For Zoids: Chaotic Century

"I doubted if I would ever come back."

-Robert Frost

The filthy machine moved faster than ever before. Its wretched limbs more than pounded the scarred earth beneath its feet – it flew over the ground. The joints passed each other smoothly over and over again. It was as if the beast had never really run before.

"You and me, Shadow, we'll get this heap of junk working like a real zoid." The child could hear his new companion even from the cockpit of his Zabre Fang. He growled in a contented way. "I won't lock you up like they did, Shadow. We'll do great things together. You'll see."

The Zabre Fang screamed its assent, and Shadow pushed its limits for his new master.

Shadow felt his master's empty heart. The master did not care for the Zabre Fang at all. To him, it was just a hunk of metal, a lifeless heap of trash that just happened to be one of the highest-end machines in the world. The master felt no love for either the zoid he piloted or the poor beast that was now bound to him. Shadow understood in an obscure sort of way that he was just a tool, but he didn't care. He would do whatever the master wanted. He would do more than the master wanted. He would make the master feel…something. Anything.

Raven felt like he was flying. He hardly needed to touch the controls. Somehow, Shadow knew what he wanted to do and did it before he could even give the command. The Zabre Fang was really alive for the first time. "Now, this is the sort of piloting that I'm capable of. Prozen was holding me back by not giving you to me sooner."

But he did not stop, because the master did not want him to. The master wanted to go even faster than they were going already.

Shadow felt an ugly discontent in the little master's heart. He wanted to go faster. The Zabre Fang's limbs could not have been flying more smoothly, the strokes of its great paws could not have been more powerful or graceful, and yet the master wanted more. Shadow would have torn the Zabre Fang to pieces, pushing it beyond its physical limits, if there was a chance that the child would have been satisfied.

Raven pushed Shadow and the Zabre Fang to near exhaustion that day. Shadow felt that it was a forced march, the way that the child drove the beast for hours at top speed. Finally, around sunset, they came to a small town near an oasis and Raven allowed Shadow to rest. "That was a good workout," he commented. Shadow thought that was rather tactless, but didn't mention it.

Shadow watched the master curiously as he walked proudly into town – all four feet of him – and started to bully the merchants for food and water.

"I'm with the Imperial army," Raven explained. "Unless you want them over here, I suggest you do as I ask."

The merchant said that Raven must be a deserter, by the way that he dressed. He didn't have any tags, either. Raven simply sighed, said, "You asked for it," and ax-kicked the scrubbed-wooden counter in half. He took what he wanted and walked away, grinning smugly.

Shadow followed dutifully, living up to his namesake. Raven forced an innkeeper to lodge him for free, and Shadow followed into the tiny room. There was only one bed. Raven sat down and started to pick through the food he had stolen, eating only every other item or so. The rest he threw out the window like so much rubbish. He took off his shoes and reclined. He closed his eyes and started to snore lightly.

Shadow didn't quite know what do to with the little sleeping human, so he stood where a bedside table might have been and kept watch. He didn't know what he was keeping watch for. He hissed at mosquitoes that clustered around a lamp across the street and scared them away, he briefly went to investigate a noise that turned out to be just a rat; he allowed himself to really see and hear and smell. "I won't lock you up like they did, Shadow. We'll do great things together. You'll see."

Shadow felt the temperature drop a few degrees. The master started to shiver. Shadow didn't see any linens in the room, so he skulked down the hall to where the innkeeper was sleeping. Not making an effort to stay silent, he pulled one of the quilts off the innkeeper's bed and tromped down the hall with it. He laid it clumsily over the master, doing the best he could with his oversized snout and teeth and stubby arms.

"Shadow, stop that." It wasn't a suggestion. It was an order. Shadow drew away from the bedstead, examining how the little master moved, rolling over on the mattress, punching the knotted old pillow, and kicking the blankets that he had just gathered away. "I don't need any help. Stay here and wait until I wake up." More orders.

Shadow obeyed, curling up on the floor near the end of the bed. He was just that: just the shadow of a little boy.

Raven woke up at ease. He was glad of being far away from reveille for a change. He was a little cold, though, and hastily drew the discarded quilt up around his shoulders. No military noise. No men squawking like chickens, no firearms accidentally going off, no zoids yawning in the early daylight…

He saw Shadow at the foot of the bed, wide-awake. He stretched and approached his master, and nuzzled him gently with his nose. Raven patted the beast gently on the snout, absentmindedly, thinking of where they would go next. "Somewhere where we can avoid Karl. I've seen too much of him lately. He's such a stickler. And I don't want to see Prozen either. In fact, I don't even want to hear his name. I'm sick of it."

Shadow growled gently, and then left the room, strolling down the hall and into the street. Raven only gave it half of a thought: "He'll be back soon."

"Stay here and wait until I wake up." The little master was awake, so Shadow had gone to get food. He visited the same merchant that Raven had yesterday, and benignly took things that resembled what Raven had eaten last night. He ignored the merchant's protests and threats, not understanding any of them enough to care. The little man was not pleased, clearly, but nor had he been pleased yesterday. So Shadow didn't bother.

