Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mirai: a Promise to Tomorrow--Chapter II

This is a chapter from my novel. If you like it, you can buy the novel from Amazon or Author's Den  (also available on Kindle for $0.99).

In the future following the Collapse, former rebel Zaq Martial just wanted to get away from his problems. But it turns out that's not so easy. He finds himself pursued not only by an oppressive government, but also by a vengeful ex-girlfriend. If he can survive that as well as superhuman enemies, a violent split personality, and even his own quirky allies, he may just become the hero the world needs. Can he stop the ruthless Benefactors, led by dangerous beauty Yamiyo? Or will humanity be led down an eternal dark path devoid of free will?

Chapter II—You’re Never Alone (For Better or Worse)

Zaq sat in the tiny makeshift daycare in that old building in New Babylon Zone. The grimy brown walls were peeling down to the stone floor, which—though sweeped often—was hard and cracked in numerous places, making it uncomfortable to sit on. After about an hour of it your botty became so sore you just had to get up. The grownups told him he was big enough now to sit in a chair, but those weren’t any better than the floor….just higher up. One day he would be able to go on snarkin missions just like the grownups, but they said for now he still had a lot of learning to do.
            His eyes were glued to the piece of paper on the floor. Sunlight filtered in through the splintered glass window, giving him plenty of light to see. He finished up his drawing with the crude crayons the grownups had provided him with. He didn’t expect anyone to go crazy over the portrait; after all, this wasn’t for anyone but him. And maybe her.
            Reima walked into the room. Her hair, dark as night, was held up in pig tails, and her little pink overalls gave her a more girly appearance than she would have later on. “Whatcha doin’, Zahk?” She hadn’t yet learned to pronounce his name right. They had known each other for about a year now.
            He grabbed the paper and shoved it behind his back. “Nothing.”
            Her dubious expression made it clear he was not convincing at all. “What’s that?”
            “What’s what?”
            She pointed at him, though she was obviously pointing through him. “What’s behind your back?”
            “Uh, nothing. Just….nothing.” Part of him wanted to show her, but most of him was too embarrassed. What would she think? And what if she went and told everyone. He wouldn’t be able to go on any missions if they knew about this. Only tough guys got to go on missions.
            “Oh, OK.” She turned to leave, and then suddenly lunged to his left side. She groped behind him, struggling with his resistant hands. Despite his frantic pleas to stop, she would do no such thing. After several frantic moments she wrestled the paper away from him. Realizing he had lost this battle, he resigned himself to his fate. “It’s me,” she said.
            Yes, despite the crudeness of the drawing, she knew enough of what she looked like to recognize a picture of herself. “Well….what do you think?” he asked. Was her opinion of him now totally destroyed? Would his first crush be for nothing?
            “It’s pretty snarkin,” she said.
            That wasn’t what he was expected to hear, but that was what he secretly wished to hear. He wanted to smile as much as he could, but restrained himself in the event this was some cruel joke on her part. “You really think so?”
            “Yeah, sure! It’s not as cute as me, but it’s pretty good.”
            She gave it back to him and he looked at it. The dark pigtailed hair and the pink overalls were there, along with a smile plastered on the crudely-drawn face. However, an icy chill ran down his small back as he realized the portrait was changing. The person in it was getting taller. No, not simply taller, he realized. Older. The pig tails disappeared as the hair grew down to the now widened (though still slender) shoulders.
            He sat there transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away from the shocking metamorphosis his drawing of Reima was undergoing. Within moments the pink of her clothes phased into pure black. But what was most unnerving was the change in the drawing’s expression. The innocent smile had been replaced by a mouth opened to reveal anger. The picture was mad at him, and he knew why. Even though his hurtful act would not happen for years, somehow he and the picture were both aware of it.
            “Reima!” He finally managed to look up from the piece of paper. Reima was gone, though. The innocent one who had taken the drawing was no longer in the room. The room itself was rapidly growing dark, as if the sun was in a hurry and couldn’t wait to get to bed. Also, the walls and ceiling were cracking and falling apart around him. Time was moving forward too fast and he wasn’t ready for it. Before he knew it darkness enveloped him with its voracity.
