Chapter One: Aftershocks
Start with a war of four generations, lasting through a planet-rending cataclysm. Add in the nearly complete mobilization of all national resources for supporting the war. Then, all of a sudden take it away and shut down the majority of the industrial sector so as not to sink deeper into an already oppressive national debt. In retrospect, it's amazing that everything took so long to give in.
—Jon Alandris, "On the Economics of the Apocalypse." Helic Journal of Industrial Organization, Vol. XVII Issue 12
Saer Westen gave the bottle of Taren Fire on the emperor's desk a long but neutral glance as he entered the room. No arguments or persuading words to 'go easy on it' were needed – he and the desk's occupant had conducted the discussion enough times that they knew the course the argument would take by heart… as well as the inevitable ending Yes, yes, Wolff would promise. I will look after myself. I will be careful. But seeing the circles under the young man's eyes and noting the way that his normally wild locks lay a little flat, Westen did not doubt that Wolff had been feeling the strain.
Here and there around the office, Saer saw signs of a normally ordered mind thrown into disorder and confusion. A wall painting of Stoermer's Gilvader hung slightly askew. A stay stylus or piece of paper disturbed what was supposed to be an open, clean space. The pile of datapads on Wolff's desk, which had started out neat and orderly with all the corners squared to one another. Now, the entire thing was piled together in such a way that it seemed it might topple at any moment.
Not a bad representation of how some other things were shaping up, Saer thought gloomily. If war caused any number of problems, the end of war arguably caused even more.
"Saer." Wolff's greeting was a reasonable attempt at cheer. Anyone who knew him less probably would have accepted it as proof of good spirits. "How goes the day?"
"Well enough, milord. Well enough." Saer quickly stepped over to the desk, bearing yet another datapad for the pile. He laid it in the center space of Muroa's desk, which was actually neat and clean and showed some of the polished wooden surface. "I prepared the reports on the total costs of the Seismosaurus and Energy Liger programs, and integrated the new data into projections on our war debt, as you suggested."
Wolff glanced down at the graphs and gave a small sigh. He had known it would be bad, but to have the numbers glaring up in his face… "How bad is it?"
"Bad, milord. We need to cut expenditures by another fifteen percent or we will have to begin defaulting on some of the contract payments. I don't think I need to tell you what will happen to the stability of the Zenacred if that happens."
Saer watched the emperor's jaw muscles tighten as he paged through the report. There was something that frightened the balding man in those eyes… something hopeless. Something that reminded him of his father's stories about Stoermer.
A nation led by an emperor with no hope had no future…
With care that betrayed his steady hands and sure fingers, Muroa set the new datapad on top of the stack. It wavered for a moment, as though disturbed by a strong breeze, before the wobbling died out and it assumed its tentative equilibrium. "Well." His gaze turned to the polished wood of his desk's center. Absently, he picked at a bit of sticky resin from some piece of tape or other. "It's going to come down to disbanding units, isn't it? We aren't saving enough from disbanding the irregulars?"
"Not nearly, milord. Most of those units have much lower maintenance requirements – they're in older Zoids with half the support, technical and logistics staff needed to send them into battle. It takes two dozen men and a dedicated maintenance vehicle to put an Energy Liger into the field and keep it there. The cost to keep up each of our remaining Seismosauruses is more than supporting an entire chimaera-Blox division."
Wolff made no immediate reply, instead slowly rising from his swivel-chair and pacing over to the floor-to-ceiling transparipolymer windows. They were made of the same general material as Zoid cockpit covers, only three times as thick and plasma-fused. With good reason… stray shots from Zoids and angry citizens with AZ rifles were always an unpleasant reality for the ruler of an occupied land.
