Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. Then he stood and looked down both sides of his dune. He was miles high. Clouds brushed daunting slopes below him.
Rather than descend either side of the dune, Jay ran along the crest. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed in hot, course rivers. His feet sank, slowing him until the current swept him away.
He fell through a cottony cloud. The sand sloped to roll him along the desert floor. He shot up an opposing dune and sailed like a skeeball.
As he spun he counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—” He was asleep. He was dreaming. He could fly like the Heart of the Mountain, that steam-powered bird.
The dunes grew into great red walls but he blasted above them. Below, the sky melted into golden honey and poured around the Mountain like heavenly syrup. Jay smeared the sunset thin like a masseuse oiling a back. Soon the dunes were dark with night.
Jay opened his eyes. His head rest on the window of an airplane bound for New Zealand. Outside, the sky was black and starry; most of the passengers slept. Jay shook his limbs awake as best he could in his cramped seat. It would be morning when he arrived in Sheridan.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh? Me neither.”
Jay tried to smile at the man on his right. He wore a loud red Hawaiian shirt frumpishly buttoned all the way to his neck, which was equally red. He wore dark sunglasses even in an airplane at night.
“Yeah, it’s hard sleeping on a plane. Way too noisy, am I right?”
“I was actually asleep, for a while.” Jay counted his fingers. “Now I’m awake.” He unzipped his backpack and opened a bag of chips from Chile. “Breakfast?”
The man ate a fistful of chips. “You going to New Zealand?”
“I’m hopping off when we refuel.” Jay ate one chip at a time. “Sheridan.”
“Ah. Me too.” He jerked his thumb across the aisle. The man’s six-year-old daughter slept beside her mother, who slept by the right window separated by a seat and an aisle from her husband. “The ol’ ball-and-chain Eva drags me back every year to look at birds. Chicks, am I right?” He sighed. “How about you, what are you here for?”
“I’m not a bird-watcher,” said Jay. “I’m a people-watcher. I hope to photograph religious activities on the islands.”
“Religious, huh?” He pronounced the word with a smug smile. “I see how it is.”
“I’m not religious, per se,” said Jay. “I’m curious how Sheridanian religion interacts with psychoactive drugs.”
“Yeah?” The man leaned close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy.”
Jay turned to the window and crossed his arms.
“Hey, it’s okay. Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know.” The man laughed. “Guys like us, gotta stick together, am I right?”
Jay didn’t ask what he meant. “Do you like anime?”
Each seat’s headrest held a screen for canned TV including a surprising selection of anime. “I’m impressed; they’ve got the second season of LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration.”
Before the man could interject, Jay donned headphones and hummed the LLSTA theme.
Lucille saluted at strict attention. Her red bodysuit complemented her fiery orange hairstyle. She stood opposite two middle-aged men seated behind a desk: the green-uniformed man shuffled papers graded in red pen, while the yellow-uniformed man chewed a lit cockroach. The roach sat in a divot in his lips left by a scar from his right temple to below his iron jaw. The scar took his right eye, covered by a black patch. “At ease.”
Lucille widened her stance and folded her arms behind her. “Jya! What’s the verdict?”
The man in green grimaced and groomed his buzz-cut. The medals on his chest were in rows like a garden he’d grown over a lifetime. “In the presence of superiors you should speak only when requested,” said Daisuke.
“Be patient with him, Lucille.” Charlie grinned around his cockroach. His golden haircut was charismatically tousled. “He’s enjoying his last moments outranking you.” Lucille smiled impishly and put her hands on her hips. Her heart felt bigger than the moon-base she would command.
Daisuke sighed and passed her the paperwork. “You got a perfect score on your aptitude test for the position—for the first time since your father, Bojack—and a perfect score on your oral exam regarding lunar procedures and history—for the first time since your mother, Princess Lucia.”
Lucille splayed the papers across the desk to review her scores. Charlie judged her smile to be deservedly prideful, but tempered by disciplined humility. She passed the papers back to Daisuke. “Were you close, sir?”
Daisuke hesitated to answer. “Bojack and I were like brothers. I only knew your mother a few months, but her conviction in her duty to protect humanity made an indelible impression on me.”
Charlie smirked. “She meant, were you close to perfect scores.” Lucille allowed a sly slant in her smile. Daisuke blushed and filed her exams in his desk drawers. Charlie blew smoke into a ventilation duct and tapped ash from his cockroach. “Anyway, Zephyr Lucille! In addition to your impeccable test scores, you’ve been unanimously praised for leadership in the field. When you commanded Z-Purple in repelling a sun-sized Hurricane Planet, the purple arm, leg, and chest pilots came to commend you.”
Daisuke rolled his wheelchair back to slide open window-blinds. Outside the office, enormous robots of every solid color bounded across the lunar surface. Some jumped on muscular legs while some bounced on puffs of steam from legless torsos. Some had two arms, some four, and some none at all. Each limb, chest, and head held the silhouettes of pilots and co-pilots.
