After the Tilt: Book 2

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Chapter 35: Signal

Without a plan, onward we rushed; guided only by the gunshots. Throwing caution to the wind, we sought no cover. We advanced in plain sight, driven by a sense of urgency and desperation. No new signals had been sent, or at least none that Yuki had received. In the distance, we could hear the screams. Commands were being dispatched and orders were being carried out.

We stopped in our tracks to listen.

A sweep was being organized. All the wounded were being killed. We crouched behind a tree, dwarfed by the long night. From there we could see the banks of the river; down below, the orphanage. In our frenzy, we had gone in a circle.

My heart sank.

On the ground, corpses, dressed in red, laid immobile. A shiver ran down my spine. I immediately recognized Ashe; cold, lifeless, as she lay amongst the victims.

Yuki and Eli spotted her too. How could they not? Her head was turned toward us, resting at an awkward angle. Her eyes were wide open. I gagged. The bile burned my throat.

“What do we do?” Eli whispered.

“Nothing,” Yuki answered swiftly. “They haven’t left, which means they do not have Evian.”

“We don’t even know if it’s Evian they really want!” grumbled Eli.

“Well, whatever they are after, they haven’t found it yet! So, we wait and see!” Yuki rebuked harshly.

Yuki was right. There was nothing we could do.

Nothing rational anyway.

But we weren’t exactly known for being a rational bunch.

Eli got up slowly. She brushed the dirt off her knees. She cracked her knuckles. She stretched her neck and announced: “I’m going in!”

Just as she stepped out from the safety of the tree, a hand from the shadows grabbed her from behind, covering her mouth and throwing her to the ground. Surprised by this sudden attack, I inadvertently let out a cry compromising our position. Yuki jumped on me burying my face in the slushy ground, trying to keep me quiet.

“Shut up you morons!” exclaimed Fiori who had just appeared.

“And you! Eli! What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Do you all have a death wish? Let’s get out of here before they find us!”

Was I ever glad to see him! With him, there was hope. For a moment, the tension in my shoulders released. But it was short lived.

Just as we were about to leave, I noticed, something had caught Fiori’s eye down by the river. I squinted.

Perhaps it was Ashe?

No, that wasn’t it.

He was looking further down. I followed the direction of his gaze until my eyes caught sight of an old man barking orders.

He was plain looking, yet his demeanour was mesmerizing. I stood there enthralled by his presence.

“General David J. Marshall,” Fiori muttered behind clenched teeth.

At the man’s mention, Yuki froze, their eyes wide-open.

The three of us, stood, observing this sternly authoritative man.

“Let’s get out of here,” Yuki finally said.

But I didn’t move.

Fiori didn’t move.

Fiori was planning, calculating the odds, factoring in the variables, reviewing the possibilities.

Yuki seemed unsettled by the delay.

After a few minutes that felt like hours, Fiori sighed, got up and walked away.

“Not today,” he said as he passed me.

I was half running behind the man, barely keeping up as Fiori took no notice of the world around him. He walked with that disconnected conviction that the only place to go was straight ahead. We followed him putting as much distance between us and the pile of bloody bodies as we could. The words not today resonated in my head, until they became a calming chant taking over my body. We’d have vengeance. But not today. And if we had to leave our friend behind, one day we’d make amends for it. But now was not the time. Today was not that day. This battle was lost but the war… the war had only just begun.

We had been walking in the opposite direction from the orphanage for a while when Meyer popped out from behind a tree. He jumped in my arms and hugged me before doing the same to Eli. Meyer wasn’t one to express his feelings. I had never considered myself important in his eyes. There had always been an awkward ridge between the two of us, yet, in that moment, I was glad to see him. And he surely looked glad to see me.

“What the hell did you jump out of the boat for?” he scolded me.

Fiori raised an eyebrow awaiting my answer.

“A book,” I mumbled.

“Wait! Wait! Wait! You risked your life. No! You risked all our lives to go back and get… a book! That has to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” Meyer was clearly flabbergasted.

That rubbed me the wrong way.

“Why? Are you scared of a little action, Meyer? Or would you rather hide behind your computer?”

Eli came to my defence: “Not just any book, Meyer! It was Hana’s. There was, important information in it…” she lowered her head, unable to finish her sentence.

In the background, Fiori and Yuki had started converging ideas and developing an escape plan.

I continued whispering: “It had information about Eli’s past. Your past too, Meyer.”

Meyer frowned. He was listening.

“Hana left me reports of Shan Li’s experiments. My experiment. Eli’s experiment. And your experiment. Hana was right. We were never supposed to be put into orphanages. We are not Aethereusians by birth. Shan Li made us this way. My father made us this way.”

