The flames had been doused across the city. Pillars of smoke ascended across the cityscape as the cold rain pelted the Count. There was nothing he could say, nothing he wanted to say. He simply stood there. It was over. The Count didn't know what to feel—rage, despair? They all came flooding in at once, mixing into a concoction of dead feeling. He couldn't feel anything, and the beat of his own heart barely registered to him. The years of planning, the extensive work; everything was gone. It was all taken away. It shouldn't have happened this way. Everything was perfect and yet… they lost.
Dr. Laon stood behind his superior. He, too, was at a loss of words. The feelings he felt, though, were all too familiar. He was handed yet another heartbreaking defeat by the likes of Dr. Toros and his team of Zoid pilots. It was never meant to end this way. The Fuzors were meant to be the perfect Zoids; they were scientifically sound and without defect. What had he not figured in his equations? Maybe the Blitz Team was something special, something he had yet to understand. No, they were just compiled atoms. There was nothing special about them, and that went for Van Flyheight and his allies as well. Dr. Laon sighed. What now?
"Count," Dr. Laon spoke, "where do we go from here?"
The Count nearly scoffed at the question. Where did Dr. Laon think they could go from here? He was open to suggestions, but at this point, there was not a one he wanted to consider. An entire year in hiding to plan such an assault was now in ashes. It made the Count sick to his stomach that their defeat didn't come from the Zoids Battle Commissions, but from a handful of warriors who merely fight for sport. And even the likes of Van Flyheight and the traitor Raven proved too much for them. So, where could they go from here?
"Nowhere," the Count said at last. His voice retained a level of tranquility that Dr. Toros envied to have in a crisis. "We are finished here, Dr. Laon. The Backdraft is finished. You should leave, disappear. They'll come looking for us."
"Count, I…" Dr. Laon never knew the Count to throw in the towel, but he imagined there nothing left for the Backdraft's leader to fight for. There was no more motivation, no more prizes to obtain. It was all suddenly—brutally—tied off. "Where will you go?" Laon looked down at the charred metal beneath his boots. "Where will I go? What will I do?"
The Count inhaled, turning to face Laon. "You'll live. That's all you can do—"
A gunshot echoed.
The Count convulsed, experiencing a sudden stinging sensation. He glanced down, pulling his hand away from a gunshot wound just below his right pectoral muscle. He took in two shallow breaths and collapsed on the hull.
Dr. Laon's brows shot up, his heart catapulting into his throat. "Count!"
"Don't help him!"
Dr. Laon registered the voice. He knew who it was; he just didn't expect to see him again. Laon stepped back from the Count as he slowly bled out, turning slowly around as he stared down the mouth of a gun held by Raven. The Zoids kept his hands by his side, keeping them in plain sight. "He'll die."
Raven walked forward, gun steadily aimed at Laon. "Let him. I want you to watch him die. Go ahead… look."
Dr. Laon carefully looked away from Raven—more so the gun—and glanced down at the Count. His breathing became labored as his beady eyes were seemingly transfixed on Raven. It wasn't long before he drew his last breath, dying right before Laon's eyes. The Zoid scientist expected to feel something, but nothing surfaced. Maybe he never cared. The Count used him as much as Laon used the Count. It was a mutual exchange with neither of them getting what they wanted. Pity.
"It's over, Raven. We lost." It surprised Laon how easily the words came from his lips.
"I know," Raven agreed. He shot a glare at the Count, marveling that he was the last face he saw before he died. There was no better conclusion. He refocused, his finger within the trigger guard. "I should kill you where you stand."
Dr. Laon slipped his hands into his pockets, suddenly feeling an air of confidence that would elude most people in his situation. "Then why don't you? You've murdered the Count; what's one more body?"
"I won't kill you." Raven pushed the lock up and switched on the safety, returning to the small of his back. "I kept my promise to Reese. That's all I need."
"And you're just going to let me go?" Dr. Laon shrugged, almost laughing.
Raven didn't smile; he didn't find anything funny. "I thought about it, but then again… Shadow!"
The black organoid appeared from the dark clouds overhead, dropping down behind Raven with an unconscious Major Polta in his maw. He tossed the man at Laon's feet, grinning darkly with a flicking tail.
