Read Zotikas: Episode 1: Clash of Heirs Online

Authors: Rob Storey,Tom Bruno

Zotikas: Episode 1: Clash of Heirs
















Bags’ broad hand hovered above the throttle of the
mag-lev raider. Kieler watched him, both of them tense and ready. Years of
waiting would come to an end in minutes, perhaps seconds. Bags never shifted
his eyes from the narrow, rain-streaked windscreen. He searched the darkness
for the signal.

In the cockpit of the unpainted metal sled, sweat
and rain had scented the air with the metallic tang of rust. A lull in the
downpour created an unnerving quiet as their low-slung craft hovered silently
in the very bottom of the V-shaped track. The iron and magal track was built
for much larger vehicles—not that the raider was tiny. It could, when the
now-empty cargo bay was loaded, hold enough food pirated from a freighter to
feed a borough for a week.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the face of Kieler’s
companion. Bags, his dark blue eyes unblinking in his blocky face, didn’t look
anything like a rebel. He looked like a family man; a determined family man
intent on fixing a chair or some other mundane task.

But Bags wasn’t just waiting for a signal;
he was waiting for justice. When he spoke, his voice was low and cool despite
the heat and tension. “Storms came late this year.”

Kieler grunted. For weeks they had waited
restlessly for the winter storms to roll in from the northeast sea and the
mountainous continent of Ardan beyond. Had the storms not come today, the last
possible day, Kieler’s chances of succeeding tomorrow night were slight.

Following his friend’s gaze out the
windscreen, Kieler stared into the darkness, peering through his own dim
reflection. His dark brown hair and brown eyes vanished in the dim light, but
he could see his face. There was nothing remarkable about it, allowing him to
go unnoticed when necessary.

Lightning struck Garrist Ring miles off and
far above, momentarily dispelling the ghost of his visage. The upward sloping
sides of the huge track to their left and right blocked most of their view, but
straight ahead the flash of light silhouetted the dominant tower of Garrist
Ring, the spires of the Executive Chair’s palace.

“Don’t act upset.” Bags challenged Kieler’s
supposedly sour mood. “You’re excited to be doing something, same as me.” His
big face was pale in the dim light. A clenched jaw muscle twitched. “Tomorrow
you’ll be in the EC’s palace, way better than hiding in that hole we call

His accomplice was right. Despite the twist
in his stomach, Kieler felt like a coiled spring, and he liked it. “The
nethercity has been my ‘home’ since I was eight. You’re a newbie.”

Now Bags grunted and
leaned forward, as if he could see more than darkness and raindrops. He didn’t
take his hand away from the throttle. He replied slowly, “Doesn’t seem much use
in bragging about how long you’ve lived in our starless hell under the Plate.”

“I’m not bragging. I’m just saying we’ve
waited a long time for the chance to strike back at these highborns. Stealing
the sigil tonight starts the machinery of revolution Movus has been putting
together for years. It’s the first step toward you and I living in the light of
Rei again.” After a pause Kieler added in a mutter, “And the first step in
getting your wife back from that prog Telander.”

Bags made no audible reply, but Kieler
could feel the heat rise from his friend.

A long, silent time passed. Other than the
distant lights of Garrist Ring, which they glimpsed when the clouds scudded out
from in front of the high-rise district, their view was illuminated only by the
occasional lightning as it flashed closer. It didn’t matter. Any view of their
actual target was blocked by the high sides and curve of the track. The storm
swirled in and the metallic tinging on the top of the sled resumed.

Their target was the Cortatti compound, and
Kieler knew from studying the extensive maps provided by his mentor Movus, it
was both a fortress and an oasis in the industrial northeast section of the
Isle of Threes. Unlike many Houses of the Omeron, which possessed rich villas
on the continents, or penthouses in downtown Avertori far from their economic
centers, the Cortattis lived where they worked. Surrounded by their weapons
factories, foundries and the rail yards which supported their industry, their
residence and administrative headquarters rose monolithic from the rough

Kieler had seen the colossal six-sided structure
from the promenade on Garrist Ring. If he compartmentalized his thoughts,
Kieler could almost admire the efficiency of House Cortatti—as much as any
feeling human could admire a family who had killed every person in House
Ortessi just to elevate themselves.

