The Brightest Stars
I've never been able to hide my jealousy of Van Fleiheit. Even though I was a genius and a Schubaltz, I couldn't even dream of holding a candle to the great hero who had saved the planet twice from the Death Saurer. Even though I'd flown in space with Irvine to risk our lives to bring down the Death Stinger, even though I'd been forced by Riese to fight my brother, even though I had built my own artificial Organoid, I just couldn't get my little light to shine anywhere near as brightly as his star.
But then, the brightest stars are always the ones that go out the fastest.
And so here I stood in the Wind Colony, over a grave I knew I'd have to visit sometime before I turned forty. It didn't surprise me at all. But it still hurt.
There were plenty of people who had come to mourn the loss of their hero, but at first, I only saw one face—hers. Fiona Elisi Linette Fleiheit. I had loved her once, and I still did. I would have given anything to trade places with Van. And once again, I still would have, if only to keep those tears off her face. Beside her was her son, Dan, who was crying for Daddy. I wanted to cry even harder than I was now, and soon I was acutely aware of another Fleiheit at my side, hugging my leg. It was little Maria, their youngest.
"Don't cry, Uncle Thomas," she begged. "Please don't cry."
I tried to smile despite my tears, but it only made her cry harder, which made me do the same. Finally, I picked her up and looked around at the precession. Of course, there were Republican and Imperial forces alike, including my brother Brigadier General Karl Schubaltz, and Lieutenant Colonel Hermann and Major O'Connell. Emperor Rudolf was also there, as well as the Republican President. They all had actually been his friends, unlike many of the worshippers that were here. But even closer friends stood by Fiona: Van's sister Maria, Republican genius Dr. D, mercenary Irvine, and trucker/mechanic Moonbay. Maria was crying hard, and Moonbay was trying her hardest not to. Dr. D looked a lot older than I'd ever seen him, and Irvine was trembling, trying to hold it all in. I knew exactly what would happen after the funeral ended. He would go out, get drunk, and beat the living shit out of someone or something—and not necessarily in that order. But he had every right to. He had been the one that pulled Van's bloody body from the shattered Blade Liger's cockpit. He had to yell at Moonbay and me to keep Fiona from seeing it while I just held her back and prayed that this was all just a nightmare and that I would wake up to a phone call from Van saying Fiona was having another baby and I had to come quick. I held onto that lingering hope until his body was lowered to the ground and everything became real.
Major Van Fleiheit, hero, pilot of the Blade Liger, partner of Zeke, and destroyer of the Death Saurer was dead in his early thirties. He had left behind many friends, two children, and a pregnant wife to grieve. And grieve we did, Fiona worst of us all.
And I swore as I held Maria that I would find whoever did this and make him pay. I never wanted to see Fiona cry again.
I'd slept on Fiona's couch that night, not wanting to leave her alone. But in the morning, I left her in Maria's care. I figured those two should be together in their grief. And besides, I had someone I needed to see, so I got in the Dibison and made my way home to the Schubaltz mansion.
Karl and I used to fight a lot when we were kids. He'd always told me that I depended too much on my machines. Once he'd even suggested that I'd marry one. I told him that he was married to his career. And right now, I was glad he was. I needed the hard military man I knew as my brother. I needed him if I was going to find Van's killer.
He was standing alone in the mausoleum that housed all of the family's fallen Zoids. No matter what, we'd always treated them with respect for all they'd done for us. It made me remember how Moonbay and Dr. D were fixing up the Blade Liger as much as they could so it could keep watch over Van's grave, and I felt sick. Maybe it was too early to be doing this. But I'd already taken the first step. I couldn't turn back so easily.
"Thomas, how are you feeling?" Karl asked. I couldn't remember a time he'd used a tone that soft with me.
"Okay, I guess," I answered. "I just need your help."
"I want to find who killed Van. He can't be allowed to get away."
"Are you sure you're doing this for Van and not for yourself?" I knew what he meant. Too often I wanted to do something to impress Fiona. But not this time.