His eyes burst open like a drowning victim racing for the surface. At first he didn’t know where he was. As the moments passed he realized he lay downstairs in the old couple’s house. So I can’t escape, even in my dreams, he thought with a certain heaviness weighing on him. The Lithics slept upstairs and darkness filled the house as it had in his dream. Zaq felt sufficiently rested—and at any rate he had no desire to go back to sleep—so he decided to leave right then and there. Grabbing his bags, he crept out the front door and walked ahead about a hundred yards before stopping to get his bearings. He had come out of the woods several miles to the east and had made his way along the plains to the Lithics’ house. He had a map in his round bag, but he would have to break open one of his light sticks to read it, and he was afraid its glow might wake the old couple. He knew the old man would insist he stay the whole night with them, and he’d decided he had slept enough for the time being. Besides, he knew the risk he posed to them, and couldn’t endanger them any more than he’d already done.
There was an area of woods about a third of a mile west of his current position which he had come through on the way to the Lithics’ house, and which would be a good place to lay low while he fully recovered his strength. He regretted having been in such a rush that he ate little food, all in an attempt to get away from his home in New Babylon Zone. Fortunately, his trek would be made easier by the light of the moon. It was full that night.
            Nevertheless, he didn’t get more than thirty feet from the house when he noticed a rustling up ahead in the small grove to his left. Intruders. He decided to lead them away from the house and spare the old couple any more problems. That was assuming, of course, that they were after him and not the Lithics. The chances of either scenario were equally good.
            He walked a few yards and saw three figures emerge from the woods, skulking towards him. He couldn’t tell for sure, but judging by their black uniforms he was pretty sure they were Benefactor agents. As they got close he could see none of them had red pips on their shoulders. Not officers, then. That wasn’t surprising; why sneak around in the dead of night when you could send subs to do it for you? He also noticed they were wearing black face masks which only allowed their eyes to show. They brandished sleek knives as well. Definitely the Assassin Corps.
            “What do you want?” he said. As an answer, they rushed him. That was stupid question to ask the Assassin Corps, he realized.
Using standard Corps tactics, the one in the middle took the lead while the other two moved to flank Zaq on either side. The leader jabbed at him with his knife while Lefty and Righty stuck close to Zaq’s flanks waiting for Zaq to make a move. Zaq grabbed Leader’s arm and Lefty and Righty moved in with their knives to attack their preoccupied prey. Zaq kicked Lefty in the stomach, stunning him, and twisted Leader’s arm so the elbow faced the ground. Zaq then quickly applied pressure to Leader’s arm in order to bend it the way it wasn’t meant to bend. Leader grunted in pain and dropped his knife. Zaq caught it in mid-air and plunged it into his gut. Leader fell to the ground and Zaq turned to face Lefty and Righty.
            By this point Lefty and recovered from the kick, and Righty (who hadn’t made any attempt to attack, probably because he wasn’t keen on taking the same punishment as Lefty and Leader) just stood there. Lefty made some hand motion and they both charged Zaq. Lefty leaned in with his knife just as Leader had done, but it was just a feint. He quickly dropped his stabbing arm and raised his left hand to grab Zaq’s throat and hold him while Righty moved in for the kill.
            Undaunted, Zaq ran his knife through Lefty’s left wrist. He howled in pain and Zaq rolled out of the way right as Righty gave Lefty the knife he had meant for Zaq. Lefty went down and Zaq capitalized on Righty’s surprise by stabbing him in the kidney. With all three of the assassins out of the way, he could breathe and think about what he should do next.
At that moment, however, his attention was sharply diverted by a thunderous sound accompanied by a rush of fire bursting from the windows of the upstairs of the house. The old couples’ room! he thought to himself as he realized where the explosion had come from. He rushed to the front door, hoping the Lithics weren’t caught in the explosion. Maybe he’d still be able to save them. He stopped suddenly as the door flew off its hinges toward him by a crash from the other side. It came to a stop right at his feet. Then he saw an ominous figure emerge from the doorway. The light from the fire above enabled Zaq to just barely make out the features on this apparition. It seemed to be clothed entirely in black; even its head was black, except for a strange marking where its eyes should be. It seemed to be a silver figure-eight marking. It stood perhaps six-foot-six and had a sword sheathed at its side. What on Mirai is going on here? Have I finally lost it? Please tell me I have. At that point the apparition spoke in a mechanized voice, genderless yet deep. “So you were out here. This is fortunate. We were hoping we’d be able to spare you.”
