“I tell ya, no matter what planet, there’s no beating a good sunrise!” Juspion declared, arms held out wide to receive the solar warmth as it broke the horizon, giving the emerging sun his best goofy smile.
“The first one was better,” came Anri’s flat voice from her perch up on top of the ship, parked just next to the dune Juspion was stood on. She pointed up at the higher of the two suns, that had risen a few minutes ago. “See? Where else do you see that colour?”
“You gotta suck the joy out of everything?” Juspion called up.
“Someone has to stop you giving the universe saccharine poisoning,” she said. “But...this planet is nice. Good choice.” This was their victory celebration; Satan Goth was at last defeated, the universe was saved, and thus they were taking a tour of the most beautiful planets in that universe.
“Any sign of the Leviathan?” he asked, scanning the horizon.
She shook her head. “Had the ship scanning all day, nothing. To be honest, I don’t think anything that size could support itself in an ocean of that unique composition.” This was a small rocky world called Clarity, renowned for its seas of liquid crystal. After an attempt at swimming that had ended in the Garbin Tank diving to the seabed to recover one embarrassed, decidedly non-buoyant android, they’d settled on coming to this beach to sit and watch the glimmering waves crash and meld into each other.
“Aw, c’mon,” Juspion said. “When have MegaBeasts ever made any kind of scientific sense?”
“I remain foolishly hopeful,” Anri sighed.
This was all observed, with much less appreciation for beauty, by a cold, unblinking eye, miles above the planet’s surface. Calculating: distance, time delay, atmospheric interference. Charging—calibrating—priming— fire!
On the surface, the impact was preceded by a sudden immense heat—then Anri yelped as the ground below her was engulfed in a sea of flame. Out of it rose a shimmering ball of light, alighting on Daileon beside her and coalescing into Juspion, battlesuit fully formed around him.
“What was that?!” he gasped, sinking to one knee as he replayed the moment over and over, how close it had been.
Anri’s eyes glazed over for a second, transferring data between her internal processors and Daileon’s powerful sensor array, before snapping back to the present to report her findings. “Single shot, fired from something in geostationary orbit. I’m not picking up the shooter—must be cloaked somehow.”
He nodded. “Inside! Let’s get up there!”
The great ship took off vertically, rising into the outer atmosphere in a matter of moments. He knew its every minute timing, could trace every clunk and eccentricity it had picked up back to this or that battle. Perhaps more than any person, Daileon had been his constant, unflinching companion in that long struggle for survival. Juspion would sooner lose an arm than lose Daileon.
As they left the inner atmosphere, Anri picked up their attacker—this close, its sensor-camouflage proved ineffective. They banked for its exact location, soon picking up a visual: Some kind of huge artificial asteroid, a gleaming lump of freefloating metal bristling with antennae. Mostly hollow, and with a single heat signature at the centre, the continued scan reported. As they neared it, that heat signature suddenly shot out of the station and away from them.
“It’s accelerating…” Anri reported. “Escape pod!”
“Yeah, shooter’s bailing out,” Juspion agreed. “From its trajectory...the port!” He slammed on the accelerator and they fought for the steering for a minute before he let her guide them in pursuit.
The now-empty station had spat out its needle-shaped offspring with tremendous acceleration and they lost sight of it about ten seconds out from their destination, leaving them hovering just above the city’s outskirts with not much to go on but a need to track down the shooter before they could be ambushed again. Rosheu was the only settlement on all of Clarity, but the planet’s popularity as a holiday site had quickly grown the port town into a sprawling maze of bustling markets and precarious mile-high accommodation blocks. They hadn’t really ventured into it before, so stepping out into the crowded high-street was an instant sensory overload for the pair. It was a change, for one thing, to not stand out despite their ostentatious outfits, particularly Juspion’s...however exactly you would choose to describe Juspion’s unique style of dress.
After half an hour of searching and asking around, they had found no leads on their search, but had managed to let themselves be talked into buying —now look, we’re not here to—well, maybe just one—okay, that does look nice—no, I already have—if I buy this will you tell me—well at least if I buy this will you leave me alone? —in the end, into buying rather a lot, as the heaviness of their backpacks and lightness of their purses attested to.
