- October 1st, 1925
The day was crisp, bright, and unusually warm for an early October morning. Energetic and anxious to be about, the south ward’s residents streamed through the cobblestone streets, greeting each other amiably as they each went their separate ways. Housemaids flung brilliant white sheets from the windows to air in the stiff breeze, children squealed as they chased each other towards school, delivery men trundled steadily behind their carts, and vendors hawking news, coffee and chestnuts flocked the sidewalks. The city filled its lungs deeply with the sounds, smells, and sights of human activity. It was alive.
Apart from it all, Wellsby watched from the dusty panes of his row house apartment’s window. He perched on the edge of his aluminum-frame bed, his gaze transfixed by the movement coursing through the streets below. But even though he stared intently at the human creatures which, to him, resembled bacterium for all their distance and short, sporadic presences, he remained oblivious to the existence of the city around him.
He sat alone, shoulders hunched over his bony ribs, with his prematurely gray hair drooping past his collar. Surrounding him were stained sheets, strewn pieces of clothing, piles of books and crumpled papers, and dozens of empty, sour-smelling alcohol bottles that littered the room. The walls were etched with the scrabbling of madness: shakily drawn transmutation circles scrawled with a feverish hand in white and red chalk, smudged or blotched out completely here or there at random. Several strands of twine were strung across the ceiling, and a series of newspaper clippings dangled from the lines. Each headline and every faded, black and white photograph focused on a single individual: Doctor Meisner Bosch, the “Quantum Alchemist,” state researcher, the one making computational headway into the field of matrixes, the one rallying students to lobby for democracy. Philanthropist. Idealist. Genius. A breeze caused the clippings above him to flutter back and forth, and Wellsby shuddered, almost imperceptibly.
On the dressing table next to him, meticulously arranged, was a pair or wire-rimmed spectacles, three bottles of pills in each color of glass: brown, green, and blue, and a state-issued pocket watch, its glass smashed in and permanently rendered nonfunctional by the revocation of Wellsby’s State Alchemist license. Yet it continued to tick, deluding itself, the only sound in the still room. Soft yellow light from the street pierced through cobwebs and refracted off the edges of the medicine bottles, causing a prism of color to dance across the surface of an opened letter. The paper was carefully pressed, smoothed over after being reread countless times; its contents poured over until they were practically memorized.
In between Wellsby’s hands was a gun.
"To Mr. Wellsby,
It has come to the attention of the organization,” the letter began, “That while your skills as an alchemist are commendable, they are not above par. The organization has assessed this to be true over the last few months. As you are an individual of upmost rationality, we assume you yourself to be aware of the fact that your skills have been tried and subsequently found wanting. Thus, your fall from grace was both inevitable and irrevocable, and the chance to regain your license now null..."
“However, the organization has deemed your position to be uniquely advantageous to one chief end: Namely, the incapacitation of Doctor Meisner Bosch, of whom you were no doubt once acquainted with as his former colleague.”
The next phrases had blurred in his mind, running together in some masterful, treacherous narrative that involved the words “attention,” “political stirrings,” “anarchy,” “threat,” and “certain measures.” But what was clear to him were the last lines provided by the letter:
“We are confident that you will take careful consideration of the risks involved, and calculate the best means to dispose of this corrupting menace before he has further chance to pollute the minds of aspiring alchemists and the public. The future is uncertain, but your service to your country will be rewarded. We assure you that your name will be known, even if in infamy. We trust that you act decisively, discretely, and tell no one of your mission, for it is of the utmost importance.
Long live truth.
The letter’s intentions were obvious. Wellsby knew it was nothing more than a grand, pretentious attempt at coercion. The envelop had been placed underneath a revolver: the one he know contemplated lightly in his hand, but there had been no other sign of anyone entering his apartment. It was a display of force. While Wellsby was unsure of how the apparently omniscient “organization” had managed to gather such detailed information on his life and whereabouts, he knew one thing, and that was that whoever “they” were wanted him as a hitman: Someone who would take the fall after taking out Meisner.
Strangely, the proposal appealed to him.
His immediate reaction after registering the gun’s purpose in his brain had been to turn the implement towards that same organ and pull the trigger: to end it all in a brilliant pattern of fleshy matter embossed upon the transmutation circles on the wall. Such a death would have served as the perfect irony of his life, he had thought. But four words stuck in his consciousness and refused to be quieted, repeating themselves over and over again in a sober, determined refrain: “even in infamy.”
He would never—and never could—be Meisner. No... but he could be Meisner’s end. And the more he had turned the proposition over in his mind, the more he had come to see the perfect formulation of events, generously falling into his lap in miraculous array. He had framed it all in delicately pictured detail:
“Meisner Bosch, killed by former rival,” the heading would read. And the article would go on to tell of how the assassin, a promising former state researcher in the field of neuromatrixes, had become embittered after the military had stolen back his rightful title and had deemed him below his bitter opponent: Meisner. The cursed, damned, genius Meisner. Instrument of his downfall. The front-page article would continue, highlighting the fact that Meisner had been loved by all, and how he had met his end doing what he most loved: advocating for a freer world. And beneath it all would run the countercurrent of another name: His own.
“Max Wellsby,” the one who pulled the trigger. “Max Wellsby,” the one who threw everything away in a singular moment of passion. They would never think to question his motives, and it would not matter. He would do the deed, and he would die. Tonight. He told himself. It would happen tonight.
Wellsby, finally spurred into action by this resolve, pushed himself to his feet and again checked the revolver’s cylinder, hammer and barrel, running his fingers over the cool steel as he ensured that all was operating smoothly. For a moment he stood in front of the mirror that hung above the dresser, and noticed with dismay that his gaunt, pale expression betrayed the trappings of obsession. He began to order his appearance, tying back his hair, polishing his spectacles, and scrubbing at the dark shadows beneath his eyes. His clothes, larger than they had been a few weeks ago, draped even more limply on his thin frame, and he forced a grim smile at himself.
