After the Tilt: Book 2

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Chapter 24: The Land of the Gods

“Orders had been given. The trigger should have been pulled.

But the soldier hesitated.

One second of hesitation was all it took.

I looked the soldier straight in the eye and said sternly: ‘Your Colonel has given you an order.’

Faster than a falcon in a dive, I grabbed the soldier and threw him over my shoulder. I had been trained in the indigenous martial art of Okichitaw, ever since I was a young child and always did very well in hand to hand combat.

Before anyone could react, I was sitting over the soldier, holding him by the throat. Screaming over and over again: ‘Your Colonel has given you an order!’

Punching him in the face after every sentence, I didn’t let go until I was grabbed from behind by two men.

In that split second of hesitation, I had died and been reborn.

I was held up to face the Colonel. I was still screaming: ‘Your Colonel has given you an order.’

The Colonel walked over to the soldier still down on the ground. Grabbed his pistol and shot him in the back four times muttering: ‘When I give an order, you obey!’

The sound of the pistol stunned me; I fell quiet.

The Colonel made his way toward me. Pistol still in hand.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘Fiori Falx,’ I answered confidently.

‘Where did you come from?’ he asked.

‘The other side of the world. The burning side,’ I answered with arrogance.

‘Why did you come here?’ he asked.

‘To see if Gods really exist,’ I answered, mocking him.

‘Where did you learn to fight like that?’ he asked.

‘When the world burns and resources become scarce, fighting comes naturally,’ I answered with pride.

Not getting the answers he wanted, the Colonel walked away. But as he did, that new being that had been reborn within me screamed out: ‘Let me fight for you! Let me in the Land of the Gods and I will fight for you!’

There was no desperation in my voice. There was authority and assertiveness.

The Colonel stopped in his tracks and slowly turned. On his face, I saw both amusement and anger.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Take on each and everyone of my soldiers, win, and I will consider your request.’

I did a quick head count. There had been fifteen of them, there were now fourteen left. I wiped the sweat of my palms on the side of my pants, and positioned myself, ready to fight. My body was exhausted from the journey, but a surge of power besieged me from some deep-down cavern in my spirit.

They encircled me with the advantage. They had strength in numbers. They were healthy young men and women. I braced myself, knowing, I stood no chance.

The first three came at me quickly. They were big and heavy. A punch landed sending me to the ground, black spots filling my field of vision. I had to fight back, or I’d become their punching bag. Speed couldn’t be my only advantage against them, so I went for their eyes. As I laid on the ground, I grabbed a handful of sand and threw it at the face of my nearest attacker. It did the trick and in the short moment of his confusion, I was able to grab him by the head and snap his neck. But before the body even hit the ground, another punch sent me flying. I was grabbed from behind by another soldier who had just entered the fray. I was able to lift my legs just in time to kick one in the face. I repositioned myself away from them. I was still alive.

More joined in. It became a disorganized brawl and that somehow played to my advantage. I kept low to the ground and was able to grab a piece of driftwood. I started crushing bones. Soon soldiers littered the ground. But it wasn’t without damage to me. I was now blinded by the blood on my face; my left rib broken.

I could see one soldier had yet to join the fight. That soldier stood tall to the side. Once or twice our eyes met. That soldier, with jet black hair, visibly unmoved by the imminent defeat of their unit at the hands of a single man, had been studying my every move.

I could tell.

I kept on fighting with rage, with anger, with desperation and hope. With every fallen soldier, I was avenging my village’s people. My strength was long gone, but I carried with me their spirits and could feel their energy supporting me, lifting me up, keeping me from going down.

I looked around for my next opponent, avoiding imaginary punches; ready to defend myself…but none came. Yet, that tall soldier still stood to the side, unmoved.

‘ARGHHHHH! FIGHT ME!’ I screamed trying to entice the last remaining obstacle.

That tall soldier took a step forward. Their arms folded behind their back.

‘Colonel, permission to talk?’

I blinked and wiped the blood off my face.

‘Permission granted,’ the Colonel said.

‘Colonel, with all due respect, If I fight this man, he will die.’

The Colonel frowned.

‘I believe this man has proven himself and could be a great asset to us,’ continued the soldier.

The Colonel took a deep breath.

‘Very well! I respect your opinion. If you feel that strongly about his skills, then without any doubts you will be ok with relinquishing your rank to him.’

There was an awkward pause.

I pulled my fist closer to my body and prepared myself to re-engage.

The soldier was looking at me, expressionless.

‘Very well, Colonel, consider me demoted.’

My arms fell to my side. At my feet, fourteen bodies covered the ground, some wailing in pain, some dead. The Colonel left without a word to me. The lone soldier, who had stood in my defense, directed me to follow them.

As we walked away from the shore, the soldier turned to me and said: ‘The Land of the Gods does not exist. It is in Hell you arrived. You would have been better off to land on a Control Group Island. But now that you are here, consider yourself already dead.’

We reached a military camp where I was ordered to wash up and change. I was fed too. The soldier stayed by my side, showing me around. I learned their name was Yuki. They had been a Lieutenant Colonel but because of me, were now demoted to the rank of Major. Yet they showed no grudge.