"You see, I'm not one to care about justice," Raven recollected, pacing about around Dr. Laon. "It never meant anything to me, and maybe it still doesn't; but I learned something today…" Raven stood beside Laon, nodding with folded lips as he overlooked the city. "… I learned that we have to take responsibility for who we are and for who we were. It'll change us. I think Reese was trying to teach me that. With that in mind…" Raven nodded to Shadow.
Shadow leveled Dr. Laon, striking him in the back of his head. The man dropped, unconscious to the world around.
Raven closed his eyes and leaned his head back, letting the rain strike his face. He exhaled, glancing down at Dr. Laon. "… It's time for you to accept that."
—Three Months Later—
Van sat at Fiona's bedside with Zeke. It was a quiet room. The nurse always managed to replace the flowers before they wilted. She said it brightened up the room, giving the patient hope even though their outlook was bleak. Van wanted to believe that, he really did. He continued to hold Fiona's hand, caressing it with his thumb. He often wished that her fingers would suddenly curl between his; maybe then he wouldn't have to worry so much.
Fiona had yet to regain consciousness, and the probability of her doing so was growing less and less. The effects of the ordeal still lingered deep within her, causing isolated incidents where she involuntarily released her enigmatic abilities. This seemed to mystify the scientists of the Battle Commission that she was still able to exert her powers in a comatose state. It also made her unpredictable and just as dangerous. Van imagined they were too perplexed and too apprehensive to study her. They knew what she was capable of now, and Van feared she'd be viewed as a threat that required supervision
Van got up from her bedside and went make up the cot he'd situated in the corner of the room. He'd slept there most nights; he tinkered with the idea whether or not to change out the mattress. It was the small things that kept him going. Idle time was his worst enemy. It only allowed the guilt to compile, leaving a gaping wound in his heart that he knew would never close. He forced himself not to think about it. It was hard enough to blot out the events that happened in Capital City. But that was months ago, and the government system that remained totally alien to Van was in the brutal phase of rebuilding. He imagined there would be plenty of changes, none of which he cared to concern himself about. Fiona came first; anything secondary to that didn't register to him as important.
The automated door to the room hissed open. Van and Zeke raised their heads as Dr. D walked into the room with a tablet tucked under his arm. He gave Van a forced smile, but his eyes told an entirely different story. An insignia representing the Zoids Battle Commission was imprinted above the breast pocket of his white lab coat. Van found that interesting; it would probably answer why he hadn't seen the doctor in nearly a month.
"It's good to see you, Van."
"Likewise. It's been a while." Van gestured to his overcoat. "Is it official now?"
Dr. D examined his coat with acute interest. He shrugged with a sly grin. "You know me; I practically live in a laboratory. Its familiar - a home away from home, if you will. I can't complain, being installed as the lead in archeological science and all. It's certainly more different than the Guardian Force's science division."
Van forced a small laugh through his nose. "I can only imagine. You look good."
Dr. D dismissed the compliment. He wished he could say the same for Van. There was an extreme pain hidden behind his dark eyes; he always had trouble hiding it. And by the look of the cot in the corner, the boy had been spending the bulk of his time here. Fiona was his life now, making his visit all the more depressing. "How are things?"
"They're okay." The reply was quick, routine. Zeke looked at him, nudging him with a growl.
Dr. D didn't buy it, and he could tell Zeke wasn't either. "You were never a good liar, Van. It's a noble quality, so I wouldn't fret."
Van let the remark deflect off of him. He was getting the feeling this wasn't a social visit. "So, anything can help us?"
Dr. D sighed, walking past Van to get a drink of water from the cooler next to the cot. His mouth suddenly felt dry. He gulped down the paper cup of water like it was a shot liquor. Maybe he needed just that. "You won't like what I have to say."
"Just tell me." Van had to know, needed to know.
Dr. D removed the tablet from under his arm and reviewed his notes. He had to write them down. Reading it would be easier than recalling from memory. In all honesty, Dr. D couldn't bear to see to Van's face, let alone look him in my eye. He cleared his throat. "We analyzed Fiona's brain via a PET scan. It revealed that Fiona has a high amount of brain function, but it's not where you'd think. The brain is still mystery to scientists, and the brain of an ancient Zoidian is even more mysterious. The neurons in Fiona's brain are firing as if she were conscious. However, the neurons aren't being received between one another. Their signals are being sent out in a void we can neither see nor detect."