I waited for him to get mad at me. I expected him to scream, to get angry. But he didn’t. He just stared at me in disbelief.

“I’m sorry I risked all of your lives. But I just couldn’t leave this information behind. These reports are our only chance at finding out the truth: the real truth. I don’t want to live my life in the dark anymore.”

His disbelief morphed into hurt.

I continued: “I want to know who I am. I want to fight back. I’m sure you feel the same way. Right?”

Then the hurt exploded into rage.

“I KNOW WHO I AM! I’m not like you! I know my father. I know my family. I am Aethereusian. I am a genius! I am different. I am special. I am not like you! These reports must be lies! All lies! Fabricated lies!” he yelled.

The despair in Meyer’s voice pierced my heart. I had no words to calm him down. I understood his anger. The hardest part had been for me, to let go of what I thought my past was to make way for a new past. I knew just what Meyer would find out in his file. I had read the reports. It didn’t reveal much, but it confirmed what Hana had said; we were after all “wrongfully incarcerated children.”

Fiori stepped in and had to warn us: “We are one earshot away from being killed at point blank range. You either keep it down or you die. And if I need to be the one doing it, to ensure everyone’s safety, I will. From now on, you obey, or I kill you myself. No more jumping out of boats or running toward danger. You do as I say. Understood.”

He wasn’t joking. He was as serious as serious can be. Our life hung by a thread: one fine thread. And ostensibly, it was about to snap. I thought of Ashe’s face: lifeless, greyish, a thin layer of ice having formed with the starlight glistening from her for forehead and cheek bone.

How? What happened to her?

I quietly took the book from my shirt, carefully opened it and pulled out the envelope containing the reports. I found Meyer’s. It was titled:

Experiment 3141

I handed it to him. He didn’t move. Eli moved closer and put her arm around his shoulders. She offered to read the report.

He didn’t answer.

Fiori and Yuki had resumed their discussion. The intensity of their whispers was chilling: the urgency and the anger resounding in every silence that punctured their dialogue. There was fear in their words, on their faces and in the air.

Fiori was afraid.

Yuki was afraid.

That scared me.

Eli, unaffected, took the document from my hand and started to read.

We listened quietly.

Experiment 3141

Year 185 A-the-T

RCLD, Ortus University

Project leader: Dr. Shan Li

Team: Dr. Nova Edwards-North, Dr. Emma Li, Dr. Manuel Aranda, Dr. Rupert Samuel d’Auvergne.

Subjects:

Charles Joseph Eyer EYER3141

Born on May 3rd, 185.

Purpose:

Charles Joseph Eyer, born from pure Melior lineage, tested negative at birth for aethereusian characteristics. Charles J. Eyer, age 4, was donated to the RCLD genetic manipulation research project lead by Dr. Shan Li, by his father Dr. Hardi Eyer of Centralis University. Charles J. Eyer was successfully administered B-24602 and confirmed positive for aethereusian characteristics.

Procedure:

N/A

Observations and data:

EYER3141 developed no side effects from the infection. All tests confirmed the newly acquired presence of aethereusian characteristics. Daily monitoring did not uncover new variants within the nucleotides.

Conclusion/Summary:

Due to his advanced age, we have confirmed that B-24602 had limited effects on his system. After six months of observation and daily testing, we have concluded that EYER3141 will not further develop a Heightened Characteristic.

Additional notes:

At the request of Dr. Hardi Eyer of Centralis University, following the termination of Experiment-3141, Charles Joseph Eyer was placed under the care of the Nova Summus Orphanage.

“This doesn’t make any sense!” exclaimed Eli. “Why would your dad give you up? Why would your dad agree to have you infected? He had nothing to gain from it!”

Meyer was still staring at the ground; visibly shaken.

“No! That’s impossible. I’ve been hacking into the system for over two years. I’ve never seen these. These reports can’t be real. I would have found them. Or Evian would have given… No! As I said. These are all lies. Nothing more!”

“In any case, I doubt we’ll find out the truth if we just stay here. We need to find Evian. If anyone knows the truth, it’s him!” I acknowledged.

“No! We need to find my dad!” announced Meyer. “That bastard has some explaining to do!”

He raised his head, took a long deep breath, and looked as determined as ever. A flame had been lit; a need stronger than his own will. I recognized in him that burning desire pushing him toward the truth, no matter how ugly, no matter how painful the road a head.

