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If you see a stranger, follow him.

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Spike Spiegel loathed three things: animals, children and women with attitudes. How he ended up in a castle space ship on a mission to save the universe was beyond him.

Around him there was a welsh corgi, an eccentric red-headed child crawling from the floor into a handstand, a woman with what seems to be a perpetually raised eyebrow, and his best friend.

Right now, he could really do with a smoke.

--

It started that morning in the desert of Mars, a few miles from life in any direction. He and his best friend Jet Black lived in a small shack out there, just west of a military testing site. Out there, they didn’t need to worry about the real world – about the jobs, the women, the danger of their lives. It was just the two of them in a shack, with an endless supply of cigarettes, and a decent hook up to cable television that Jet had spent a week working on.

Sometimes they travelled into the nearby towns and worked for a few days. There were odd jobs to be done – usually filled with labour, sometimes a little petty theft, or if they were lucky, a good bounty. It was a long way from the cushy job Jet used to have in the police force before losing his arm, but it was slightly closer to the life Spike lived with the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate.

Speaking of – the Syndicate was a constant presence, whether Spike lived in the desert or not.

Technically, Spike Spiegel was dead. He’d faked his death a few years prior, and so far no one from his old life had found him. But Spike remembered the life like it was yesterday – remembered their talk of taking over the universe… not just the world, the whole goddamn universe. It’s not like it was impossible – there was plenty of space travel, and he lived on Mars for Christ’s sake, not even Earth, where the species came from.

The universe was a pretty big place, and Spike had a feeling that if Vicious was in control of the Syndicate, the size wouldn’t even be an issue.

“You’re making that face again,” Jet said from the other side of the room, where he was cooking one of their meagre dinners.

“This is my face,” Spike replied, eyes closed, resting along the sofa. “I can’t not make this face.”

“No, it’s all scrunched up. Like you’re constipated or something.”

Spike huffed, opening his eyes. He hesitated for a moment, realising that Jet was right. He relaxed his features, before sitting up.

“I’ve got that pain in my head again,” Spike said. He hadn’t noticed it until he’d gone searching.

“You know where the pain killers are,” Jet replied. “But we don’t have many left.”

Spike waved the comment away, swinging his feet to the floor. “It’s not that bad. It’s like… it’s like it’s calling, you know?”

“Calling?”

Spike nodded. “Like the pain is trying to tell me something.”

Jet glanced over his shoulder to give Spike a stare. “Maybe you do need the pain killers,” he said. “The heat’s making you a little crazy.”

Spike sighed, standing and stretching. “It’s not the heat.” As if on cue, the open door to the shack bumped lightly against the shelf behind it, moved by the breeze. “It’s like an instinct thing. Like – when we’re chasing a bad guy on one of those bounties, and you get this gut feeling to take a short cut or something.”

Jet nodded. They didn’t take on bounties often – just if the job market was too dry to keep them going. “Key word: gut. Not head.”

“Well it’s like the same thing, but right there.” Spike tapped at his temple, but Jet wasn’t watching, instead focusing on their dinner.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Jet said, and that was the end of that.

Spike moved to the doorway, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and smoked out into the sunset. The days on Mars were longer than the ones on Earth. They had to go to bed too often in the bright sunshine, had to wake up in the darkness. This sunset would last for hours, Spike knew. Sometimes his sleep schedule was almost begging him to move to Ganymede.

As he looked across the desert hills, he frowned. The pain was subsiding, yes – but there was something out there… no, two somethings. Three? They walked along in the distance, dragging their legs through the Mars heat.

Only the criminally insane would go out to the desert – especially with so little supplies. The desert was a good place to die, if such a thing existed, and Spike somehow found it fitting that he lived in a prime spot for his life to end. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder what the figures were doing out there – the desert was as empty as anything. Spike and Jet were the only living things, and that was debatable on the daily.