"No, Karl. I don't have any dreams of being praised for this. The only way Fiona's involved in this is because I don't want her to have to cry like that again. You saw her at the funeral, Karl. Maybe if she knows that someone caught the guy who did this, it might ease the pain a little."
"Or it could make it worse."
"I'll have to take that risk. Even though I saw him as a rival for a long time, Van was still my friend. I owe it to him."
"All right, then," he answered, sighing. "But I can't come with you. I'm supposed to be on assignment. I only got off for a couple of days because I knew Van. And I can't promise Rosso and Viola's help—they're taking the Emperor back to Guygalos."
"But I can give you a read-out of the Blade Liger's memory of that day. The Imperial and Republican armies received the information from Dr. D's work on it. It could lead you at least to where the battle happened. Maybe you'll find something there." He was risking a lot for me. From the sound of it, that information was confidential, and he could be court-martialed for sharing it with me. But as I looked at him in surprise, he told me, "Don't worry. I'll let the army know I put you on the investigation. With the help of Beke, you'll be able to find the killer faster than a conventional military police unit." He had faith in me and my machines. And right now, that meant more to me than easing Fiona's grief.
"One more thing, Thomas," he added as I was about to leave the room. "Hook Beke up to a Storm Sworder. It'll cover a lot more ground more quickly than your Dibison. There's a Stealth-type fueled up just for the investigation over at base."
"Thanks," I answered and set out again. At least now, I had somewhere to start.
A couple of hours and a few words with a visiting and grieving former Colonel Krueger of the Republican forces, and I had Beke hooked up to the Triple-S Storm Sworder and we were flying over the deserts separating the Wind Colony from the rest of the world. Beke beeped a question of "What are we looking for?" as I read over the notes and let him take over the flying.
"I'm not sure, Beke," I answered. "Just some kind of clue as to who did this and where he went."
There was a good chance it was a desert bandit that got lucky. Maybe even one who'd trained to fight Van. He'd made a lot of enemies as a kid, back before I knew him. Some of those enemies became his friends, and some had already tried to get revenge and lost. Siefers was one of them, but I arrested him myself after he tried to kill Van and an entire village. Most of those enemies were in jail or already dead.
Another set of beeps from Beke woke me out of my daze. I nearly jumped out of my seat and checked the scanners. Finally, we'd found something! I set the Triple-S down, took the portable Beke unit, and carefully walked over to the area the scanners indicated. Maybe it was a clue, or maybe it wasn't. I just couldn't take the chance of missing or destroying it.
There were large pieces of burnt orange glass on the sand, along with bent panels of metal. It could have been any violent battle between a Liger and another Zoid, but the Guardian Force hadn't heard of anything in this area that could have left this. It had to be the site of Van's last battle. I felt something harden up inside me with that thought.
"Beke, judging by the debris, what do you think?" I asked. He beeped back an answer. "A König Wolf? A König Wolf took out Van?" That was impossible. The new König Wolves, an upgraded version of the Command Wolves, were no match for Van's skills in the Blade Liger. To defeat him in one, it would take a lot more than just a single new Zoid that a pilot would only have had a few months to train with at best…
And then a new thought hit me, one I didn't want to think of:
What if it was someone on our side? Imperial or Republican? König Wolves were created by the Republicans and traded with the Imperial Army as a part of the munitions treaty. Getting one would be easy for someone in either Army or the Guardian Force—after all, that's how I got my Dibison…
Beke woke me out of my daydreaming again, but this time not a moment too soon. Shots rang out nearby, and I just barely avoided them. Shrapnel hit my ankle, but I still ran like hell back to the Storm Sworder and strapped in to fight.
I couldn't see anyone in front of me, so I had to assume it was a Stealth Viper or a Helcat. I tensed as I tried to ignore the blood running into my boot. I hadn't counted on fighting invisible assassins when I decided to do this. But luckily for me, my opponent was kicking up sand as he ran, so I could see him pretty clearly. Hopefully that meant Van's murder hadn't been an inside job after all.