Anri was the first to notice something was wrong when they headed back to the ship, cybernetic eyes picking up movement across the hull. “Hey!” she called out. “What—” By the time her mouth was open for the second word, the dots of movement had launched themselves off of Daileon, forming as they fell closer into half a dozen humanoid figures in loose makeshift armour, descending from the ship on cables with a cacophony of whoops and hollers. Blades gleamed in their hands.
Juspion was already dragging Anri away at full pelt while she was caught up analysing their fall trajectories. “Scrappers,” he explained between breaths. “A minute later they’d have carved Daileon apart already.”
“Then why are we running away ?” she yelled, backpedalling furiously for the first twenty yards before finding the time to spin around.
“Because as soon as they saw us, they forgot the ship entirely.”
“They’re working with the assassin?”
“Make sense, wouldn’t it?” He glanced down at the bag of souvenirs he’d been talked into buying earlier, estimating its value, before pressing it into the arms of the nearest rickshaw driver and pointing away down the street. They clambered in just in time to not get left behind—a moment after receiving her payment, the stocky, bright-eyed driver had noticed their pursuers and put two and two together. She was leaving with or without them.
Three of the scrappers piled into an open-topped four-wheeler they’d parked at the roadside. The fourth kickstarted a hoverbike sitting opposite it, the fifth jumping on behind him. The sixth and smallest kicked her feet against the ground, the spray of sparks igniting jets on the back of her heavy boots, propelling her forwards at vehicle speed.
“I’m not outrunning those!” the driver called back at them, pedalling frenziedly.
“Left! Now!” Juspion shouted, the ramshackle vehicle lurching around the corner as the truck zoomed by behind them. The jet-skater attempted the turn but skidded out and tumbled into a fruit stall, splintering boxes collapsing around her. The bike made a neat turn, though, rapidly closing the distance between them.
“Hey, hey, what now?” came the driver’s worried voice.
“Just stay steady!” Juspion clambered up onto the thin roof, wobbling a little as he fought to stay balanced. The bike drew level with them, the passenger untangling himself from the driver and tensing up—and leaping the gap, landing with a heavy thud on the roof, clasping it on all fours and advancing spider-like with his knife-hand at the ready, tucked into his chest.
Juspion took in a deep breath, bracing himself for the first action he’d seen in months. He hadn’t missed it.
The thief sprang and Juspion dropped onto his back, shoving up with his right foot and helping the leaping man fly on by over him. The blade passed within an inch of his face as the thief flailed for him, but the frantic swipes missed their mark and the first of their attackers was thrown to the dirt, bouncing once with a painful crunch before lying still, groaning, rapidly left behind by the pursuit.
The bike’s rider pulled in closer to the rickshaw, sliding a notched cutlass free from his back and jabbing it at Anri. Juspion rolled over onto his front, his hands swinging down and clapping on either side of the blade, stopping it dead, her eyes crossing as they fixed on the quivering sword-point still aimed at her forehead.
What was visible of the scrapper’s face behind his bandana and helmet wrinkled up in frustration as they struggled back and forth over the sword. After a brief stalemate, a bump in the road distracted him and he had to let go to pull the low-flying bike high enough to clear it, but Juspion hadn’t seen it at all and the jolt of the rickshaw cresting the rise sent the sword flying from his hands. Not wasting a second, he switched to the next-nearest useful metal object: Anri. He reached down and heaved her at the bike by both shoulders, on the basis that she was a heavy android who also knew how to drive. Both aspects of this worked like a charm and the startled rider was knocked from the saddle by the unexpected humanoid projectile, underpowered antigrav stabilisers fighting to keep the vehicle upright while Anri gripped the pedals and handlebars for dear life, yelling up at him to warn her next time, in fact to not do that at all next time.
“Sorry!” he said, grinning. He stuck his head down into the rickshaw cab, waving to the driver. “They’re only after us! You should be able to stop once I get off!” Then he sprang to his feet and jumped—
—and halfway to the bike his peripheral vision picked up the jet-skater, bearing down on them with frightening speed, the hoverbike’s toppled rider held in a headlock under one arm. She evidently thought highly of the ally-throwing gambit she’d just witnessed Juspion using, as she pitched backwards on her airborne supports, winding up for a heavy overarm throw. The ease with which she hurled the larger man at the bike betrayed a frightening alien strength hiding in her sparse frame.