Van pinched the bridge of his nose. It was all a horde of medical mumbo-jumbo to him. "In layman's terms, Dr. D?"
Dr. D acknowledged Fiona's bio-monitors. "Fiona doesn't have a heartbeat, Van. Her blood isn't flowing, her cells aren't generating, and her lungs aren't taking in oxygen. In the medical field, we call that 'dead'. But her brain is performing as if every bodily function is working perfectly. What I'm telling you, Van, is that Fiona is neither dead nor alive."
Van sat down on the cot; his equilibrium felt off. It couldn't be possible. You were either dead or not. There was no middle ground. But Dr. D wasn't a man prone to exaggeration, at least when it came to facts he could prove. If what he was saying was ultimately true, then Van only had one question.
"If she's neither dead nor alive, then what is she?"
Dr. D took another swig of water. "It's not what she is, it's where."
"What do you mean?"
"Ancient Zoidians are complicated beings. We may never know anything about them beyond Fiona. The very fact they can live for thousands of years via suspended animation without viable nutrients or any other outside interference, is astounding. In other words, the mental and physical stress Fiona experienced while she was fused with Ambient-doubled with the release of her dormant powers-has sent her into a form of mental entrapment. The fluctuations we studied from her PET scan is Fiona herself."
"Fiona is trapped within her own mind." The words didn't seem real coming from his mouth. The very idea made him physically sick. He should've never let Fiona get into that cryopod. She would've been okay... They would've been okay. It didn't have to be this way. But Van wouldn't give up. Every problem had a solution, and every enemy had a weakness. It was the basic principles taught to any Zoid pilot. This was no different. "How do we free her?"
"I don't know; but I promise you, Van, I will work around the clock to find a way to rectify this. You have my word." Dr. D bent down, looking up into Van's discouraged face. "I'm not telling you this as a scientist, Van; I'm telling you this as a friend. We'll figure this out."
"Who else knows?" Van asked.
"Just us and the Chairman," Dr. D said. "I do have to report my findings to the rest of my team, though. Everyone else just believes it's a simple coma brought on by trauma."
There was a knock against the doorframe. Van and Dr. D turned to see Moonbay standing there. She was draped in a breathtaking dress, albeit a casual one. Her hair had been let down from her braids and pulled into a ponytail. "They're ready for us."
"So it seems." Dr. D patted Van on the knee twice before he stood. He proceeded to the doorway, pulling his overcoat taut as he noticed a healing surgery scar on Moonbay's arm. It was a constant reminder of what happened. Dr. D figured there'd be plenty of scars, both physically and mentally. He just hoped Van would be able to cope. "Are the others here?"
"Yeah, everyone's here." Moonbay didn't seem interested in the question as her eyes drifted from Dr. D and focused on Fiona. Three months she'd been like that, and Moonbay found it harder and harder to look at her without feeling somewhat responsible. She glanced over at Van, knowing that she'd never know how he truly felt. But she had an idea, though; she was just as connected to Fiona as Van was. They were a family. "Is she okay?"
"Later," Dr. D told her. He turned around, plastering a false façade of elation. "Ready, Van?"
Van got up from the cot and walked over to Fiona's bed. He leaned over, kissing her gently on the forehead. The action nearly broke Moonbay. He grabbed his black sports jacket and threw it on over his cerulean dress shirt. "Ready."
The four of them left Fiona's room and walked down the scarcely populated halls of the Battle Commission's HQ in New Helic City. Van never knew the city still existed until he saw it for himself. Time had treated the metropolis well. They rounded the next corner and the corridors became denser. Personnel went about their various tasks, moving on as if nothing had happened three months ago. It wasn't surprising. Most of them only viewed the chaos through monitors; they were the lucky ones. They passively beckoned to the three of them; unaware that their world could've come tumbling down if it wasn't for them. The Battle Commission had yet to identify the heroes responsible for defeating the Backdraft and preserving Zi's way of life. Only a handful knew. Just as well, Van thought.
