(The second chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
Last time on RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku!
The year is 2399. For centuries, countless overlapping micro-nations and mega-corporations kept Earth locked in constant, enumerable wars. An arduous period of World-Unification has brought these groups to uneasy peace under a Global Parliament. That stability has an unfortunate source: the Hurricane, a blood-colored cosmic horror of unknown origin and biblical proportion, ate the rest of the observable universe in just over half a century and now consumes the edges of the Milky Way.
Professor Akayama, Scientific Advisor to the de facto Ruler of Earth in the leader of Global Parliament, has taken responsibility for defending the galaxy from the Hurricane’s planet-sized cells. Her moon-base, once her private institution for training the best and brightest from around the world to build and pilot giant space-robots, has been militarized to maintain and operate humanity’s protector: the Zephyr. For morale, lunar crew-members lacking higher honorifics were titled Zephyrs, too, because identifying with the giant space-robot proved to be empowering.
On her 120th birthday, Akayama realized she was holding back the younger pilots. She retired as the Zephyr’s Commander, pilot of the cockpit in its head, to work in the command-tower instead, and promoted the chest-pilot, Zephyr Bunjiro, to her old position. Will Princess Lucia, daughter to the Ruler of Earth, prove to be the perfect replacement at the Zephyr’s heart?
At the top of her moon-base’s tallest command-tower, Professor Akayama tied her long navy hair in a tight nautilus bun and stuck it through with two pencils, freeing her hands to operate a massive control-panel labeled in English, Japanese, and eight other languages. When she pressed a button, a crater outside the observatory-windows opened like a manhole and leaked white exhaust from a sub-lunar hangar. “Commander Bunjiro, Princess Lucia, Zephyr Dakshi,” she said into a microphone. “Global Parliament has authorized us to repel the Hurricane Planets infesting the galaxy’s third arm. Prepare for launch.” The professor switched off her microphone and swiveled in her chair to face the forty technicians behind her, each sitting at a computer with three or more touchscreen-monitors. “Don’t forget: this is Princess Lucia’s first experience against the Hurricane. Just keep your heads and follow procedure.”
The technicians relayed multilingual commands to the crater’s sub-lunar hangar. A launch platform there supported the Zephyr, the blue metal man a hundred meters tall even lacking legs. In the moon’s airy gravity, mechanics could crawl across the Zephyr’s chest like ants to unfasten its right arm at the shoulder. The mechanics used a crane forty stories tall to suspend that right arm on the hangar’s back wall; the right arm’s pilot would forgo this mission to help Akayama evaluate the princess from the command-tower.
“Professor Akayama,” he said sitting beside her, “sorry I’m late. Zephyr Charlie reporting for duty.” Charlie was a pale fellow, about twenty years old, with a chiseled cleft chin. His tousled golden haircut matched his yellow bodysuit. He chewed the end of a smoldering cockroach. “How’s the princess holding up?”
“Zephyr Charlie! Trade seats with me.” Akayama stood and brushed folds from her pure white lab-coat, posture bent by age. In Earth’s gravity, she’d be confined to a hospital-bed. “My arthritis is acting up. Finish preparing the Zephyr for launch. And no smoking near sensitive equipment! Don’t give me that look, I’m your elder by a century!”
“Yes, Professor,” Charlie sighed. He dutifully swapped seats and ashed his roach. On the control-panel he twisted dials, turned a key, and lifted a lever. “Can I still smoke in my shoulder-cockpit?”
“Of course. That air’s filtered through the Zephyr’s life-support.” Akayama watched steam pour from the crater like evaporating milk. She had remarkable eyesight for a super-centenarian. “Zephyr Charlie, I wanted to discuss an error in your report on Princess Lucia.”
“Professor, the princess is more than ready to pilot the Zephyr’s heart. I helped Commander Bunjiro train her, and we both agree she’s a better match for the position than even he was.”
“Not that. Look here.” Akayama pulled a clipboard and pen from her lab-coat. “You were brave to try writing my name in kanji, but you wrote Professor Akayama…” She drew a sun and moon beside a trident: 明山. “Bright Mountain. My name is Professor Akayama…” She drew a cross on four legs and another trident: 赤山. “Red Mountain. Akai Yama Hakase, not Akarui Yama Hakase. Understand, deshou ka? Not a bad try for your second-language, but just write in English from now on.”
“Of course, Professor.” Charlie tapped a microphone to make sure it was on. “Commander Bunjiro, the Zephyr is cleared for take-off.”
