After maneuvering evasively around giant rocks and plunging off a cliff, Keith finally slows the hoverbike to a stop. Hunk lurches off the bike and staggers behind one of the many beige stones that loom over the four teenagers. His heaves echoed gruesomely. Lance slips off the bike and makes a sound in the back of his throat like he’s dying. A desert bug of some sort had flown into his mouth around the fifth time he asked Keith where he was taking them. Pidge seemingly teleports off the bike, pushing up his glasses and looking unruffled.
“Ugh. Ew. Nasty,” Lance says, complexion green. “The buggy aftertaste is even worse.”
“Bugs are a good source of protein,” Pidge says.
“I’d rather have a shake,” says Lance.
“A bug protein shake,” Pidge says thoughtfully.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but – can you guys please-please-please stop talking about food?” Hunk asks, staggering over to the Lance and Pidge and rubbing his stomach soothingly.
“Technically,” says Pidge, “we were talking about drinks.”
Hunk gags. “Just stop talking about anything that can be consumed when everything in me wants to be expelled.”
Lance looks around. Keith had brought them to the middle of nowhere, where all that surrounded them were boulders taller than all four of them put together and the only thing that would hear their screams were desert critters and the cave mouths that periodically dot the outcropping of giant boulders.
Lance spots Keith up ahead. “Hey!” he calls, and bounds over to Keith. “Where do you think you’re going? And where are we? Where have you taken us? You know, this seems mighty suspicious. . . .”
“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Keith says.
“Yeah, well, neither did you!”
Keith shoots Lance a flat look. “I drove us here.”
“Why did you come here?” Pidge asks. “Does it have something to do with the Kerberos mission?”
“You’re really harping on that, aren’t you,” Lance says.
“Shut up!” Pidge snaps.
“Whoa, whoa,” Hunk says, waving his hands peaceably. “Let’s not fight. Hey, uh, Keith was it? Was there a specific reason you decided to run away to the desert and not, I don’t know, a circus?”
Keith stares at him blankly. “Who are you?”
“Savage,” Pidge says under his breath.
Hunk introduces himself. “—and these are my friends, Lance and Pidge.”
“Keith,” Keith says.
“Yeah, we kind of got that,” Lance says. “Now can you please explain why we’re here?”
Keith scrutinizes them individually. Lance tries to appear as genial as possible.
“Let’s walk and talk,” Keith says finally. He turns about-face and starts walking.
Pidge hurries after him.
Lance and Hunk exchange glances. Resignedly, Hunk says, “Guess we’re walking and talking.”
“Guess so,” Lance says, and starts walking.
“Why couldn’t we rest and talk?” Hunk complains.
“Less talking, more walking!” Lance calls over his shoulder.
“Let me get this straight,” Lance says. “You’ve been sneaking out of the Garrison to lurk in caves that have caveman graffiti because you can ‘feel’ something ‘drawing’ you out here.”
“Yeah,” Keith says. “And all the cave drawings have something to do with a blue lion.”
“Uh-huh,” Lance says indulgently. “Cavemen graffiti. Mystical feelings. Lions that are blue.”
“That’s what I said,” Keith says tersely.
Lance falls back to walk beside Hunk. “I don’t trust this guy,” Lance whispers loudly. “He’s definitely been eating some questionable desert mushrooms.”
Keith’s shoulders bunch up around his ears.
“I don’t think mushrooms grow in the desert,” Hunk says diplomatically.
“Cacti, then,” Lance says, not bothering to try and keep his voice down anymore. “Hallucinogenic cacti are a thing. I saw it in a movie once.”
“If you saw it in a movie then it must be true,” Keith says under his breath.
“What was that, mullet?”
“Lay off a bit Lance,” Pidge says. He’s nearly bent double, hunched over like an old man losing his battle to gravity. It’s because of his backpack, filled with tech and other miscellany, that he refuses to let anyone else touch, let alone carry. Hunk had offered first, soon after they all started walking, but Hunk is a known snooper to Pidge and Lance. It wasn’t a surprise when Pidge declined, and Lance wasn’t surprised that he was snubbed when he offered after.