They entered into an elevator, riding it up to an exclusive level only permitted by authorized personnel. Dr. D placed the keys back into his pocket he used to select the floor. He seemed to become invaluable resource to the Battle Commission practically overnight. Then again, he was the only person qualified when it came to the study of ancient archeological science.
The doors to the elevator parted. They stepped out, following Dr. D as he guided them through the immaculate space occupied with high-ranking officers standing about. The officers acknowledged them with smiles and a light applause. The rapidly came over to them, shaking their hands and expressing their deep gratitude. When the pleasantries and numerous thank-yous passed, Dr. D led across the black marble flooring to a closed door at the far end of the room. A pair of security officers stood on both sides of the door, weapons clearly visible on their waists.
"Go ahead inside, Dr. D," one of the officers. "They're waiting for you."
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Dr. D opened one of the double doors, went inside, and held it open until Van and Moonbay walked inside. He shut the door behind them, stepping over into the bamboo hardwood that covered the office floor.
The office was large and tastefully decorated, but Van could've cared less about that. It was who occupied the office that captured his attention. He let a smile spread across his face as the Blitz Team, Stoller, Pierce, and his friend Irvine were all present. A trio of officers was there as well. Van remembered their faces from the bridge of the Ultrasaurus. They had barely escaped with their lives. He was glad to know they'd survived.
Irvine came over to Van, dressed sharply in formal garb. He looked strange without his eyepatch. Irvine shook Van's hand and pulled him in for a brief embrace. He hadn't seen in Van in weeks, far too long for his liking. "Great seeing you again, Van." Irvine went to ask the inevitable question, but he caught Dr. D's stern glare and rejected the impulse.
Van could only manage a smirk. He touched Irvine's shoulder in passing, going over to greet the Blitz Team. They were practically residents here as they had yet to be cleared to return to their normal lives. It was common to see them moseying about the HQ, resembling creatures clearly out of their element. They visited Fiona often; Van appreciated that, more than they'd ever know.
Bit waved him over, retaining a form of optimism that Van found infections. Nothing seemed to keep the kid down. He didn't seem affected by the events that happened in Capital City; neither did any of them, for that matter. Maybe they just did a better job at hiding. Leena hung on Bit's arm, her bare arms revealing a scar likened to Moonbay's. She gave Van a devious grin as he came over, hugging him tightly.
Dr. Toros pushed his daughter aside, grabbing Van like he hadn't seen him in years. "Glad that you could be here, Van." He didn't ask about Fiona; none of them ever did. They never knew the extent of her condition, and it was something they'd wait for Van to tell them when he was ready.
"Way to be abuse your own child, Doc," Jamie commented. He moved ahead of Dr. Toros, lightly punching Van in the arm. "Nice to see ya, Van."
Stoller and Pierce acknowledged him with a simple nod of the head, while Brad stood in the corner with a reserved, guarded persona. Van never knew why it was difficult for Brad to speak. He didn't know much about the Shadow Fox's pilot, but it wouldn't be farfetched to think that the whole ordeal might've affected him more than the others. Brad appeared more out of place than anything.
"It's good that everyone is here."
The Zoid pilots snapped to attention as the Chairman motioned from his large window that overlooked the shoreline. He turned to face the warriors, arms folded behind his back. It was surreal to see them all standing there in his office—the heroes of Zi. His junior officers—Commander Andrew Xavier, Lieutenant Jennifer Dawes, and Lieutenant, Junior Grade Benjamin Yates—had become his personal chief executives. They'd earned it.
"I speak for the entire Zoids Battle Commission when I say that we are all greatly indebted to you for your actions. I apologize I wasn't about to tell you this months ago, but pressing matters consumed my time. The amount of gratitude I wish to express can't be given in words. Our very government would've fallen to the hands of the Backdraft if it wasn't for you. Your selfless acts saved not only us, but the survivors of Capital City as well. The devastation to the city is immense, and the amount of casualties is staggering. It's easily one of the greatest tragedies in Zi's history. You can be assured the people of the city are eternally grateful."
