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 III—Past, Present and Future
Seventeen years ago:
All five quorum members were in attendance at that meeting. They met weekly in that dusty room inside that large building which before the Collapse was an economic hub of the world. That building was located in the ruins of a great and powerful city. This was New Babylon Zone, formerly a symbol of freedom and opportunity on the Western Continent.
Three men and two women sat opposite each other at the round table in that small office. All of them wore the blue-and-green uniforms of the senior members; the only difference between them was the fact that the men wore suits and the women wore suits with skirts. They had some particularly important business to discuss on this day. Fox, the middle-aged man wearing the bushy brown beard and black eye patch over his left eye—and senior member of the group—spoke first.
“As you know, this morning one of our patrols found a small boy wandering around the city. He cannot be more than three years old.”
“I don’t like it. How could this boy have been living by himself in this abandoned and decayed city? And we haven’t seen any adults around,” said Guy, another man sitting two seats over from Fox.
“I agree. This could be a Benefactor trap,” said Hara, the black-skinned woman sitting next to Guy. She had long hair tied in a knot by a red ribbon.
“That thought had occurred to me. However, the doctors have thoroughly checked him over for diseases or concealed bombs. X-rays revealed nothing,” Fox said.
“If the Benefactors even suspected we were here, they would simply bomb us with their orbital cannon,” said Jean, the woman sitting opposite Fox.
“I think we can rule out him being a trap,” Fox said.
“So are we going to train him?” said Marcus, the fifth man.
“Yes. For one thing, he has seen us and knows where we are. We can’t let him leave, lest the Benefactors find him. Second, he has no home that we know of, and even if he did we have no way of finding it. And last of all we can’t ignore a child who has not yet been conditioned to accept the Benefactors’ tyranny,” Fox said. “Are well all agreed on this? I move for a vote. All in favor? All opposed? Then it’s decided. We will train him.”
Two years later: another meeting.
“Young Zaq has been doing well in his studies. He has the potential to be a great Camisard. However, I think it’s time to choose a partner for him, one he will be most compatible with. They will need to make an effective team when they are old enough to go on missions,” Fox said.
“He seems to be getting along well with Little Reima. They appear to have made a strong connection,” Hara said.
“I have also noticed it. They’re always together and appear to be quite in synch,” Jean said.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. We can’t be sure that they will always remain that way,” Guy said.
“Good point. But that’s why we have the Partner system.”
Shortly after the Collapse the need for the repopulation of the human race was strong, so there used to be a custom among many villages for choosing lifelong partners. Two families would decide which of their sons would be paired up with which of their daughters early in life, which was similar to the Camisard’s system. The difference with the Camisards was that if both partners did not give their expressed consent for a lifetime union by a certain date, it would be void. The date was up to the families. It varied, but ages eighteen or twenty was common.
“So if Zaq and Reima did not agree to the partnership by a certain date, they would be free to break off and choose other partners,” the second woman said.
“Exactly,” Fox said. “All in favor of pairing up Zaq and Reima? All opposed? Then it’s decided.”
She looked out the window of the space station Samaritus and not for the first time thought what a beautiful sight she beheld. It was a double-edged sword, unfortunately; it was breathtaking and inspiring, but it also constantly reminded her of longings unfulfilled. She had her duties to carry out and until she had finished them she would never be able to realize her dreams. She was Yamiyo, administrator of Samaritus.
Every day (an ironic expression because she had never experienced true daytime) she looked upon that blue sphere from the confines of her office. That is where I belong. The office was illuminated only by the light from outside the window and a lamp on her desk. She liked to keep an intimate atmosphere. The walls and carpet were a quaint brown color, similar to that of certain species of trees that existed on the planet below. Oh how I long to go there. However, she understood the importance of the functions she had been assigned. She saw the celestial body as a paradise, even though she had never been there; instead she had lived on the station all her life. Nevertheless, she knew it would not be worth living there until the Benefactors carefully restructured it according to the Grand Design. Then it would truly be a utopia.