            Zaq’s jaw had dropped almost too far for him to speak. “Who are you?” he yelled. He had been trained to deal with mere mortals, but the entity standing before him struck him as a little more than that. He had never before seen anything like this.
            The being gave Zaq a slight bow. “I am a Benefactor agent stationed to this zone. I work for the Jacobin Cell. My designation is Starblood. I was sent here to clean this area.”
            Zaq couldn’t believe it. Had that thing really said what he thought it said? The color drained from his face. “’Clean’? You killed them! What could they have possibly done to deserve this?”         
It shrugged. “Their only crime was meeting you, Zaq Martial. But that is enough to warrant their extermination.”
            “How do you know my name?”
            It took a step toward him. “Please do not insult us. Of course we know who you are: Zaq Martial, former member of the Camisard Liberation Front, formerly stationed in the Babylon Zone on the eastern coastline.”
            “Correct. That dissident gathering has since been cleaned.”
            The color returned to Zaq’s face as a seething red. “You’re lying!”
            “And what reason would we have to lie? We are the Benefactors. We can achieve any end without the use of deception. I could kill you right here and now if such were my orders. Fortunately for you, they are not.”
            “Why did you kill the old couple!? Meeting me is hardly a justification!”
            “If you stop and think clearly you will see that it is. That group of radicals put no shortage of dangerous ideals into your head. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how many of said ideals you may have imparted to those two in this house. We have to cut off all potential sources of dissidence at the source. Thus this area had to be cleaned. Dissention is like a virus; it consumes those it comes into contact with and continues to spread. You should be thankful that there are few people living here for you to compromise.”
Zaq found his rage boiling to the surface. All the stress he had been under for the past few weeks culminated in this encounter. “That’s your reason? I’ll make you pay for this!”
            “Do not act hastily. We have a proposition for you. We want you to join the Benefactors. Do not think we haven’t seen what a talented soldier you are. You would have the opportunity to help ensure the peace and stability of all mankind.”
            Zaq spit onto the ground. He couldn’t believe the nerve this monster had to say such things to him after killing the Lithics in cold blood. “Join you? You seem to be forgetting all the ‘dangerous ideals’ that have been put into my head. They’re keeping me from even considering such a mistake. Besides, your Assassin Corps just tried to kill me.”
It looked up at the sky, as if in contemplation. “Their orders were to kill anyone who tried to escape. What good are assassins who don’t kill?” It stared at Zaq. “I understand the events of this evening are clouding your judgment right now. We will give you twenty-four hours to respond.”
            “I don’t need twenty-four hours! I’ll respond right now!” Zaq moved to open his slender bag containing his weapon, but in a blur the specter reached for its sword, removed it from its sheath and jabbed Zaq in the throat with its gold-plated handle. As he fell to the ground, the last thing he heard was the specter’s voice.
“I suppose your judgment has been clouded more than I realized. Don’t worry; I’ll put you a safe distance from this burning building before I leave.”

Two weeks earlier.
Reima threw on her black cloak and bounded out of the ancient building and down the steps leading to the rest of the ruined city of New Babylon Zone. The sky was a despondent grey above her. The young woman, furious because of what had just happened, set out to make things right.
            Her friend Jayna, an adolescent girl with sandy brown hair and freckles, ran out after her. “Reima! Where are you going?” Reima stopped momentarily at the bottom of the steps to respond. She didn’t want to waste time arguing when there was something she needed to do.
            “Where do you think? I’m going after Zaq!”
            “You don’t have authorization to leave. You could compromise us all!” She was hopeful, but she didn’t think that would be enough to dissuade Reima in her current state of mind.
            “Zaq may have already done that. I’m going to find that pillfurk and drag him back here. Besides, no one knows where Fox is right now, so I couldn’t get authorization even if I wanted to.”