Switching mental gears in mid-air, Juspion planted a foot on the bike and pushed off instead of landing on it, launching himself back at their remaining pursuer, using the thrown former biker as a stepping stone to springboard off and extend his jump, crashing into the jet-skater and grappling with her, the pair of them careening every which way down the tiny street as they each struggled to throw the other to the ground.
Anri, meanwhile, after taking a minute to get her bearings and focus on not crashing immediately, sped the bike up to its full capacity; she didn’t have to stay level with the rickshaw anymore, and the street was mostly clear by now. Pure mechanical focus overrode her flusteredness as she guided the unfamiliar vehicle to the road’s end—which was suddenly blocked by the scrappers’ truck, its bulk filling the entire narrow exit.
She gasped, the instincts brake! and don’t! warring in her mind. ‘Surviving the next five seconds’ won out over ‘surviving the next five minutes’, and she swerved to a halt, gripping the handlebars white-knuckled. One of the three scrappers in the truck jumped out and approached, wordless, businesslike. His hand went for his knife, but in his confidence he’d got too close, and a steel grip locked around his wrist before he reached it. He grunted in annoyance, flicking a smaller dagger out of his sleeve into his free hand and going to jab it up into her throat, but a bag bursting with heavy, expensive souvenirs struck him square in the face, flipping him onto his back in a daze. Anri blinked, stunned at her own success, then remembered the other two and locked gazes with them, grinning nervously, none of them sure what to try next.
The standoff was broken as Juspion and the jet-skater caught up to them, still pinballing between the buildings lining the street as they wrestled.
“Get off!” she hissed. “You’ll kill us both!”
“You took your time!” came Anri’s voice, simultaneously.
Juspion grimaced. Why’s it always me? Well, something had to be done about this, he decided. This was the time for one of those smooth 'two birds, one stone' plays. Luckily, those were something of a specialty.
He gave a sudden twist, sticking a leg down and entangling it in a market stall’s canvas roof, the whole movement breaking him away from the scrapper and angling her down towards her friends in the truck, who she cannoned into, dumping all three onto the dirt behind it. Juspion shook away the dizziness and jumped down from the roof, hitting the ground running and vaulting the truck to confront them as they were still standing up.
Three on one. He’d had worse.
He sprang into the midst of them, quickly working from one to the next, a hard block here, an elbow there, and soon they’d all been sent sprawling in different directions. Unfortunately, one of these directions was back towards the truck, which the thief scrambled into and started rummaging around. Juspion ran up to stop her, but she swivelled towards him with a rifle now in her hands. He skidded to a halt, heaving his entire upper body backwards, the beam scorching by close enough to smell burning.
She tossed the weapon over to the man who’d been in the truck with her, fishing out a plasma-edged sword for herself.
“Okay…” Encircled by his foes, Juspion held his hands out, trying to sound diplomatic. “This is getting a lot more dangerous. Are you sure you wanna do this?”
“What kind of bluff is that?” the woman in the truck said with a laugh. “You know you’re gonna lose so you’re trying to get us to back off?”
“He’s really not kidding!” Anri called out. “It’d be easier on everyone if you stopped this now!”
“Like hell!” the freshly-armed rifleman snapped, taking aim. He noticed the third remaining scrapper, the skater, giving Anri an odd look after what she’d said. “Red! Focus!”
“Y-Yeah!” she said, fixing her gaze back on Juspion.
The beleaguered hero gave a sigh. “Not gonna listen, huh...all right.” His hands shot up to either side of his head with ruthlessly-drilled speed, the motion activating his transformation. A cloud of white light briefly enveloped him, rapidly forming into the Metal Tech Suit, a one of a kind personal battlesuit that made the wearer into a one-man army.
The gunman fired in a panic, his beams glancing off the gleaming metal suit to no effect. Juspion was on him in a second, a single gut-punch denting his armour and crumpling him up. ‘Red’ was already leaping in from behind, coming down with a jet-powered heel kick. Juspion blocked it with crossed arms, staggering back a step. “Not bad, kid! Let me give mine a shot!” He activated the suit’s jets and shot up at her as she recoiled from the previous impact, colliding in mid-air and shoving her away in an uncontrolled spiral. He coasted to a landing as the last of the three rushed him, her balanced grip on the glowing sword betraying years of practice.