“Thanks,” Keith says awkwardly.
“No problem,” Pidge says, smiling winsomely. “So . . . does this blue lion have anything to do with the Kerberos mission?”
“I don’t know,” Keith says.
“You don’t know?” Pidge says, sounding disappointed and irritated. “Then why are you even bothering with it? It’s a waste of time.”
Keith rakes a hand through his hair in frustration. “No, I – it’s just . . . I feel like it’s important. And . . . I don’t know that it doesn’t have anything to do with what happened to Shiro during the Kerberos mission, so.”
Keith looks at them expectantly, waiting for a response.
“I guess,” is all Pidge says.
“Well, I still think you’re crazy,” Lance says. “And you know what else I think? I’ll tell you what I think. I think—AAAH!”
Keith, Pidge, and Hunk never find out what else Lance thought, however, because he is cut off by his own scream when the ground crumbles beneath him and he falls through a newly created hole.
“Lance!” Hunk shouts in panic.
“Whoa,” says Pidge. He pokes at the jagged edges of the crumbling rocks. “How did that even happen? Lance weighs, like, less than a string bean.”
“Lance?!” Hunk calls down the hole, looking ready to jump in himself. “Can you hear me?!”
“I’m fine,” Lance says, his voice made faint by distance. “But you guys might want to come down here and see this.”
“What is it?” Keith demands. “What have you found?”
“It’s a little hard to explain.”
“Okay,” Keith says. “We’re coming down.”
“Hey now, who’s this ‘we’ you’re talking about?” Pidge asks. “If I jump down there, my tech might get damaged!”
“Yeah, and . . . I don’t think I’ll – uh – fit, you know?” Hunk says, eyes darting nervously to the hole that may as well have been a black hole out in space for how dark it was.
“Fine,” Keith says dismissively. “Just stay here then.” He jumps and disappears into the hole.
After a silent moment, Hunk says, “We’re going to jump, aren’t we.”
“Yep,” Pidge says.
“I hate this.”
When Keith jumps down the metaphorical rabbit hole, he is not expecting to have a mechanical blue lion looming over him once he reaches the ground. He is the one that saw the signs, the “cavemen graffiti,” and yet he still feels like the metaphorical rabbit hole he just jumped down must have been literal; he must be in Wonderland to have come across something this bizarre.
“Well, here’s your blue lion.” Lance says, sounding smug and startling Keith out of his gawking. “Your welcome.”
“Yeah. Thanks Alice,” Keith says, clapping Lance on the shoulder.
“Alice? Who in the heckies is Alice?” Lance asks.
Keith ignores him and wanders closer to the lion mecha. “It looks like there’s some kind of force field protecting it,” Keith murmurs, but still makes an involuntary noise of surprise when he presses his palm against the glowing blue force field and meets solid resistance.
“A force field, huh?” Lance says, suddenly and obnoxiously right beside Keith. “Are you sure?”
Keith knocks his knuckles against the force field a few times. “Pretty sure,” he says dryly, the low clunk-clink-clunk of his knocks still echoing.
Lance hums skeptically. “Maybe the lion’s just shy,” he says.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever—”
“Yoo-hoo!” Lance calls, cutting Keith off.
Keith tries to ask who he’s talking to, but Lance makes a “Bzzt!” noise and mimes zipping his lips.
“Hello!” Lance says, staring up at the blue lion. “No need to be shy! You are a very beautiful lion! If I was into that sort of thing I’d totally be asking for your access code, if you know what I mean.”
“What do you mean?” Keith asks, flabbergasted.
Lance hushes Keith, then turns back to the gigantic robot lion. “I’d still like us to get to know each other, though, so will you please let us in?”
“That’s not going to work,” Keith says decisively.