I opened up the broadband channel and called out, "This is Captain Thomas Richard Schubaltz of the Guardian Force. You are interfering with a military investigation. Surrender peacefully and come with me for questioning, or face retaliation." The Helcat fired again. Van would probably say that they always take the hard way. He would probably be right.
I fired back with the twin pulse cannons, managing to score a hit on the back of the Helcat. Its cloaking shield dropped, and I swooped down on my back, prepared to use the forehead spike when Beke warned me of a charged particle blast coming straight at us. I pulled back up immediately just in time to avoid getting decimated by the blast that took out the Helcat and melted the sand for the next couple of miles.
"Of course," I muttered. Who else would it have been that killed Van? I felt so stupid for not realizing it before. Quickly, I reopened the comm.-link and shouted, "Raven, this is Captain Schubaltz. You are under arrest for the murder of Major Van Fleiheit!"
The red Geno Breaker came into view, calmly flying toward me. I kept my fingers on the triggers just in case I needed to cripple it. There was no telling what Raven or Shadow would do.
I just didn't expect this:
"Captain, I honestly thought you and the Guardian Force were smarter than that. Of course I didn't kill Van."
My jaw literally dropped wide open. In a more Van-like manner than my own, I shouted, "What do you mean you didn't kill him?"
Raven opened the cockpit of his Breaker and jumped to the ground, his Organoid following him. There he stood, just a few feet away from me: pale skin, purple eyes, grayish-black hair, a red birthmark across his right cheek and a burn on his hand. This monster of a man and his Organoid were a disgrace to the Empire and humans and Zoids in general. They had killed probably hundreds of people without feeling. But here he stood in front of me, answering plainly, "I'm grieving his death right now, as you're holding that gun on me."
I didn't answer. I tried, but I couldn't even get words to form. Raven continued, "When we fought Hiltz, I told Van that no one was going to kill him other than me. As you can see, someone beat me to it."
His smug lack of feeling brought back my voice and anger as I shouted, "How do you expect me to believe you didn't kill him? You just admitted yourself that you would!"
"I would if I could," he answered, his voice betraying his annoyance. "As much as I hate to admit it, Van was on the same level as me—maybe even better. If we had battled here and I killed him, there would have been a lot more than just König Wolf and Blade Liger wreckage in this desert." He turned his head to the melted sand, calling my attention to it. Already it had turned to dark gray glass. If he'd really battled Van, the rest of the sand would have been melted by the charged particle blasts too. I let go of the triggers and sat there in anger. He was right, and I hated it.
"So then it was someone who got lucky," I commented. I knew just how defeated my voice sounded. Van was the best Zoid pilot I knew—even better than Karl. I didn't want to admit that he could be killed by someone not even at his level.
"It wasn't just some punk," Raven corrected, looking at the remains. "Whoever did this was good."
My fears from before returned as I jumped down from the Triple-S to join him. "Then could it be someone in the Army?"
He shrugged. "Don't think so. If Van thought someone in either the Army or the Guardian Force was after him, he'd have dealt with it sooner. And he would have been on his guard. This was definitely an ambush by an unknown enemy."
"Then who? A deserter maybe?"
Raven looked at me like I was the insane one. "You're not going to give up on that Army theory, are you?"
"The military's the only one I can think that could possibly beat him," I admitted. "Someone who fought in the war with Hiltz and Prozen. Someone who knew how he fought."
"Not necessarily," Raven argued. "But I have to agree about it being someone who studied his moves. But I don't think this is someone who knew him from the past. Riese says that's the way Hiltz used to operate: Attack almost randomly and fast. But when he first fought Van, he met him ahead of time and sent out Ambient."
"You're not saying it's Hiltz, are you?" I asked.
"Of course not," he replied. "I'm just trying to relate it to something that you can understand." I seethed in anger. No wonder this guy used to get on Van's nerves. He was so full of himself!