He had never killed a man before. He had never even considered it. But now it seemed so easy. He would end Meisner, even if he ended himself in the process. He was already a ghost. What was one more nail in the coffin? His name would be known, even if in infamy.
In one final gesture, Wellsby held up the revolver to the mirror, pointing it at his own chest, and pulled the trigger. The pin snapped against the empty air of the cylinder, but even if the bullet had been tangible, he doubted he would have felt it.
"Daniel Ravenkraft vs Edwin Balding." The crowd jeered when the two stepped upon the metallic piste, two men cladded in white with black mask tucked beneath their arms. He watched his new opponent, a man of equal height yet opposite skin, salute him. Daniel returned the pleasantry and both fencers put their mask on.
Daniel took his position. A perpendicular stance with his feet shoulder width apart. His legs were bent and sword arm parallel to the floor with a fist's distance between his elbow and body. Meanwhile his left hand rested at his hip.
He breathed deeply. Darkness engulfed the gymnasium, smothering the loud cheers and shouts. The metallic strip shined brightly and only the referee words, a whisper, boomed from the abysmal world.
Daniel bursted forward in an aggressive advance, meeting his opponent at the center of the strip. He took a step forward, extending his arm quickly. Edwin answered with a swift parry, crossing four to six, bringing the blade across his chest. Daniel's fingers worked meticulously, swinging the tip of his weapon beneath Edwin's own guard before kicking forward - his front foot shooting outwards with immense power yet touched the earth gently. Daniel melted into a lunge from the disengage.
They returned to their respective starting points and entered En Garde. At the referee's boom, Daniel took a stationary stance - allowing his opponent to gain an advantageous amount of the strip. Edwin's blade searched for an opening, but failed to come into measure when Daniel jolted backwards. His retreat was graceful. The Ishvalan swordsman took his opponent's blade out of line with a passion filled beat, and followed with a flick - his strong fingers sending the tip of his sword over the opponent's weapon and into the bend of Edwin's elbow.
Daniel could feel the vibration of steel crossing steel. No matter how hot the water was in the team washroom, he could feel the heaviness of the chord pulling him backwards. The resistance of his advances and the power of the blade pushing against his. Another victory - which meant nothing. Modern competitions were made for the enjoyment of the spectator rather than the actual swordsman. Rules and regulations which mattered little in an actual duel. He would never forget the duels of his childhood, the feeling of life and death. The slightest mistake would result in death, or worst. Daniel turned off the water and dried his muscular toned body. The light shined against his ebony skin, a gift from his lineage of Ishval. He ran his hands through his wet Mohawk, tipped with orange dye to mimic the flames of his heart. Daniel dressed himself in a black tank top and sweatpants - his upper body covered in a white hooded sweater. He placed his plastic weapons in his weapon bag and carried his equipment in a different duffle bag.
"Looks like I have a bit of time left to grab something to eat before my next lecture." Daniel whispered. He put his glasses on and left the locker room. The gymnasium, not empty, was quite large when unoccupied. His footsteps seemed to echo onwards forever and the tune he whispered was amplified by the acoustics.
"Hey Daniel, congratulations!" A girl called out.
"T-thank you." He stuttered, quickly walking in the opposite direction - his face overwhelmed with a cherry hue. Daniel continued down the hallway towards his next class. He was interrupted by a tall, lanky redhead, whose very posture as he leaned against the wall suggested sneering nonchalance.
"You shouldn't let girls do that to you," Jacques said, having noticed Daniel's reaction towards his female fan, "After all, she's just another pretty face." Jacques studied Daniel's expression, as if expecting a response, before he unfolded his arms and, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket, fell into step beside his friend. Aside from the books tucked under his arm, which he seemed to treat as mere accessories to his impeccably effortless attire, there was nothing to suggest that Jacques was a fellow student at Central University. He sauntered along with all the casual confidence of a street-goer in-the-know, out for a night's stroll on the town. Yet he nodded respectfully as they passed one of the faculty in the hall, aware of the correlation between good grades and an obsequious demeanor.
"Edwin Balding, from East City," he stated, apparently oblivious to the fact that Daniel had yet to contribute to the conversation. "A skilled fencer but no match for Central's own, of course," Jacques said as he clapped a hand on Daniel's shoulder, casting a sly glance in his direction. "Perhaps we'll see him at the meeting tonight?" he asked, by which of course he meant, "Perhaps we'll see you there tonight?"
Daniel jumped from the sudden slap on his back, disregarding the previous comments from the smooth talking Jacques. "Meeting?" Daniel asked his freshly dressed friend. "First time I'm hearing about it." Despite the aggravated look on his face, something he seems to always have, Daniel felt sort of relieved that his only friend was there. The isolated lifestyle the fencer tried to enjoy at school was nice, but even he needed companionship. And what better person than someone like Jacques? Who, despite their rather obvious differences, managed to make Daniel laugh. His adventurous companion was sometimes the only person who understood him.
"But even if this wasn't the first someone told me about it, I'd prefer to go home. I haven't slept in days." He noted. It was hard for an athlete with mediocre grades and extremely high expectations to survive. But his heart was not in school...he simply wanted to explore the world already. This boring life of spending one's days working made death not as bad as it usually sounded. But Jacques was not convinced, and his expression soured.
"Sleep is overrated mate, that's why coffee was invented. Besides, this is something you don't want to miss." Casting a furtive glance over both shoulders, he added in a lower tone of voice, "I also heard that Doctor Meisner is going to be there, and that after all the political brouhaha, he's going to lead a discussion for certain, interested parties on why the government doesn't want people poking into..." Jacques trailed off, allowing Daniel to supply his own details. "You know. That kind of alchemy."