The Chairman walked out from around his desk and examined the Blitz Team. "Blitz Team, I've never known a Zoids team that displays such talent and bravery on the battlefield. You assisted us when the Backdraft attempted to overthrow us during the Royal Cup; and here you are again, risking your lives to on a grander scale to protect. We couldn't ask for anyone better." He faced Stoller and Pierce. "Although you were once our enemy, you too stepped forward to lend yourselves. I no longer view you as my enemy. The both of you have the Battle Commission's thanks and assistance when you need it. And finally…" The Chairman acknowledged Van and the others. "… Dr. D, Moonbay, Irvine, Zeke, and unconquerable Van Flyheight. You're a shining example of why heroes are timeless. Without you—all of you—this may have been a different outcome all together."
Van raised his hand. "Excuse me, sir, but… how do you know who we are? We haven't met until today."
The Chairman nearly laughed. He walked up to Van, towering over him by several inches. "Who do you think kept you alive while in cyros?"
Van's eyes enlarged. "You knew about us?"
"Of course," the Chairman answered with ease. "We just never expected the Backdraft to find you. By the time we went to investigate, you were gone. Only two remained, but we have them here in safekeeping. As a matter of fact, you were scheduled be reawakened next year—under our supervision, of course. I'm sorry everything went wrong." He rested his hands on Van's broad shoulders. "And I can assure you that Fiona will be back with you again. I understand how important she is to you."
Van somehow doubted that. He wanted to blame someone—anyone—for what happened, but he knew that wouldn't be fair. It wasn't the Chairman's fault. All of it rested on the Backdraft. They're the ones that stole Fiona, experimented on her, and ultimately reduced her to what she is now. "Did you catch any of them, the Backdraft?"
The question seemed to arouse everyone in the room. No one had ever told them what became of the Backdraft or its members.
The Chairman believed they had a right to know. "We surveyed the wreckage of their ships, but there weren't many survivors. All of which were arrested, though."
"What about their leaders – the Count and the Committee of Seven?" Stoller inquired.
"The man you know as the Count is dead," the Chairman reported as he was handed a folder from Commander Xavier. "His body was discovered atop the Backdraft's Hammerhead flagship. He was shot." The Chairman reviewed the documents in the folder. "We were unable to ascertain the location of the Committee of Seven, or if they had any involvement at all. It's believed they disbanded after the Royal Cup."
"And Dr. Laon?" Van asked next. "He was the first person I encountered from the Backdraft." Van boiled inside the more he recalled that night. "Did you find him?"
The Chairman broke eye contact, clearing his throat as he nodded. "Yes, we found him."
"Yes." The Chairman continued to read the text in the document. "It's interesting to note that he found us. Reports from the crew stated that he and a Major Polta were left unconscious outside of the Ultrasaurus by a black Zoid."
"A black Zoid?" Irvine practically shouted it. He settled down. "Any specifics on what it looked like?"
"It was smaller than your average Zoid, but larger than a man," the Chairman said, paraphrasing what he read. "I'm guessing the only Zoid that fits that description is an organoid."
The warriors stiffened. Only one organoid matched that outline—Shadow. However, Shadow did nothing of his own initiative without Raven's say-so. Coupled with the fact that both Reese and Specula's body were nowhere to be found in the Hover Cargo, it was likely that Raven may have dealt the Count a sour hand and delivered Laon. From Van's standpoint, that wasn't like Raven at all. He wasn't one to care about such things. But speaking of an organoid…
"Sir, there was a red organoid involved as well," Van highlighted. "His name was Ambient."
"Yes, you mentioned that when we debriefed you," nodded the Chairman. "We scanned the general location you gave us regarding where the organoid was; however, we searched the area for several days and were unable to find this Ambient. I'm sorry, but we'll continue to look for him."
Van found that news just as disturbing. Ambient was the central figure in all of this. He manipulated Fiona, using her and the Matrix Dragon to fuel his desire to exterminate humanity. If he was still alive, it meant his desire was still alive. The Battle Commission had to find him.
"And what about the Fuzors?" Bit asked lastly. "What'll happen to them?"
"We have them now," the Chairman confirmed. "Our scientists will continue to study to them. We removed and destroyed the NOVA AI that was installed in them. While they're harmless now, we feel the world is just isn't ready for them. Maybe one day we'll be able to mass produce them, but that could be years from now. I'm willing to answer any more questions you may have."
The warriors didn't say anything.