The figures seemed to stop, and Spike tried to focus on them. They were three drastically different heights – one tall, one short, and then one so close to the ground it probably wasn’t human. Bringing a pet out into the desert was stupider than coming out into the desert yourself.

Spike knew the second the figures spotted him and the shack, and huffed, stamping out the end of his cigarette into the dust and turning inside.

“We’ve got company,” he said. Jet looked up from the cooking, and peered across the shack and out the door.

“Why the hell would they be out here?” he asked, repeating the question in Spike’s head.

“No clue. Let’s hope they find what they’re looking for and leave.”

He sighed back onto the sofa and waited, shutting his eyes once more.

It was a few minutes before he could hear the voices approaching.

“Faye Faye!” one chirped. “Faye Faye heading to the shack shack.”

“Would you shut it?” the other hissed. Definitely a female voice. There was something else – too quiet for Spike to catch – and then silence. A moment later, a knock at the door.

“Hello!” the woman said in a cheerful voice. Spike opened one eye, peering down to the door, where she stood: purple hair, golden shorts, a bright red jacket barely grasped in her hand that looked as if it had been dragged through the entire desert. “We seem to be a little lost, would you be able to help us?”

“Sure,” Spike drawled, opening both eyes now. “The town’s back that way.” He jerked a thumb.

The woman’s cheerful expression flattened and she rolled her eyes. “I know that much. We came from that direction.”

“Well, where’re you headed?” Jet asked, switching off the hob. The woman glanced behind her, almost unsure.

“We’re… hunting for something.”

“A person?” Spike asked.

The woman shook her head. “Not a bounty, if that’s what you’re getting at. It’s…”

“Treasure!” cried a voice from behind her. The woman winced.

“Not really-”

“Edward and Faye Faye on a treasure hunt,” the voice confirmed. Spike raised his eyebrows as a head popped through the door – messy ginger hair, googles dangling from their neck.

“Is that so?” Spike asked. He sat up. He was pretty convinced that there were no forms of treasure out in the desert, but they wouldn’t be out there for nothing, would they? Especially not a girl like that. Not a girl who looked as if she would rather die than leave civilisation.

“What sort of treasure?” Jet added.

“The magical kind!” Edward replied. The woman – Faye Faye – rolled her eyes. Clearly, she didn’t believe their treasure was magic.

“We’re just here to ask if you’ve seen anything,” Faye Faye said. “Or, you know, if you could part with any food. Ed said it would be closer than this, so we packed light.”

Spike and Jet shared a look – one which held a whole conversation in a second. Spike was sure that his look was saying No, Jet, we don’t have the supplies for this – but all Jet said was “got any cash?”

Faye Faye pulled her card from her pocket, and Jet nodded.

“The more the merrier.”

Spike groaned and Faye Faye stepped further into the shack, and Ed bounded through the doorway, seemingly interested in every little thing – Jet’s well-read books on the shelves, the gun on the desk, the single photo of a blonde woman stuck into the corner of a larger photo frame with a picture of Jet’s ex-police squad. Then the third figure entered, and just like Spike had thought – these two loons brought their dog on a treasure hunt with them.

“That better not shit in my house,” Spike muttered, watching the corgi plod around the room.

“It’ll add to the rustic décor,” the woman said, waving a hand. With the other, she pressed her card against Jet’s machine, and money passed through. Jet nodded and went to serve up dinner.

“Ein is very house trained,” Ed told Spike. “Ein poos outside, outside, not inside.”

“So the dog’s Ein,” Jet prompted.

“I’m Faye – Faye Valentine – and the other one is Ed. She’s a bit too enthusiastic for my taste.”

She?” Spike questioned, frowning at the child who had taken a seat on the floor on the other side of the make-shift coffee table.

“Edward is a girl,” Ed confirmed.

“And Edward also speaks in third person?”

“You get used to it,” Faye replied.