"Doctor Meisner....That sort of alchemy..." Daniel repeated. Despite falling for this trick hundreds of times before, which often ended up being university shenanigans - like the one time with the stripper - he was actually genuinely interested. He knew such a speech could further his goal and secretly set up the necessary foundation for him to climb towards the top. Daniel had a certain desire, one which would get him locked up in a loony bin if he went around sprouting it. Hell, Jacques was perhaps the only person who he trusted enough with that detail. Of course Daniel's own talent in alchemical comprehension was no laughing matter, so together they were quite the troublemakers. "Fine!" He exclaimed excitingly. "You've convinced me. What do you think those parties want to know? I wonder if it had anything to do about that explosion down at that military base the other day."
"Oh I'm sure it's connected somehow." Jacques could barely hedge the sarcasm out of his tone. For all his skill in alchemy and fencing, Daniel could at times be pointedly naive, which Jacques rarely hesitated to take advantage of. "What's more important is you," he pointed to Daniel's chest, "And Meisner." His eyebrows jumped to emphasize the point. "What would you say to a one-on-one interview? Just think: without any of those pesky school formalities, you could ask him anything."
Jacques suddenly seemed to become aware of himself as he checked his watch and noticed the time, "Looks like I need to split. I've got that dinner date to make." He started to head off in the opposite direction, but turned mid-stride to gesture dramatically to the tile floor beneath them. "I will see you—here—at sundown. Meet at the clock tower so I can show you to the place." He gave a false salute, "Till then." And with that, he was gone; his mission accomplished.
But Daniel had been already enticed by the potential of a one on one interview with the professor at actually notice his friends departure. He half heatedly nodded in his direction, caught up in the potential questions he could ask
A short distance away...
Ivory furiously scrubbed the wet cloth, attempting to remove the blood stains that dotted the white carpet. Once again Ivory dipped the cloth into the bucket of cold water she had at her side and began scrubbing. After a few more rough sweeps with the cloth, Ivory lifted it to see her progress. Much to her disappointment, the stain had simply expanded to a fist sized pink splotch. Looking around, Ivory noted several other spots where blood had sunk into the carpet, the entire amount probably equaling a half pint spread over an area about six feet across.
Growling in frustration, Ivory dropped the cloth into the bucket and tried to wipe her wet hand on the apron she was wearing, giving the fabric a pink wet mark. She had known that practicing in her apartment was a poor idea, but boredom had gotten the best of her. Rising to her knees, Ivory set her bandaged arms in her lap and looked at the stained carpet, defeated. At this rate it seemed the only thing to do would be to stain the carpet some more so she could scrub the whole thing pink and hope no one ever noticed.
There was a knock on the door. “I have a package marked for this address.” A voice called out from the hallway. “Is anyone home?”
“Just a minute.” Ivory replied, quickly taking off the apron and dropping it over the patch of blood stains, barely covering even half of the mess. After rising to her feet Ivory quickly checked herself over for blood stains and found none, not even around the gauze bandages on her arm. Ivory cracked the door open and peered through the slit out into the hallway where a middle aged deliveryman stud, a small black box tucked under his arm.
“Uh, I have a package for a Miss Ivory Frost?”
“Yes, that’s me. Can you just leave it in the hallway?”
“Are you sure your right here, just take it.” The deliveryman attempted to widen the crack in the doorway and shove the box through, but Ivory did her best to keep the door shut and the box was stopped half way into through the doorway.
“No need to be aggressive about it. Fine, I’ll take the box.” Ivory didn’t even try to hide the irritation in her voice.
“Sorry miss, it’s just that my boss hates it when we… Hey, are you alright?” The man’s eyes had shifted to Ivory’s arm, the tint of red forming in the white bandages as she reached out to grab the box.
Shoot, not good. Ivory thought to herself. He wouldn’t tell anyone would he? Is this old bastard that nosey? Better come up with some sort of excuse quick. “Oh I’m alright.” Ivory stuffed her words with as much feigned innocence as she could. “Clumsy me, I was picking up some broken glass earlier and I slipped and gave myself a nasty but, should be all better in no time though.”
“Oh, well glad you’re alright Miss.”
“Thank you.” Ivory took the package, but stopped just before shutting the door in the delivery man’s face. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know how to get blood out of a carpet would you? I got a little on my carpet and am having some trouble getting it out.”
“Um, I think cold water and dish detergent should do the trick.”
“Thank you, have a nice day.” With that, Ivory shut the door. “Nosy bastard.” She whispered to herself.
The sun disappeared behind the horizon. Darkness gave chase, immediately engulfing Central City in the silent afternoon of fall. Daniel missed the magical transition between day and night, occupied with his worries of due assignments and making time to study. Classes were filled with the usual boring lectures meant for those who wanted nothing more than to settle down in complacency, allowing each day to equal the last till their death. When Daniel first enlisted in Central University, his father once said that school only taught people how to work under the words of others. Rarely did universities encourage free speech an date students to question the establishment. And Daniel saw it everyday when they spooned him the widely accepted perspective of the world.
But he wanted more. He wanted to travel the world, sail the seas and experience the truth of humanity...
The lock clicked when Daniel twisted his key. He pushed the creaking door and entered his dark home. "Hello," Daniel called. He hesitated before entering his two story home. "Of course no one's here." He slammed the door and headed to the kitchen. He sighed, noticing the recently used, unwashed pots in the sink. "I swear to god-" Daniel cursed. He turned on the water and started scrubbing away with soapy liquid-"I keep telling them I'm afraid of bugs. But it's like they keep inviting them."
Daniel eventually made it upstairs after straightening up the kitchen.
"More! More!" A woman's voice boomed. Her cries were accompanied by the barbarian grunts of one....or both of his roommates. Daniel felt his lunch try to escape but managed to burst into his room. Luckily both of his walls muffled their orchestra of lust and sinful behavior.
"Tonight, Professor will probably discuss his perspective of the government's usage of alchemy in the field of medicine." Daniel put away his fencing equipment and went to his library. He withdrew three books and placed them on his desk and sat down. "What better prerequisite than Alkahestry." He opened the first book, titled Two Branches One Tree, and skimmed to a folded page;
Daniel tapped his pen against the desk. "Perhaps one energy but different intentions?" He guessed. "Alchemist tend to focus on manipulation of the outer world-meanwhile Alkahest utilize the same principles except on themselves." His head, leaning against his palm, felt abnormally heavy. Even his eyes, which were normally lowered, remained barely opened. "My answer is in Xing...but the other piece is here somewhere." Daniel's voice trailed off as the world disappeared.
