Chapter 1: "Pilot Error"
"What did you say?" she asked Lance.
"Keith couldn't take it. Don't blame him, really. I'm pretty intimidating," Lance said, pleased to have an audience.
"No, about Kerberos," Pidge said.
Lance frowned, mentally running through what he'd just said. "Uh... Keith was at the Kerberos launch? He knew one of the people on the mission. Made him think he's a big deal, but where is he now?" He threw his arms wide.
"I don't know," Pidge said. "Where?"
"I don't know," Lance admitted. "I just know where he isn't, and that's here, because he got booted out."
"When did that happen?"
"Right before you got here," Lance said. "Look, the guy's got talent, everyone knows that, but he'd plateaued," he held his hand flat at the level of his eyes, "and I was gaining on him-" he tilted his hand upward.
Pidge tuned him out again. She had her own thoughts to mull over. Keith had been at the launch. So what? Nothing went wrong at the launch. She'd been over the files a dozen times. Whatever had happened had happened after the ship landed on Kerberos. This Keith guy probably didn't have any information and she didn't have time to sit around boosting the ego of another Lance. She made a small note and moved on.
A couple of weeks later, after two hours of logging radio transmissions that were barely distinguishable from white noise to the naked ear, she went through her files again, hoping that something, anything might stand out as a clue. She stopped on the photo of Kerberos crew and this time, instead of looking at her father and brother, she stared at the tall, brown-haired man with an easy smile. Takashi Shirogane, the pilot.
With a few keystrokes, she brought up the launch photos shot by the official Garrison photographer. She'd been too busy saying goodbye to Matt and her dad to notice anyone else, but now she saw that Officer Shirogane didn't have any family there to see him off, just a couple of fellow officers from the Garrison and one cadet in orange and white, with floppy black hair and violet eyes. Shirogane had his hand on the boy's shoulder and the boy - well, Pidge thought if she'd been standing next to him at the time, they'd have looked very the same. Proud, and excited, and very near to bursting into tears now that the moment had come to say goodbye.
He deserved to know the truth. It didn't matter if he could help her. He needed to know it wasn't pilot error.
Finding his school record wasn't difficult since she had already hacked the Garrison database. She checked Lance's classes for the previous semester and there was only one Keith. She pulled up his file.
Keith had no family. His father was deceased and there was no mention of his mother. Prior to the Garrison, he'd lived at a youth home. She clicked on Disciplinary Actions in order to see what he'd been kicked out for, and gave a low whistle. "Wow, you're not a people person, are you." The question wasn't why he'd been kicked out, it was why he'd been allowed to stay. He had to have someone speaking up for him. Maybe Shirogane.
While Keith's file was a surprisingly interesting read, it didn't tell her where he was now. He was eighteen, so he hadn't been sent back to the youth home. His name wasn't on any house or apartment leases locally, though that could be because he was renting a room or subletting. There weren't any employment records listing his name. He did have a bank account with some money he'd inherited from his father, which was likely what he was living on. She followed that trail and finally got a lead; bank records said he usually did his shopping in town on Sunday evenings. Most people at the Garrison returned to their dorms and apartments around then, so the town was quiet.
The next Sunday evening, Pidge bought a smoothie and planted herself on the patio of the cafe across from the grocery store. She sipped it as she skimmed through classwork and kept a sharp eye out for Keith. When she saw him go into the store, she packed up her laptop and waited for him outside.
Keith left the store walking briskly and Pidge hurried to catch up with him. "Hi," she said. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
"I don't want to buy cookies and I'm not signing any petitions," Keith said, not looking at her. He increased his pace and she had to break into a jog to keep up with him.
"That's not what - slow down!" she panted. "I want to talk to you about the Kerberos mission!"
He swung around and stopped abruptly, blocking her path. "Why?" he asked. He was coiled, tense, like a snake ready to strike if she made the wrong move.
Pidge skidded to a halt. "Because it wasn't a crash and I'm trying to prove it."
He folded his arms over his chest. "If you're one of those nuts that thinks the whole thing was faked-"
"I'm not!" Pidge protested. "I don't! I was at the launch! I'll explain, but can we sit down somewhere? It's a lot."
"Who are you?" Keith asked.