But not ruler much longer, Saer corrected himself. Peace talks were ongoing, but progress had been incredibly swift. And in none of the current proposals under consideration was the Neo-Zenebas Empire maintaining control of the old Helic capital. It was just as well, really… as Wolff had lamented, none of the people in this region of the Central Continent wanted to be ruled by any empire, no matter how well-governed it was or how much better it made their lives. Below, the curls of smoke visible over the past weeks from battle damage and stray charged particle beams were no longer apparent, but the wounded skyline still showed its gaps conspicuously. There was a building that had been reduced to a burned-out shell by energy charge missiles, and there an entire slice of housing units and the ground on which they had stood was nothing but glassy earth. It said something about the nature of the war that "fewer than a hundred thousand civilian deaths" had been hailed as a great thing.
The emperor voiced his thoughts a moment later. "The pilots… the maintinence staff… everyone who was part of operating the great machine of death." His voice was quiet, but his fists clenched tightly by his side spoke of a wealth of anger and frustration to which Wolff was not currently giving voice. "They will all want for jobs. At the same time, new Zoid contracts will… cease to exist. With all our losses from the war, we still have surplus capacity for all peacetime uses." He spun on his heel to face Saer, eyes sharp. "There will be riots in the streets. The people will complain of hunger and want. And the burden for their suffering will rest squarely on their shoulders!"
Taken aback by the sudden rise in Wolff's voice, Saer stepped backwards a pace unconsciously.
"I offered them peace, minister. I gave them the chance for peace and new, more prosperous lives. I let them retain their culture and their autonomy. And what did they choose? War." He spat on the carpet, grinding it in with his boot. "Had it not been for Gregg's mercy—" and there was something in the emperor's voice when he mentioned the name of the Republic champion, the last of the Flash Division, some unidentifiable and complex mixture of emotions beyond Saer's perception, "—their choice would have brought them all death. The citizens of Helic will riot to Helic, and good riddance. Hermann deserves every egg and firebomb thrown in his direction. But my own people will suffer because of Helic's stupidity. There will be hardship, and none of it my doing… but when end of day comes, on whose shoulders does it lie? Mine."
Saer spread his hands in placation. "Do not fret about that, milord. The citizens of Zenebas know the source of their troubles is not you—"
"I wish I could believe that," Muroa interrupted with a cynical snort. "But half a lifetime in politics has taught me better."
There wasn't anything that the minister could say in reply to that. He knew that Wolff Muroa had struck close to the truth.
At last, the emperor let out a sigh, visibly deflating and losing his anger. In its place was just… tiredness. Apathy. He plodded to his desk chair and slumped back into its curves. "Hunger and loss are bitter rewards for those who have served the Empire so well, Minister. Yet it would seem that I have no choice if I am to save the Empire. I will begin drafting statements for regimental disbanding tomorrow morning. By the end of the week, I expect that a good half of the standing regiments will be no longer. I will make the announcements myself." He summoned enough energy for a tiny, bitter laugh. "If the Empire is to betray their sacrifice like this, the soldiers deserve to have me deliver it personally."
Saer bowed his head. "Your sense of responsibility does you proud, milord. With your permission, I will withdraw and begin seeking ways to generate the tax revenue that we need to pay down the debts."
Wordlessly, Muroa flicked his hand in dismissal.
As the advisor turned away, he remembered one last thing – smiled – turned back. "One other item, milord. A retiring pilot named Caine Alexander has freely given up his Energy Liger to you. It is a stock model, but the battle damage has been repaired and it is in your personal hangar slot, milord."
Muroa did not smile, but a spark of life and energy danced back to life in his eyes as he looked up. "Thank him for—no, I will thank him myself. And give orders that I not be disturbed this afternoon." At this, a flicker of something that might have momentarily been a smile flashed across his features. "I will want to calibrate the controls and… ensure that all systems are in order, and I would not wish to encounter any bureaucrats or political sycophants while at the helm of such a war machine."
"Indeed not, milord." Saer grinned and gave a half-bow. "I will see to it." And with that, he finally turned and padded out the double doors of the office.
