After the Fall (Chronicle)

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After the Fall

After my wife of forty years passed away, and after I'd grieved for a long and quiet time, I gave in at last and took up some old hobbies. I needed something to do. A mind my age will begin to fade if not put to use, and I had no intention of becoming one of those ciphers who stops leaving tracks in the earth altogether.

I began gardening again, carting away the grass from part of our yard and setting down rows of seedlings in the bare dirt. I hadn't done it since before I met Levotta, when I'd put all that aside to get married and start a family. It had been a hard choice. Others in my position might've tried to keep everything going, but life's never worked that way in my opinion. You focus your energy on what you're doing or you don't do it at all, and you don't mix activities that need your full dedication. I decided I belonged to Levotta and our kids.

The kids grew up with ambition and drive, and one by one they moved away to distant continents, until it was only Levotta and me, and now only me. So I began gardening. Also, I got a dog, who I quickly grew fond of but somehow never got around to naming. Life was alright for us Gallente on Caldari Prime, as it had been ever since I could remember. Gardening turned out to be more difficult than I thought, because although I still had a bit of my wiry strength, and remembered how to use my tools, I was old, and out of practice. But I persisted. It was a purpose.

Then the Caldari came back.

People I'd known for decades were suddenly taken, carted off to some rumored underwater city. My neighbors on both sides disappeared in the space of one night. Caldari guards roamed the streets, and a Titan scarred the sky above us. Institutions were gutted, their top tiers replaced with staff hand-picked by the invaders. The infrastructure of daily life began to crack, then crumble. Necessities didn't make their way from the country into the cities, and help for anything became increasingly hard to come by. For a while I was worried that we'd all get killed, not by some final assault by the invading Caldari, but in a rebellion by the increasingly desperate Gallente.

But the Caldari, heartless though they can be, are also ruthlessly efficient, and to their credit they had no intention of letting us turn into animals. Not that it was entirely up to them, but they certainly had plans in place. Some of our people were relocated - making use of the homes left emptied when they'd rounded up the political dissidents - so that we were more tightly clustered together. This lessened the need for guard patrols, heightened our sense of community, and calmed people down for a while. Basic services were restored; we were still in the dark half the time, but at least we had running water and heat, and some inklings of a barter economy.

Not long after, they began to build the walls. That got everyone riled up again. We realized we had become prisoners in our own homes, with the more prosperous areas of the city reserved for incoming Caldari settlers. Those Caldari were subsidized, we discovered, by Tibus Heth's government, and thus were set up to create a far more prosperous society than what we had to work with. Once the walls were up and the Caldari had settled on the other side, our people were only let through under exceptional circumstances, and never allowed to stay for long. The occasional deserter attempted to flee our side, but they were always caught and either brought back or shot.

All the while, I tended to my garden, which consistently took over more of my yard, and to my dog, whom I grew to love more deeply with each day. Our people had slowly formed into divisions of constant anger on one side and weary apathy on the other, and I was glad to have the company of someone who was simply happy to be alive and didn't judge me or anyone else. For our society it was as if there had been a death in the family, like a parent had passed away. After the initial surge of anger, frustration and rebellion, what we were left with was the gaping absence of a central figure to hold things together and lead by example, and an utter impotence to do anything about it. No wonder we turned on ourselves.

That division, of anger and ennui, became emblematic of our society in the years that followed. There was chaos, but it was a roiling, churning kind, constantly simmering without ever quite reaching a boiling point. Fertile breeding ground for darkness, in fact. Crime grew, and some parts of the city became astoundingly dangerous, but the guards - Caldari guards - kept things somewhat in check. I knew their patrols and saw how their mere presence served both to calm people down and to anger them. I think we lashed out as much at ourselves and our own ineffectiveness as we did at the invading force. Deep down we knew that even if the Caldari citizens on the other side of those walls had not been given anything, no subsidies, no guards, no watchful Titan floating in the sky, they still would have made a better life out of things than we managed.

I was ashamed of my people, in all honesty. We weren't prepared to make hard choices. Gallente are notorious for acting on whims and fancies, but I would have liked to see us pull together and make something out of this mess. Instead we had broken windows, robberies, disappearances, news of almost daily assaults on innocent people, and all of it chewed over in a low-level, insistent chattery nagging by people too unhappy to live decent lives with what they had, but too afraid of the world to do anything about it.

And all of that made me angry, too, and made me feel powerless and weak, which wasn't helping anyone. So I focused on my garden, where at least I could get something done. The more we descended into chaos, the easier it was for me to let go of distractions; all I needed to do was keep my focus while everyone else lost theirs. The houses to either side of me had never been re-occupied, and since the yards were only separated by ankle-high fences, I allowed my garden to grow into them, taking up the space it needed thanks to all my efforts. Most of it was given over to vegetables and herbs, with the occasional cluster of flowers for a little color.