"Fine!" I answered. "Then who do you think it is?"
"I don't know." His tone was calm and deliberate. "But I'm going to find out."
"What do you mean you?" I demanded. "This is an official Guardian Force matter, and I'm the one assigned to the investigation."
"Fine, then, Captain Schubaltz," he replied. "But don't interfere in my affairs. This is personal."
"It's personal for me too," I reminded him.
We stared at each other then, each of us measuring up the other. I don't know what he saw in me, but I saw a lot in him. I saw that he was Van's rival and trying to remain better than he was. I saw that he might have thought of Van as a friend, if not for the history between them. I saw that he had struggled desperately in order to do things his way and succeed at them. I saw someone who was a lot like me.
How in the world had I managed to compare myself to Raven of all people?
"All right," he finally agreed. "But before we do anything, bandage that ankle. I can't have you being a burden because of your injury." I simply nodded, and we both returned to our Zoids. When I got in, I took a roll of bandages out of a med-pack under the seat and pulled off my boot. As I wrapped up my wound, Beke beeped out a question.
"No, Beke, of course I don't trust him," I answered. "But right now, he's the only one that might be able to help. We've done all we can alone." He beeped back a reply that amounted to "I hope you don't regret it one day." I replied back, "I hope so too."
Following Beke's readings and Raven's information, we made our way across the desert. It took us the entire day and most of the night, so we finally decided to camp out and get some sleep while we still could.
"Shadow will remain on guard," he informed as I readied a fire and two cans of rations.
"Fine with me," I answered, tossing him the tin of beef stew.
We sat down across from each other in front of the fire, avoiding eye contact. In between eating the cold stew, I rubbed my foot to try and get the feeling back in it. My bandages were on so tight that my foot was falling asleep, and walking on it was painful. But Raven saw me and said, "If you need to re-bandage that, go right ahead. Seeing a little blood isn't going to make me lose my appetite."
I kept back any comments I could have made and took off my boot, whispering, "Damn," as I took a look at the damage. My entire foot was covered in dried blood from what had gone in my boot. I took a clean cloth and soaked it with a little of my water ration so I could wipe away the blood. The wound at least had a scab on it, even if it was an oozing scab, but I didn't have to wrap it up as tightly. I then put the damp cloth in my boot to soak up some of the blood before letting it dry by the fire. But throughout it all, Raven kept eating, never once seeming to notice or care about the blood. That more than anything made me feel sick. But I had to eat, so I tried to get the cold beef, vegetables, and gravy into my stomach without throwing it back up again. I just barely succeeded.
"We better get some sleep," Raven commented. I got up and retrieved a bedroll from the Triple-S. He did the same from his Geno Breaker. We spread them out next to the fire and lay down to rest. I had just about fallen asleep when he remarked, "It's not often that the Imperial Army puts someone on an investigation when they're emotionally connected."
"Your point?" I mumbled.
"You were put on this for a reason, and it wasn't your AI system." I rolled over away from the fire. I was really beginning to hate him even more now.
"What's it mean to you? We're only teaming up so we can get this guy and then we go back to being enemies. My reason for being involved isn't important, and neither is yours."
I think he was surprised because he was silent for a minute before answering with a "Hmph." I finally closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I couldn't. Raven was getting to me, just like he always used to get to Van. If I didn't need his help for this, I'd probably get up, shoot him, and go back to sleep.
Oh, God, here I was sounding like Raven again!
"His father nearly adopted me, you know that?" he suddenly asked. Surprised, I rolled back over and stared at him. His arms were behind his head as he watched the stars. "I was nine, and Ambient had just killed my parents. The Republican Army showed up to capture Shadow, and they found me in the destroyed lab. Major Fleiheit said that he planned on bringing me home as soon as the mission was over. He mentioned that I'd probably get along well with his son. Funny the way things turn out, isn't it, Captain Schubaltz?" I didn't answer, but I don't think he expected me to. He just kept right on with it. "Then the Imperial Forces attacked us outside the Wind Colony. Fleiheit went out in his Command Wolf and died fighting, taking out the entire enemy unit with him. Van probably did the same. Whoever fought him in the König Wolf can't be alive, or at least is close enough to dying."