"I'm Pidge. Holt." she said. "Sam and Matt Holt are my father and brother."
He narrowed his eyes and looked her over, then nodded. "Okay."
Keith packed his groceries (mostly protein bars and energy drinks) in the back of his hoverbike and they went to a pizza place. They got a table in the back and went through the motions of ordering pizza and sodas. When the waiter left, Keith leaned in and said, "Explain.”
"When I saw the report that said pilot error caused the crash, it didn't make sense," Pidge said. "Takashi Shirogane is the best pilot in the Garrison. It's why my dad picked him." Keith nodded, lips tight. "I thought maybe there'd been a hardware failure and that's what they were trying to cover up. But look!" She tugged her laptop out of her bag, ignoring when the bag fell over and a few pencils spilled out. She snapped the computer open and pulled up a video file. "Look!" she said, jabbing her finger at the screen.
Keith shook his head. "I don't see anything."
"Exactly!" she said, a louder than intended. She glanced around quickly and lowered her voice. "That's the crash site. Look at the datestamp."
Keith did. His eyes widened. He grabbed the laptop and twisted it towards himself so he could get a better look. "There wasn't a crash," he said.
"No," Pidge said.
"It wasn't Shiro's fault?" His voice was quiet, desperate.
"No," Pidge said.
Keith ran his hands over his face and when he looked at her again, his eyes were damp. "We need to tell someone," he said.
"I tried!" Pidge wailed. "No one will listen to me. And there's more."
"What?" Keith asked.
"I think they're alive," Pidge said, lowering her voice again. "I think they've been kidnapped."
"Alive?" Keith looked like he'd been punched. He sucked in a breath. "How? We all saw them get into the ship."
"I know," Pidge said. "This is going to sound nuts, but I think they were kidnapped after they got to Kerberos."
"Yeah, that does sound nuts," Keith said, but he frowned, considering it. "You're saying aliens kidnapped them."
"Yes," Pidge said. “I've built a radio and I'm receiving frequencies that are not coming from Earth."
"My dad used to say there was more outside this world then anyone knew,” Keith said, mostly to himself. “How can I help?" he asked Pidge.
"I don't think there's anything you can do," Pidge said. "I just thought you should know it wasn't pilot error."
"Thank you," Keith said softly. He started to say something, hesitated, frowned, and plunged forward. "I found something in the desert."
Pidge blinked. "Aliens?"
"No," Keith said firmly, then, "I don't know. Maybe."
"As long as you're certain," Pidge said dryly.
"After I was kicked out of the Garrison, I felt... lost, I guess, but something drew me out to the desert. It lead me to some cave paintings," Keith said.
"Cave paintings?" Pidge said. "That's pretty cool, but I don't see what it has to do with anything."
"I've read up on archeological studies of this area and they're nothing like the other primitive art locally," Keith said.
"So you're thinking aliens," Pidge said, her voice heavy with skepticism.
Keith glared at her. "I wasn't, until now. But they're there for a reason. I must be drawn to them for a reason. If this is happening after the Kerberos mission, maybe that's for a reason, too."
"Can I see them?" Pidge asked.
Keith nodded. "When do you have a few hours free?"
"Not until Saturday," Pidge said.
"Around ten? I'll pick you up?" Keith suggested.
"It's a plan," Pidge said. She offered her hand and Keith shook it.
"These are amazing," Pidge breathed. She touched the head of a lion, then looked up at the other carvings around her. “What’s that? Some kind of single-cell organism?” She pointed at a circle with a jagged pattern around the edge and lines radiated off it.
“The sun?” Keith suggested, his voice uncertain. “Like a robot version?”
“A robot sun,” Pidge said. She gave him a skeptical look.
“Or a regular sun,” Keith defensively. “I’m not an art expert.” They both studied the circle for a minute. “It’s a portal,” Keith said finally. “Look at the lions flying around it.”
Pidge nodded. She took out her data pad and snapped pictures. “These must be centuries old. Can you imagine if someone had wormhole technology before we even invented the wheel? There must be so much we can learn from them!”
"I've got more information back at my place,” Keith said. “Mostly maps, some photos, and a lot of notes."
"Can I see?" Pidge asked.
"Um, yeah, I guess," Keith said. "Come on."
