Jay just sat. His mind was like the empty yellow sky. His legs were folded on the sand. Then he stood and looked down both sides of his dune. He was miles high. Clouds brushed the daunting slopes below him.
Rather than descend either side, Jay ran along the crest of the dune. Each step cracked a vertebrae in the dune’s back. Sand collapsed into hot, course rivers. His feet sank into the sand, slowing him, until he was carried by the current he had made.
The sand flowed so fast he was in free-fall. He fell through the thick mist of a cottony cloud. The slope of the sand curved to roll him along the desert floor and up an opposing dune. He shot up its crest and flew 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 saw more fingers rightward than he cared to count. He clasped his hands together. 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. He saw the sky melt into golden honey and pour around the Mountain in rivers of heavenly syrup. Jay brushed the syrupy sunset with his fingertips. He smeared it thin over the dunes like a masseuse oiling a back. Soon the land was dark with night.
Jay opened his eyes. His head rest against the window of an airplane bound for New Zealand. Outside the sky was starry and black; most of the cabin slept. Jay shook tiredness from his limbs as best he could in his cramped airplane seat. It would be morning when he arrived.
“Couldn’t sleep, huh? Me neither.”
Jay tried to smile at the man on his right. He wore a loud red Hawaiian shirt, but atypically of someone who would wear such a shirt (Jay thought) he’d buttoned it up 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 potato chips. “Want some 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. It’s boring, but what can you do? 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.”
“Oh. You’re religious.” He pronounced the word with a smug smile. “I see how it is.”
“I’m not really religious,” said Jay. “I’m investigating how Sheridanian religions interact with psychoactive drugs.”
“Yeah?” The man leaned in close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy.”
Jay turned to the window and crossed his arms over his chest.
“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 decided not to ask what he meant. “Do you like anime?”
Each seat’s headrest held a screen for canned TV. Jay had skimmed the catalog and found a surprising selection of anime. “I’m impressed; they’ve got the second season of LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration.”
The man tried to interject, but Jay put on headphones and hummed the LLSTA theme.
Lucille saluted at strict attention. Her red bodysuit complemented her fiery orange hairstyle. She stood opposite two forty-year-old men seated behind a desk: a green-uniformed man shuffled papers graded in red pen, while a yellow-uniformed man chewed the end of 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 had taken his right eye, now covered by a black patch. “At ease, Zephyr.”
Lucille widened her stance and folded her arms behind her. “Jya! What’s the verdict?”
The man in military green grimaced and groomed his perfect buzz-cut. The medals on his chest were in tidy lines like a garden he’d cultivated over a lifetime. “In the presence of superiors you should speak only when requested,” said Lieutenant Daisuke.
“Be patient with him, Lucille.” Lieutenant Charlie grinned around his cockroach. His golden haircut was charismatically tousled. “He’s just enjoying his last moments outranking you.” Lucille smiled impishly and put her hands on her hips. Her heart felt bigger than the lunar base she would command.
Daisuke sighed and passed her some 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 earnestness in her duty to protect humanity made an indelible impression on me.”
Charlie smirked. “She means, were you close to perfect scores, Lieutenant.” Lucille allowed a sly slant in her smile. Daisuke blushed and filed her exams in his desk drawers. Charlie blew smoke towards 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 your leadership in the field. When you commanded Z-Purple in repelling a Hurricane Planet, the purple arm, leg, and chest pilots came to us to commend you.”
Daisuke rolled his wheelchair backward so he could open the window-blinds. Outside the Lieutenants’ office, enormous robots of every solid color bounded across the lunar surface. Some had muscular legs while some bounced on puffs of torso-steam. Some had two arms, some three, some four, and some had none at all. Each limb and chest and head held a pilot’s silhouette.
Sometimes a robot would collapse into orphaned body-parts and practice recombining under the direction of its head. Sometimes two robots would lunge at each other and merge into a multicolored mass of limbs, which would drunkenly stagger until it rolled into a crater and broke apart. Sometimes a small robot would leap into a larger one and wear it like a suit of armor or a matryoshka doll.
The largest robot was purple and had the typical number of arms and legs but carried its detached head like a lantern; Lucille’s team practiced without her while she met the lunar Lieutenants.
“It seems you have good standing among the Zephyrs.” Daisuke rolled his wheelchair back to the desk. “Your reputation makes you a clear candidate for ZAB’s new pilot. You would command a crew of ten-thousand robot-operators, including the right and left arms of the lunar base—that is, Charlie and I. To what do you attribute your loyalty among the Zephyrs, both robot and pilot?”
“I shout loudest,” said Lucille.
Daisuke was speechless. Charlie eventually cracked up. “I told you, she’s the one!”
“Could you explain?” asked Daisuke.
“Whoever pilots the robot’s head has to shout loudest. If you want to throw a punch,” she said, with a slo-mo hay-maker, “your arms and legs need to know. I’d pilot Zephyr-Purple alone if I could, but I can’t. I need my copilots, and they need my direction. A good shout unifies the Zephyrs in action.”
“And about your shouting.” Daisuke rifled through transcripts. “I notice 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 grips all hearts and pumps them to one beat. As acting Commander, I shouted and hundreds of pilots locked step with my voice. We fired our Super Heart Beam and blasted the Hurricane back outside the Galaxy.”
Charlie smiled approvingly 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 shout Watakushi wo atta koto ga irasshaimasu ka. ‘Have we met before, sir,’ with a curtsy, has no impact. ‘Who the hell do you think I am,’ with an uppercut, has an impact. Sir.”
“Point taken.” Daisuke melted green wax and pressed his seal of approval onto Lucille’s certificate of promotion. “Lieutenant Charlie, with your pending ratification, I see fit to promote Lucille 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 mouth, consonants whistled through the scarred gap left in his lips. “You got full marks on your history exam. What do you know about Professor Akayama?”
Lucille watched elevator lights track their descent into the hangar bays. “I know she was Scientific Adviser to the Ruler of Earth. I know she constructed this lunar base to train robot-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. 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 closed his eye and shook his head. “Lucille, what I’m trying to say is… being a Zephyr isn’t all robots and shouting. I know you know that, more than any other pilot.”
The elevator opened in the smallest, deepest, darkest sub-lunar hangar. In the center sat ZAB, Zephyr-Alpha-Blue, the 20-meter tall head of Z-Blue, leader of the Zephyr robots. For Lucille’s final trial ZAB was detached from its body and moved to this private space. Its left and right were different shades split by a vertical seam down its nose, like the robot had been ripped in half and one half had been replaced. It still 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, a model of the big version before her. “This is your last chance to turn back. There’s no going home 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 inventing talking robot spaceships.” Charlie watched her use the key to unlock the hatch on ZAB’s skullcap. She twisted the hatch open. “ZAB was her personal scientific vessel. It 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 commissioned 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 last ZAB pilot didn’t mention anything like this.”
“The last pilot was keeping the seat warm for you. His exam scores didn’t impress ZAB enough to talk.” Charlie lit a new cockroach and puffed it red hot. “For twenty years Daisuke and I have been two brawny arms tugging this lunar base back and forth. But when that hatch closes behind you, you outrank us. You outrank everyone. With your head on our shoulders, humanity will finally have a face again. A direction.” He prepared a pen to sign her certificate of promotion. “So take your time climbing out. Enjoy the last moments before your first command.”