Sometimes a robot would collapse into orphaned body-parts and practice recombining under the direction of its head, the Alpha unit. Sometimes two robots would merge into a multicolored mass of limbs and drunkenly stagger until they rolled into a crater and broke apart. Sometimes a small robot would leap into a larger one like a matroyshka doll, and wear it like a suit of armor.
The largest robot was purple and carried its detached head like a lantern; Lucille’s team practiced without her while she met with Charlie and Daisuke.
“You have good standing among the Zephyrs.” Daisuke rolled back to the desk. “Your reputation makes you a clear candidate for pilot of Zephyr-Alpha-Blue. You would command a crew of ten-thousand, including the right and left arms of the lunar base—that is, Charlie and I. To what do you attribute your loyalty?”
“I shout loudest,” said Lucille.
Daisuke was speechless. Charlie cracked up. “I told you, she’s the one!”
“Could you explain?” asked Daisuke.
“The robot’s head-pilot has gotta shout loudest. If you want to throw a punch,” she said, with a slo-mo hay-maker, “your arms and legs need to know. A good shout unifies the Zephyrs in action.”
“And about your shouting.” Daisuke rifled through transcripts. “You lapse into Japanese under pressure. Not all the pilots speak Japanese. When you directed the mid-battle merger of Z-Purple, Orange, Red, Black, and Yellow, you shouted—” He inspected the transcript. “—Ore o dare da to omotte yagaru.”
Charlie laughed. “Who the hell do you think I am,” he translated. “Classic.”
“A good shout unifies the Zephyrs in action,” repeated Lucille. “It doesn’t have to be a command, or even comprehensible. It pumps all hearts to one beat. As acting Commander of Z-PORKY, hundreds of pilots locked step with my voice. We fired our Super Heart Beam and blasted the Hurricane to bits.”
Charlie smiled around his cockroach. Daisuke tried not to look impressed. “I notice you shout ore. That’s an informal masculine reflexive pronoun. Why don’t you shout the gender-neutral watashi, or the feminine atashi?”
“Mid-combat? I’m punching planets to powder. I’m not gonna curtsy.”
“Point taken.” Daisuke melted green wax and pressed his seal of approval on Lucille’s certificate of promotion. “With Charlie’s ratification, I see fit to promote you to Lunar Commander and pilot of Zephyr-Alpha-Blue.”
Charlie snuffed his cockroach and took the certificate. “Follow me, Lucille. You’ve got one more trial ahead.”
When Charlie spoke without a roach in his lips, consonants whistled through the scarred gap. “You nailed your history exam. What do you know about Professor Akayama?”
Lucille watched elevator lights track their descent to the hangar bays. “I know she was Scientific Adviser to the Ruler of Earth. I know she constructed this moon-base to train Zephyr-pilots to fend off the Hurricane.”
“Do you know how she died, twenty years ago?”
Lucille pursed her lips. “I know it’s classified. I know the same incident killed my father and mortally wounded my mother. I know the incident inspired the Ruler of Earth to abdicate. It was the Hurricane, from what I’ve heard.”
“It gave me this scar.” Charlie adjusted his eye-patch. “Daisuke hasn’t walked since. Your mother barely lived long enough for you to stand here today.” Charlie shook his head. “What I’m saying is… being a Zephyr isn’t all robots and shouting. I know you understand, more than any other pilot.”
The elevator opened in the smallest, deepest, darkest hangar. In the center sat ZAB, Zephyr-Alpha-Blue, the 20-meter tall head of Z-Blue, leader of the Zephyr robots. Its left and right were different shades like the robot had been ripped in half and one half had been replaced. Still it carried its noble gaze. Its brow bore the weight of humanity’s plight.
“But this guy knows it most of all.” Charlie tossed Lucille a key and she caught it. The key’s handle dangled a blue robot-head. “This is your last chance to turn back. There’s no return once you to talk to ZAB.”
“Talk?” Lucille climbed the entry ladder at the nape of the neck. “What do you mean?”
“Professor Akayama cut her teeth building talking robot spaceships.” Charlie watched her twist open the hatch on ZAB’s skullcap. “ZAB was her personal vessel. Its voice kept her company on solo trips through the solar system, and helped her sample Jupiter’s spot. Until, of course, the Hurricane ate the observable universe. Then ZAB was recommissioned as the head of humanity’s protector.”
Lucille hesitated halfway down the hatch. “So there’s a voice in here, sir, and I’m to win it over?”
“You’ve already won it over. It graded your exams.”
“The history books didn’t mention anything about an artificial intelligence.”
“History books leave out a lot.” Charlie lit a new cockroach and puffed it red hot. “When that hatch closes behind you, you outrank me, you outrank Daisuke, you outrank everyone. With your head on our shoulders, humanity has a face again. A direction.” He prepared a pen to sign her certificate of promotion. “So take your time. Enjoy the last moments before your first command.”