In the distance, the guns had gone silent. We were deep within the forest. There was no reason for the soldiers to venture this far. For the first time since the surprise attack, we could breathe a little easier. Still, we had to be cautious. Fiori forbid us to make any sort of a fire and ordered us to keep our voices down. Eli and Yuki left to find some food, and I stayed back with Fiori and Meyer to build a temporary shelter.

Within an hour, we had a roof over our heads and food on our laps. Mostly frozen roots, but after sixteen years of gray slop, anything else was a welcomed culinary experience.

Each of us ate quietly, absorbed in our own little worlds until Eli brought up what we’d all been trying not to think about. “Ashe,” she said. “They got Ashe.”

“I know, we were there,” was all Fiori answered between two bites.

Meyer took it upon himself to fill in the blank: “She should have been on the first boat, but for some reason she didn’t…”

“Was it the signal?” Yuki wondered. “Maybe she got the signal… like me!”

“That’s impossible! I had all your signals deactivated before we defected!” interjected Fiori with a panicked look on his face.

“It should have been impossible. But they did it,” Yuki said carefully.

Fiori seemed confused.

“It’s impossible. I should know… I…”

“Clear as a bell, I received a signal earlier today. There was, what felt like, an explosion inside my skull. After that, a signal came through! They are here for Evian. Evian is in danger.”

We all fell back inside our own thoughts. Fiori drawing shapes in the hardened snow with a stick he had picked up from the ground.

After hesitating for a few minutes, it was Meyer that stated the obvious: “So, it was a trap. We fell into their trap, didn’t we?”

Eli nudged him behind the head: “That’s our genius! Took you long enough to figure it out.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Miss Kamikaze! It’s not like I have anything else on my mind….”

Emotions were running high again; Meyer still grappling with the report he had been read earlier. Eli backed down. She had been unfair, and she knew it.

It was Fiori that changed the subject.

“So, they set a trap. They lured us back by reactivating the signals of my soldiers. Which means, they know we are here. They are looking for us. They already have Evian.”

“They don’t have Evian! They are looking for him!” exclaimed Eli.

“No. They have Evian,” Fiori spoke with a strong conviction.

“But the signal said they were looking for him? I don’t get it,” I said.

“They needed something to lure us back. They needed us to think we could still save him. There’s no point in going back if we know they already have him, is there?” Fiori explained.

“Why not? We could rescue him!” interrupted Eli.

“We could. But we can’t. Not after what I saw today,” Fiori admitted.

I thought back to what I had seen on the riverbank. Corpses. Lots of corpses. That couldn’t be it. The man blew up an entire city, remorseless.

Why? I wondered.

The answer came to me in a flash of light. “General David J. Marshall,” I yelped.

Fiori and Yuki looked both surprised and dejected all at once. As if I had just confirmed their worst nightmare.

“General David J. Marshall,” acknowledged Fiori. “The man takes no prisoners. He kills on sight. I’ve only ever seen him make one exception. An exception that I think, to this day, he bitterly regrets. If he indeed had Evian. Then Evian is already dead. And I am his next target.”

Another silence fell heavily on the group. The certainty in Fiori’s voice left no place for doubt. My heart sank.

“Do you believe your brother is alive?” Fiori suddenly asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said shaking my head.

“Do you believe in your brother? Can we trust him?” Fiori asked again.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Fenn. You need to know. You need to decide, right here, right now. So, I am going to ask you, one more time. Do you believe your brother is alive? Can we trust him?”

Fiori was now right in front of me, staring directly at me. Leaving me no chance to retreat into my own thoughts.

The fact was, I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. Who was Evian? Hana hadn’t trusted him, yet, she had entrusted us to him. Hana had lied. Was Evian lying too? This was our chance. Our chance to run away. To disappear in the forest. To start over again. Going back to rescue Evian almost certainly meant we would lose more of our comrades. And what about Doran? What about Arno and Hardi? Where were they? Did they need rescuing too? Was Evian’s life worth risking our own? I had to survive. I promised Hana I’d survive. What would she have wanted me to do?

Run away.

Without any doubt, she would have wanted me to run away. I didn’t owe Evian anything. I had no reason to trust him.

I could feel Fiori becoming impatient. He wanted an answer. He needed an answer. I took a deep breath. We were at a crossroads and my choice would dictate all our futures.

“I… I believe… I believe in my brother,” I said without any real conviction.

“I believe he is alive,” I added. “I don’t know if we can trust him. But I believe we should, regardless.”

And that was that. I had sealed our fate.

Fiori had forced me to seal our fate.

I am being manipulated… again. Tricked into thinking I have a choice.

He had forced me to make the decision. I was now accountable to it.

We would either rescue him, or we would fail.

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