Jet settled the dishes on the table, introducing he and Spike as he went. Spike kept his mouth shut about how small the portions were when they were feeding five instead of two. Instead, he ate in silence, while the others talked.

“So you’re searching for treasure,” Jet said. “How’d that happen?”

“Headaches,” Faye replied, sat cross-legged on the floor next to Ed. “I started getting them a while back, then a couple strange dreams – I mistakenly told Ed about them, who decided we should search for them.”

“Search for the dreams?”

She nodded.

“What were they of?”

Faye turned her attention to her food, obviously not wanting to answer, but Ed was oblivious.

“Faye Faye dreams about blue lions,” she said. Spike frowned. That sounded vaguely familiar – though he couldn’t figure out how. “Edward makes a machine that registers energy readings, see?” She unclipped a box from Ein’s collar, and Jet raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“You made that?”

Ed nodded. “Edward is very good with technology. Edward knows that Spike Spiegel and Jet Black live in a shack in the desert. Edward knows that if the desert is too big, the shack would be a good place to rest.”

As if she had said nothing at all, Ed went back to eating. Spike stared at Jet, who in turn stared at the child.

“She’s harmless,” Faye told them, as if they were overreacting.

Edward killed a fly once,” Ed whispered to herself, and Spike cracked half a smile at the half joke.

“So,” Jet continued, trying to get back on topic. “You’re on a search for blue lions-”

“Blue lion,” Faye interrupted. “Singular.”

“Right.” He nodded. “And you’re using an energy reader to find it… why?

“Why not,” Faye replied. “When you have that gut feeling, you’ve got to follow it.”

Spike froze. Jet hesitated.

“A gut feeling usually isn’t in your head,” Jet said.

Faye tapped her temple. “A gut feeling can be wherever it wants to be.”

Somehow, that sealed it. Somehow, Spike and Jet found themselves tagging along to find the blue lion. Somehow, Spike remembered the flash of a red one from a dream he’d had not so long ago.

--

The sunset still had a few hours left to it, as the four of them and Ein traipsed across the desert sand, Ed leading the way with her machine in hand. Spike began to regret the decision almost immediately, despite the pain in his head returning.

It was probably just a coincidence. There were no lions out in the desert – especially not ones that would be found by an energy reader of all things. At one point, Ed started to explain the science of using the reader, but Spike interrupted with a game of I Spy, which kept her busy for almost half an hour, because he didn’t have anything in mind, and said no to whatever she suggested the answer could be.

The shadows were long and dark, and Spike’s shoes were not made for walking through the desert. Sure, he did it once or twice a week to go into town – but that was a thirty minute walk at best, not this, which seemed to be turning into hours. Luckily, they were walking with their sun on their left, not in front, which kept him from complaining every twenty seconds about going blind.

They were all slumped within an hour of walking, and by two, Ein was whimpering for a break. Ed, however, was boundlessly enthusiastic, with small lulls of quiet every ten minutes to keep her energy up. She walked bare foot, her limbs flopping about as she walked, and asked lots of questions about anything she could think of.

“Why are you wearing a suit in the desert?”

“What happened to your arm?”

“Why can’t Edward smoke with you?”

“What’s the sun made of?”

“Why can’t Edward vote for the President of Mars?”

“Why do you live in the desert?”

Eventually, Spike had enough of saying why don’t you stop talking, and just let her speak over the thumping in his head. The thumping that got stronger with every mile. The thumping that could have been a headache, but Spike was almost definite was something more.

And then it happened.

“The reader! The reader!” Edward chirped. They were close to the mountain now – a strange rise of hills and rock, as if they stood at the bottom of a canyon. “The reader is reading!”

“Where does the reader say we should go?” Faye asked, peering over Ed’s shoulder.

“The reader says there’s lots of energy,” Ed replied. “It doesn’t say where Ed should go.”

Spike groaned. “Then why have we been following it then?”

Ed crouched and then crawled over to Ein, who somehow kept up with them through hours of walking.

