The tent had a familiar layout. Along the walls of the tent were small narrow tables with radios and documents placed onto them. A large and long table occupied the center. It was covered with numerous maps with locations marked with numerous words, circles, and x’s. At the table stood a singular man.
Werner recognized Major Ersatz immediately. Ersatz was a heavyset man with a receding, graying hairline and deep black eyes. The Capricornian cold had reddened his cheeks and forehead but it had yet to freeze off his seemingly constant smile. His medals gleamed at the front of his uniform.
“Sir,” the Captain cleared his throat as he came to a stop in front of the table. He paused, gesturing to Werner who stood just behind him. “Here is First Lieutenant Waltz.”
“Good to see you, First Lieutenant.” Ersatz said as he offered Werner his hand. “Your performance on this past skirmish is to be praised, and I’m glad you’ve made a recovery from that accident I overheard you suffering.”
“Thank you, sir,” Werner responded, accepting this gesture. He wanted to say that his accomplishments were due in most part to the squadron that served under him. However, a soft voice whispered this in the back of his mind: a step closer to a rung up the ladder. Appearances, Werner, appearances.
Ersatz merely smiled in response before glanced over Werner’s shoulder at the Captain. “If you would let me have a word in private with your lieutenant.”
The Captain glanced at Werner before nodding and departing.
“I hear that they’ve been calling you ‘Cold Eye’ out here. In part due to your accuracy with your conductor and your complete lack of hesitation. They even say you never have missed a mark.” Ersatz mused once the Captain had left. He stroked his beard. “That’s something to be proud of, Werner.”
“I received word that there has been trouble with the Watch, sir,” Werner said.
“Yes, so I’ve heard.” Ersatz sighed. “There seems to be outside intervention. It’s quite unfortunate… however, the damage has been done as expected.”
“But you needn’t worry yourself over that at the moment.” Ersatz leaned forward onto the table. He tapped at a town that was marked on the map. A town that bordered their country and Aquarius. “As expected, the Ophiucians have caught word of our conflict with the Aquarians. They’ve sent down peacekeepers to handle the dispute. Knowing them, they’ll surely side with the Aquarians.”
Ersatz slammed his fist against the table. It was an abrupt action but Werner did not allow himself to flinch.
“As if they have any right to! That vitae reservoir is rightly ours.” Ersatz spat. His cheeks were beet red now. “The Aquarians have an endless supply of reservoirs right within their borders. At the end of Reservoir War, the treaty clearly drew lines placing that reservoir within our boundaries. It’s been that way for years. And yet here they come in dipping into like they own it. It’s only right for us to defend ourselves! Not to mention those damn Sagittarians — saying things like we’re the ones dragging them into this. They’re the ones getting in the way!”
Ersatz let out a sigh and straightened himself.
“Anyways, the Ophiuciucian agents have sent a request for a representative from the battlefield from both sides to meet them in Gradstal near the reservoir.”
“A representative?” Werner repeated. “Will an official be coming down from the capital?”
“No, they’ve requested that we send someone who has been personally involved with this ‘dispute’ to attend.” Ersatz raised a brow. “In other words, they don’t want to make this international incident an official one. Like always, they want to sweep it under the rug.”
To keep an appearance of peace.
“I would like for you to be the representative, Werner.”
This gave Werner pause.
“Is there a problem, Lieutenant Waltz?”
“With all due respect,” Werner drew. “I believe Captain Weingartner would be the better choice for this. Not only is he of higher rank, but he also has dealt with Ophiucian agents before.”
“Werner, you think too lowly of yourself. Rank does not mean everything.” Ersatz gave a hearty laugh. “For instance, just because I am a Major doesn’t mean that I know of the hardships of battle as you do. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. While I know of strategy and plans, that does not mean that I know the toll it takes on a soldier to constantly be taking lives. The hesitation one must go through—”
“There is no hesitation, sir,” Werner replied. “As you’ve said yourself, that is why I’ve been named Cold Eye.”
“Good.” Ersatz popped. “Then there should be no hesitation for you to take this task.”
“If you assign it to me, I will do it,” Werner replied.
“Good.” Ersatz sighed as if in relief. He folded his hands behind his back and peered down into the map. “I also want you to eliminate any Aquarian pockets you find along the way.”
Werner did not pause at this, but Ersatz provided clarification regardless:
“They are on our side of the border without permission, and they are acting with aggression. We must defend our people.” Ersatz paused only to run his finger in a circle around a particular spot on the map. The reservoir. “The meeting is in three days, so it’d be best if you departed as soon as possible.”