But the Cortattis worked. Other houses,
like Telander, which continued to drain profits from their vehicle
manufacturing monopoly, now spent their days in idle pleasures—or perversions.
Kieler had nudged Bags’ anger by bringing up that House Primes were often
untouchable by the cumbersome legal system in Avertori. While to most people
Borgus Telander’s penchant for women-not-his-wife was just a rumor; Bags could
confirm it first hand. That Bags was still alive was testimony to his simple
wisdom over his passion for revenge. Borgus Telander would casually eliminate
problems like Bags should they threaten his perverse fetish.

Despite the long silence, when Bags spoke
Kieler realized he had been dwelling on his last comment. “Will she want me
back when we do bring Telander down?” Bags didn’t look away from the
windscreen, but Kieler felt the intensity radiating from his friend. It was a
perceptive thought: that things happen emotionally to violated women. And just
as profound was Bags’ simple certainty that they would succeed.

“Yes, Bags. Regardless of what Telander
does. Everything you told me about her says she is a solid, dedicated woman.
She is building up an emotional citadel that only you can enter.”

Bags flicked him a glance, gauging Kieler,
a hint of moist eyes and a hard smile. “You don’t know

about women, Sparks!” Bags snorted, using Kieler’s Coin name. “You never even
had a girlfriend.” Bags’ smile faded into a tight line. “But I believe you
about my Eznea. She’ll be right. We just
her back.”

Kieler detected the catch in Bags’ voice
that gave away how hard he was trying to convince himself.

Two lights blinked on in the middle
distance. Before he could point them out, Kieler was slammed back in his seat
by the rapid acceleration as Bags slammed forward the throttle.

They had thirty seconds.

When a full-size
powercoach accelerated, the motion was barely perceptible. Both heavy
freighters and powercoaches rode high in the V-shaped track. But their own
raider sat along the bottom; low, sleek, and a mere fraction of the mass. When
Bags hit the throttle, they hit the back of their seats.

An empty cargo hold, a
high velocity magnetic impeller, and a frictionless suspension—they were built
for speed.

Kieler had no doubt this
was the fastest conveyance on Zotikas.

Hurtling down the long,
gently-curving slot, velocity increasing, all Kieler could do was hope that the
two guards at the gate ahead were distracted by his apparently inebriated
co-conspirators. Across from the gate they’d be crashing were two pubs
frequented by a literal army of guards as they got off duty from the Cortatti
complex. Two of Kieler’s squad mates were to stagger over from one of the bars
and call the men out of the guard shack. His third squad member was to provide
the fireworks—a fake lightning flash just as they passed. The guards just
needed to have their backs to the tracks.

At just over 400 miles per
hour, the low metal ship in which Kieler and Bags sat would sound like thunder
or a sudden, violent wind as it passed. In this rain, it would be past the
guards and out of sight before they could possibly turn around—as long as they
weren’t looking in the first place.

As they approached the massive gates that
regulated powercoaches and freighters entering the Cortatti domain, Kieler got
to see the barrier for less than a second. Then they shot beneath it. The gates
did not extend into the groove of the track. Presumably, an impeller couldn’t
be built small enough for a ship their size. Kieler had his late father to
thank for that bit of engineering.

A brilliant flash exploded above the rim of
the track to his right. It was the magal-luzhril blast to add noise to their
sled’s high-speed passing. His men at the gate would swear to the guards that
they were almost struck by lightning.

