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 IV—Find the Zenith
Zaq sat against a tree in front of the Lithics’ burned-out house that afternoon. Reima sat opposite him on the other side of it. They had found it necessary to take shelter under it the previous night while a storm drowned the world outside. That had put out the forest fire, so it was no longer in danger of reaching them.
“I must be getting lazy. I seem to spend most of my time resting these days,” he said in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“Be quiet,” she said.
Zaq wondered how someone who meant no harm could cause so much to someone. In the days leading up to his decision to leave the Camisard Liberation Front, he had been very much on edge. In fact, during that time he tried to avoid Reima as much as he could. He did not realize until now that his pain was also hers. In trying to escape it he had wounded her. But no more, he decided. He would not run away from her again. Whatever happened they would face it together, and although he still feared what was to come he was determined not to let it control him again.
“Reima, I need to ask you something,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“About the deadline for our partnership: what did you decide?”
“It was only last month that I decided. I wanted to wait as long as was necessary so that I could successfully determine our compatibility. But I was finally able to make a decision. I decided to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“But were you fully aware of what that means? We would be committed to staying together forever, even if somehow our mission ends and the Benefactors are overthrown. We would eat together, travel together, and live together forever. We would even be sleeping together. We would have no secrets from each other.”
“What’s so bad about that?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m just uneasy about making you a part of me.”
“And that’s why you ran? Idiot. Listen, I wouldn’t be a part of you and you wouldn’t be a part of me. We would both be two halves of the same whole.”
“Let’s not beat around the bush. This is marriage. If we both agreed within the time limit we would be married.”
“So? I know it isn’t how marriages are normally done. But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. It gives people a lot more time to decide on their future mates.”
Zaq thought on this a moment, then, “I guess.”
Administrator Yamiyo found her work interrupted by an urgent visitor. It wasn’t that secretary, but rather the man who came into her office was one of her top officials. This must be important, she realized.
“I’m sorry to bother you at such a busy hour, Administrator, but there’s been an incident,” he said. He handed her a data disk. A look of grave concern came over her face as she saw the blood-red color of the disk. Only Class-2 intelligence and higher was put on these heavily-encrypted disks. With great urgency she put it into her desktop console and decrypted it. Onto her screen appeared an infrared image of a forest. Two glowing orange and red blobs could be seen. One of them seemed to be stuck to a tree.
“What am I looking at?” Yamiyo said.
“This is a satellite image taken last night at 2100 hours on the Western Continent. There are three figures here. You can only see two of them because Agent Starblood is the third individual.”
“Ah yes. Agent Starblood doesn’t radiate much but can be tracked thanks to the transmitters all Jacobins carry. But who are the other two?”
“They are—or were—members of the Camisard Liberation Front. According to the latest report, Starblood was sent to that region to recruit one Zaq Martial, a very promising young man.”
“Why would the Council send a Jacobin all that way just to recruit some rebel? I don’t understand.” She knew the Council had nothing to do with it, but she had her own agenda which they might not approve of. She decided to let her subordinates believe Starblood and the Assassin Corps were acting under the Council’s orders.
“I learned long ago not to question them.”
Yamiyo feigned a frown. “What could they be trying to accomplish by recruiting a dissident?”
“Well, his home and all his friends were recently wiped out, as you know. I guess the Council figured someone who has nothing left to live for would be more willing to join the enemy.”
“So be it.” She decided to turn her attention to more urgent matters. “Tell me what’s so important about this intel you’ve brought me.”
“While our satellite was over the area it took a series of still pictures. Advance the pictures forward slowly.” Yamiyo did so, and the result was a slideshow that showed one of the blobs slowly moving upward across the screen.
“That’s Zaq Martial running toward Starblood. Now here he’s pulling out some sort of blade. Watch carefully,” the man said. As Yamiyo did so, she saw Martial’s blade begin to glow as brightly as anything else on the screen. Rapidly it began glowing more and more until it blocked out all the rest of the images with its radiance. It seemed to reach its peak right as Martial reached Agent Starblood.
“What is this?” Yamiyo said.
“It is clear that Zaq Martial has a sword which can produce unbelievably high temperatures. He has the Zenith.”
“No! How can he have it?”
“It must have been Erik James and his crew of traitors. They stole the Zenith from us twenty years ago.”
Yamiyo spoke, more to herself than him. “We never detected its use so we assumed no one knew how to use it. That also meant we couldn’t find it.”
“But now someone has. And he has used it to defeat a Jacobin in battle. This is unprecedented. The Zenith can destroy us if its wielder can figure out how to use it.”
Yamiyo’s normally serene face contorted with horror. “We cannot let that happen!” However, she quickly regained her composure. “Send another member of the Jacobin Cell to find Zaq Martial and the Zenith. Use any means necessary to resolve the situation.”
Zaq sat against the rubble looking over the letter of intent Reima had given him. She let him think in silence because she knew how important this decision was. Finally he seemed to have hit an impasse in his deliberating and decided to forget about it for the time being.
“What should we do now?” he said.
“Have you come to a decision?”
“Not yet. For now we should focus on what we’re going to do about our situation. We have no home, no allies and no shortage of enemies.”
“That’s not entirely true. The Camisards may be gone,” she said, trying to fend off the heaviness in her heart. “But we still have the Scholars.”
“Those guys? They’ve always seemed more interested in reading books than the fate of humanity.”