Raven was not at the inn when Shadow returned, his maw stuffed with loaves of bread and packs of fruit. Shadow meandered back to the Zabre Fang, sort of instinctively, and found Raven in the cockpit already, looking displeased. "I was ready to leave five minutes ago! Where were you?"

Shadow hung his head in shame. He had only made the child master angry. He dropped all the goods he had gathered and fused with the Zabre Fang quickly, without expressing anything. Despite being downhearted, Shadow made sure to make the Zabre Fang roar more loudly than ever. Raven didn't waste time scolding Shadow further, and made it a point to step on his would-be breakfast on the way out of town.

Raven drove the Zabre Fang long and hard. "You and me, Shadow, we'll get this heap of junk working like a real zoid." Shadow simply could not make the 'heap of junk' run any faster. "Shadow, why are we slowing down?" Raven asked harshly. "I didn't tell you to slow down!" Shadow grunted in protest. "You think I don't know what'll happen if we push this machine any further? Do as I say, Shadow."

Shadow did as he was told, and ran the Zabre Fang to beyond its breaking point. When they stopped that night, every one of the great cat's joints was broken. Every leg was fractured and overextended. The head had been jolted off to the left significantly.

"That was better than yesterday," Raven remarked.

Shadow could not understand how destroying a zoid was a good thing. He had felt the beast's anguish as it broke its own bones to keep up with its pilot. Shadow's own two legs were trembling simply from looking at the poor creature. Why did the master want this? Why did the master want to make pain?

Shadow started to speak up as Raven walked away from the Zabre Fang, lying crippled on the outskirts of yet another hamlet. Raven snapped, "Did I ask for your opinion?" At Shadow's silence, he just said, "I didn't think so."

"We'll do great things together. You'll see."

"Do you see them, Shadow? The stars?"

Raven slept in the sand, a quiet little life form at the universe's mercy. His head had flopped forward onto his chest, and he was snoring lightly like he always did, covered in a sand poncho.

Shadow didn't sleep, but stood up and kept guard like he was supposed to. Shadow could see the stars. Not that Raven hadn't expected him to be able to, but they were really intriguing, when it came to it.

Shadow wondered what made the stars twinkle. Shadow wondered why they were up so high. Shadow wondered why they never had to come down. Shadow wondered why the sky was so big. Shadow wondered why his master was so small. Shadow wondered why they made him happy and sad at the same time. Shadow wondered if the stars could see him, too.

He could smell nothing. He could hear nothing. He could see only the stars and the little master. The little master was like a star. He made Shadow happy and sad at the same time. He looked back up at the sky.

Shadow felt a tiny hand on his neck. The little master was awake, and standing next to him. "Do you see them, Shadow? The stars?" Shadow knew the question was rhetorical. "They're so beautiful tonight, aren't they?" Raven wrapped his arms around Shadow's neck and hugged him tightly. "You're the only thing in the world that belongs only to me. Did you know that?"

"We'll do great things together. You'll see."

Shadow dreamed, sometimes. His dreams all had the master in them. The master was there, but he never talked to Shadow. He never called Shadow. He never worked with Shadow. Shadow wanted the master to call him and work and play and follow, but the master never did. The master walked alone in a big, big world.

The master was being chased. Shadow could feel his own emotions rise from calm to angry as he chased along, too. The master got shot right through the middle, and Shadow killed dream people with worse feelings than what the Zabre Fang had felt. It was worse than outside pain. It was inside pain. And inside pain was the worst.

Shadow felt inside pain when the master was unhappy.

Raven learned not to push the Zabre Fang too hard at a time. He had been eager to stretch his – that is to say, its – legs straight off the bat, and had perhaps overindulged. Shadow didn't take well to overexertion, either. So they rested.

Shadow acted unusually. He was normally calm, broody and devious, much like his master, but had lately been finicky and had not been following orders with his usual attention.

And there was so much more that Raven wanted!

"Don't come until I call you, Shadow," Raven ordered, as he lined the Zabre Fang up next to Karl's. They were on the front line. Republican base. What Raven did best.

"He takes orders from you like that?" Schubaltz asked over the intercom.

"It's none of your business what he does," Raven said rudely. "He's my organoid."

"No need for that tone," Schubaltz replied, assuming a 'tone' himself.

"Don't treat me like your little brother," Raven snapped. "I take orders directly from Prozen, and that's more than you can say."

"The Emperor – " Schubaltz started to lecture.

"If you two are done flirting," Markus interjected. Raven switched off his radio as Schubaltz started to threaten Markus with detention.

"They're like a bunch of old ladies," Raven muttered as he started to march forward with the rest of the unit. He assumed an amusingly high voice, "Don't do anything stupid, Raven! Don't break formation, Raven! Don't blah, blah, blah. I think I know how to take a base by now. This is like a training exercise…"

Shadow watched from a nearby butte as the havoc ensued. Raven was like a wildfire even without his help, taking out his fair share of Command Wolves and Ligers while saving every other Imperial soldier from getting creamed. He shot down Pterases with ridiculous ease using pulse lasers. It did look like a training exercise from Shadow's point of view.