They mounted the hoverbike and Keith turned it west. It was beautiful out in the open desert and the wind whipped Paige's hair around. She took a deep breath, enjoying the air away from the musty, people-thick air of the dorms and the synthetic processed air of the simulators. Just the dust and the sage and the - the skunk. She coughed. Yeah, that was a skunk. But they passed it quickly. She wondered if she could learn to drive one of these.
"I usually take a shortcut," Keith called back to her.
"Okay," she said.
"Hold on," he said.
"Wait, what?" Pidge asked. She grabbed him around the waist.
"Trust me!" he yelled, and they plunged over a cliff.
She screamed."You're going to kill us!"
He pulled the hoverbike up smoothly just before they would have hit the ground and kept on going.
"What was that?!" Pidge gasped.
Keith glanced back and gave her a smug grin. "Little trick I learned from Shiro." He parked the bike beside a small cabin and offered her a hand to help her dismount. She felt shaky from the adrenaline rush, but was glad to see that her hand was steady.
"Come on, I'll show you what I've got," Keith said.
What he had was a wall full of maps and other information, with photos connected to the location they'd been taken by colored yarn. "What do the colors mean?" Pidge asked, running her finger along a red one.
"Oh, I just used what I had handy," Keith said.
"You didn't color code," Pidge said, trying to keep the judgement out of her voice.
"I didn't plan to show it to anyone else," Keith said.
Pidge put her hands on her waist and frowned at his wall. "How often do you hear things?"
"I don't hear them, I feel them," Keith said. "And... all the time. It's like something's pulling at me."
"The aliens?" Pidge asked.
"You're the one who said aliens," Keith reminded her.
"The lions look like robots," Pidge mused. She tapped her finger against her chin. "You're being psychically drawn to cave drawings of a robot lion?"
"You listen to aliens on your radio," Keith snapped.
Pidge lifted her hands defensively. "Just trying to make sure I have accurate data." She turned around to look at Keith. More accurately, Keith's forehead.
Keith raised his eyes and touched his forehead. "What?"
"Maybe I could measure your brainwaves!" She grinned, dashed over to her backpack and started pulling out equipment.
"Wait, no, hold on-" Keith protested.
"It's totally safe. I’ll show you by using it on me first. I have to calibrate it anyway." She examined her supplies. "Hm. Do you have any suction cups? And rubber gloves? Oh, something to hold it all together on your head. A colander? Not metal, though." She examined a battery. "No, too much power. Do you have a potato?" she asked brightly.
An hour later, Keith and Pidge were sitting on the floor in the living room. Pidge put the contraption on her head. It started to slide down her face, so she taped it to the side of her head with electrical tape. Keith looked at her and sighed. "Yeah, we're all sane here."
"Hey, psychic robot lion boy, this is science. Where's the potato?" He handed it to her. She plugged two wires into it and typed on her laptop. "Okay," she said, after a few minutes. "There's our control data. Your turn."
Keith eyed the device with a great deal of suspicion, but he gently took it off Pidge's head and placed it on his own. Pidge adjusted a few wires that had come loose with the movement. "What do I do?" Keith asked.
"Think about your lions. See if you can tap into what's coming into your brain. Focus," Pidge said.
Keith closed his eyes. "Patience yields focus," he murmured, and his brow creased with pain.
"Okay," Pidge said, after a few minutes. Her voice was strange. "Let's try it again."
"Why, what's wrong?" Keith asked, opening his eyes.
"Probably nothing," Pidge said. "Clear your mind this time. Don't think about anything."
Keith closed his eyes. "I think that's impossible."
"Think of something mundane, then. Try counting."
Keith counted under his breath. "One, two, three, four, five, six..."
Pidge frowned at her laptop. "Okay," she said after a few minutes. "You can take it off now."
Keith did, setting it aside carefully. "What's happening?" he asked.
Pidge hesitated. "This is not my area of expertise. It's possible I did this wrong."
"What is it?" Keith asked.
Pidge turned the laptop screen toward him. "Here's your scan," she said, then hit a key, "and here's my scan overlaying it. Your brain is running at a different frequency than mine. I don't think you're hearing - feeling - aliens. I think you're sensing something I can't. Like a dog whistle."
"Is that bad?"