He awoke. The blurred vision disappeared minutes later - a quick nap would surely get him through the night, hopefully. Daniel stood up and took a refreshing shower, followed by dressing in his more formal wear. Loose pants and a fitted shirt beneath a white, plain hooded sweater. "Should I bring my books?" Daniel thought. He touched their leathery binds but decided against is. Instead, he darted outside of his room down the quiet stairs and out of his door.
"He said they're meeting near the university. I wonder if Jacques is there already...Probably busy chatting up some broad." Daniel chuckled. "That idiot probably doesn't even understand how important that lecture is!"
Jacques’ “dinner date” had in fact been with his textbooks. As much as he liked to pretend not to care about his studies, he was actually treading a thin line between academic excellence and expulsion. While he ranked among the more intelligent echelons of students at Central, he could very rarely suffer himself to be bothered by the tedium of bookwork, which served as a constant source of exasperation for his instructors, who were often forced to give him bad grades as a result. He was currently “scraping dirt,” as he would mildly put it. Still, there was a part of him that did not want to let "his old man Cavendish" down. And so, two theses on exchange structures in alchemical processes and a book on the “Fundamentals of Arc-circuitry” later (he was a haphazardly fast reader), Jacques found himself at the foot of Central’s main clock tower, waiting for Daniel’s arrival. Another eccentricity about Jacques was that he was always either extremely prompt or late to the point of absurdity depending on whatever he thought might make for the most dramatic entrance. In this case he had arrived well in advance of what he assumed Daniel would take to be “sun down.”
“Still time,” he said as he flippantly combed back his hair with his fingers. Then, like a planet hurtling through space attracts another gravitational mass, Jacques found himself irresistibly pulled towards the nearest lamppost, which he promptly leaned against as if providing mutual support. With his free hand he pulled out a metal lighter and began to thumb the ignitor, pondering the electrical complexities of the device, seeing as he had nothing better to do.
But then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement from across the courtyard. This was strange since the last classes of the day had ended at four, leaving the place supposedly deserted. More unusual was that she was a woman that Jacques did not recognize, and he recognized every eligible female at Central. This one in particular moved with distinct elegance, and carried herself with an air of professionalism that on all accounts suggested an unattainable standard. But it was her uniform, which Jacques did not notice immediately as being part of Amestris' regular forces, that intrigued him.
“Now who is she?” he questioned aloud. As if reading his thoughts, the woman looked abruptly in his direction, and while her expression did not change and even from that distance, managed to give him such a withering glare that he fumbled with the lighter and burned his thumb.
"Führer be damned..." he muttered to himself. Sucking at the tender wound, by the time he looked up, the woman was gone.
Jacques was someone who Daniel trusted with responsibility...well, on more occasions than he trusted himself, who possessed problems punctuality. Hell, he should have left at sundown instead of getting ready. But he managed to find his way to the clock tower in decent timing. Daniel clenched his sweater while enjoying the smooth breezes of Autumn. Regardless of the upcoming celebrations, he loved the relaxed and chilled atmosphere alongside the dying vegetation. It was the beauty of life and death.
"Who's who?' Daniel asked, emerging from the shadows of a nearby building. "Come on lover boy, all that action is making you see things."
Jacques gave Daniel a genuinely blank look, "What?" he asked, at that point having apparently forgotten both the woman and burned finger. He shrugged casually nonetheless, "Anyway, it's about time you showed up." Jacques shoved the lighter into his pocket. "Thought you got lost or something. I invited Ella to come but she said she had something to do today," he shrugged, "So we should head out."
But Jacques was quieter than usual as he cast one last glance to where he had seen the woman. His eyes narrowed, almost noticeably. An instant later, he was back to his normal self, as though only a brief shadow of cloud had passed briefly across the expanse of his thoughts. Best not to jump to conclusions, he thought. At least not until he had further evidence that something strange was underfoot. Still, the woman had been headed in the direction of Meisner's office...
Suddenly it clicked.
"Oh course," he said, slapping his forehead dramatically, "The fiancé." However, Daniel was no doubt puzzled by the statement, as it came completely devoid of context.
Zima moved at a brisk pace through the courtyard, one hand hanging at her side and the other shoved into her coat pocket. Within the concealed comfort of the lining, Zima ran her thumbnail along the jagged edge of the key that she held in her hand, being careful not to actually damage her nail in the process. After a few gentle strokes she removed the key from her pocket and looked at it without breaking stride, the engraved number “011” barely visible in the dimming light. It was just like Meisner to forget something so critical as this, just before perhaps the most important public address of his career. When he had brought it up she had initially been annoyed and tried to scold him for not remembering something this important until the last possible moment. But half way through her first sentence she noticed he was simply smiling back at her, completely unfazed by words and that further conversation would only be wasting precious time. Before she knew it she had his office key in her pocket and was out the door.
“Damn that man.” Zima muttered to herself as she slipped the key back into her pocket “I swear I’ll claw his eyes out if I’m late because of this.”
Zima noticed a dark figure out of the corner of her eye. Someone was leaning up against one of the street lamps she was about the pass. She quickly made a note of the character’s features as she passed. Average height, red hair, approximate age being somewhere around twenty if she had to guess. This seemed a strange location to be lurking about at this hour. Zima felt a familiar feeling in her stomach, the odd sensation that anxious anticipation often brought her. The young man likely wasn’t anything to be concerned about, but the slightest chance that he was a threat resonated in Zima’s mind and she watched him carefully out of the corner of her eye. Once he exited her peripheral vision, Zima began to focus on listening for any movement behind her. There was nothing but the rhythmic clunk of the stubby heels on her shoes hitting the stone floor of the courtyard.