Liam Arnith gave the bottle of Charge Cola on the major's desk a long but neutral glance as he entered the room. He couldn't for the life of him understand why anyone would buy the stuff – to describe it generously, it tasted like carbonated cough elixir. That Major Todd Willington would willingly drink it was probably an indicator of how much he needed the caf.
The rest of the office seemd to support this assumption. All of it seemed to be organized, if that was indeed the word, in piles. There were piles of little power capacitors and circuits, piles of papers, a pile that had probably once been a stack of datapads. The only thing that could probably not be described as a pile, but instead as a layer, was the abundance of ready-food wrappers around the front of the desk. The group photo of a bunch of pilots on the wall, however, hung perfectly straight and lacked smudges of any sort.
Major Willington glanced up and gave a genial wave, leaning back in his chair with a skreeek of slightly stressed plastic. "Aaah, Professor! Please, come in… and pray don't mind the mess. I always did mean to clean this up, but the general made unit evaluations due an extra week early."
"Mrgh, evaluations." Liam gave a sympathetic grimace as he stepped delicately over a collection of soft-cover books, approaching the general's desk. "I just finished my department's program review. Sixty hours of my life that I'll never have back."
"Only sixty? Could've used you on my staff, Dr. Arnith." Major Willington laughed again and rose from his desk. He was exactly as Liam had pictured him from his biography, down to the impeccably straight uniform and polished boots (marred only slightly by a greasy smudge from some ready-food burger). His hair was nearly as wild as Emperor Muroa's, but now all grey from stress and age. The remarkable thing was that there was so much of it left... From all accounts he was a reasonably succcessful commander who won battles with boring but succesful tactics. Better that than daring but unsuccessful, Liam figured… Most significantly, however, Willington's unit was in the path of Helic military downsizing, due to be disbanded at the end of the year.
That made him more than usually open to the subject of Liam's new area of study: sales of surplus and "surplus" military Zoids to private citizens.
Today, with luck, Liam would fly or trot away from the base in a piece of military hardware that civilians had never been intended to possess.
"Come on out to the hangar with me and let's have a look at what's to be had." Liam fell instinctively into step with the major as they walked through the hallways. It seemed as though they had the entire complex to themselves; except for a single janitor, Liam saw no signs of anyone else on base. Unsurprising; with the end of indefinite deployment, everyone would be using up their extra leave passes. Well, everyone left alive to claim them, at any rate.
Liam glanced aside to the major. "Do you pilot?"
Wellington nodded. "Cannon Fort, then DiBison. I never did get much into the small, zippy things and as for flyers… well, I don't like heights much."
"That'd be a problem," Liam agreed with a chuckle.
"And you?" Wellington grinned. "I probably should have asked this earlier, but I feel a lot better about surplus sales if I know the buyer has some idea what to do with the thing. Then again, that assumes you'll be the one with your paws on the thing, and not someone else at your college—"
"Oh, I fully intend to," Liam replied. "I was in the Academy for three years, actually. Achieved spec-four on the Command Wolf and spec-three on the Shadow Fox – would've gone higher on it, but it was only introduced in the sims the last year I was there."
"That's impressive, actually." The major regarded him shrewdly. "Why weren't you on the lines, then? Discipline problems?"
Liam grinned. "Hardly. I was on the officer track until… well…" He sobered slightly, but maintained a bit of his smile – they would hardly want him to remember them in sadness. "My brother and his wife piloted two Zero Jaegers – they were CO and XO respectively of a unit in the Third Winged Recon. They were among the first units to make contact with the Eisen Dragoons in the Nyx campaign… both of them died. They had a sixteen-year old daughter, Avril, and she passed to me. I got an exemption on the single caretaker clause, although she was with me for only a few years."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Wellington set his lips in a line and stared forward. "We lost too many good people to that debacle in Nyx. I was in one of the reinforcement units, and it wasn't a pretty picture when we arrived. Not a pretty picture at all…" His fists clenched. "Too many of the Dragoons are still breathing for my tastes, but at least there's peace now. Anyhow, here's the hangar…"
They stood in front of a pair of large double doors, undecorated silver alloy that had the look of military functionality. Major Wellington stepped up to a recessed panel to the side and pressed his palm against it – a moment later, the doors swung open with the whisper-quiet operation of well-maintained equipment. Liam's opinion of the major rose a notch – he was obviously conscientious enough about keeping the important things clean.