That’s a bit more dangerous, even for the suit. Juspion tapped a panel on the back of his helmet, a broadsword of his own springing forth. “Plasma Blazer Sword!” They clashed once, twice, then sped up, the rings of metal growing uncountable until finally he saw a minute opening, too low to reach with the sword. He swung a kick and she had to dart sideways to avoid the suit’s tremendous strength, leaving her side open; his sword flicked out, disarming her and sending her weapon skidding away over the dirt. Like the man just now, a single suited punch was enough to knock her out cold.
“Okay!” he said, raising both arms in a victory celebration...pausing with a nervous chuckle when he realised Red was standing behind him, having made her way back. “Uh...want another go, I guess?”
“Nah, I don’t see it goin’ too well,” she said, working her way out of the heavier pieces of her bolted-together armour. “I wasn’t planning on running with these guys much longer anyway. You won’t stop me if I go through their stuff and take off with what I like, right?”
“You seem the least hung up on killing us of the lot of you, so…” He shrugged. “Be my guest, I guess?”
“Sweet.” She jogged over to the truck and started rifling through it, ignoring Anri’s suspicious stare. “Oh yeah, ‘bout that. I’m not really on with killing people, but hey, the pay was really good, and...I get hungry.”
These words hit Anri deep. Biological people talking about things she herself didn’t have to do—like eating, in this case—always stood out to her. She looked with fresh eyes and for the first time saw what Juspion must have already seen: A kid living on the edge, barely making choices, grabbing at every chance to keep living a little longer, with no-one else to turn to.
“Could you tell us anything about the person who hired you—” Juspion began, trailing off as his helmet sensors blared a warning directly in his ears. His head snapped up, seeing the gleam in the sky. No time to wonder how or why, the shot would impact the ground in under a second, and even if he survived a significant portion of Rosheu wouldn’t. He dived to the ground, hand going for his pistol and firing from the hip, volleying shot after shot up at the descending beam. His lasers met the far larger one about a mile into the air, colliding in a corona of multicoloured light and dispersing it harmlessly.
This is just gonna keep coming unless we chase it back to the source… Juspion held up his wrist-communicator. “Daileon!”
Juspion and Anri’s teamwork was flawless, no words needed now to fly the ship up towards the shooter, or rather, the station. Apparently there was more to it than the empty chassis it had appeared to be, and while the hired mercenaries had kept them busy the assassin had called it to hover over the city, and re-ensconced themselves inside at that.
“What’s our approach?” Anri asked. “Return fire?”
Juspion shook his head. “This whole time, it’s only fired twice. The trade-off for that kind of range and precision must be a hell of a charge time. Much cleaner to get inside and confront them directly. You stay on the controls and keep us close—block the station if it starts moving. I’ll head over in the Iron Wolf.”
He paused in the doorway, giving a thumbs-up. “C’mon, no need to be so formal after all this time. We’ve been through worse.”
Astride the Iron Wolf, Juspion sped through the maze of cramped corridors that made up the interior of the station: An empty hive, endless winding, twisting space with seemingly no purpose. What kind of mind needed a place like this to feel at home?
He’d find out soon enough. The one other life-sign on board grew slowly nearer as he tracked his way through the countless tunnels. Eventually a point of light appeared in the far distance, rapidly expanding into the end of the network. He guided the bike to a stop, taking in the huge spherical chamber, lit from all sides by tiny glittering constellations of bulbs sunk into the wall. At the centre of the black-tiled floor was a kneeling figure, its head bowed as if in prayer.
“If I could have chosen,” it murmured, twin reptilian tails flicking out behind it, “I would have had it be this way from the start. I wish to see your face and you mine.” It lifted its head, a single amber eye blazing amidst a mess of bandages and scar tissue. “For you to know your end. But I had to be cautious. The indirect approach seemed more certain.”
“Yeah, about that.” Juspion dismounted, slowly advancing across the room. “So what’s your deal? Why’d you do all this?”
It reached behind it and held up something that caught his breath for a terrible, reflexive moment. The cracked, empty helmet of Mad Galan. It stood, lowering the helmet over its head, its one remaining eye staring out through a missing section of the black visor.
“So,” said Juspion, feeling incredibly tired. Not physically. Years upon years tired. “That’s how it is.”
The creature lifted a great two-handed halberd in its segmented arms, never looking away from him. “That is how it is.”