"Probably not?" Pidge didn't sound certain. "There's some variation with different brains. I bet someone at the Garrison would know more. I can ask around."
"No." Keith looked at the chart on the screen. "What does it mean?"
"It means whatever you're feeling, it's real. You didn't just stumble on some ancient graffiti. Something's calling you."
"Who? What?" Keith asked. "Why?"
"I don't know!" Pidge said. She threw up her hands. "Maybe you're an alien." Keith glared at her. "Joke, jeez." She sighed and flicked the screen off. "It still doesn't help me find my family." She flopped back on the rug and stared up at the ceiling.
"Or Shiro," Keith reminded her.
"Or Shiro," Pidge said, then sat up. “Let’s start with a technology upgrade.”
"What am I doing with this?" Keith asked, looking at the radio parts on the table.
"Attach the wires," Pidge said. "Red goes to red, green goes to green-"
"Got it," Keith said, and set to work. "You really think you'll be able to hear the aliens over this?"
"Should be," Pidge said. "I'm receiving data frequencies already. This should boost the signal so we can hear any verbal messages." She had her soldering iron set up on Keith's coffee table and was soldering circuits into place. He sat across from her, connecting wires.
"Iverson mentioned you again yesterday," Pidge said.
"Did he," Keith said flatly.
"Did you really punch him?" she asked.
Keith twisted a blue wire into place. "Yes."
"Because of what he says about the Kerberos mission?"
"I wish I could punch him when he starts in on that," Pidge grumbled.
Keith eyed her. "Have you ever thrown a punch?"
"No," she said. "But it can't be that hard."
"Stand up," Keith said. "Come over here." She did. The tiny living room didn't have much open space, but there was room by the door, away from the coffee table. Keith held up his hand, palm out. "Hit my hand," he instructed.
Pidge hesitated. "I don't want to hurt you."
"You won't," Keith said. "Hit my hand."
Pidge bit her lip, then swung her right fist at Keith. She missed his hand and clipped him in the ear. Keith yelped and cupped his ear with his hand.
Pidge threw her hands over her mouth. "Ohmygosh! I'm so sorry!"
"I'm okay." Keith smiled and held up his hand again. "Hit me." This time she socked him lightly in his palm. "Better," he said. "But you need to put your thumb outside your fingers, or you could break your thumb." He held up his fist to demonstrate. Pidge moved her thumb. "Good. Now, you have to move your arm straight forward. If you swing wide, they'll see you coming and have time to duck or block." He showed her how to strike and she practiced until she could push his hand back a few inches. "You need to hit harder," Keith said. "The dorm gyms have punching bags. You can practice there."
"How'd you learn to fight?" Pidge asked.
Keith shrugged. "Kids picked on me, so I taught myself." He sat down at the coffee table again.
"And they stopped picking on you?" Pidge went back to her circuit board.
"No," Keith said. "But I punched them when they did." He twisted the last two wires in place. "I think I'm done."
"Let me see it," Pidge said. She leaned over and prodded a few wires. "That should work. As soon as this solder's cool, I'll assemble it." She blew on the solder. "I don't think I'm actually going to punch Iverson. I want to be able to enroll under my own name when my dad and brother are back."
"I bet they'd let you in if your dad insisted," Keith said. "You know he was the one that convinced Admiral Sanda to make Shiro the pilot for the Kerberos mission?"
"I didn't know that," Pidge said. "Why wouldn't she want him to be the pilot? Shiro's a legend!"
Keith hesitated. "She had doubts about him," he said. "Your dad never did."
"Do you blame my dad?" Pidge asked, tensing.
"No!" Keith exclaimed. "This was Shiro's dream. I think if he'd known what would happen, he'd've done it anyway." He gave her a small smile. "You can't talk him out of anything once he sets his mind to it, and believe me, people have tried."
Pidge carefully touched the solder. It had cooled and solidified. She started assembling the radio. "You know you can reapply to the Garrison next year?"
Keith shook his head.
"You can," Pidge insisted. "You've only got a category 2 expulsion. You could pass the written and the flight tests, couldn't you? My dad would write you a recommendation when he gets back. I know he would."
"No," Keith said. "Iverson's the one who expelled me, so he has to approve my application and that will never happen." He sat back on the rug and pulled his knees to his chest.