“Ein will tell us.”

Spike felt like he’d been punched in the face. “The dog will tell us?”

“Ein will tell us.” Ed held out the reader for Ein, who sniffed it, then sniffed the air. After a moment, the dog started off towards the hills on the right.

“What’s going on?” Jet asked.

“Ein is data dog,” Ed replied. “Ein is very smart.” She bounded off after her dog, and the other three trailed behind, tired and worn from the journey that they were all absolutely regretting by this point.

“A data dog?” Spike asked.

“The dog’s brain is enhanced somehow,” Faye replied, shrugging. “The guy who stole it had a bounty. He died and the dog was classified as missing or dead, too. I could’ve made a killing on that thing if I sold it back to the owners.”

Spike watched the welsh corgi waddle along on its tiny legs. That was an expensive dog?

“Then why didn’t you?” he asked, incredulous.

“Sell off Ed’s best friend?” Faye questioned. “I may be cold and heartless, but I’m not cruel.

Ahead of them, Ein waddled into a cave, and Ed cheered.

“This way! This way!”

The three jogged to catch up to them, but Ed had already disappeared into the darkness.

--

“Ed, goddammit, will you wait up?” Faye asked, leading Jet and Spike into the cave. There was the faint sound of trickling water, and the heat instantly dissipated into a cool, barely-there breeze. Spike could barely see shit, but he kept going anyway. There was almost this tug in his head, like his instincts were telling him that he was on the right track.

They were thanking him for finally listening.

Spike let his fingertips drift along the wall, following at the back of the group.

“Ed has found nothing,” Ed said, waiting for them, half way down the tunnel. “But energy reader says something is here.”

“But what?” Faye muttered. She, like Spike, looked to the cave walls, and pressed her fingertips against them in thought. When Spike had done so, nothing happened, but now there was a burst of blue light, and a carving glowed a pale blue in the darkness.

“What the fuck,” Spike said.

“Language!” Ed called.

“What the frick,” Spike allowed.

It wasn’t just the one carving. It was another, glowing blue, and then another. The entire cave lit up in the light, as more carvings – each of lions, running, standing, sitting, fighting – glowed one after another. They lit up in the direction of the entrance, and then further into the cave, down the tunnel, towards that sound of running water.

“I think this is it,” Faye said.

“Would never have guessed,” Spike replied sarcastically. He noticed immediately the headache was gone however – his instincts had pulled him here, and now it was up to Spike to follow through on their idea.

“Let’s go,” Faye decided.

She led them through the cave, following the carvings on the walls, until they reached it.

The water, the dome of pure energy, the robotic blue lion the size of a fucking house.

“Christ almighty,” Jet breathed. Ein barked at it and Ed’s mouth formed an ‘o’, as she stood speechless. Spike felt his mouth dry, and was the first to reach it. His fingertips touched the energy dome – it felt like a wall, solid and firm, but completely see through, soft to touch.

A moment later, Faye reached out to touch it, too. Like before, with the carvings, the wall reacted to her: shrank back and vanished. The lion moved – it shifted, it stood, it roared, and Spike jumped back in surprise. Faye stayed still, watching in awe.

The yellow eyes of the lion shone, and he saw it – the red lion from that distant dream; the one he could barely grasp with his hands. Then there were others – a black one, green, yellow. Then a… man? Made of the lions? A weapon. A powerful weapon. Worth more than any bounty, any data dog. A word sounded in his head; booming, yet calm. It rang out over and over, this soft voice that shifted, sounded so familiar at times and so confusing at others. At one point, the voice sounded exactly like Julia. Another, Spike was sure that it was Vicious.

When it was said aloud, Spike’s head shot towards Jet. He must have seen it, too. He must have seen-

“Voltron.”

