were gone. The heat that had been wrapping around him like a blanket blinked out of existence leaving only the biting cold. As if it were never there in the first place.
The sensation left Werner feeling hollow. Empty.
“What do you mean ‘what is it’?” Gilbert recoiled. “You just said ‘Who the hell is Werner’ just now.”
Werner blinked out of his stupor and frowned at him. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Gilbert.”
“I’m not joking.” Gilbert snapped before he pulled back and gave Werner a once over. “You sure you shouldn’t have rested in the hospital a little bit more? Y’know most of the men would make excuses to stay there. Not to leave.”
Werner noticed the worry carved into Gilbert’s raised brow, noticed the opportunity for a change in conversation. “Battles aren’t won by resting in hospitals, Lieutenant.” He paused as they reached the tent. “I’d like to hear about these men who are opting for unneeded stays at the hospital.”
Gilbert’s brows furrowed with annoyance but before he could say anything a dark head appeared out from the flaps of the tent.
“Oh, there you are, Werner.” Captain Weingartner noted in surprise.
Captain Weingartner looked as if he could have been a school teacher. A professor, even — such a thought came to Werner suddenly and strangely.
Weingartner’s hair was peppered hair was peppered with frost. His cheeks were hollow and his eyes sunken but his eyes themselves were warm and brown. Perhaps he had been a teacher before being drafted–
But there was no use in thinking about those matters now. Why was he even thinking of such trivial things?
Werner stood at attention. Gilbert followed suit albeit with less enthusiasm.
“I’m here to give my report, sir,” Werner said. “I was also informed to report to the Major.”
“Oh yes, good to see you both. The Major came so suddenly I didn’t think you’d be out of the hospital fast enough to meet him.” The Captain muttered before he motioned into the tent with his head. “Well, come along now.” He paused and glanced at Gilbert and then added: “Just the First Lieutenant.”
Subtly straightening his uniform, Werner followed the Captain inside.