The instant they passed under the gates,
Bags threw the throttle from full ahead to full reverse. They were thrown
forward into their shoulder restraints, now decelerating at the same breakneck
rate at which they had accelerated. They now had thirty more seconds to slow
down or smash through a weapons factory dock. Though uncomfortable, Kieler
decided that this rate of deceleration was far preferred to that of impact.

Most troubling, Kieler would have to go
after the Ortessi Sigil without knowing whether they would have an unwelcoming
party at the end of the line. If the guards at the gate hadn’t fallen for their
thunder and lightning ploy, they would telegraph the keep and this would be a
short mission. The curve of the track took them through a maze of rail yard
switches and industrial stockpiles. Kieler looked up at freighters looming a
full three stories on parallel tracks as they flew by. He was strangely
detached, watching with absolutely no control as they slowed through three-fifty,
three twenty-five—

“Bags!” Kieler hissed. “Is that freighter
parked on

Bags pounded the throttle back against the
stops. All they had time to do was brace for impact. The metal wall of the
looming freighter rushed toward them… and flashed darkly over them. Their
raider was designed for that very purpose, to pirate these freighters from

With no time for congratulating themselves,
a whole train laden with cargo seemed to fly at them. Again they skidded under
it, but the weight of the cargo lowered it just enough that as they passed
through, there was a
and then a fierce short shriek of metal on

Bags glanced over at him; his raised
eyebrows making his long face look longer. “I think we lost the hatch handle.”

Relief, and the comic look, made Kieler
spit out a laugh. If that was the worst they suffered tonight it would be a
good night.

Their speed dropped through 250, then 200,
as they whipped between the parked freighters. Eventually they slowed to were
their passage was a mere whisper.

But now the end of the line sped toward

End of the line!”

Bags pressed back on the throttle so hard
that Kieler thought it would bend, but it was already full against the stop.
Through clenched teeth he growled, “I see it. Not much I can do.”

But even though they looked to be rapidly
closing on the dock wall, they were decelerating at the same rate at which they
had launched. With one last lurch, they stopped just feet from the metal dock.
Next to them loomed the enormous hulk of an ore hopper.

They turned and grinned at each other.

“Beats hiding in that hole!” Kieler
quipped. He unstrapped. “I’m outta here. See you in forty-five or I won’t see
you at all.”

“I’ll get this sled turned around on a nice
quiet siding while you go for your walk. Good stars, Kieler!” Bags called.

Kieler chuckled at the superstitious
blessing. He darted out a hatch in the bulkhead behind them and scrambled up a
ladder. In moments he was atop the craft. With a running start across the roof
of the sled, he jumped and grabbed the top of the V-track. On the next track
hovered the huge freighter. As he pulled himself out, he saw that the front of
their craft was just feet from a shock absorbing bumper. Perhaps their doom was
not as imminent as it had appeared.

Then he saw that just on the other side of
the bumper was the wall of a factory.

Kieler jogged down the dock under a loading
crane suspended over the freighter in rusty, frozen sleep. The rain slid off
the oiled cloak he had pulled up over his head. He also pulled on a dark mask,
trademark of the Coin, the underground organization of which both Kieler and
Bags were a part. He probably didn’t need the mask; if he was caught, Kieler
was dead with or without it. Undoubtedly he’d be sent straight into the Arena
without trial.

Nevertheless, his mask, so much a part of
his identity, gave him a certain amount of comfort. Despite the dark and the
rain, he felt strangely exposed without it.

This entire industrial complex was built
directly on the solidity of the city-spanning Plate, the divider between the
sunlit city above and the never-lit city below. Kieler sidled along the back of
the aged factory to an ugly, open, metal staircase that switched back and forth
up several levels until he gained the topmost landing. There he found a door,

He glanced back down to the dock and
as he extracted a pick set from
under his cloak. Rain and rust. Darkness and corruption. The complex looked
skeletal and lifeless. But through the falling rain, Kieler saw Bags easing the
raider slowly backward toward a switch where he could turn around. Stealth, not
speed, was his objective now.