The world stretched before him as a blank, white canvas. Yet what had once been seen could never be unseen, and if he stared intently he could trace the dancing lines of matrixes perform their intricate summations for him. But he did not want to see, and fixed his gaze on the young woman in the distance. She pulled her frail shoulders close to her: so slight a ripple in the atmosphere would cause her to slip away...
And he thought he heard her calling his name.
“Hans,” she said, faint from the distance. No. He resisted, and tried to look away.
The atmosphere behind him twisted, and from some disembodied origin, shadows rushed out around him. Flickering as they circled him, like figures of dark light, they laughed and whispered and sang with the voices of children. Yet their slender, bone-like forms, substantive for a fraction of a second before vanishing from sight, resembled corpses that had been scarred beyond recognition by fire. And, like always, they haunted him, chasing after the fringes of his mind.
“Hans," she was pleading with him, and this time he could not look away. And, knowing what he would see but believing that it would be otherwise, he stretched out his right hand.
Now they were standing an arm’s length apart. She stirred when she sensed his presence, turning her head slightly, but her tousled light brown hair fell in front of her face and hid whatever expression she might have held.
“Adeline,” he spoke to his sister softly, as if by pronouncing her name too harshly, she would vanish. He took her by the wrist turned her towards himself.
At that moment the white expanse around them began to crack into splintered pieces of bright glass that fell away into pitch black. The shadowkind, having knit themselves into a tight spiral, continued to sing, their voices growing to a shrill, piercing siren that shattered the remnants of the light around them until only darkness remained. The world was swaying, rumbling, and clacking; on the verge of collapse, pulling him away.
When she looked at him, her eyes were empty sockets filled with gray ash. They did not accuse him, nor were they filled with sadness. There was only emptiness, and the stillness of death. Her skin began to crumble in his hand, and he felt her disintegrating flesh with a sense of incomparable loss. Yet she continued to smile as though she could recognize him. Her mouth widened, and black dust spilled out from her insides as she said, “You have arrived.”
Hans started awake, breathing in sharply as the dream stripped itself away from his mind. He was first confronted with the pale ghost of his own reflection in the window, and for the briefest of moments thought he saw shadowy figures darting away from behind him, out of the corner of his sight.
“You have arrived in Central Station,” the soothing voice of the conductor repeated, announcing the obvious fact that they had reached their destination. “Please remain seated until we have come to a complete stop before removing your luggage. Proceed in an orderly fashion towards the front and back of the car..."
Hans noticed the woman sitting across the aisle staring at him, concern obvious in her expression. She acted as though she were about to say something to him, but was cut off by the din of the other passengers, quickly rising and straining to exceed the noise of screeching brakes and grinding of steel as the train slowed to a stop. The young boy in the woman’s lap began to fuss. As his mother turned her attention towards calming him, Hans looked away, hoping he had said nothing in his sleep that would have embarrassed himself. Turning again to the window, he saw that he had been crying, and brushed the tears away guiltily. Fortunately, the women spared him any further comment.
Outside the narrow view of the train car’s window, Central Station filled the view with its high platforms, arching steel ribs, evenly spaced lampposts, and smooth concrete tile. Despite the smoke and steam that spread through the terminal and hid, for a moment, many of the people on the platform from view, the station had the impression of stately orderliness and a sense that everything about the world was structured. Scheduled. Certain.
Soon, but not quite soon enough to breach the uncomfortable silence, it was his booth’s turn to exit. As he struggled with the latch of his suitcase overhead, Hans realized the handle was caught on the luggage net, and that he could not easily free it with one hand. He was obliged to accept the woman’s help, who was already balancing her own luggage on one arm and son on the next but managed nonetheless. While Hans would have normally been grateful for such a small, selfless gesture, the long ride from the north, the close-pressing crowd around him, and the wailing child all served to irritate him, and the reminder of his helplessness stung more painfully than it should. Maybe it had been the dream.
Pulling his jacket a bit tighter as he stepped off the train, Hans at once felt overwhelmed by the crowd that filled the terminal. Everyone was rushing somewhere: to the platform to greet passengers as they disembarked, to meet with acquaintances, friends, and lovers in one massive confluence of souls. Hans alone stood unmoving, an anomaly in the flurry of movement around him.
He had only been to Central a few times in the past, but those days had been lost somewhere in the haze of childhood, secluded by the privacy of first-class seating and hired chauffeurs. That had been ten years ago. Now, he rejected any sign of his family's status, instead hoping to lose himself within the anonymity of the city. So far, it seemed, he was doing a fairly poor job.
Eventually, he decided it would be better to at least act as though he were headed somewhere as opposed to standing aimlessly by the platform, and so he began to make his way through the crowd towards the main stairway. Progress seemed slow as he pushed through the river of coats and hats and crates and violin cases and newspaper stands and carts of suitcases and at last, having been reduced to a mere speck, emerged on the other side. That feat accomplished, he paused as he tried to decide what to do next.
Caught up in his thoughts, he did not immediately notice the young woman across the terminal, who was straining on tip-toe to peer over the heads of the crowd as she waited for a specific arrival. Her red scarf, bobbing brightly amid the browns and dull grays of a surrounding wall of suit coats, is what first caught his attention. She held a small placard close to her chest, although he could not read the text as the sign was turned the wrong way. Without warning, her gaze settled on him, and for a moment their eyes locked. It seemed then that there was a spark of recognition, as though she had suddenly been reunited with a close, long-lost friend. Perhaps it was his imagination, but he felt a strange sense of familiarity drawing them towards each other, and the chaos around them seemed to fade into irrelevance... But it vanished an instant later. The spell broken, she started towards him, waving with marked enthusiasm in order to catch his attention.
“You must be Hans Fuhler,” she said as soon as she was within earshot. Without missing a clipped beat in her laced-boot heels, she descended with all the grace of a stork and shook his hand, ignoring the fact that he had neither offered it nor set down his suitcase, which made the gesture unusually cumbersome.