            Reima’s use of that vulgar insult “pillfurk” may have surprised Jayna, but the latter apparently had no intention of giving up on talking some sense into her friend. “What if the Benefactors spot either of you? You know we have to keep a low profile in this zone.” Reima had known Jayna for many years, although the two had never been as close as Reima and Zaq, Reima’s partner in the resistance. Still, she knew Jayna cared about her and didn’t want her doing anything reckless.
            “All the more reason for me to hurry up and bring him back here.” Reima ran again and Jayna tried one last time to stop her.
            “I’m sure he’ll be back soon. Just stay here and wait for him!”
            “No!” Jayna could only let Reima go and hope everything would be all right, that she would bring Zaq back to them.
            Soon Reima ran a mile through the ruins of the once-mighty metropolis of the Western Continent. Tired, she decided to stop and rest. She sat down on the cracked pavement of the city streets and looked around her. Heaps of rubble and buildings stretched out in all directions like a sea of concrete and steel. Many buildings in the zone looked fairly intact while others were completely collapsed. Neither Reima nor her fellow Camisards were supposed to go into them because Fox and the Quorum said it was dangerous, that there was no telling when the structures would fall apart. Though the island city was darkened with heavy clouds above, she could see in the distance the river that flowed between the city and the mainland across from it. A single large bridge connected the ruined city with the mainland, though originally there had been four such bridges. There was also once an underground tunnel that led to the mainland, but it had been damaged and flooded long ago after the Collapse; meaning the only way in and out of the city was the lone bridge.
            She sighed and looked up at the sky. She stared at clouds that extended as far as the eye could see, and she thought that maybe Jayna was right. Maybe she should just return to base and wait for Zaq. Something, however, told her that he wasn’t coming back. That ate at her and she couldn’t stand it. What gave him the right to just run off like that? Didn’t he realize people were counting on him? Even though she had a pretty good idea of why he left, she still wanted to deck him. He was more useless than the headless green statue that stood crumbling on the little island outside the city. Zaq, do you really fear the future that much?
            Suddenly the clouds swirled, catching Reima’s attention. A faint, far-off sound reached her ears from up in the sky somewhere. What is going on? She thought to herself. The sound slowly increased for a minute until it became a deafening roar. Reima covered her ears as the clouds parted and a beam of light burst through. Too late, realization dawned on her and she knew what was happening. The massive light descended onto the building in the distance, the building that she had just come from. It was the building that Jayna and everyone else were inside.
            No! she screamed inside her head.
            Instinctively Reima dived behind a massive pile of concrete that was once a thirty-story building, as the light hit their base. She squeezed her eyes closed and kept her hands on her ears as the base went up in a blinding flash. The roar was almost unbearable to her ears, and her chosen barricade shook as dirt and rubble flew past it with a deafening WHOOSH! It felt as if she had suddenly been caught in a hurricane. She silently wished that was the case; it would have been much easier to bear.
            At that moment, everything changed.

Awareness slowly returned to him that morning. Zaq wasn’t sure how long he had been conscious, but he gradually recovered his memories from the previous night. As promised, the specter had moved him a safe distance from the house which was now a dark, smoldering wreckage, and sat him against a tree. All those antiques. What a shame, Zaq thought. Then he remembered the old couple that had died in that fire. Pillfurk! I’ll make him pay for what he did! He wasn’t even sure if that had been a man, woman, or something else entirely. But he didn’t care. He would be held responsible.
 Zaq had decided for the sake of simplicity to refer to the being as male. He said he would give me twenty-four hours. That’s enough time to get prepared. Standing up, he looked off toward the western woods that he had been planning on seeking refuge in before the Benefactors had complicated things. Bags in hand, he marched off toward the woods.
            Upon arriving in the western woods, he took stock of the area. There was no shortage of trees or vegetation for him to hide in. He would need all day to make sure he was well-rested when the specter returned. He clenched his fists and hoped it was that freak that came for him and no one else.
            The forested area was semi-dark with a canopy overhead, which was both good and bad. It made it easier for Zaq to hide, but the same went for any enemies that came after him. Fortunately, he had gotten there first.