“Pretty please?” Lance asks entreatingly, then he knocks on the force field, and it immediately drops.
“What,” Keith says flatly.
“Hah!” Lance crows. “I told you it would work!”
“You did not,” Keith protests. “You can’t just sweet talk a robot!”
“I can sweet talk anything,” Lance says with a leering grin.
Keith crosses his arms and scoffs. “As if,” he mutters.
Their argument is cut short – thank God, Keith thinks – by two high-pitched, harmonizing screams of terror that are abruptly cut short with a thud followed by an “Oomf.”
“Hunk! Pidge!” Lance says, and goes to help disentangle them.
Now that the force field is negated, Keith takes an unimpeded look at the lion. It is truly massive, towering over Keith and taller than a lot of houses that he’s encountered. Its eyes are lit a dull yellow from above a white, protruding muzzle, and its body is both blockish and streamlined, with a thick whipcord for a tail.
Keith frowns up at the lion, then turns around to look at the others.
“What do we do now?” he asks, looking specifically at Lance and interrupting Pidge and Hunk’s exclamations of amazement.
“Why are you asking me? It’s your lion!” Lance squawks, affronted.
“But you’re the one who got it to drop the force field,” Keith says.
“There was a force field?” Pidge asks, pushing up his glasses and squinting interestedly.
“You made a force field disappear?” Hunk asks.
“Yes,” Keith says.
“Where was it?” Pidge asks, coming to stand by Keith. Lance and Hunk follow.
“It was right around here,” Lance says, stepping forward and gesturing into empty space. He takes another step forward, into the space previously protected by the force field, and suddenly the ground lit up with electric blue markings. An image invades Keith’s mind: five lions (red, black, blue, green, and yellow) that come together and transform to make a giant humanoid robot, five times larger than the blue lion, that brandishes a sword of fire.
“Whoa,” Keith says after the image dissipates. He’s not the only one to voice the sentiment.
“You mean there are more giant robot lions?” Hunk asks excitedly. “Oh man, oh man. This is so cool!”
Then the blue lion robot seemingly comes to life and lunges, face first, towards Keith and the others. They all cringe away in unison. Pidge makes an inarticulate noise of apprehension and Hunk, when the lion starts to unhinge its jaw, retracts his previous statement: “Okay, I take it back! Not cool – not cool at all! Please don’t eat us!”
With an electrical whirr, the robot cat sticks a ramp out of its mouth like a metal tongue before it settles and makes no further movements.
“Calm down buddy,” Lance says, patting Hunk on the shoulder. “Even if it was going to eat us it’d still be cool.”
“Wow, thanks,” Hunk deadpans, looking not at all comforted.
“All aboard?” Lance says with a smirk before he heads straight up the ramp, into the lion’s mouth, and down its throat.
The ramp, Keith finds out once he enters the lion’s mouth with Pidge and Hunk, leads to the head of the lion – not the stomach.
“Why doesn’t this lead to the stomach?” Keith asks, frowning.
“Who cares about that?” Lance says.
Lance is sitting in the sole chair, right in front of the controls that Keith supposes control the lion robot, and Keith is trying to tamp down on the anxiety that Lance’s position inspires in him. Lance doesn’t seem to be the type of person to take anything seriously, if the short amount of time Keith has spent in his presence is anything to go by. It doesn’t inspire any confidence in his flying ability – not for Keith, at least – and it doesn’t help that the flight controls are unlabelled and out-of-this-world high tech.
Lance hums, eyeing the buttons on the control panel contemplatively. “I wonder what this does,” he says, and presses a button.
The wall in front of them appears to dissolve into blue pixels and what’s left is a view of the cavern where the blue lion was hidden.
“Very nice,” Lance says approvingly. He seems to take his success to heart and starts pressing buttons at random.
“Okay,” Hunk says. “It’s only just hitting me that we are inside a futuristic alien space cat right now. Are you guys freaking out? ‘Cause I’m freaking out!”