“Uh, yes,” he responded with stunning eloquence, dodging as she swung the placard wildly before tucking it under her arm. Subtly, he tried to tilt his head to read the upside down letters, but met with no success. “And you are?”
“Elisabeth Stone, from Central University” she replied, matter-of-fact. “Student Council Publicist. I’m here to show you to the campus.”
“I wasn’t aware that my arrival was such a newsworthy event,” Hans said. She froze in the process of taking a breath to answer, and a puzzled expression crossed her face for a split second before she laughed, easily.
“Well, actually, someone from the welcome committee was supposed to meet you, but he’s out sick. I just subbed in for the day.” She seemed to relax, losing the exact formality of her tone, but he noticed that she was still examining him closely. “You can call me Ella, by the way.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Hans said. He tried to force a smile, but couldn’t quite manage it and nodded slightly instead. For some reason—maybe because of her brown hair or her exuberant vitality—Ella reminded him of his sister. He looked away, berating himself for acting overly-sentimental, and again he blamed the nightmare on the train.
“How did you know who I was?” he asked in a lame attempt to keep the conversation going.
Ella shrugged, “I just had a feeling you were the person I was looking for.” She grinned. “Call it a reporter’s intuition.”
At that, for some reason, they found themselves without anything to say.
The silence was at last broken by Central Station’s clock, which struck four, and if Ella had noticed the sudden lapse in the conversation, she only hesitated an instant before brushing it aside.
“Well, I suppose we should get going.” She pointed at his suitcase with the sign, which read simply “Central University,” he saw at last. “Is that all you brought with you?” she asked.
She shrugged. “Alright then. Follow me.”
On their way up the grandiose set of stairs leading from the main terminal, Hans began to lag behind, and Ella slowed her pace.
“How long did the trip take?” she asked.
“About two hours. There was a stop in Leutom,” he answered.
“I slept most of the way.”
“Oh, not too bad then.”
Again, there was an awkward pause.
“So, Hans, what brings you to Central?” she asked, apparently undeterred by her unresponsive companion. “What are you studying, I mean.”
Hans squinted against the light that was flooding in from the main lobby at the top of the stairs, impressed that she could look back at him and keep her step simultaneously. Maybe she wasn’t as gawky as he first thought...
Naturally, the worst possible scenario immediately followed that thought. In the next second, he watched as the toe of her boot snagged on the ledge of the stairs, and saw her lose her balance before Ella herself was even aware of it. As she stumbled forwards, he leaped the few steps between them, and instead of crashing into the tile of the lobby, she fell against his shoulder.
“Thanks, that would have been painful,” she said. By accident, she reached out and grabbed his right sleeve to steady herself. But finding only air where his arm should have been, she recoiled so sharply that she ended up falling anyway, sitting heavily on the floor. “I’m sorry, I just wasn’t expecting...” she mumbled. “I didn’t notice, I’m sorry.”
Hans had thought it was obvious to everyone, and felt self-conscious as he readjusted the sleeve of his jacket, which hung limply in a poor substitution for his missing limb.
“It was an accident,” he replied. Setting his suitcase to one side, he extended his left hand. Ella’s face turned red, but she accepted his help anyway. “Thanks,” she mumbled again. “I can be pretty clumsy at times.”
“It happens to everyone,” he said, going out of his way to reassure her.
“So,” she said as she brushed her trousers off, attempting to recover a sense of normalcy, “How do you like Central so far?”
Hans blinked as he tried to generate a fitting response. He glanced around the lobby, then asked: “Do you mean the train station?”
Ella slapped her forehead, “And you’d think I could come up with better questions, being a reporter and all,” Ella laughed. Finally realizing the full weight of the awkward situation, Hans found the act so comical that he grinned in spite of himself, and the tension dissipated.
After recovering their respective composures, they stepped out onto the busy sidewalk in front of the train station, where Ella found to her dismay that the cab she had taken from the school had disappeared. But instead of flagging down another taxi, she spontaneously decided a better appropriation of school funds would be to get something to eat. While Hans might have objected, based on the ethics of the situation, he wasn’t opposed to a free meal, and so followed her off the beaten path of Central’s main thoroughfares to a smaller, less stately and more lively street. He found that there was a difference in pace between Central’s city-dwellers compared to fringe residents as, despite his long legs, he found it hard to keep up with Ella. For her part, she chattered away, accompanied by the incessant cadence of her boots on the cobblestone, but he really only heard half of what she said. His mind was elsewhere, and he couldn’t find the heart to contribute to the conversation. He wanted to be alone, even though Ella’s company was enjoyable, and felt like an anomalous black cloud moving through the heart of the city; his presence marring the otherwise welcoming atmosphere.
They stopped at the Cat’s Eye, a small café on the street corner that catered to a local crowd, and sat at a corner booth that faced the avenue. Hans took black tea while Ella blew the steam off her coffee with brandy. While they waited for their food, Hans noticed the day’s paper on the table, and glanced briefly at the headline.
High Court rules Primsby Alchemist not guilty for citizen injuries.
Skimming the article, he noted that the final verdict, at last issued several months after the incident, had sparked protest in both West City and Central alike.
“What’s your opinion on the revolution?” Ella asked abruptly, noticing his interest in the paper. Hans, however, remained guarded.
“What revolution?” he hazarded. Ella almost rolled her eyes, but caught herself.
“The one that started in Primsby, obviously. The Twelve Cenz Stamp Revolution. Famous for the stamp boycott?” she prompted.
“Oh. I’ve heard of it.” he shrugged, but this did not seem to satisfy her. “Why do you ask?”
“You’re Kerr Fuhler’s son right?” She tapped her spoon against the saucer, whether unconsciously or to state her argument, he could not say. “Since the demonstrators are lobbying against steel mill monopolies, I assumed you would have at least thought about it.”