Raven was quicker than lighting. Shadow felt a little flutter of something in his master's heart every time the Zabre Fang shot down another zoid, every time the great cat screeched, holding an unlucky creature down by the neck and going in for the kill. Shadow had wanted his master to feel something, but this terrible stirring pulse of emotion was not a good thing. It was similar to Raven's satisfaction at seeing the Zabre Fang work until it injured itself.

Shadow wondered why the master reveled in destruction. Shadow wondered why it made the master happy when metal clanged against metal, and poor dumb beasts howled in pain and fear. Shadow wondered why the master smiled when limbs came loose from bodies, and the deadly crackle of electricity filled the air. Shadow wondered why the master continued to tear living bodies apart. "We'll do great things together. You'll see."

It was over before it had really started. Schubaltz entered the base, looking imperious in his Iron Kong as usual. Markus just looked livid that Raven had outperformed him yet again.

The tiny pilot exited his zoid and met Schubaltz and Markus on the ground. The major's green eyes surveyed the damage. Zoids, rebel and Imperial alike, lay dying on the ground. Some still moaned in agony in their death throes. Some of them were mourning their pilots, dead or injured inside them. A soldier or two was on the ground beside his zoid, trying to comfort it. Raven saw an Imperial doing his best to soothe his Red Horn, damaged almost beyond recognition. "We did a great job today, buddy…" Raven knew that the beast was going to die. Its zoid core was exposed in its heaving side, the glow of life fading.

"Not too bad, everyone," he said, mainly addressing Raven. "We took the place without too much damage to the buildings. The Emperor will be pleased."

"Honestly," Raven retorted, "do you think the Emperor still cares about the day-to-day activity of this war? He's too old and too sick to bother. Like he even knows that we're out here. Now Prozen, on the other hand – "

But Schubaltz silenced him with a look. "You watch your mouth around the soldiers, Raven. They're still loyal to His Imperial Highness."

"Whatever," Raven shrugged, as he started to make his way back to the Zabre Fang.

A loud report burst out of nowhere, making everyone jump. "Who's firing?" Schubaltz demanded of his troops. "I thought I told everyone to hold fire!"

"It's the rebels, sir!" a private answered. "One of their pilots survived! He's got a handgun!"

"Take it from him!" Schubaltz ordered. "Make sure nobody else dies today!"

Imperial soldiers rushed towards the site of the disturbance, but another report rang out along with cursing. "Look out!"

Before anyone could react, a rebel soldier came pelting through the base, firing a machine gun at random, shouting like an angry bull-ape. Imperials either got out of his way or got shot. Markus ducked behind a wrecked Pteras, and one of Schubaltz's men pushed his superior out of the way, but Raven was not quick enough.

"Don't come until I call you, Shadow." It was like his dream. It was worse than his dream. Shadow knew that bullets flew right through humans and killed them. The master had no armor. The master had no weapons. How was he supposed to protect himself with those puny little arms and legs? How was he supposed to scare his enemies away with those small, flat little teeth? "I don't need any help."

The little master was like a star. He made Shadow happy and sad at the same time.

"I think I know how to take a base by now. This is like a training exercise…"

Shadow extended his wings and flew to his master's side. He disobeyed the master's orders. He felt the cold, killing bullets bounce off his metal body. He saw his master's eyes widen. He was frightened. He was confused. He was angry.

The rebel lost consciousness as he slammed into the asphalt beneath them. Shadow bared his teeth at the rebel's body and snarled dangerously, tail aloft and ready to strike again, wings extended, crouched down and ready to pounce.

As Imperials restrained the rogue and wrested his weapon from him, Shadow turned to the child master.

"What's the rebel's name?" Schubaltz asked.

"His tag says 'Hermann,' sir."

"Well, they'll make him a hero if he gets out of this one, that's for sure."

Raven's face was unreadable to Shadow. He was not happy or sad. He was not angry or pleased. He did not know what had happened, and yet was not confused. "I thought I told you to stay put," he mumbled. It wasn't an order. It wasn't a reprimand. He was just saying.

The master put his tiny, useless arms around Shadow's broad neck and held tightly. Shadow could feel the master's warm air on his shoulder-joint. He nuzzled the child master gently, and Raven did not shy away. Raven did not tell shadow to leave or stop.

They watched the green-eyed major clean up the base together. They stayed for dinner. They stayed the night.

"Do you see them, Shadow? The stars?" Raven asked, just like every other night. Shadow could see them, just like every other night. Shadow knew what Raven was going to say next, but didn't mind it. "They're so beautiful tonight, aren't they?" They were, just like always. Shadow didn't mind – in fact, he enjoyed these short moments they spent together, only the two of them, atop dunes and cliffs far out in the wild, enjoying the sublime starlight in an almost ritualistic way.

Raven patted Shadow gently on the snout. "I told you we would do great things together. And there'll be more great things to come."

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