--

For the record, Faye Valentine was the worst pilot Spike Spiegel has ever seen. He thought he was going to die every second of the worst ride of his life, inside that massive magical space lion robot. From lift off, to the joy ride (Ed was screaming “weeeeeeee!” the entire way through), to the fucking wormhole, all the way to landing on the planet Arus, according to the dashboard of the lion head – a planet that humans couldn’t even reach yet, it was so far away.

He told her as such when they disembarked, and Jet threw up the space bush.

“You’re the worst pilot I’ve ever seen,” he said. Faye turned up her nose, with a “hmph”, and sauntered in the direction of the castle they’d landed at the front door of.

None of it made any sense, and he thought he should say as much.

“We’re on an alien planet,” he said. “With a magical blue lion, in front of a magical blue castle.”

“You don’t know it’s magical,” Jet commented.

“Magical castle!” Ed cried, grinning. She ran towards the door way, rolling when she stumbled yet still landing back on her feet like a seasoned professional.

“It’s magical,” Spike said.

“Where do you this it is, anyway?” Jet asked as they started walking along behind the others.

“The lion said Arus.”

“Besides that.”

Spike looked up at the lion, at the way it, now back in its energy bubble, stared resolutely ahead at the castle.

“I think it’s home,” he replied. “I think the lion brought us to its home.”

Jet huffed. “Beats the shack.”

--

So Spike Spiegel was standing in the castle, staring at the projection of the galaxy that had started up as they entered. Nearby, stood the three things he loathed: an animal (two if you included that robot lion), a child and a woman with an attitude, now smoking inside the magical castle.

This was not where he planned his day to go.

The castle was empty, no life inside or out. Just the castle itself, the one that lit the halls when they walked, and showed them another projection of five lions, ahead of them.

“What’s happening?” Faye whispered. No one replied, not when the first lion began to move. It was the blue one, and overhead, a voice – forever changing, sounding like everyone Spike ever knew, ever cared for, ever wished the Syndicate would just leave in peace.

The lions choose their pilots. It is a mystical bond and cannot be forced. The blue lion needs a paladin with a good heart, and an adventurous character.

Spike watched Faye’s expression. She seemed almost… touched that the magical voice had said such a thing about her, as the lion stopped by her side. Spike wondered what voice she’d heard.

The green lion has an inquisitive nature, and needs a pilot of intellect and daring.

The holographic green lion floated until it stopped in front of Ed, who stared at it with wide eyes. Then she giggled, jumped a little on the spot, and clapped for herself.

“Ed has a lion! Ed has a lion!”

The black lion is the decisive head of Voltron, and needs a paladin who is a natural born leader, someone who is calm and collected in the face of danger.

Spike watched as the lion moved in a straight line towards Jet. Spike felt in the pit of his stomach that the lion made the right choice. He would follow Jet into a thousand battles.

The voice spoke again, and at first, it sounded a lot like Vicious – but without warning, it switched to the familiar tone of Julia, fighting for control of Spike’s mind.

The red lion is the fastest of the lions. It is temperamental, and its paladin will be one who relies more on instinct than skill alone.

Spike barely heard the words, just listened to the lull of Julia’s voice. The lion stopped in front of him, and he let out an exhale through his nose. The red lion. Figures. The colour red followed Spike everywhere; the dragon that curled around his rib cage and pulled him in, guns blazing, comrades in a war on the streets; the blood that followed in his wake, on his skin, on the ground, stained from the soles of his shoes.

It figures that his lion would be red.

Spike took a deep breath – they’d all been given a lion. What did this mean? Was he, what, a paladin now? Was he supposed to be using these lions – these weapons – to fight crime?

Still, the voice kept talking, and he frowned, because they all had a lion, there were no more paladins left.

The yellow lion is caring and kind. It’s pilot’s heart must be mighty.

The image of the yellow lion floated across the room, and landed in an empty space next to Ed.

“Ein!” she cried. “Ein is the yellow paladin! Yellow! Yellow!”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Faye muttered.

“The dog is a pilot,” Spike said. “The dog.