They tried scaring me a few times. I'd wake to hear loud voices outside my house, from people clearly agitating themselves up for something. A few times I had things thrown at my windows - never rocks, usually just trash from the streets. But I had a dog, and it was a large and fearless dog, and it would be awake, alert, chomping at the bit to be let out. All I had to do was open the front door and he would race out, growling, to scare these people away. I never worried that they might hurt him, put a gun to him or anything of that sort. People with serious weapons are not people who throw trash at windows, and they're certainly not people who could hit a fast, angry, moving target that's about to tear into them. I chalked their presence up to random chaos, not express ill will.

Until my dog disappeared.

It wasn't uncommon for him to go wandering during the day, but he was smart enough to know to come back before nightfall. It was dangerous out in the city after dark, and he knew I needed him here. The first night, I tried not to worry, and assumed that he'd be back by morning. I slept little and woke far too early, only to find that he still hadn't returned.

That day I made my way into the city, asking around, looking for him, shouting in the vain hope he'd recognizes my voice. The grimy streets gave me no answers, and the hundreds of people I ended up speaking to either said they hadn't seen him, or, to my anger and frustration, ignored me altogether. I was just an old man to them, shouting in the streets, forgotten after his passage. I was a cipher.

I spent the entire day wandering around, and the evening, until it started turning into pitch-black night. People warned me to avoid the areas I walked through, but I ignored them and kept going. I knew my way around the city, and I moved quietly and unseen.

When the sun finally rose, I returned to my home, hoping against hope he would have returned. But the house was empty. I ate and drank, because I had to, and I showered and shaved, because I would need to keep talking to people and I couldn't afford to take on a disheveled appearance, and then I left the house again. The garden would take care of itself for a while.

It was five days before I gave up. I was exhausted. I hadn't slept more than a handful of hours, my legs were cramping up constantly, and my voice was barely even a hoarse whisper. I lay down on my bed in my clothes, utterly unable to sleep. I was ruined; I was filled with so much grief that I couldn't even process it. That dog had been my friend and my only companion for years. All the feelings of loss and loneliness over Levotta's death came flooding back, adding to the desperate helplessness I already felt at having lost my best and only friend. I couldn't even process it, so I lay there, empty and hollow, a truer cipher than ever.

In the whorl of thoughts I must have slept, for suddenly it was evening again, and there were noises outside. It took me a while to realize where I was and what was going on, and I had the strangest feeling that the noises had been ongoing for some time. It was only when I realized they were coming from the back of the house, not from the street, that I swiftly rose from my bed and walked to my window. What I saw made my stomach sink.

Part of the garden was in ruins. Plants had been torn up, torn and scattered, and the earth had been trampled down. There were people, my people, lying in the dirt, not moving; and I gasped when I saw shovels beside them.

Caldari guards surrounded them, weapons drawn. I rushed out the door and into the yard, not knowing what I was getting myself into. If I hadn't been so distraught over the loss of my dog, I would never have walked into the middle of things like that; but I was completely heedless over my own fate, and ready for the guards to put a bullet in me at a moment's notice.

They welcomed me. An old man, exhausted and at the end of his rope, and the hated enemies of my people treated me like one of their own. They talked to me in quiet tones, explaining several times over what had been going on, and they listened to what I had to say even though half of it was panicked, sleep-deprived babble delivered in a voice that was still barely audible.

They had known about my garden for a while. They spoke of it with respect, and I got the unmistakable feeling that they found it to be a small patch of honest life in a civilization that had gone to a grey, dead ruin. At that moment in time, I didn't disagree with them in the slightest.

One of their own had been on patrol when he'd heard voices from my garden, and had walked over to see the Gallente - my supposed people - trashing it. He'd warned them, they had resisted, he had called for backup, and the end result was a group of unconscious young people with scorch wounds and burns from crowd control weapons wielded with no hesitation.

I couldn't say I felt bad about it. This hadn't just been a spur-of-the-moment trampling. It had been planned. They'd brought shovels, with the clear intention of turning the entire garden over. They had been planning to irrevocably ruin what little quiet patch I had built for myself here, and they would have succeeded. In the state I was, this would have ended me, for good.

I offered the guards all the herbs and vegetables they wanted, and they declined with polite amusement. They told me they would spread the word that I and my garden weren't to be touched, and if that either were harmed in any fashion, there'd be a scouring. I thanked them profusely. They left me after a while, carting off the miscreants and promising to keep an eye out for my dog.

The attack on my garden, vindictive as it had been, helped me survive. It brought back everything I felt about a life lived with purpose, with unyielding focus and no regrets. The losses I had suffered began to recede again; I would deal with them in time, when I was ready. The growing distaste I felt for my own people, and the corresponding shameful sympathies I had with the Caldari, both began to fade from my mind; I would not judge myself for who I was, no matter what others thought. I was a driven man who had been blessed, at my old age, with the health and the mental acuity to fulfill a purpose on this earth, and if this made other people hate me and wish me harm, it was none of my concern. I had my garden. I would tend it, I would give the earth all the nourishment it needed, and I would let it grow, flourish, and outlast me, in the shadow of the Titan above us.

I would have kept on gardening for many, many years, hidden in that shadow, but only a few weeks after that incident, something happened. A strange quiet fell over the district. The guard patrols stopped. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but a persistent rumor arose that there were ongoing battles elsewhere on the planet.