            Or had he?
            Suddenly, his senses alerted him to a foreign sound that was concealed among the wind and rustling leaves. He couldn’t identify it, but he knew what it meant: he was not alone. Someone was moving around in the woods and doing an excellent job of hiding their movements. He couldn’t tell where they were, only that they were close by. A strong wind was blowing through the woods, shaking the trees and causing branches and leaves everywhere to move.
Okay, who are they and where are they? He assumed a defensive stance in preparation for possible hostilities. But the wind was blowing through the woods, causing the trees to sway and leaves to fly around. There was so much movement that he couldn’t distinguish between it all.
            At that moment he heard a derisive laughter coming from somewhere around him. It was female, but he didn’t care yet; he was too focused on pinpointing its source.
            A sudden movement behind him alerted Zaq that someone had just dropped in on him. He whirled around to be greeted by the dark blur of a high kick into his face. The attacker had one leg stretched high into the air, almost parallel to her body.
            Dazed, Zaq stumbled back from the attack and fell over. He got up and jumped back onto his feet and saw that the unknown foe had disappeared. However, he could still faintly detect the sound of movement around him. He was beginning to be able to distinguish it from the wind, but he still couldn’t track its path. Why are they attacking me now? I was supposed to have twenty-four hours. Blast!
            Again he heard that laughter emanating from somewhere close. It didn’t sound like the specter from last night. Perhaps another Benefactor agent? Whoever she was, she was a pro, he had to give her that. And she was mocking him.
            “What do you want from me?” he yelled.
His unseen enemy responded in a soft yet hostile voice. “Why, justice of course. What else would I want? Everything else has been taken from me.”
            “Fine!” he said as he picked up his slender bag. “I’m not really interested in fighting you, but I have something I have to do and no one’s going to stop me!” Unzipping the bag, he removed a silver sword with a fiery red handle. His trusty katana. Zaq had kept it sharp for just such an occasion as this. Grasping it firmly in both hands, he braced for the next attack.
            “Good. You’re getting serious. I would have almost felt bad about hurting you otherwise. Almost,” the female attacker said from somewhere. Zaq waited several long moments for her to strike. Again he heard the almost imperceptible sounds of her movements. Would he be able to predict where she would attack from?
            Suddenly he heard her coming in from behind again. You shouldn’t use the same trick twice! He spun around and saw the same dark blur. Reacting quickly, he jumped her leg sweep. However, he saw she also held knives in each hand. Thrusting forward one after another with both hands, she thrust repeatedly with those knives, and Zaq barely had enough time to block them with his sword. He parried her thrusts and swung at her horizontally, but she was able to jump back just in time to avoid the slice of his sword.
            She assumed a defensive posture with her knives and stared back at him a yard away. With her now stationary, he could get a good look at her. What he saw was a figure cloaked almost entirely in black, not entirely unlike the specter. However, he could see her emerald-green eyes (her mouth and nose were covered by a black mask). He also noted her sleek knives and remembered how the specter had used a sword. Holding those knives were gloved hands with the fingers exposed. He couldn’t help but notice that she seemed….familiar. But he couldn’t recall having met any bloodthirsty women in his life.
            She lunged forward again and swung at him with the knife in her right hand. As she came in, Zaq saw the fury in her eyes and was almost taken aback by the intensity of it. However, he managed to roll under the attack and come up on her left side. He swung at her with his sword but she thrust forward and blocked the blade with her knives, forcing it upwards and over her head.
            She had now created an opening in which to attack. Zaq saw her left hand coming towards his face with her other knife. However, rather than stabbing him she simply clenched her fist around the knife and uppercut him square in the jaw. His head flew back, and when he managed to recover he saw her just standing there in front of him, laughing at him.
            “That felt good. But I still haven’t caused you enough pain. Not near enough,” she said. He knew he’d heard that voice somewhere before. He couldn’t quite recall, though; the voice struck him as somehow belonging to a friend, but it didn’t match up with her hostile attack. While he thought about this, he noticed the knives she wielded. Engraved on both the silver blades was a series of characters from an ancient language: 愛する未来. They translated to “Aisuru Mirai,” or “Beloved Future”. Zaq had seen that exact sequence of characters with only one person before. Realization hit him hard: it was her.