“I’m tired of death, you know,” he said. “I did my best, with the gang you sent after us. I think they’ll all recover. But someone like you…” He drew his sword, taking a two-handed grip and widening his stance. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“My voice is in my blade, god-killer,” said the avenger, rushing him with a bestial hiss.
Anri drummed her feet on the dashboard. The moment Juspion had run off to confront their attacker had certainly been dramatic but there wasn’t much to be done around here while he was away. The station hung immobile in the sky, and Daileon hung next to it. All was silent.
And then all was silent except a single beep. Quiet, but persistent. She turned a disinterested gaze to the offending panel. “Aw, shut up, would y…” It was a signal being broadcasted from the station.
Attention caught, she interfaced with the ship again, using its massive sensor array to analyse the signal. “Very far subsonic...rhythmic...animal cry?” she intoned. “Why would it be…”
The quiet beep was joined by a much louder one. She disengaged from Daileon, returning to her senses to see—the skater kid from earlier hunched over the controls?!
“Probably,” Red drawled in answer to her unfinished question, “what you’d call insurance.”
“Why are you—”
“Whoa!” Red sprang back as Anri surged out of her chair. “Priorities! I’m just a stowaway hitching a ride. Focus on that. ” She indicated the panel producing the louder beep.
Annoyed at the sense this made, Anri hurried over to it, keying up the remote-viewer to project a visual of this larger signal’s source. All the camera caught was a second of a rapidly-approaching befanged maw before the ship rocked with a vicious impact, bowling Anri over inside. Red’s boot-jets kicked in as the floor fell away from her, so now she floated over Anri with a smug aura, stretching an arm down. “Need a hand?”
“I’m fine ,” Anri muttered, climbing to her feet and staggering up the now steeply-inclined floor into the pilot’s seat. “Okay, okay, get a visual up…” What she saw shouldn’t have been so surprising, but it had been a while.
“MegaBeast!” This one was longer than the ship, looking like some unholy meeting of fish and insect, still glistening with crystal water and completely defying all known physical law by suspending itself this far in the sky with no visible means at all. “Hey Juspion, I found the Leviathan…” she said to herself, pulling them back from it as its claws snaked out.
Red cruised up into the cockpit, marvelling at the creature before them. “Whoa, hey, it does exist!”
“Shut up and watch!” Anri pulled a lever, initiating for the first time the sequence she’d seen from outside so often. “Combat Giant Daileon!”
The whole vessel unfolded, twisting around itself and exposing new shapes as it underwent the five-second transformation from spaceship to humanoid robot. Boxy, brightly-painted, iron-fisted: The true Daileon.
“Okay!” She spurred it forwards and immediately overextended, lurching past the Leviathan, which took the easy opening and smacked Daileon a solid blow across the side as it passed.
“Hey! Do you even know how to do this?” Red shouted over the blare of warning sirens, clinging to the doorframe for dear life.
“There’s a first time for everything! I mean—shut up!” Anri brought Daileon about in time to block the Leviathan’s lashing tail, seizing its claws in one fist and smashing the other into its bone-armoured face, metal and carapace both cracking at the collision. “Hah!”
They went on like this for a while, shoving each other back and forth across the empty expanse of the void before the immobile station. Eventually, one of the unfamiliar controls tripped her up and the MegaBeast was on them again, gnawing deep grooves into the chest armour.
“Gah!” Anri fell back in her seat, frantically scanning the control bank. “Where is it, where is it…”
Red’s hand slammed down on a button, and the huge central chest panel on Daileon’s front lit up, emitting a wave of energy that hurled the Leviathan back, roaring in pain.
“Uh...thank you,” Anri said, swiping her hair out of her face. “How did you…?”
“I was kinda panicking too,” the stowaway kid admitted. “I just figured the thing labelled ‘Daileon Beam’ was probably good.” She tugged down her sweat-slicked bandana, giving her face an odd pattern where the strip of skin around her eyes it hadn’t covered was so dirt-covered as to look like a domino mask.
“You’re being...very helpful.” Anri regained the controls, righting Daileon and putting its guard up.
“That a problem?”
“No, I just expected more running, hiding, maybe trying to hijack the whole thing. You know, stowaway things.”