At that moment the chime of her office doors brought her out of her current thought stream.
“Come in,” she said. Into the office walked a secretary wearing the white uniform of the Benefactors. On his chest was the red insignia that depicted a hand reaching down to pull up another hand, representing the Benefactors’ professed desire to pull humanity up from the destruction caused by the Collapse.
He walked up to her desk and experienced the same sensations that he always did when he encountered her. She knew he held a great admiration for this woman who had such a monumental role to play in history. She also knew her appearance still sent tingles up his spine. He stole brief glances at her silver hair tapered in the back, her mouth covered with purple lipstick, her pale skin and her form-fitting ornate blue dress with the slit down her perfectly smooth legs that supposedly was very popular in the eastern regions of Mirai before the Collapse. It was obvious he relished every encounter with her, but at the same time never let that interfere with his duties. If it did, she would make him suffer.
“Here is the latest report, Administrator,” he said. He handed her an encrypted data disk.
“Thank you,” she replied. With his job done, he left her office. She then wasted no time putting the disk into the console at her desk and running the decryption program. As she looked through the data on the Grand Design that was now available to her, she couldn’t resist a sly smile. Yes, it won’t be long now. We’re close, very close to finding it. And when we do, no one will be able to resist our will. Because everyone is going to have the same will.212 P.C will forever be remembered as the year we put humanity back on course to the future. Yamiyo allowed herself a few more moments of daydreaming.
Zaq and Reima sat down opposite each other against a large tree in the forest. Dusk had arrived, and they’d been resting there a while.
“So what do you have to say for yourself?” Reima finally said.
“What is there to say? I abandoned everyone. I’m pathetic,” Zaq said.
Reima let out an ironic snicker. “What did I ever see in you? Can you tell me that?”
Zaq was too ashamed to look at her. “I don’t know.” At that moment he couldn’t understand why anyone would have ever taken a liking to him. In his mind, he had effectively proven that he was undeserving of the life that had been given to him. By all rights he shouldn’t be alive. He deserved death. “I won’t ask your forgiveness.”
“And you won’t get it. I can’t believe I came all the way out here just for some….idiot!” She spat out the last word.
“You clearly weren’t yourself. I mean, I’m sorry to say it but, you were, well, crazy.”
Reima grimaced. “What came over me? Why was I so determined to track you down and hurt you? Yes, I was disgusted with you, but that couldn’t be the only reason. Why?” she said, more to herself than to Zaq.
He really had no idea. “I’ve never seen you like that before. Maybe….” He stopped short. What was he going to say? Maybe I ruined your life so badly it drove you insane? “I don’t know.”
“It’s like I became a completely different person.”
“Yeah.” He wanted to change the subject. “By the way, how did you find me?”
“You forget we were trained to track targets. I was really lagging behind you for a while since you never seemed to stop. You always did have a lot of stamina.”
“Not enough, apparently, since you caught up with me.”
“Like you I took the RailWay, but based on the pattern of your movements I decided you were heading aimlessly west with no real destination. I took a gamble and rode it further than you did in the hopes of catching up with you.”
“I’m impressed. I’m just sorry I made you go to all that trouble.”
“I was so angry with you, I admit. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you. But now that I think about it, if you hadn’t left then I wouldn’t have left to go after you. We both would’ve been killed.”
“That’s no excuse. I was wrong to run away.”
“Yes, you were. But right now there’s no point in trying to figure out a past that we can’t change. Right now we need to figure out what we’re going to do about it.”
“I don’t know about you, but I have a score to settle.”
“With a specter.”
“Last night I was staying with a nice old couple. A mysterious figure attacked and killed them. It was cloaked in black from head to toe. I couldn’t tell its gender, but I guess it’s a guy. He said he was a Jacobin.”
“A Jacobin? You actually encountered one?”
The Jacobins were the most elite unit of the Benefactor military. Shrouded in secrecy, no one knew their identities or even their numbers. Rumors placed them anywhere from a half dozen to a thousand. The latter was not generally accepted, however, since such a large force was considered too big to effectively conceal. No one had any idea how to spot a Jacobin, though, so it was anybody’s guess. All the populace could generally agree on was that they were a terrifying group.