The hangar continued this impression. Its floor was not polished to gleaming, but was instead merely clean, free of obvious stains from core fluid or bonding agents. Occupying the stalls opposite Liam was a collection of some of the Republic's most gun-laden Zoids. Gunblusters, DiBisons, a Gordos here and there. At the very end of the row, many meters distant at the end of the cavernous structure, sat the regiment's pride of place: two Gojulas Gigas, both equipped with the good old Gojulas cannon set and what looked to be supplementary missile pods.
"What do you think?" Wellington stepped up next to Liam, rightfully wearing a proud smile.
"Impressive," Liam answered truthfully, his eyes roving over the assembled units. "If I was facing this lineup, I'd be pretty intimidated…"
Still smiling, Wellington led Liam into the hangar. Now in the center, Liam could see the other side – seemingly occupied by smaller or more specialized Zoids. There was an entire unit of Cannon Tortoises, as well as a fair few Snipe Masters. And at the end of the row… Liam's eyes widened. Goodness. I didn't know there were any left... He glanced sidelong at Wellington. "Konig Wolves?"
"Aye. Five of them. Though we were originally assigned ten, forward units of all sorts took heavy losses during the Nyx campaign. Recon, target designation and point fire support. Damn fine Zoids for being so small and underarmed…"
Small was not exactly the first term that Liam would have applied to the wolflike Zoids skulking in the last five hangar slots on the left. Each one nearly matched the dimensions of the DiBison – and while not nearly as massively built, massed nearly as much as a Shield Liger. He had heard rumors that they had been an integration from a wild platform, just as the Liger Zero had been.
He wanted to ask whether they were up for… consideration… but tipping his hand so early would invite the major to lob him an inflated price. Best to let things play out normally.
"So what was the deal with their limited deployment?" Liam asked instead, stepping up to the leg of an adjacent Snipe Master. "I didn't see anything about them in the news reports past the time that Hermann was piloting one of the things."
Wellington grimaced. "Politics and budgets. The Republic sank a lot of cash into the Konig Wolf's development program. It was an incredible challenge to tame the Zoid enough to make it pilable through the command system, but at the same time leave it wild enough to get the sort of combat efficiencies possible from the frame. Then, of course, the supplementary weapon units were late in development, so instead of being properly outfitted the first Konig Wolves were deployed with no ranged weapons at all."
"That seems… unwise," Liam conceded with a nod. His scrutiny had passed to the Snipe Master's claws, which looked rather large and fearsome to be fitted to a specialized sniper.
"If the Liger Zero hadn't been stolen from the Empire – sorry, the Guylos Empire, I suppose I should specify – then you probably would have seen a lot more of the things. As it was, almost everything about the Liger was ready for production and so it came out a year before the first Konigs. What with the weapon delays and all, the Wolf never gained the sort of recognition and deployment for commanders and pilots to become familiar with them. They were often misused, put into situations where they couldn't be expected to perform equally with a Liger Zero. It didn't help that a lot of the wild-type personality profiles were… particular about their pilots. With the additional expense of ranged weapons needed, the bookkeepers decided that it'd be more efficient to stop production and put the resources into developing new Changing Armor Systems for the Liger. The remaining Konig Wolves were generally declared as surplus and… scrapped." At this, the major chuckled. "No commander in his right mind would give up Zoids that good, even if the maintinence techs were no longer officially supporting them. As it is, there are… quite a few that are in unused slots and warehouses."