"So someone else had to have been involved," I realized. "Someone who could attack him while he was occupied and cause more damage."
"And here I thought the Army couldn't think for themselves," he commented. I ignored him.
"The glass in his cockpit had been broken," I remembered, getting up and limping over to the Storm Sworder. "And it had been all over the floor and mixed with his blood. Beke, run a simulation on the angle it would take for someone to shoot through the Blade Liger's windshield according to the damage recorded." The results came back with a 66.325-degree angle from a high-powered sniper bullet. "66.325—not quite on top of him, but good enough to hit him in the chest. But it doesn't make sense for so many injuries to come from one high-caliber bullet."
"The one bullet would be needed only to break through the shield," Raven informed, standing right next to me. I tried to forget how awkward it was for an Imperial Captain and a war criminal to be standing so close together on more-or-less friendly terms and kept my concentration on the ballistics. "From there, conventional bullets could finish the job."
"The glass would have practically exploded when the first bullet hit," I reasoned. "The shards would have been coming in, so Van would have let go of the controls so he could shield himself from them. Once he did, the König would have been able to knock the Liger off-balance, and even Zeke wouldn't have been able to correct for it. Then the sniper could have used regular bullets to finish the job."
"Meaning that the König Wolf pilot was just a distraction," Raven added. "The real mastermind was the sniper, while the König provided brute strength only."
"The first bullet would have to have come from a Gun Sniper, but the Zoid itself would have to be capable of flight and be modified to shoot a bullet like that. But a Pteras is too bulky, and a Raynos wouldn't be able to shoot from that angle. And I don't think it would have been a Storm Sworder or a Redler."
"Customized Zabat, then?" Raven concluded.
"It would have to be, with one of the cannons partially disabled except for the Gun Sniper bullet. It would be small enough to go unnoticed, and might have a cloaking system taken from a Helcat—after all, we know that they have them. It wouldn't be hard for them to install it if they have the kind of genius among them that came up with this to begin with."
"It's probably a small gang then, possibly a cult."
"And maybe they thought that by killing Van, they could prove themselves in favor of the gods," I agreed, working through tales of the fall of the Ancient Zoidians that I'd learned from Fiona and fighting Hiltz and Riese. "But I don't think the leader believes that."
"He only needs to pretend he does in order to control them," Raven reminded me. "That's how Prozen worked."
"But they would have had to have stolen some Zoids in order to start off," I added. "Beke, go through the records of the past couple of years. See if a Zabat, a Helcat, a König Wolf, and Gun Sniper ammo have been reported as stolen from the Army."
"That doesn't exactly help," Raven argued. "It could all be a coincidence."
"True," I realized. "Beke, cancel that. Instead, run a check on any anarchists that have shown up since the destruction of the Death Saurer. See if Van was personally involved in any of them."
"There's a good chance he was involved in a lot of them," Raven warned.
"But it depends on which ones were determined to be minor threats," I replied. Sure enough, Beke's results listed one uprising labeled as an unimportant event a little more than five years ago. The anarchist in question, Bastian Adler, hadn't caused any real damage that Van could determine other than inciting a minor riot. He was sentenced to three years in prison. After serving them, it made sense that he could have spent the last two years training to get revenge on Van.
"And look, he was last recorded as living just outside the Wind Colony on a commune," I pointed out.
"Knowing Van, he probably forgot all about it since it didn't seem that important," Raven muttered. "Pity."
"Something tells me it's time the Guardian Force paid a visit to Mr. Adler's commune," I commented.
"The Guardian Force and a war criminal," Raven corrected.
"Then get in the Geno Breaker and keep behind me," I ordered. "You'll be my back-up. We're playing by his rules here."
As I flew over the commune, I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. All I could see was a long greenhouse with a couple of small houses around it.