“That’s what he said. And after having seen it, I’m in no position to argue. That thing was something else. He didn’t even seem human to me,” Zaq said.
“Fox once speculated that they might be the product of genetic engineering, a technology known to very few people outside the Benefactors.”
“I have a feeling it’s more than that.”
“But what happened? How are you still alive?”
“Believer it or not, he wanted me to join the Benefactors. Of course I refused, but then he said he would give me twenty-four hours to think it over, and then he knocked me out. When I woke up, I came over to this forest to rest up….well, you know the rest.”
“So you’re going to fight this Jacobin?”
“I have to. He killed those nice old people. They didn’t deserve it. I’m going to beat him, then I’m going to take down all the other Benefactors. I won’t be satisfied until we can live in a world without them.”
“Then I will fight with you. Not that I particularly enjoy your company right now, but we have the same desire to destroy the Benefactors.”
They both stood up when suddenly a grey blur flew at Reima, and she found herself pinned against the tree by a metallic mesh. She struggled to free herself, but couldn’t move a muscle against it. It was lined with a series of spikes that had lodged the whole thing tightly into the tree. They both saw the source of the trap drop from a nearby tree. Zaq recognized the sleek black form of the specter. He would never forget that streamlined body that seemed to absorb all light like a black hole and showed no skin whatsoever; it was completely covered in that material which he couldn’t identify. And what’s the deal with that mask? It has all the features of a human face except for eyes. Where there should have been eyes or at least eye slits to see out of, there were only dark sockets and a figure eight.
“You….!” Zaq said.
“My apologies. I realize I agreed to give you twenty-four hours, but it is obvious you have already made up your mind,” it said.
“That’s right. You can’t kill so many of one’s friends and expect anything less than outright bloodlust from them.”
He shrugged. “We will keep that in mind for future dealings.”
“For you, there won’t be any future dealings.”
Reima struggled against the net. “No, Zaq! I don’t think you can handle him on your own,” Reima said.
“What do you expect me to do? Run? I won’t leave you,” he replied.
“Running is what you’re good at, so do it!”
“It is irrelevant,” the Jacobin said. This area will be cleaned of all dissidents, regardless of your actions. But if you stay and fight, I will give you an honorable death,” He usheathed
his katana from its hilt. And with that, Zaq picked up his sword and assumed a defensive stance. Knowing his decision had been made, Reima kept quiet so as not to distract him. Nonetheless, she still searched for some way to free herself from the metal net.
“What about her?” Zaq said.
“I will run her through with my sword after I cut you down,” he said matter-of-fact.
“Now you’re really making me angry. And that’s a mistake you don’t want to make,” Zaq said.
“Then let us settle this,” the specter said.
Taking his cue, Zaq rushed swiftly and swung at the specter, who quickly blocked one-handed with the katana and with great surge of strength forced him back. Seeing his opportunity to strike, he sliced downward at Zaq. However, Zaq rolled out of the way to the specter’s left side and slashed at his foe’s neck. The specter blocked this attack with his forearm and took only an instant to survey the damage. Where he had slashed there was a cut but Zaq couldn’t tell how deep it was. Even the cut on the specter was completely black and blended in well with the rest of his body.
With his hand still raised to block Zaq’s attack, the specter back-handed him with lightning speed. Zaq went flying back into the nearest tree, dropping his sword. His vision was blurred for a moment as he seemed to lose all feeling in his body. Then it returned, and he hurt like hell. Zaq’s eyelids drooped, and he seemed to lose consciousness.
“Zaq!” Reima said.
The specter aimed his katana at Zaq’s heart and moved forward to strike, but at the last instant Zaq dropped to the ground and the specter’s katana pierced the tree. Zaq grabbed his sword off the ground and when his enemy turned around to face him he surged it halfway into his chest. Zaq thought it was over.