"Don't you want to fly?" Pidge asked.
"More than anything," Keith said, his voice rough. He closed his eyes and lowered his chin for a moment, then shook his head with a jerk. "I guess I could fly passenger jets or something.” Pidge thought of the cliff dive and suspected that Keith would be a poor choice for commuter planes. “Let's just get Shiro home and find out what the lions mean.”
Pidge nodded. "Okay." She tightened the last screw on the radio, connected it to her laptop and turned it on. It let out a burst of static. Pidge lowered the volume and started typing on her computer. The radio blipped through different tones of static. Keith frowned, watching the tiny lights on the radio.
"Wait!" he said, holding up his hand. "Go back two channels." She did. Tapping quickly on her keyboard, she brought the sound up. It wasn't just tones and pulses anymore. There were voices. Keith and Pidge shared a smile. "Can you make it clearer?" Keith asked.
Pidge tapped again. They could hear the rhythm of speech, now, murmurs broken into syllables and consonants, but static rolled over it, knocking even these sounds out of range. "No," she groaned. "Come on!" Keith watched as she pulled up another software program and split the audio. “Okay, this should isolate the speech.” They watched the progress bar and Pidge clicked Play when it finished.
The result was static-free, but still garbled speech. Pidge dropped back against the couch and let out an exasperated shout.
Keith rubbed his hand over his face. "Okay," he said in a measured voice. "What's wrong? What do we need to fix?"
"There's not enough range!" Pidge said. She glared furiously at her computer screen. "If I had the frequencies from the Kerberos mission, I might be able to make this work, but they're only in the flight records and those are part of a closed system. I'd have to get physical access, but they've got heavy security on the airfield and I'll never get by!" She threw up her hands.
Keith thought this over for a moment. "What about the satellite dishes on the South Tower. Could you wire up to those?"
"Yeah, if I could fly," Pidge said, with heavy sarcasm.
"I can get you there," Keith said.
"We can't take the hoverbike into the airfield. The guards would shoot us down and ask questions later," Pidge said.
"No, there's a maintenance ladder on the back. I- I go up there sometimes to watch the shuttles launch."
"Really?" Pidge frowned. "I could clone a badge and attach your photo to it. That'd get you on base."
Keith nodded. "We shouldn't have any trouble getting from the student dorms to the South Tower. When do you want to do it?"
"Tomorrow night," Pidge said firmly. "The sooner, the better."
Chapter 2: A Mean Right Hook
Keith met Pidge just outside of the Garrison, where she slipped him the ID. He kept his face away from the guards when they went through the gate and pretended to make small talk with Pidge, but the guards barely looked at him.
They went by the dorms first. Keith flipped up the hood of his sweatshirt and lurked in the shadows while Pidge got her equipment, then they walked quickly toward the airfield while trying to blend in with the other students.
Keith lowered his head, letting his hood slip over his face. He quickened his pace. Pidge frowned at him, but sped up as well.
"Keith! Hey, Keith!" A man in a Garrison officer's uniform jogged toward him. Pidge nudged Keith with her elbow.
Keith grimaced, stopped, and turned around. He lowered his hood. "Hi, Adam."
"Good to see you," Adam said, smiling. "Did they let you back in?"
"No," Keith said, but didn't elaborate.
"He got a pass," Pidge said quickly. "'Cause he's helping with a project."
"Oh? What are you doing?" Adam asked Keith.
Keith shoved his hands in the pocket of his hoodie and shrugged. "Nothing interesting."
"I'd love to hear it anyway," Adam said.
Pidge looked between the two of them and said hastily, "We're still hashing out the details. And we should go do that. Now."
Adam nodded. "All right. Keith, keep in touch, okay?" He turned to walk away.
Keith watched him for a moment, then lowered his gaze, grimaced, and then, in a rough voice, said, "Adam, wait." Adam turned back. "It wasn't pilot error. Just... thought you should know that."
"I know," Adam said.
"You do?" Keith asked.
"You do?" echoed Pidge.
Adam nodded. "I don't know if he ever told you this, but Shiro had a disease-"
" No ," Keith growled.