"And they'll be getting out into the hands of bandits and legitimate pilots alike," Liam murmured, now able to step into the next stall and properly examine the first Wolf. Its white armor plates had been painted with patches of light and dark grey, and the stabilizers had all been painted in grey as well – camoflauge for Nyx, Liam supposed. He had to admit that it went very nicely with the dark color of the base structure. RZ-053-A0043 read the number stenciled on its lower leg armor.
"Heh." Wellington snorted. "Not just them. A lot of officers that are less scrupulous and more desperate than I am are going to start selling their stock to whoever comes across their path, research permit or no. Command's in such a mess right now that you could just report five fewer Zoids than you had, mark them as complete battle losses, and then sell them. With that much money you'd be set for life."
Liam nodded grimly, kneeling down to examine the Wolf's claws. It wasn't a pretty thought – the situation was going to put a lot of people out of work with military-level Zoid experience and nothing to lose. He fully intended to use whatever Zoid he acquired – okay, the Konig Wolf, don't lie to yourself. A group of college students on a research trip amounted to a collection of large ransoms on a gift tray wrapped in pretty paper.
"So." Having concluded his inspection and determined that the Zoid was in as good a condition as everything else in the hangar, Liam leaned back against a metal divider. He could feel the chill of the metal even through his undershirt and blue button-up. "What about this one?"
"Hmm." Something that Liam couldn't quite identify flitted across the major's features. Grief? Fear? "Well, this one was the Zoid of the scout unit's XO. A Berserk Furhrer burned through the cockpit with the beam cannons, killing him and disabling the command system…"
"And?" Liam leaned forward a bit in interest.
"It… barely hesitated, just turned and jumped on the Furher. Mauled it to death, went onto another, and it was finally disabled by a third. I'd never seen anything like it..." Major Wellington stared up into the inert left eye of the lupine Zoid. "I had heard that the wild-base units were capable of autonomous operation, but that – that was just something else. He had always said that this one was a little more feral than usual."
"And you repaired it afterwards?" Somehow, Liam found himself fascinated by the story. A Zoid that could think and operate on its own… it would make a fascinating study.
Wellington nodded. "Replaced a shredded limb, repaired the body structure, put a lot of amor back on, replaced the cockpit – you'd be hard pressed to find those sort of repair parts anywhere, nowadays – and loaded a new command system. I… well…" The major hung his head a moment. "I ordered the new command system to be more restrictive than the old one. I didn't want it going berserk in the middle of its night. James – that was its pilot – always said that it was attached to him."
Liam nodded. Understandable enough, although he couldn't help but feel that the poor thing was probably underutilized if a lot of its wild functions were being supressed. He supposed that he would get the chance to find out, if he could get behind its controls. Still and all, he couldn't help but feel a little nervous staring up at the thing. Suppose it was still hurt from the loss of its pilot? Suppose that the supression of the command system had pent up its grief and rage for all that time?
"I can see that look in your eye." Wellington chuckled. "You want to take it out and see what makes it tick. Well, far be it from me to deny you the chance – you've got the permit, and the cash, and enough experience that you at least know how to do a cold shutdown and call for help. Besides, Jeremy's bored up in the control tower."
Unable to supress a grin, Liam nodded. "I'd love the chance, actually. Unless it ejects me and eats me, I expect I'd be more than happy to take her off your hands."
Wellington grimaced. "Better not joke about that. There's a damn good reason I insisted on all those liability release forms." He jerked his head back towards the double-doors to the office wing. "Ready room's back into the hallway, second door on your left. Once you're suited up, you should be ready. Just take it out, and take it easy until you're used to the control response."
Liam nodded eagerly and trotted back towards the double doors. For a moment he fancied he could feel the wolf's eyes on his back, but then dismissed it as nerves and excitement. Back in the cockpit of a proper Zoid after four years away… this was going to be fun, provided that he didn't spin out and land the Wolf on its butt. Or do so multiple times. Nehh, wouldn't happen. He wouldn't give Wellington the satisfaction of laughing his ass off at a fool civilian.