After the Tilt: Book 2

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Chapter 21: Dead and Alive

“It took me months to get through dad’s research journals. He kept detailed notes on everything. The day’s weather, what he ate, the exact hour of every small task he accomplished. Everything he did was measured, everything he did was calculated and everything he did was recorded. After his research on modification procedure was seized, his journal entries became more erratic and less organized, even confused at times. He was trying to recreate the procedure; reproduce his experiment’s results. But he no longer had test subjects and his funding was dwindling. Most researchers from his team were starting to dissociate themselves from his projects. That’s when I came across a small list of orphanage codenames penciled in the margin of his last journal. There were five in there and no other information. The first on the list, I recognized right away. It was yours. The next name on the list, JESS0305, had a small cross next to it. I could only assume it was yet another failed procedure. However, the other three names on the list had no markings beside them. Did it mean that dad had succeeded at recreating his experiment? More importantly, who were these people, how did dad get access to them, and where were they now?”

He paused. It was 6 am. We were having a quick breakfast in the kitchen. Evian was particularly chatty this morning.

I didn’t like it. I hated seeing him so happy. Careless, as if nothing had happened in the past week. I wanted him to shut up. To let me wake up. To give me some time to digest everything that had happened. I quickly started eating my piece of bread with some red spread on it. The jar read “Strawberry Jam.” It tasted good, but I was too exhausted both physically and mentally to savour it. I listened to him with half an ear, still debating internally if this kid, my brother, could be trusted. Was I being fed more lies, convenient truths, or facts?

I slapped more jam on my piece of bread. Keeping myself busy was my way of avoiding him.

But soon, it was time to head out.

It was morning, yet the never-ending darkness made it seem like the middle of the night. A rush of frigid air hit me in the face and burned my lungs as we stepped outside. My red sweater was thin. Much too thin for this temperature. My brother was wearing a government issued, black woolen cloak, that stretched to his ankles and boasted a high collar.

We walked down the laneway between the snow-covered fields. We reached the main gate. There, waiting for us, was a car driven by a man I had never seen before.

“Good morning Mr. Li,” he said disingenuously.

His formal and cold tone surprised me. I gave Evian a puzzled look.

He ignored me and with a smile said: “Good morning Hardi! Have you met my brother, Fenix?

“It’s Fenn,” I said sharply.

“Have you met my brother Fenn?” corrected Evian.

“Nice to meet you Mr. Fenn. I have heard a great deal about you. You made quite an impression on my son.”

“On your son?” I asked confused.

“Yes. I believe you know him as Meyer.”

“Ah!” was all I answered in a complete state of disarray.

It was like being punched in the stomach. The poor kid I so easily put to death, was this man’s son. A wave of nausea overcame me. I stumbled over and nearly fell. Does he know? Surely Evian would have told him. Then it became clear to me. I was about to pay for what I had done. Why else would Evian sound so cheerful? Why else would this man suddenly come to take me… somewhere…

“Are you alright?” the man asked.

“I… I’m… I’m ready,” I said, my voice shaking badly.

I looked at Evian searching for some answers, a clue to what was happening. But all he did was to gently push me into the backseat of the car, before settling himself in the front. I stayed quiet. They engaged in a heated conversation that I didn’t care to follow. Part of me was terrorized by the idea of what was to come, and part of me was amazed by the scenery flashing by as we travelled the countryside: forests, fields, astonishingly beautiful houses. I saw a frozen lake. I knew that lake. Except now, the sun was gone; in its stead, the moonlight made the ice sparkle.

We kept going for nearly four hours, until we found ourselves deep in the woods. The tree’s canopy was so thick, we could no longer see the starry sky. The paved road had given way to a dirt path. The car had slowed down considerably. It had been a smooth ride until then, but now we could feel every bump and rock on the road. It wasn’t exactly pleasant and made me regret my breakfast.

That went on for another hour.

Then the car finally came to a stop.

“We have arrived,” announced Evian.

I should have been relieved, but now more than ever, a sense of dread hung over my head. Far from anything; far from anyone. This was the perfect place to be tortured and left for dead. Evian opened my door and motioned for me to get out. There was no point in fighting it. What ever was to come, I deserved it.

I stepped out of the car and we started walking down a narrow pathway going deeper into the woods. I was between Evian and the driver. I could see Evian fiddling with a device in his hand. A weapon maybe? I couldn’t quite tell.

The cold air was biting. I could hardly move my hands. The skin on my face felt dry and chapped. Tiny droplets around my lashes froze, keeping my eyes from opening fully.

The narrow pathway soon widened, and we found ourselves standing in front of a one-story log house. On each side were rows of large canvas tents with wood burning stoves. People were buzzing around. Most with red ink on their faces and donning the same outfit as I was.

It was like a mini city. I was astounded.

What were all these people doing here? Evian didn’t slow down as we approached the house. I followed him into the building and was surprised to see a big room resembling the orphanage hall where we took our meals everyday. The walls weren’t painted in an aggressive red, but the rows of tables and benches made it look otherwise the same.

Without giving me time to process what I was seeing; we crossed the room and went straight to a group of people gathered in the far end.

Sitting there, eating, were Arno, Eli, Fiori, Yuki, Ashe, Doran and… Meyer.

I don’t know what feeling hit me first.

Maybe it was rage, maybe it was relief … or confusion; maybe it was denial.

Ashe noticed me.

She gasped.

At her reaction, Arno and Fiori both turned and looked like they were staring at a ghost.

Eli dropped her fork, she sat there; empty handed with her mouth gaping wide open.

Meyer smiled at me. Meyer, who was alive and well and sitting right in front of me, smiled at me.

Once more, all that would come out of my mouth was: “Ah!”