By noon Werner had selected his group. He had weighed all the candidates in his squadron with care, mindfully noting all strengths and weaknesses. After parsing through all of the possible combinations, he had come up with what he viewed as a well-functioning team.
They stood before him now straight-backed and at attention at the mouth of their encampment. Passing soldiers eyed them. Werner was also eyeing the line up he’d chosen. As he passed them by, he surveyed them and went over his reasoning for choosing them once more.
The first he had chosen was, of course, Gilbert. Gilbert was a fine marksman, after all. An exceptional externalist Conductor.
The next was Wilhelm Fischer. The eager private. An externalist. Unlike many other externalist, he had chosen to train using melee conductors. A longsword. Like the olden days. Gilbert thought he made the odd choice because he wanted to stand out which Gilbert thought was a foolish thing to choose to do on the battlefield.
Alwin Brandt was Werner’s third choice. Alwin had been transferred into their unit two weeks prior — just before the initial incident — but had adapted to 278th squadron life rather quickly. He was a combat nurse with a light-hearted demeanor that made even the jaded Derik Stein warm to him quickly. Although Alwin was a transmutationist with conducting abilities not suited for combat, he was a quick thinker and quicker with a plain pistol.
The jaded Derek Stein was Werner’s fourth choice. He threw around the sentence, “It’s no use getting to know a newbie — not unless they lasted two weeks,” like it was his catch-phrase and was one of the few soldiers in the squadron able to look Werner in the eye.
His fifth choice was Emilia Fleischer. A rare elementalist. Specialty: earth. Unfortunately, she was not adept at extraneous vitae manipulation and required physical contact with the element to manipulate the vitae particles within it. Regardless, her rare skill was useful.
Werner’s sixth choice, Klaus Klein, was a conjuror Conductor who would rather bury his head in a book than scope out the battlefield. Perhaps it was the ability to immerse himself in his stories that he was able to conjure to such an exact degree. His range of conjuring was limited only by his inability to think and act under pressure. Which was another reason why Alwin was on board.
Next: Brunhilde Falk. Externalist. Rarely spoke. Skilled markswoman. Also able to look him in the eye.
His last and final choice was Otto Vogt. The boy who played soldier. The one who had disobeyed orders on that watery overpass. The one who had run from the trigger. He too was an externalist Conductor.
In front of Otto, Werner came to a stop. In turn, Otto tensed. Their eyes met. Otto looked away. Swallowed. Remaining silent, Werner observed him. The silence stretched on.
“I-I’m very sorry for what happened, sir,” Otto finally stammered. “I-I’m really glad that you’re alright… I… It was all my fault that you were—”
“I’m aware,” Werner interjected, “who is at fault.”
Otto stiffened. “I…”
“You will be dishonorably discharged,” Werner stated the finality clearly, loudly. “If you do not display the appropriate behaviors on this mission.”
Heads turned in their direction. Otto shrank deeper inside of himself.
“You are lucky that I haven’t requested your discharge already, Private Vogt.” Werner continued. “This is your last chance.” He paused to allow the reality of his words to sink in. “I understand that the military stipend helps to provide for your family.” Werner paused again. “If you do not want to disappoint them, then do not disappoint me.”
Otto’s lips trembled and parted, but no words came out.
Turning away from him, Werner addressed the rest of his men: “Gather your things. We will depart in three hours.”
How cruel, came a sudden thought as he watched all but Gilbert make their way back to their respective tents. Fear is a teacher but not a good one.
It was for his own good, Werner argued back. Otto’s skills would be wasted if he didn’t change. And if he didn’t change, he would also be a danger to himself and his comrades. There was no room for error or weakness in the field.
Then why not say that, to begin with?
I…, Werner began to respond before a cold and creeping realization dawned on him. Why in the world was he arguing with himself? No. The voice resounding in his head was not his own. Was it?
A sharp, pulsating pang struck his temple and began to spread to his forehead. Despite using all of his strength, he could not resist pinching the bridge of his nose. The world blurred. Colors bled into sound into smell into touch.
A train horn bellowed in the distance. A piano chord was struck. Oil and soot. The smell of worn, leather books. Ringing, musical laughter. A crack of heat.
Straighten, Werner told himself through the confusion, appearances are everything. And so, with great effort, Werner did as he ordered himself to.
The world snapped back into place slowly. The gray clouds passing overhead. The slap of leather boots against the wet earth. The men and women sitting silently in front of their tents. And Gilbert who still stood at his side. GiIlbert who was regarding him with a frown but who said nothing.
At dusk, they set off.