From then on, I did what I had to do. Time passed. I killed…and I killed again. I protected the Land of the Gods, though, never did I see the gods; not once.

I quickly made my way up through the ranks. I became an important tactician. I brought in new ways of thinking, new ways of waging war. I had not forgotten Yuki’s actions that day, and with every rank I climbed, I brought them along with me. But I soon discovered, as Yuki had warned me, there was nothing godly about Antarticum. Antarticum was yet another failed attempt at saving humanity. It was ugly. It was dirty. It was corrupted and unethical. Yet, I protected it.

I had become essential to the army. By the time I was 29, I had been made General. Yuki was my Lieutenant General. I had thousands of Aethereusians under my control. But, deep down, I knew, I was not a good man. I was a tool being used to enforce species segregation and eugenic cleansing. I was a tool in the orchestration of orphanages and Aethereusian military training.

It was for the sake of humanity; I was reminded everyday. But who’s humanity? I had seen the generational devastation left by residential schools on my people. Orphanages posed a similar threat.

Most of my soldiers were Aethereusians who had been removed from their families; some were volunteers from control groups. I spent my days surrounded by them. I listened to their stories. I heard them scream at night, tortured by their repressed memories. I made friends of them. Some very dear. But in the end, all I achieved was to protect the system that enslaved them.

I had to make a choice. I could live like that for the rest of my life. This was, after all, a fight that wasn’t mine. I enjoyed there, a privileged life of luxury that came with my rank. I attended lavish parties held by government officials. I lived in a beautiful apartment, ate meat once a week and had reliable electricity.

But always at the back of my mind, I knew, I wasn’t a good man.

I met Shan Li, for the first time, at one of those parties. He was as close to a God as you could imagine. Back then, the government had him on a pedestal. He was their pride, their most promising accomplishment. But his fortune quickly took a turn for the worst.

Shan Li arrived with his wife and their son. I had heard the stories. I knew what tragedies had befallen on this renowned family. I knew they had been granted the custody of their oldest Aethereusian daughter. That child had, in the past, been paraded around and shown off like a trophy. Then things changed…. The child suddenly disappeared from the public eye. I myself had never seen her in person. I knew they had had another child after that, a child who had been seized by the government and placed in an orphanage. The child they had with them, was their third born. The only one of their children who had not been born with aethereusian characteristics. The child must have been five or six years old when I met them. He was quiet.

The mother, who had once been an important member of the group of scientists at the Center on Life Design, appeared to me to be lifeless, confused at times. Shan Li too, did not seem quite himself. He was nervous, anxious, definitively on edge. I was quickly introduced to them, but our interaction ended there.

If I had known back then… If I had known what Hana had been put through by this monster… I would have killed them. No! Tortured them.

Slowly...

Painfully…

Following that encounter, I often dreamed about that little boy. The quiet one; Evian. Vivid dreams in which the boy would show me things. I didn’t pay attention back then, but I know now, he was planting the seeds that would lead me to desert the army.

For years, I believed I had met Hana by coincidence. But now I know that I had been led to her, directly, for a reason. With all my heart and soul, I poured myself into supporting Hana. She became my best friend, my everything. She brought back in me, the person I had forgotten. She opened my eyes to what was important in life. She gave me a family, a home, a purpose.

She asked of me so little.

Yet, I couldn’t do it.

Did I love your sister?

No, I didn’t.

But in the Hell, my life had been, she was a glimmer of hope. When I was with her, I felt like a good man.”

He started crying, honest tears.

Time stood still.

The man I admired, cried.

He cried for his wife. He cried for his village. He cried for my sister.

I watched him as he freed himself from years of accumulated guilt, deception and grief.

I wished I could join him. But no tears came. I was numb. Void of all feelings.

Time passed and his tears became a gentle sob.

With the back of his sleeve, he wiped his face.

“I realize now, I knew nothing about your sister. I didn’t know she was Shan Li’s daughter. I didn’t know she was your sibling. I knew Evian, but never knew their connection. I knew she had been ill-treated but didn’t know the extent of it. I thought she was my friend. But now I realize, I don’t know who she was.”

He got up and went to leave but stumbled over the bench. I rushed around the table and lifted him from the side. I walked him back to his tent and helped him into his bed.

Dried up tears on his cheeks, the man laying there was damaged. Like the rest of us, he was a shadow of what he could have been. I felt no pity for him, we were both caught in the same Hell. I still admired him. His straightforwardness was a strength many lacked. It was easy to understand why Hana would have trusted him so completely.

He was already snoring as I exited the tent.

Outside the air was crisp. The stars were brighter than I had ever seen them before. Amidst them, a white streak split the sky. It was mesmerizing. I walked to a clearing by the river and laid down on the frozen grass, still thinking about Fiori’s story.

Who was Hana, I wondered? Even I didn’t know the answer to that.

As I finally closed my eyes and heard the workers setting off for the day, I surrendered myself to the necessity of sleep.

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