"Everything looks perfectly normal," I told Raven via the comm.-link.
"Don't let your guard down," he warned. "Shadow's flying just above you and senses several Zoids."
"Great," I muttered. "Beke, what do your sensors detect?" He beeped back a negative. "Wonderful, they're using more cloaking technology."
And then the Zabat hit.
I barely had time to react as its one working cannon blasted at the Triple-S. I couldn't see him, so I had to swoop down in order to avoid the shots. But then the König Wolf leapt at me and disabled one of my blades.
"Raven, I could use your help here!" I shouted, but already in the distance I could see the flash of Shadow merging with the Geno Breaker.
"I'm on my way," he informed, charging forward.
I finally managed to get away from the König and fired at it a couple of times until its combat system froze. Just as I finished, Raven started tackling a Rev Raptor and two Helcats. I decapitated a Helcat with my overhead blade, but Raven shouted, "Go! Adler's getting away! I'll take care of these guys. And it'll leave me free to use the charged particle gun."
"All right," I answered, flying higher into the air. "Beke, wait for the charged particle gun. Then scan for any shadows visible from the blast."
I closed my eyes as Raven let off a charged particle blast that turned the entire night into a burning white light. Beke beeped to me the location of the Zabat as the light faded and I opened my eyes. Sure enough, it was momentarily frozen, the pilot blinded by the light of the attack. I flew directly at it, my one undamaged blade out, and cut off one of its wings. It collapsed quickly to the sand, and the pilot scrambled to get out. I landed and opened my cockpit while Raven trained his guns on the target.
"Bastian Adler, this is Captain Thomas Richard Schubaltz of the Guardian Force. You are under arrest for the murder of Van Fleiheit. Do not resist." Adler, seeing the Geno Breaker, raised his hands in surrender.
Adler confessed to being not only the mastermind and leader of the cult, but Van's actual killer. While the pilot of the König Wolf had caused a lot of damage to Van to begin with, his Zabat's bullets had caused the worst of it, finally killing him. Most of his followers were just troubled kids, as most cult members seem to be, but we had to arrest them all the same as accessories to murder. I just hoped that they'd get a lesser sentence since they were so obviously brainwashed. It hurt breaking all this to Fiona, but in the midst of her tears, she thanked me for all I did.
"I owed it to Van," I answered.
And so here I now stood, wearing an actual Imperial uniform for once, my hair combed until I looked more like Karl's brother instead of just Thomas. I'd managed to convince Raven to come to the ceremony, and he just wore his normal battle suit. Both Emperor Rudolf and President Camford pardoned him for his crimes and gave him an honorary award as thanks for his help in the investigation and apprehension of Bastian Adler. The President awarded me the White Star of Peace, the highest honor in the Republican Army, given only to those who did the most extraordinary. I knew Van had turned down the award after he destroyed the Death Saurer, but I couldn't do the same. It just didn't seem appropriate. The Emperor then unveiled the Black Lily of Honor, an award created in the memory of one of my great Schubaltz ancestors. It was similar to the White Star, but the Black Lily held an even deeper meaning, as it was usually awarded posthumously. I was the first person in almost sixty years to still be alive to receive it. But instead of pinning it to me himself, the Emperor gave it to Karl, who proudly walked up and pinned it to my uniform, right beside the White Star.
"Congratulations, Major Schubaltz," he whispered. He then saluted me, and I saluted back.
They say that the brightest stars burn themselves out the fastest because they use up so much energy. But it's those stars that are remembered the best. The smaller stars may not be able to burn as brightly, but they have their times of glory too. And sometimes it's because of those brighter stars.
I do not own Zoids. Information on the army ranks was taken from the U.S. Army hierarchy, from a site called cyList. The idea of the Black Lily of Honor came from Karl's fascination with that lily in his first appearance in Chaotic Century. And thank you to The Sh33p for beta-reading this at VALL.
All I ask is that if you review, put some thought into your comments. I want some insight into how good or bad I'm doing here.