The command-tower’s observatory-windows displayed a live recording of Bunjiro in his cockpit. He was young as Charlie, wearing pointy red sunglasses which matched the color of his bodysuit and short spiky hair. “Hey, Charlie!” Bunjiro’s favorite part of being Commander was having the authority to skip honorifics. “Our life-support saves power when you’re not smoking the place up! Ready, Princess? Take-off in three, two—“
The Zephyr shot from the crater on a column of clouds puffed from its hips. Dakshi, pilot of the left arm, swept the exhaust away as the Zephyr departed the solar system faster than light. By firing photons at unspeakable speeds, the Zephyr communicated with the command-tower instantly even light-years and light-years away. “Textbook take-off, your Highness.” Dakshi appeared on the observatory-windows beside Bunjiro. He was older than Charlie, dark-skinned, and kept his green bodysuit impeccably ironed like his matching tightly-groomed crew-cut. Many in the moon-base had earned medals in the fight against the Hurricane, but Dakshi’s military background made him among the few who wore them in earnest.
“Thank you, Zephyr Dakshi!” Princess Lucia, in the robot’s sculpted muscular chest, appeared under Bunjiro on the observatory-windows. She was younger than the other pilots and her aquamarine military-regulation ponytail matched her own bodysuit, which was a little more skin-tight than theirs. “Zephyr Charlie, Akayama Hakase, how would you rate it?”
“That was a smooth launch, Princess,” said Charlie.
Akayama leaned over Charlie to speak into the microphone. “Splendid, splendid, Princess!” The observatory-windows now also displayed the Zephyr’s point-of-view, which saw light-years into the distance by firing photons from its eyes and catching them when they bounced back. Zipping past stars, the Zephyr quickly came across stray Hurricane Planets intruding deeper than the rest. These red planets were grasping with hands, kicking with legs, dripping with tentacles, and watching in all directions with countless eyes. “Don’t slow down yet,” said Akayama. “At top speed, anything smaller than Jupiter can be atomized manually.” Dakshi raised the Zephyr’s left fist like a boxer’s uppercut. In the chest, Lucia propelled the space-robot in a complicated curve, exploding through each Hurricane Planet as Bunjiro targeted them on a touchscreen in the head.
“Hey Hakase,” said Bunjiro. “Why does the Hurricane embarrass itself with such puny invaders?” Like the perfect teacher’s-aid, Bunjiro asked as if he didn’t already know, just so students could hear her reply.
“Excellent question,” said Akayama. Behind her in the command-tower, the newest technicians took notes of her answer on their extra touchscreens. “Our current working theory is pain-aversion. The Hurricane would sooner have its portions extinguished immediately rather than suffer for any duration. Thankfully so! The Hurricane could eat the Milky Way in hours if it weren’t holding back.”
When the Zephyr reached the galaxy’s third arm, it found an otherworldly nightmare. “My goodness.” Lucia covered her mouth, agape. Nothing could have prepared her. The sight nauseated even the most experienced aboard the moon-base. Countless Hurricane Planets were absorbing whole stars into their mass. The largest ones were dividing into equally countless copies of themselves to repeat the reproductive-cycle.
“Don’t lose focus, Princess,” said Akayama. “The space-robot you’re piloting is a great and complicated tool. In the Zephyr’s chest, you control more than the main engines: our greatest weapon, the Super Heart Beam, depends on you. Using it to vaporize a collection of Hurricane Planets will drive the rest back outside the galaxy—but, it puts immense strain on the chest’s pilot. When Commander Bunjiro piloted the chest, he could fire the Super Heart Beam only once a week. I understand he’s taught you everything he knows. Are you prepared, Princess, or would you prefer holding back to melee-combat?”
“I’m ready, ma’am!” Lucia steadied herself. “Commander Bunjiro, Zephyr Dakshi, transfer power, please!”
“Transferring power,” said Dakshi.
“You’ve got this, Princess,” said Bunjiro.
Energy crackled like blue lightning from the Zephyr’s head and arm to its chest. Akayama watched with pride. “I knew the princess would be the perfect pilot the moment we met,” she told Charlie. “Firing the Super Heart Beam requires embodying the ideals the Zephyr represents. As daughter of the Ruler of Earth, Princess Lucia knows how to stand for humanity!”
“Professor!” Charlie pointed to the control-panel. “Look at the neck!”
The Zephyr’s neck had eight locks securing its head to its body. According to the control-panel’s diagnostics, four locks were open. Akayama grabbed the microphone. “Princess, don’t—” The Super Heart Beam exploded from the Zephyr’s chest. White light shot hundreds of light-years and pulverized whole Hurricane Planets into fine red spray. The force of the beam knocked the Zephyr backwards. Its head snapped its locks and spun through space. On the observatory-windows, the command-tower witnessed Bunjiro violently thrashed in his cockpit when the Zephyr’s head impacted asteroids. Akayama cried. “Mou iya dawa!“
Charlie shouted into the mic. “Bunjiro, come in!” No response. “Princess, Dakshi, bring him back to the moon! We’ll prepare med-bay!” Charlie shook his head and cried a single tear. “This is my fault, Professor. I was responsible for launch-preparation.” Akayama was gone. Charlie lost her in the commotion of the command-tower.