“Can’t say it didn’t cross my mind, but…” Red pouted. “You’re cute. I got a weakness.” She saw Anri’s startled expression, holding up a placating hand. “Don’t worry, I know, I know, I’m a kid, don’t get my hopes up an’ stuff. ‘Sides, if my instincts aren’t wrong, you an’ that flashy guy…?”
“Me and Ju—” Anri’s attention snapped back to the view through Daileon’s eyes as the leviathan battered them again. She grunted with a particularly heavy strike, smashing the joint of one of its multitude of clawing limbs, pressing in and barging the whole bulk of Daileon’s body into it, bashing it further back. “We’re not—I mean...we’re not not , I just...oh, I don’t know! I don’t know if he’s...capable of thinking of a robot like that, I suppose.”
She spurred the robot onwards, punch after punch raining down and leaving the monster reeling. “Even things like ‘friends’ are new for me. Maybe one day I’ll be ready for something else, but...for now, we are what we are. And here’s something I learned from my time with him! Cosmic Crash! ” Daileon raced forwards—straight past the Leviathan, swinging both sparking fists into the side of the great space station, knocking a great dent in it and carving out its transmitter entirely. Something changed behind the Leviathan’s eyes, and it turned with a shriek, darting back down to the planet’s surface and disappearing beneath the sea.
“What I learned…” she continued, panting, “...was creatures like this aren’t the real enemy. There’s nothing glorious in the senseless slaughter of animals.”
“H-Hey, all that was to save that monster’s life?” Red asked, waving a shaking finger at her. “How stupid are you?”
Anri settled back into the pilot’s chair, smiling gently. “It’s because it was a ‘monster’ I felt I should do my best to save it. Isn’t a life so magnificent and unique something to treasure?”
“That something your buddy said, too?”
“Nope! That one’s all me!”
“...yeah, you suit each other.”
The deadly dance took Juspion and his would-be assassin back and forth all over the chamber, metal sparking on metal, nicks scored in armour and scaled flesh, coming to a halt in the centre with their blades locked against each other. Juspion took a blow to the head from the haft of its weapon but slipped under its guard in exchange, striking it back across the room. It snarled, snapping the halberd over its knee and charging him barehanded, its body wreathed in some dark energy. He had his pistol out and emptied the battery peppering it with lasers, but in its desperate fury it paid no heed to the dozens of burns, even when entire chunks of its flesh were blown off. It tackled him, clawing at the weak points in his suit, its aura coalescing into talon-like extensions from its fingers and digging deep gouges, the claw-tips puncturing right through and drawing blood. Gritting his teeth, he swung up and clubbed its shoulder with the pistol, causing a joint spasm and relaxing the pressure for a moment. He dropped the gun and shoved it off him, standing back up and running his hand along his sword, the gauntlet coating it in glowing plasma.
The avenger hissed, whirling to face him as he lunged at it—
“Cosmic Harley! ”
When the smoke cleared, he approached the most intact of the three pieces he’d left it in, crouching down and removing Mad Galan’s broken helmet, powering down his own suit and staring unshielded into what remained of its real face.
“What’s your name?” he asked, his whisper deafening in the silent death-chamber.
“G’arrk,” it croaked. “You know...we cannot understand each other. Why do you ask?”
Before he left, Juspion tossed the helmet down next to the fallen warrior. “Because he wouldn’t.”
They sat back on the coast where they’d started, fingers drumming to a shared rhythm on the edge of Daileon where they perched.
“I know you made a big deal of sunrise earlier, but…” Anri gestured at the twin setting suns, the sky lit up a brilliant array of oranges and purples.
“Yeah, okay, this is pretty great too,” said Juspion, giving an easy grin. "Hey, thanks for handling things in the ship back there. I appreciate you, y’know?”
“Ah! Uh...you too,” she said, nodding quickly. “You’re okay with the kid around?” She glanced back to where Red was poring over the engines with deep fascination.
“It’s just until the next planet,” he said, waving this off. “I figure hitchhikers travel comfier than stowaways. Besides…” His brow furrowed for a moment, then relaxed. “I wonder if this is what Ejin felt, when he first saw me. You know? ‘I want to see you grow up strong’. I’m chasing that feeling.” He paused. “I...lived up to that, didn’t I? I did grow up strong, right?”
She put a hand on his arm. “That’s not the important part. You grew up right .”