My heart started racing as it tried to keep up with my head. My eyes began searching the room, looking for Hana; waiting for her to arrive, to surprise me. But Evian seemed to have read my mind and crushed my hopes.

“Hana’s not here. Hana’s dead. When we found her, it was too late.” Then he added under his breath: “Now, we know why.”

I looked around at all my friends. Still I couldn’t believe it.

One of them should have been dead. How did they end up here?

Clearly, my friends were just as surprised to see me. I felt someone taking hold of my hand. It was Eli. She had tears in her eyes now. She was staring at my hand so intensively. No one was talking. Meyer was still smiling. I was trying to sort out my emotions. What game was Evian playing?

Anger. My head was burning. My eyes were on fire. Though, at the same time, I was so relieved to see them. I was so happy that they were okay. Here, now, safe, with me.

It was like someone had pinched my heart.

But Meyer? Why was Meyer alive? How? It didn’t make sense.

It was him that broke the silence first.

“Evian, I think you owe him an explanation,” he said.

And I agreed. Not only did he owe me an explanation, but it had to be a damn good one too!

Still holding my hand, Eli nudged me to sit next to her. It was so good to be with her again. Evian and the driver joined us at the table. Without waiting any longer, Evian addressed everyone.

“I can’t give you all the answers today. I can’t, because we are running out of time and I simply do not have all the answers yet myself. What I can tell you is that, you are all here today because Hana believed you to be special. It took her a while to gather you all. Many lives were sacrificed along the way. I don’t know if it was worth it. I don’t know if you were worth it. But I must keep believing that I am doing the right thing. That what she did was the right thing.

As you might all be aware, Hana is dead. Although it was her wish, I do not think her death was necessary. Believe me when I say, I tried everything to change her mind. I had hoped things could have been different. Hana was my sister, and I loved her very much.”

On these words, the people gathered at the table collectively gasped. Perhaps it was because they didn’t know Hana had died?

He continued: “Hana and I had very different views on many subjects. We also had very different goals, irreconcilable goals. But this, this was all her idea.

Before Hana launched her attack, in the weeks preceding it, her and I had several meetings. On our last meeting, she left with me a set of coordinates and some documents. She made me promise that no matter what happened, I would go to these coordinates and secure what I would find there. Little did I know, I’d find you!”

He turned directly to me: “It wasn’t until then, that I found out she had planned to blow herself up. You see, it wasn’t an ambush. Nobody set you up. Nor am I as bad as you make me out to be.”

Addressing everyone again, he continued: “I think, deep down, Hana understood that she could no longer keep you safe. Not the way I could. So, I did as she requested. A meeting point was agreed upon. Fiori was to bring you all there. But I quickly realized that something was wrong. Fenn should have been there too. On Fiori’s account, I sent out my helicopter, in hope of finding both my siblings.”

He was talking about me. I’m not sure if everyone at the table had made the connection.

Evian went on: “What happened next, wasn’t Hana’s plan. It was mine. Maybe I should apologize to Fenn. I didn’t mean to do it. My emotions got the best of me. I loved my sister, I always did. Growing up, I would have given anything for us to be able to quarrel and play like siblings. I guess that day, finding Fenn should have made me happy. I had lost a sister, but I had gained a brother.”

Doran’s brow furrowed. Eli gasped and looked at me with astonishment. Meyer nor Arno reacted.

Evian went on: “Part of me wanted to see him suffer, the same way I was suffering. Part of me wanted to destroy him. But, I couldn’t. So instead, I manipulated his memory and made him believe that he had participated in the killing of Meyer. I’m not proud of it. I hope you can forgive me Fenn.”

A heavy silence fell as everyone seemed lost in their thoughts. It was a while before Evian spoke again.

“I realize that what I’ve just told you doesn’t answer many of your questions. If anything, you probably have even more than you did before. And for that, I am sorry. There is just so much information I need to sift through right now, so many things I need to figure out. I am not a leader. I am not going to be the one that saves you. I am just a rich kid who happens to be the son of a mass murderer, trying to make right for all of his wrongs.”

It was quite concerning to find out that after everything, there was no plan. There was no direction. All this fighting, all the blood spilled, had achieved nothing at all.

Hardi took these last words from Evian as his cue and announced that he would be taking everyone on a tour of the encampment. We all got up to follow him; Eli was still clutching my hand, refusing to let go. But no one seemed to notice, no one was paying attention.

The place wasn’t big. Other than what we had seen on arrival, there were two other buildings. One was an oversized shed filled with construction and farming material, the other was a public bath facility.

Hardi referred to this place as Centrum Agricultio. An agricultural research facility that used to belong to Centralis University but had since been seized by the government and turned into a logging orphanage. Hardi was the headmaster of the orphanage. Despite government orders, under his command, Aethereusians were treated kindly and with dignity. And it showed. People here were clean, fed and enjoyed a communal life where work was rewarded with leisure time. Far from any cities, hidden in the confines of the north-western forest, Centrum Agricultio was a self-sufficient Aethereusian Eden being funded by the taxpayers. That was Hardi’s greatest achievement: running a safe heaven right under the government’s nose.

He finished the tour by showing us to our tents where we would spend the night. I was made to room with Meyer and Evian. The rest were split into three groups. Eager to leave this day behind, most retreated to their cots.

I did too.

When I walked in, Meyer was waiting for me. He had a package in his hand.

Straight forward as always, he asked: “Why did you kill me?”

“I didn’t”

“But you would have…”

“I would have?”

“You chose me! If it had been real… you would have sent me to my death.”

“I know. I didn’t mean too. I am so sorry. I never could. You are my friend.”

“Well friends don’t send each other to their death.”

We looked at each other for a moment.

It was painful.

I was ashamed.

He was disappointed.

Thankfully, he saved me from my embarrassment when he put an end to it as he held out the package for me to take.

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