“Hunk, buddy, this is without a doubt the coolest. . .” Lance trails off, face slack and eyes vacant, before snapping back to awareness and exclaiming, “Whoa! Did you guys just hear that?”
“What are you talking about?” Pidge asks. “We didn’t hear anything.” Keith and Hunk nod in agreement.
“I think – I think the lion is talking to me,” Lance says. He eyes the controls critically, pushes a few buttons, then takes hold of the handles on either side of the control board and thrust them forward. The cockpit rattles as the lion gets to its feet, and Pidge and Hunk scream.
“Nice! Now let’s try something else,” Lance says. Then, before Keith can steady himself, the blue lion is taking off, breaking through the stone cavern walls like they’re a small inconvenience and flying out into open space. Lance pilots like he’s taking them on a joy-ride, weaving between towering boulders, diving towards the ground and activating the foot thrusters at the last minute, and flying in disorienting loop-de-loops.
Keith has never experienced motion sickness in his life until this moment. It’s not an experience he’s enjoying. Holding back his heaves and trying to settle his stomach through force of sheer will, he grits out with feeling, “You are—the worst—pilot—ever!” He’s not sure he’s heard over Hunk and Pidge screaming.
Lance pulls into a dive, and then they’re running on the ground and every bound the blue lion makes feels like it’s jarring Keith’s jaw loose.
Lance whoops, and Hunk begins to pray, “Make it stop. Make it stop.”
“This isn’t even me all my doing,” Lance says. “It’s like it’s on autopilot and I’m just along for the ride.”
“How much of it is your doing?” Pidge demands.
The lion shoots straight up into the sky.
“Uhh, not this,” Lance says apprehensively.
Yoshisato Sawada is in his assigned office at the Garrison and picking paint out from under his fingernails when, in his peripheral vision, he sees a large object moving outside his window.
He turns to look, and even before he sees the flying blue cat robot his intuition is filling him with dread. “Oh no,” he says faintly.
“What?” asks Fuku. Sat on Yoshisato’s chair, booted feet propped carelessly on Yoshisato’s desk, he doesn’t bother to look up from the trashy Harlequin romance novel he’s reading.
Fuku is a long-time friend of Yoshisato’s who regularly and randomly bypasses the Garrison security to visit Yoshisato. Together they make a peculiar pair from an outside perspective. Where Fuku’s face is sharp and intimidating, Yoshisato’s is rounded and inviting; where Fuku’s hair is a ridiculous blue (which is generally assumed to be the result of an expensive dye-joy and questionable taste) in a style that reminds people of a blueberry, Yoshisato has ordinary brown hair that is cut and styled in a military regulation haircut; where Fuku wore high-heeled boots and floral button-up shirts, Yoshisato stuck to his Garrison uniform. Regardless of their differences, the two maintain the close connection of friendship and the distant connection of family history.
“I get the feeling,” Yoshisato says, then swallows audibly. “I get the feeling I’ve just failed in my sacred duty.”
The Harlequin snaps shut. Fuku takes a moment to mourn the fact that the book isn’t a hardcover, which would be much more suitably dramatic, before he speaks.
“You only have one duty that is sacred, Yoshi,” Fuku says, low and accusing.
“I know,” Yoshisato whimpers. “They’re going to kill me.”
“And you’ll deserve it!” Fuku exclaims. “You lost their son! My apprentice!”
“Lance is not you’re apprentice, and it’s not my fault he’s gone off on some giant robo-cat!” Yoshisato says adamantly, then, muttering, “I bet Daemon’s behind this.”
“Daemon’s dead,” Fuku says, in such a tone that it suggests this is not the first time he’s had to say as such to Yoshisato and he’s getting tired of repeating himself.
Yoshisato scowls darkly. “That’s what everyone thought last time too.”
Fuku opens his mouth to say something cutting about Yoshisato’s useless grudge, then pauses as part of their conversation replays in his head on repeat. “Wait . . . did you say ‘giant robo-cat’?”