“They’re every bit as committed to the cause as the Camisards. They just choose to focus more on intelligence-gathering than physical combat. We may be two different rebel groups, but we have worked together in the past. If the Scholars hadn’t supplied us with key intel we never would have been able to do as much as we did. They always tracked down information on the Benefactors’ activities, and we always used it to take action against them.”
“But we don’t even have a clue where they are. Only the higher-ups knew that.”
“Again, not exactly true. Don’t you remember what they taught us? If we’re ever in trouble and need the Scholars’ help, then we have to go to Rockhorn and find their contact there.”
“Sounds as good a plan as any. Okay, then, we need to get to Rockhorn and find the Scholars. Then we’ll work with them to figure out how to take down the Benefactors.” They got up and started walking north from the burned-down house.
“I also need to go there to get Truth,” Reima said.
“Yes. Now that our base has been compromised he could be in serious danger.”
“Why didn’t you go to Rockhorn as soon as the Benefactors attacked our base?” At that moment Reima stopped suddenly and stared at the ground. A single tear ran down her cheek and she buried her face in her hands to stop the rest.
“I don’t know!” she said, her words muffled. “All I could think about was you. I was obsessed, and because of that my own brother….” She was startled when Zaq quickly grabbed her and put his arms around her. She found herself embracing him back.
“I’m such a dreck, doing this to you,” he said.
“No, I told you. It’s my fault for losing my mind like that. They trained us better than that.”
“In a lot of ways, we’re still just kids, Reima. No amount of training can change your age.” He separated himself from her and grasped her hands in his. For weeks he had denied his desire to do this. He had kept pushing it to the back of his mind, pretending it didn’t exist. But he could no longer resist it. “But if we’re there to support each other, we can find the strength to do what we must,” he said.
She looked away from him. “Zaq, don’t do this to me. It’s not fair. You can’t just run out on me and then come back like this.”
He let go of her hands and looked away, his face red. “You’re right. For now let’s just get to Rockhorn. As I recall, it’s several hundred miles to the west. We’ll need to catch a ride on the RailWay.”
Reima regained her composure. “Right. Let’s continue heading north,” she said.
After a day of walking, at dusk they reached their destination: the vast structure that helped make up the RailWay. It was a series of train tracks that traversed entire continents and even ran along the ocean floor to connect them. Train stations were hundreds of miles apart, and there were none around here.
However, at this particular spot was a large rocky hill, the top of which overlooked the tracks by ten feet.
“Up for a climb?” Zaq said.
“Let’s rest a bit first.” And so they sat down against the pillars for about twenty minutes before continuing. Zaq asked Reima again if she was ready.
“Right behind you,” she said.
They got up and climbed the hill. When both of them were on top of it all they had to do was wait for the nearest train. They came through several times a day at regular intervals.
“Hey, I see the nomads,” Zaq said.
“Really?” She looked in the direction he was pointing. In the distance they could see a series of tents and other small shelters lit by torches. There was a bon fire in the center and they could just make out a few of the horses that the group used to move from place to place. Nomadic wanderers were not unheard of in that part of the world; although the bulk of civilization lived in large cities scattered across the globe, there were still bands of people who preferred the simplicity of nature. They traveled from place to place, living off the land and then moving on when they either got bored or exhausted the resources of the area.
Their attention was diverted by a light in the distance, followed by a low rumbling of the RailWay which was gradually increasing.
“Good. It’s going the right way,” Reima said. There were two sets of tracks below them on the RailWay: one for going east and one for going west. The train that was headed towards them now was going west.
Having both done this before, each knew what to do. They crouched on the hill to avoid being seen by anyone on the train, even though it was dark now; they didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. Within moments the metal frame of the train was directly underneath them. Soon the end of the train was in sight. The roar made it too loud for words so Zaq used his hand to make a polite gesture to Reima: women first. Noting the humor, she nonetheless agreed to take the initiative. She removed a set of curved spikes from the strap at her waist, and Zaq did the same from his smaller bag.
She gripped both of her spikes, carefully checked her timing and took the drop down onto the speeding locomotive. As soon as she hit the roof she swiftly plunged both spikes down onto the roof. This kept her from sliding off the train; many hitchhikers have met their deaths by falling to the ground below. Zaq then put the straps from both his bags around his neck and jumped down onto the train after Reima.
She looked behind her to make sure that Zaq had landed safely. When she saw that he had she waited for him to make the next move. He then cautiously removed one of his spikes and waited a few moments to make sure he wouldn’t lose his remaining “foothold”. He seemed to still be secure enough so he slowly drove his free spike into the roof behind him. Then he removed the other one, turned around (keeping his hand firmly on the implanted spike) and planted it next to the one behind him. Reima did the same and they gradually made their way to the last car of the train.
When they at last reached the last car Zaq planted both his spikes on the edge at the very end of the train and slowly lowered himself down onto the narrow walkway below. Fortunately this was a passenger train or else it wouldn’t have had one; passengers liked to sometimes go out onto the walkway and look out and the scenery around them. But that was only during the day, as the door leading out there was locked at night for safety reasons.
When Reima finally lowered herself down Zaq grabbed onto her to support her. She felt a tinge of excitement from the physical contact and quietly chastised herself for it.
Zaq took out two small bent pieces of metal and inserted into the hole in the door. After a few moments of wriggling them the door was unlocked and they made their way inside. The room they found themselves inside was completely dark except for a dull glow at the door at the opposite end, probably coming from a passenger car up ahead. This room was most likely for storing luggage.
“We should arrive at Rockhorn in the morning,” Reima said.
“We’d better hide out in here until then.”