In fact, Hans had thought about it, thoroughly, and held deeply formed views of his own. Secretly he tended to favor the protesters, even if their altruism was perhaps short-sighted. But he didn’t want to voice those private thoughts, at least not to a relative stranger, and at that point felt cornered by Ella’s hounding.
“I think the situation is significantly more complex than what the demonstrators realize,” he answered tacitly. Ella frowned.
“That’s no opinion at all,” she huffed. “Do you support it or are you against it?”
Hans narrowed his eyes, but hesitated for a moment before he said, “I think their aim is admirable, not necessarily their method.”
“That’s not saying anything,” Ella muttered under her breath.
“You’re one of the supporters, I assume,” he prompted, and she scoffed.
“As a journalist I take pride in my neutrality,” she stated, “Only the facts matter. It’s a question of ethics.”
“Maybe when it comes to print,” Hans pointed out, “What do you personally believe?”
“I think it’s terrible!” Ella slammed her fist down on the tabletop suddenly, causing the teacup in the saucer to bounce. The other patrons cast frowning glances in their direction, and Hans felt himself shrink back in his seat. “It’s wrong for a union established to protect the rights of workers to then exploit those same-said workers... with funds from the government no less! The rights of the people must be protected; but how is that going to happen unless someone sticks up for them?” Her face became flushed as she continued, “We have a parliament now, and a Constitution, and elected officials. It’s disgusting to think that such human abuse is apparently more permissible now than it was ten years ago under the regime. We can’t rest until the petition for reform is signed and heard in front of the Federal Diet.” She leveled her spoon at his chest. “And if you aren’t for us, then you’re against us.”
Hans had froze, a bit stunned, and in the ensuing silence Ella became aware of herself and blushed, her face becoming even more red.
“Sorry. I got a little carried away.”
“Indeed,” he concurred sourly.
In an apparent attempt to change the subject, she cleared her throat and asked,“What made you decide to go into medicine?”
Hans was midway through a drink of too-hot tea, and the inevitable result was that he burned the back of his throat. He coughed and tried to stall in answering her question, but she simply handed him a napkin, apparently nonplussed and still waiting for a reply.
“I was always interested in it, ever since I was a kid,” he answered without further comment. He did not mention his sister
“Did you ever think about going into Alchemy?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Well I mean, it’s what Central University is known for. Some of the top researchers have even been working with the military on the development of those flying machines that everyone’s a buzz about. Not to mention that medical Alchemy is in. You’d be amazed at the stuff they come up with now days. In fact, I even saw a report once that claimed Automail is going to become obsolete by mid-century.”
She probably didn’t mean to offend him, but Hans immediately assumed the comment to be directed towards his peculiar absence of the supposedly ubiquitous technology.
“You know a lot, don’t you?” he asked, perhaps rudely, signifying that he wanted to end the conversation. She shrugged, oblivious.
“It’s sort of a requirement for reporters. We gotta know the facts.”
Hans sighed. Facts. Truth. Reporter-this, reporter-that.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
An hour later, Hans and Ella finally reached Central University’s campus. After a whirl-wind tour that left Hans breathless and more disoriented than he had been at the start of the guide, Ella finally allowed them to stop at the clocktower in front of the university’s main plaza.
“There’s the university library,” she said, motioning towards a large, official-looking building with bleached granite steps, “And over there are the faculty offices.” Hans turned to see where she was pointing. “Any questions?”
I’ll have plenty by tomorrow, I’m sure, he thought bitterly. “Not at the moment,” he said.
“And with that,” Ella said as she brushed off her hands. “My job here is done. Do you have the address to your apartment?”
“Yes, right here.”
“Let me see it then.”
Hans pulled out a slip of paper from his pocket and gave it to her. She studied it for a moment, then nodded and handed it back.
“Impressive. Lion’s Street is an ideal spot, I’m surprised you got into such good housing, especially since the semester’s already started and all... Who’s your roommate?”
“His name is Jacques Cavendish,” Hans replied.
Ella seemed alarmed, then her expression changed to one of pity.
“How did you two meet, exactly?” she asked warily.
“We knew each other as kids, but I haven’t seen him in years. I believe his father and mine were business associates, so he visited North City a few times in the past.”
“I see.” she said, hinting that she also knew Jacques and had a less objective opinion of him than that of Hans. “Well, best of luck then,” she glanced at the clocktower and added, “I need to stop by the publications office before I head to the rally tonight.”
“Yeah. It’s going to be pretty big. The petitioners in the Blue Velvet Coalition are taking signatures, and Doctor Meisner Bosch will speak about the reforms. You should come.”
Hans paused for a moment as he considered, “I prefer to steer clear of thick crowds.”
“Suit yourself,” Ella shrugged, then seemed to think of something and pulled a flier from one of her jacket pockets. She unfolded it and gave it to Hans. “But in case you change your mind, here’s the information.” He scanned the contents of the handbill briefly, which gave the location and time of the event, and nodded.
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Right,” Ella smiled, and this time it was sincere. “Well, it was nice to meet you Hans. I hope you come to like it here at Central. You don’t need help finding your apartment do you?”
“I think I can manage.”
“Great, because I have to run or I’ll be late.” She was already taking backwards steps, and as she said this she gave a short salute.
“See you around. Good luck with everything!” Hans waved, then grimaced as he watched her stumble over the cobblestone. But she managed to right herself before she fell, and was soon rushing off to wherever the publications office was. After she had disappeared, Hans glanced at the address to Lions Street, then looked towards the direction he thought it might be in and started off, eager to finally be rid of his heavy suitcase and to give his feet a place to rest.
Unfortunately, and not entirely surprisingly, Hans took a wrong turn after leaving campus, and somehow found himself farther south then he had intended. He followed a small, walled canal, one of many that branched off from the main waterway and crossed the city like carved veins. By the time he realized his mistake, the sun was beginning to sink in the west, and large pools of blue shadow spread between the towering, monotonous masses of the buildings lining the streets. He turned around, crossed a bridge spanning the narrow canal running parallel to the street, and made his way back to where he had started, this time paying closer attention to the street signs.