“Is it just me,” Jet said. “Or does a dog being a pilot make this all a little cheaper?”

Faye snorted, sending a sideways glance at Ein. “Just a little.”

Ein barked, and Ed rubbed her head.

“Good dog! Good pilot!”

The voice continued despite its decision.

Together, the lions form Voltron, the mightiest weapon in the universe.

The images all moved to the centre to form Voltron, and Spike took a breath.

As the paladins, you will fight to keep the universe safe, and keep this weapon from the hands of those who wish to use it for evil.

The light show finished, the holograms disappeared, and they looked around at each other.

“Where are the other lions then?” Faye asked. “I have mine. Where are yours?”

Silence, and then Jet moved forward, to the dash of blinking lights and buttons. He tapped around until something seemed to click, and a screen flickered into being.

“I think they’re scattered,” he said. “The black lion is here in the castle – but it can only be reached when the other four lions are present.”

“And where-”

“I think there’s a more pressing issue,” Spike interrupted. Faye shot him a glare. “Like, what are we going to do with these lions?

“Weren’t you listening?” Faye spat. “We’re fighting evil and all that.”

“Fighting evil. Right. What evil? What force is trying to take the lions, huh?”

Ed flung herself forward into a hand stand, and walked on her hands to the desk. There, she flipped upright, and tilted her head at the screen. She pulled her goggles from around her neck to over her eyes, and started tapping at the machine. Spike had never seen a computer like it before, but Ed didn’t seem to care – it was all the same to her.

“The computer will scan for the biggest threat,” she announced. “And Voltron will fight it! Voltron will keep the universe safe.”

Jet glanced back at Spike.

“It’s not a bad idea,” he said. “You know, to be the paladins. It’s not like it’s a worse idea than hanging out in the desert of Mars.”

“Yeah, don’t you want a little adventure, Spike?” Faye asked, almost taunting. “Don’t you want to be the good guy?”

Spike had never been the good guy. He didn’t really think this was the time to start.

Just as he was opening his mouth to say as much, Ed cheered.

“Computer found enemy! Voltron has an enemy!”

“And who might that be?” Faye asked.

“Computer says Red Dragon!”

Spike paused. “The Red Dragon Crime Syndicate?”

Ed nodded. “Red Dragon! Led by the evil Vicious! Vicious has sent out a bounty for the lions!”

“Vicious is gonna use the lions to take over the galaxy, then?” Jet asked. Ed nodded.

“Looks that way! Looks that way!”

Faye and Jet turned back to Spike then. Faye watched with a hint of curiosity, and Jet all sternness. He knew what the Red Dragon meant for Spike. And Spike knew that he had two options when it came to Vicious: he could run, stay dead, give up the red lion and the freedom of the universe to that asshole, or he could take his goddamn lion and kill the son of a bitch.

When he thought about it like that, it was an easy decision.

“Let’s go protect the universe,” he said, then frowned. “How are we supposed to get to the other lions if we only have one.”

“Castle is a ship!” Ed declared. “Ship! Ship! Ship!”

“Really, now?” Jet asked, and pressed a few buttons on the dashboard. A name came up in block letters, and Spike raised his eyebrows.

“The Castle of Lions?” he asked. “Weak.”

“That’s such a bad name,” Faye agreed.

“Bad name, bad name,” Ed chanted.

Ein barked.

Jet laughed, and tapped at the buttons again. “I agree. We can’t go around in a ship called the Castle of Lions. We’ll get laughed out of the galaxy.”

Spike was in a room with the three things he loathed: animals, children and women with attitudes. But that room had also presented him with an opportunity: to defeat Vicious, to take down the Syndicate, to find Julia, to – surprisingly – protect the universe. They were all things he could do.

Jet deleted the name of the castle, and grinned.

“Here’s to the future,” he said. “And to being the new defenders of the universe.”

 

NEW NAME: BEBOP