Firing the Super Heart Beam had exhausted her, but Princess Lucia couldn’t fall asleep after lights-out in the barracks. She lay awake on her bunk in her blue skin-tight bodysuit, fiddling nervously with her ponytail. The doctors said Bunjiro’s surgery would last hours and he’d be bedridden for days. Charlie said it wasn’t her fault, but Lucia considered the tragedy again and again. Could she have leapt from her cockpit to save him?
“Your Highness!” Dakshi pounded her door. “Emergency! We need you in the Zephyr!”
“Oh no!” Lucille threw her blankets aside and ran to him. “What’s wrong? Are Hurricane Planets incoming?”
“Worse.” Dakshi ushered her into an elevator down to the sub-lunar hangar. He obsessively straightened his forest-green crew-cut, even though his hair was far too short to fuss over. “Akayama Hakase commandeered the Zephyr’s head from the repair-bay. She’s flying toward the Hurricane, leaving the galaxy as we speak!”
They ran across catwalks to the headless Zephyr. Charlie already sat in his right-shoulder-cockpit, buttoning the top of his yellow bodysuit. He lit a cockroach and clenched it in his teeth. Dakshi climbed a ladder to his left-shoulder-cockpit, brushing aside mechanics to open the hatch himself. Lucia hesitated outside her cockpit at the solar-plexus. “I can’t do this. My first experience against the Hurricane was a disaster!”
“That’s not on you, Princess!” shouted Charlie. “Get in!”
“Before she left, the professor gave you perfect marks.” Dakshi descended into the shoulder. “So did I, and so did Zephyr Charlie.”
“Hey Dakshi, same here!” A gray replacement-head floated onto the Zephyr’s shoulders. Bunjiro popped out of the skullcap and waved to Lucia. His red bodysuit bulged with bloody bandages. His red pointy hair was no more or less disheveled for his time in med-bay. He lowered his spiky red sunglasses to check the eight neck-locks, and, satisfied, he posed with two fingers in a V for Victory. “One little crash ain’t gonna stop me!”
“Bunjiro!” Lucia climbed into her cockpit and buckled her seat-belts. When the hatch closed her in, Bunjiro, Charlie, and Dakshi appeared on three of her many monitors.
Charlie blew smoke from his roach. “Good to see you back in business, Commander Bunjiro.”
Dakshi stretched the Zephyr’s left arm. “Commander, are you sure you’re fit to fly?”
“Sure as sure!” said Bunjiro. “The moon-base is giving us the green light. Hit it, Princess! Let’s bail out Professor Akayama!”
Lucia turned her key in the ignition and punched a code on a panel of buttons. The Zephyr’s hips fired billowing exhaust and they rocketed from the crater. “Jumping to hyper-light-speed!” She flipped switches and pulled levers. Charlie and Dakshi brought the Zephyr’s arms across its chest. The robot shot through space on a column of clouds thick as cream.
Dan paused the anime-episode on his smartphone during the end-credits and smiled as he added annotations between the manga’s panels. He’d heard his friend Beatrice liked Princess Lucia for her abandonment of Earthly luxury to fight for what was right. Lucia wasn’t really a princess, being the daughter of an elected official, but who could be more worthy of the honorific than someone who put themselves in danger for the sake of her people?
Then Dan looked through the books he stacked in the corners of his quarters, searching for folktales to reference in his annotations. Akayama, Bunjiro, Charlie, Dakshi—before this issue, the Zephyr’s pilots were alphabetized! The professor’s retirement disturbed flawless order like the disruption of non-duality at the dawn of a creation-myth. He opened the Tao Te Ching: in the beginning, the featureless and unchanging Way gave birth to unity, which gave birth to duality, which gave birth to trinity, which gave birth to everything else. He opened a book of ancient Egyptian lore: in the beginning, Atum created himself from the infinite lifeless ocean of primeval chaos—boundless, uniform chaos is a flawless order, too! In Sheridanian terms, starting a reality was like cracking open a perfectly good egg.
Meanwhile the Zephyr itself, without legs but flying on steam, looked like a djinn. The Zephyr would eventually have more limbs than anyone could count, but along the way, it would be reduced to less than a head.
Dan flipped the manga’s pages to the next issue and started the next episode of the anime on his smartphone. It was late at night on the Islands of Sheridan, but the light of the full moon was enough to read and write even without a candle.
When Dan first read this manga in high-school, the upcoming time-skip surprised him. He should’ve known the anonymous author would circle back to cover what was missed.