On the other side of the bridge, his attention was pulled towards the street corner, where a load of empty crates had apparently been abandoned, standing out from the surrounding cleanness of the cobblestone and concrete. An old man sat on one of the crates, strumming on an ornately decorated lute. In contrast to the polished wood and gleaming enamel of his instrument, the musician was threadbare, and as he played a young girl danced in front of him, holding out a felt cap to passerby as she begged for donations. There was something about the pair that pulled at his conscience. He knew who they were: refugees from the civil war in Aerugo, a conflict that had been ongoing ever since Amestrian forces had withdrawn from the region ten years earlier. The folk song of the lute was nostalgic and pining, recalling distant scenes of fields and farms that would never again be seen on the face of the earth. A song of old things that had long since passed away.
Hans found himself carried away by the music, and did not notice the Aerugian girl dancing closer until she was tugging on his shirt sleeve and staring up at him with wide, dark brown eyes.
“Spare a few Cenz?” she asked as she extended the cap. Hans could not refuse. He dug into his pockets and dropped his spare change into the hat, feeling guilty since he knew how insignificant the amount was. He watched the girl a moment longer, her light feet brushing over the stone, heedless of the city around her that imprisoned them as immigrants, completely free.
In contrast, Hans felt an unmeasurable weight settle across his shoulders, an aching that he could not ignore. But he stifled the feeling, pushing it down and telling himself that the plight of the two Aerugian refugees was shared by countless others. One could not extend compassion to them all. It was physically impossible.
Just as he turned to leave, he was nearly bowled over by a thin man with long gray hair, who had accidentally crashed into him while trying to hurry past. The man offered no word of apology, and in fact shoved Hans aside as if he were afraid of being stalled. It was then that Hans noticed a strange bulge against the man’s jacket, and his eyes narrowed. Hans hated jumping to conclusions, but the shape seemed uncannily similar to that of a gun. For the briefest of moments, he considered pursuing the stranger and questioning him for his unusual behavior, but then he discarded the idea. It had only been his imagination, he assured himself. And even if not, it was none of his business, he told himself. But by then the man had disappeared, so Hans turned and walked in the opposite direction.
The apartment on Lions Street was deserted when Hans reached it. He unlocked the door with the key Jacques had sent him beforehand, and found the room surprisingly well-ordered. Two beds were pushed against the walls on either side of the apartment’s sole window, and Hans assumed the side with the clean desk was his. The other desk was buried beneath a mountain of books and lab notes, apparently the evidence of a studying frenzy before Jacques had left for the evening. Otherwise the place was bleakly utilitarian. As for character, its wooden slat-board ceiling was bare, and the white plaster walls showed cracks and stains—signs of life, at least.
Hans set his suitcase on the unclaimed bed before he lifted up the folding blinds and allowed the last rays of golden sun to penetrate the dim, dusty interior of the apartment. He placed his hand on the window sill as he stared down at the street two floors below, quietly musing to himself. The vantage point was indeed impressive, offering a view of Central’s main clock tower in the near distance and a full view of the park across the canal. While he was less impressed with the inside, it was ultimately inconsequential. His roommate was much the same way. Hans had most recently seen Jacques two years prior at the winter ball held at his father’s estate, and he had no idea if they would tolerate each other well. But like the appearance of the room itself, it did not matter in the end. Hans would simply accommodate as needed, and otherwise ignore what circumstances he could not change.
But then, he wondered if that same sense of resignation is what had allowed his heart to become so numb.
Hans stood motionless as the minutes ticked past, but in his hand he held the crumpled flier that Ella had given him earlier. He had read it twice, and internalized the details. But he had said he would not go, and he was not one to easily break his word.
Yet, he felt entirely alone. Here, surrounded by the bustle of city life—the incessant sounds and movement—the solitude was more poignant than in North City. Hans subconsciously reached up to hold his jacket sleeve close to his body. He unfolded the flier and glanced it one more time before slipping it into his pocket again. Personal feelings aside, it was, after all, for a good cause.
Hans made sure to lock the door behind him when he left.
Alchemy was capable of a virtually endless number of amazing feats that could benefit humanity. Alchemy could be used to repair damage to everything from a small radio to a house in a minuscule fraction of the time it would take to do by hand. State Alchemist have discovered dozens of different combat applications for alchemy, perhaps the most prominent example being the flame alchemy of Fuhrer Mustang. Alchemy could literally turn rocks to gold, and so far all Ivory had used her alchemy to do was clean a bloodstain and run a wire through the wall of the warehouse so she could record some university professor's speech. It was tasks like these that made Ivory wonder why she had even bothered to learn the fancy stuff.
Ivory brushed a few strands of her long dark hair back behind her ear as she continued to fidget with the breaker box, or more specifically the hidden tape recorder hidden inside the breaker box. The orders she had received were quite simple, "plant the device, record the speech" and the hand drawn directions were so simplistic that Ivory almost felt as if her intelligence was being insulted. She had been promised that she'd be doing great things and "important work" but so far the only things she had been tasked with were simplistic tasks that seemed to possess very little meaning. Ivory constantly reminder herself that bigger things were likely coming. A group such as Nightshade wouldn't simply trust her with anything truly important up front. She had to gain their trust, show them that she was reliable.
The audio recording device was a simple metal box with a slot for the tape to fit into and a basic set of buttons running along one side. Minus the ridiculously long cord and small microphone that had been delivered with the device, it looked to Ivory like a cheap piece of equipment she could pick up somewhere in Central. She had been expecting something a little more elaborate but as long as it served its purpose the presentation was really of no importance. Ivory checked one more time to ensure the tape was properly seated and that the wire was secure. Everything seemed ready. The speech was going to begin soon.
"This speech better be damn good." Ivory mumbled to herself as she pushed the button labeled "play" on the recorder. Ivory closed the metal door to the breaker as softly as she could to avoid making any unnecessary noise, not that it would have been heard over the murmurs of the massive crowd beyond the curtain.