            “I never expected to see you again,” he said.
            “So the light has finally come on in that dull brain of yours?”
            “Yes. I know it’s you, Reima Zinthral.” Recalling the name sent several conflicting emotions shooting through him.
            Reima put her knives back in the belt around her waste. “Why so formal? I thought we were on a first-name basis.” He could hear the deep anger and resentment even through her mask. And with that she threw off the cloak and pulled down the cloth covering her face, and Zaq looked on the face he had hoped never to see again. He saw the shoulder-length raven-black hair and the full red lips. He also saw her knee-high black boots and wrist bands which accented her unusual attire. He had once read in an old book that this type of outfit used to be worn by female members of a group of assasins on the eastern continent called ninjas. Female ninjas were called kunoichi. Reima had always enjoyed dressing as a kunoichi. In addition to the long boots, Reima had on what was essentially a black short-sleeved shirt which continued to flow past her thighs and widened into a skirt. He couldn’t remember what the name of it was, though the large fabric of purple belt she wore over it was called an obi.
With the cloak gone he could see the silver necklace she wore over her shirt-skirt. It was the one he had given her, the one he had found among the ruins of New Babylon Zone. Its pendant was in the shape of a cresecent moon over a sun and to them had always symbolized Zaq’s pledge to be there for her night and day. A pledge he failed to honor. Her face had lit up when he gave it to her. However, her features now imparted the depth of her anguish.
            “Why did you abandon us?” she asked.
            Zaq looked away. It was the question he had hoped never to have to answer. “That’s complicated.”
            “No it isn’t. You ran away because you were scared.”
            He decided to go on the offensive. “That’s right. Why should I have to throw my life away for a hopeless cause?”
            “Liar. That’s not why you ran. True, you never seemed to have strong feelings toward the cause, but you were committed to it nonetheless. The reason you left us—left me—is because you were afraid of a very different struggle.” She had hit home with that declaration, and he could not deny it any longer. The reason he had stayed with the resistance wasn’t because of the cause; it was because of her. He now thought it ironic that she had become the reason for his leaving the resistance as well.
            “OK, I was afraid. In two weeks my future will be decided and I can’t deal with that.”
            Reima clinched her fists and raised them in front of her, as if appealing to Zaq. “It’s my future as well! Did you think you were the only one affected by this? All you had to do was give me your decision. You didn’t even have to wait the two weeks. But you decided it was easier just to run away from everyone who depended on you." Zaq couldn’t even look at her. He knew she was right; he had abandoned everyone. And now if that specter had told the truth, they were dead. But wait….Reima was still alive. That left hope that the others were as well.
            “Reima, someone told me….are the others….?”
            “Dead,” she said in a cold voice.
            “No….but then how did you….?”
            “The Benefactors bombed us with the cannon on their station. I survived because I had just left to go after you. I was just outside the blast radius and so I watched everyone I cared about vaporized in an instant. People I grew up with, my friends, my family….gone just like that.” Zaq realized that he couldn’t make himself move. He was too stunned by this revelation. Why is all this happening!? I ran to get away from my problems, but I got that old couple killed and now the others….!
            She pulled her knives back out and pointed them at him. “Now defend yourself, because I’m going to make you suffer so that you will know a fraction of the suffering you’ve caused me,” Reima said. Zaq heard the words, but could barely move his arm to raise up his sword.
            Reima began walking toward him, twirling her knives. Looking at the pain in her eyes, he decided what he had to do. He dropped his sword to the ground.
            “Kill me,” he rasped. Reima stopped short a few feet in front of him, her jaw trembling.
            “What?” she said, clearly stunned by his words.
            “Everything you’ve said is right. I deserve death.”
Reima staggered back. “But….I wasn’t going to kill you. I just….I just wanted to vent my anger and hatred on someone. And,” she wiped the surge of tears that were now coming. “There was no one else. Everyone’s gone. If I killed you….I’d be all alone.”

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