Suddenly, though, the specter grabbed hold of the blade piercing his chest—with Zaq still holding onto handle—and slowly pulled it out, despite Zaq’s resistance. Using his unnatural strength he shoved the handle of the sword into Zaq’s solar plexus and again sent him flying backwards onto the ground.
Zaq staggered to his feet. The specter lowered his katana in one hand and raised its other arm, pointing it at Zaq. Out of his wrist came some sort of dart, which Zaq blocked with his sword. Unfortunately for him, that gave the specter an opening which he wasted no time taking. Rushing forward he swung the katana through the air, nearly taking off Zaq’s head. But once again Zaq managed to duck under the blade. He got behind the specter and cut a large gash down its backside, but again it seemed not to feel it. The Jacobin swung around and for several moments they parried strikes, with Zaq being continually forced back by his enemy’s incredible strength. Finally he was knocked him down for what looked like the last time. He couldn’t summon enough energy to get back up. Panic registered in Reima at this point. She was still pinned to the tree and unable to help.
“Zaq! You’ve got to get up! It can’t end like this!” she said.
The specter looked over at her. “Zaq Martial, you are putting up less of an effort than I would have liked, but perhaps I can use this female to encourage you to try a little harder. After all, battles were meant to be enjoyed, and there is still more enjoyment to be had. I will kill your friend now. Unless, of course, you can stop me before my blade reaches her.”
He moved toward Reima casually while Zaq looked on. No! I can’t let this happen! I can’t let her die because of me, he thought. No, that’s not the real reason. The truth is, I’m selfish and I don’t want her taken away from me, even if she does hate me. Digging deep down inside him, he mustered the will to grab his sword and get up one last time. His racing pulse and rising blood pressure reverberated through his hand that tightly gripped the sword.
“Stop!” Zaq roared. Even the specter seemed taken aback by this, and turned to face the source of piercing howl. He saw his previously beaten adversary rushing forward with an almost animalistic rage. But what the specter found most disturbing was the light suddenly emanating from his blade. It was almost as if it were on fire. Perplexed, he reacted instinctively, raising his katana to block. But Zaq Martial’s sword only seemed to glow brighter the closer he came to his enemy. By the time he was in striking distance, the light was almost blinding. The last thing the specter could remember seeing was Zaq swinging at him and then his entire field of vision engulfed in that fiery luminosity.
He was uncertain how much time had passed, but as his vision returned the specter became aware of his surroundings and how much they had changed since Zaq Martial had struck with his glowing sword. Gone was the darkness of the forest; in its place was a fiery disaster area. All around the woods were ablaze and smoke was everywhere. And there was Zaq Martial with the female he was so fond of. The specter saw that he had helped her get free of the net he had trapped her with. Although on his knees, the specter was determined to get up and finish what he had begun. However, upon standing he realized that he could barely move one leg forward. He was confused by this and looked over his body to find an explanation. What he found did not please him; all the cuts inflicted by Zaq Martial were filled with fire; flames were pouring out of every cut and knick on his once-sleek body. The rest of his body was smoldering, and he hadn’t noticed until now because he was incapable of feeling pain.
“No!” he bellowed in that metallic androgynous voice. “They assured me this body was invincible!”
“And up until now I’m sure you had no reason to doubt it,” Zaq said.
“Nothing is indestructible. That’s a fundamental law of the universe,” Reima said.
“Tell me….what is the name of that blade?” the specter said.
“This?” Zaq said, looking at his sword. “It’s called Hon’oah. I don’t remember who came up with it, or even what it means.”
“There can be no doubt. The Administrator….needs to know about this,” the specter said. And with that, the mysterious dark figure toppled to the ground.
But the night’s struggle was not over yet.
“We have to get out of here before this fire consumes us,” Reima said.
“I think that’s going to take some doing,” Zaq said. Indeed, he could barely move.
“After what we’ve gone through today, we’re not dying here. Give me your arm.” Positioning herself under his arm, Reima staggered out of the forest with him. Stealing one last look behind him, the last thing Zaq saw was a large flaming tree collapsing onto the body of the specter.