"Very well." The Chairman went over to Lieutenant, JG Yates, receiving from his hands a polished wooden case. He unlatched the clips and opened it, revealing fifteen platinum medals about the size of a silver dollar with an eagle within an orbit of stars. The Chairman went around the room, pinning the medals on the chests of each of the warriors and his officers. "The Zoid Battle Commission's Medal of Valor is awarded to those displaying unrivaled acts of heroism who've gone beyond of what is asked of them. All of you have done just that. We thank you." The Chairman stepped back from them and saluted.
Van sat outside the Commission HQ, finding a secluded bench a few blocks away that overlooked the bay. The snow gently floated down, pelting his black overcoat as it accumulated on paved track that lined the edge of the bay. A jogger would occasionally pass, giving a flex of the hand as they went by him. Van admired the snowcapped mountains in the distance. It was certainly peaceful outside. More than that, it was quiet. They'd be an occasional horn from the boats in the harbor, but they hardly intruded. Van fiddled with the medal between his fingers, contemplating whether or not to toss it in the bay. He didn't feel like a hero, not today. Van didn't want to think about anything right now; he just wanted to sit and clear his mind. This almost seemed like the perfect place.
It was only after an hour or so when Van heard the snow crunch behind him. He shifted around, surprised to see Bit walking towards him with his hands buried in his pockets. He stomped up to where Van was sitting, shaking the white slush from his sneakers as he tightened the scarf around his neck.
Van glanced up at him. "Looks like you found me."
"Wasn't looking for you, actually," Bit sniffed. He sat down next to Van with an exaggerated sigh, his visible breath swirling from his mouth. "It's been years since I've been here."
"Yeah? Been about a thousand for me," Van laughed.
Bit tried to laugh, but it only came out as a broken stammer; he was shivering.
"You're not a fan of winter, I assume?" Van observed.
"I'm a desert boy," Bit chuckled. "I like the snow, though." He wiped his nose on the back of his glove. "I used to come here with Yuri a long time ago. He used to let me play in the snow. I'd make the biggest snowball I could and pitch it at the first graders when the schools let out." Bit laughed at that, but he settled down with a smirk. "I miss that."
Van didn't know whether to laugh or feel sorry for the poor kids he probably dealt numerous concussions to. He settled for the sympathy card. "I'm sorry about Yuri, Bit."
Bit sniffed again. God, he hated the cold. "Nah, it's alright. We went our separate ways a year before I joined the Blitz Team. We sure had our fun, though."
"Yeah, you did." Van reclined back, continuing to play with the medal. He reminisced about his own childhood memories, recalling the brief time he'd spent with his father. Van really never realized how much he missed him; he just seemed to think about other things.
Bit looked over at Van toying with his medal. The way his brows furrowed when he looked at it imprinted on Bit that Van really didn't want the thing. He imagined he could understand why. Bit wasn't wearing his either, taking it off shortly after the ceremony. He chose not to have his name released to the public, and neither did anyone else. No one would ever know who defeated the Backdraft and saved Capital City. Bit guessed that was alright. It would certainly leave plenty of unanswered questions, though.
"Y'know," Bit began, "I was thinking about what the Chairman said back there."
Van grunted. "He said plenty; I know that's for sure."
"I was thinking primarily about the black Zoid," Bit clarified. "It made me wonder about Raven. You think we'll ever see him again?"
Van smirked. "No, I don't think so. The thing about Raven is that if he doesn't want to be found, then you never will. It'll be on his terms he decides to come back. But… I imagine wherever he is, he'll be just fine." Van stood up from the bench and stretched. "In the meantime, Ambient's still out there, and I think he's the key to releasing Fiona."
"You think so, huh?" Bit asked him.
"Yeah, I do." Van held the medal between his fingers, reading imprinted words on its fringes. "'… To those venturing beyond what is asked, who conquer the storms of battle in triumph.'" Van laughed through sealed lips and slipped the medal into his pocket. "If that's the case… then I'm not done yet."
Neo's Note: Thus the conclusion of Sky's the Limit: Revolution. I have enjoyed writing this story so much, but I'm elated that it's finally finished. It has taken years, but I thank each and every one of you who have read this story from its beginning to end. I love all you guys.