I worried about my children. Communications between districts had been cut off for years - we would be notified of deaths in the family, nothing more - and I had long since made a conscious effort to believe they were prospering and not think about it beyond that. But now, having no word from them, my mind went racing with all the terrible possibilities.

Days passed. Sometimes I would hear the faintest sounds, as of thunderstorms approaching, and others I asked confirmed it. The guard patrols didn't start up again, and I began to worry, about me, my garden, and about the entire district.

There were still guards on the walls, and although they wouldn't speak to us from their towers, I went there as often as I dared without attracting undue attention, just to see if I could hear anything. Old men can sit still and unnoticed for hours - it's one of the few benefits of being at my age - and I eventually started catching snippets of conversation. Something was going on, both on the planet and up in space. They mentioned battles, and troops that didn't seem to stop. Tibus Heth had nearly died at some point, and now they didn't know what to make of the commands trickling down from above. They were uncertain, and very worried.

I woke one night to a booming rumble. The entire house trembled. My first thought was that a bomb had gone off nearby, and in my groggy stupor I rushed out to the garden to see if anything was amiss there, but found nothing out of the ordinary. A light passed over me, but before I could look up to see what it was, another rumble hit, so loud that I fell to my knees, clutching my ears.

When it had passed, I looked up to the sky, to one of the most amazing sights of my life. The Titan, that behemoth which had floated impossibly in the skies above us for all those years, was alight. I stared at it, my brain barely able to comprehend the gigantic magnitude of what I was seeing, as other vessels - themselves surely giants - flew around it, weapons fire flitting everywhere.

The rumble continued, this time with less noise but enough tremor to shake me on my feet, and I realized that it couldn't possibly be coming from the battle in the skies; those ships would be outside our atmosphere. I rushed to get a ladder and climbed up on my roof, which wasn't that high but at least granted me a slightly better view of the horizon.

There were lights there, very faint but unmistakable, all on the same part of the horizon. I scrambled down the ladder again as fast as my old legs would let me, found my binoculars in the house, and went back up to look again. They were definitely lights, probably from explosions. They were so far away, and so hard to make out, that I realized they were in another district, possibly on the other side of the continent. I wondered if the same thing were happening elsewhere on the planet.

Something else had been gnawing at me ever since I'd gotten up on the roof, and I finally realized what it was. I pointed my binoculars at the walls. There were no guards. None. They had all been called away, or fled.

I had a few moments to wonder what it meant. Then there was a blinding flash from above, and when I looked up I saw the most incredible sight of my life. The Titan, stately and majestic, slowly cracked in half, as if were being torn apart by the hands of God. In a barrage of explosions that seemed to reach across the sky, I saw the thing, this symbol of the Caldari statehood on our planet, fall to pieces and began to hurtle toward us, and in that moment more than any other of my life I accepted the fact that I truly might die before I could let out the breath in my lungs.

The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back, still on the roof, shaken and half-deaf.

I remembered the pieces growing larger and larger still, and I remembered that I had seen them in an arc - which, my old, scrambled brain whispered to me, meant they had fallen elsewhere - and then I remembered the impact that had shaken me off my feet.

There was a ringing in my ears, and it felt as if it were blocking out something I should be hearing. Still feeling unsteady, I slowly crawled on my hands and knees until I got back to the ladder, which I went down one careful step at a time until I reached the garden. I sat there, breathing quietly, trying to shake off the ringing and hear what was beneath it. Something compelled me to go back into the house, where I barely noticed how everything had fallen off every shelf, because the ringing was a little quieter now and was being replaced by a familiar sound. Not daring even to hope it was true, not thinking that I deserved it after everything that had happened, I shuffled to the front door, and I opened it, and my dog was there, barking happily at me, and as it jumped into my arms I fell to my knees and hugged it and cried as it licked my face.

I spent the next day packing, with intermittent pauses to play with the dog and hold it in my arms. The earth in my garden was well-packed with nutrients, enough to let it sprout for as long as it were left untouched. The entire sky was blocked out with smoke and ash, but I assumed it would clear soon enough.

The guards hadn't returned. I heard the sounds of hammers, and knew that some brave souls had decided to bring down the walls. Soon we would see how the other half had been living, and they would see us. Some would cross over, but I imagined that for the time being we would keep to ourselves, to the supposed safety of our own people.

And I was afraid now. We had been waiting in shadow these last few years, letting the darkness suffuse us, and some of us had been nursing our grudges. To some of my own people I'd been branded as an enemy, a conspirator. Eventually there would be a reckoning, and they would come for me; not because it was right, or even just, but because they would be compelled to do it by their inner natures. To lash out; to hurt; to violently set right a wrong that existed only inside their heads.

To do what they would find themselves compelled to do, without hesitation or guilt - that could come later, if it ever did - and with utter, unrelenting focus. No matter what. I knew that impulse better than any of them, I suspected.

So I packed, and got ready for a long journey, hoping I'd be a long way gone before they arrived.

Because sooner or later they'd wonder why my plants were growing so well, in this forsaken place. And eventually they'd come in with shovels, either to investigate or destroy.

And it wouldn't be long before they started finding the bodies.

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