"-and I think it was worse than he knew-"
"No!" Keith snapped, and heads turned. "It wasn't his fault. "
"Of course not," Adam said, his voice calm and level. "Even the doctors didn't realize-"
"The pilot didn't cause the crash!" Several passersby stopped to look at them. One man in a Garrison uniform started walking their direction.
"Keith!" Pidge grabbed his arm.
Keith yanked his arm out of her grip and shoved his hands deeper in his pockets. He gave Adam a death glare and stalked away. Pidge scrambled after him.
"You getting arrested is not part of the plan!" she snapped.
Keith glanced back at Adam, who was now talking quietly to the man who'd run over to him. "He won't turn me in," Keith said dully.
"Let's hope so," Pidge shifted her backpack strap. "You ever consider anger management classes?"
"Tried that," Keith said. "Got kicked out." He lead them to the right.
"What's your problem with that guy?" Pidge asked.
"He's Shiro's ex," Keith said. "He came over to see me right before I got kicked out. Tried to give me a pep talk."
Keith glared at her. "He was trying to be Shiro. There's only one Shiro." He turned left and guided her around the bottom of the South Tower.
"Okay, here's the tower. Where's the ladder?" Pidge looked up at the building.
"Over here," Keith said.
"Uh." Pidge looked up at the end of the ladder, hanging out of reach above her head. "Again, I need to remind you that I don't fly."
"I'll boost you," Keith said.
"What about you?" she asked.
"I'll jump. Come on." Keith went down on one knee so Pidge could stand on his shoulders, then stood up slowly, keeping a tight grip on her ankles. She teetered, but grabbed the ladder and climbed up.
"Do you have enough space?" Pidge asked, once she was up a few feet.
"Yep," Keith said. He took a few steps back, made a running jump, and caught the bottom of the ladder. He hauled himself up and got his feet onto the bottom step. "Okay, this goes two stories up, then there's a wide ledge on the right. We'll go around the corner, and then there's another ladder that goes directly up the rest of the way."
"Got it," Pidge said, and started climbing. When she reached the ledge, she discovered it was just wide enough for them to walk side-by-side. "I wish I'd known about this before. I wanted to watch the last Mars launch, but I couldn't see anything from the student section."
"It was awesome," Keith said. "Luciano's a clumsy pilot with small vehicles but he's brilliant with the big research shuttles. You've gone too far. It's here."
"What?" Pidge turned back. "Where?" Keith pointed to the wall and her eyes grew huge. "That's not a ladder! That's where someone's just... played darts with rebar, or something."
"It's a ladder," Keith said. "It's just... utilitarian."
Pidge put her foot on the lowest rung, which was less than a foot wide, and grabbed a rung above her with her left hand. She pulled herself up a step. It was a bit of a stretch for her short legs, but it was doable.
"Can you do it?" Keith asked.
"You're sure this is the only way?"
"Only way I know," Keith said.
Pidge sighed. "I can do it." She twisted to look down and wobbled as the weight of her backpack shifted. She gripped the rung above her with both hands, knuckles white. "Oh no!"
Keith stepped forward, ready to catch her if needed. "I can carry the backpack."
Pidge pried her fingers loose from the steps and climbed down.
"There's some delicate pieces in there, so try not to shake it." She carefully slipped the bag off her shoulders.
"I'll be careful," Keith promised.
"If something starts getting warm near the bottom of the bag, that's normal. But if something starts getting warm at the top of the bag, that's bad. Tell me if that happens."
"O-kay," Keith said. He slung the bag on his shoulders.
"If you have to drop it - don't drop it - but if you have to drop it, make sure you drop it somewhere with at least a ten foot safety radius," Pidge said. "No people, animals, bodies of water, or electrical equipment nearby."
Keith stared at her. "What do you have in here?"
"Science!" Pidge said. "Don't drop it." She looked up the ladder again and sighed. "Ho boy." She started climbing.
At the top was a ten-by-ten platform around a thick cluster of satellite dish and antenna cables, all strapped to a post in the center. The dishes themselves hummed overhead. Just outside the platform, the roof of the tower sloped down sharply. Pidge pulled herself up on the platform and looked around.
"There's a panel on the north side," Keith said. He climbed up after her. "It's set into the floor."
Pidge looked over there. "I see it," she said. Keith passed her the backpack very carefully. She knelt next to the panel and unscrewed it.
"Can you use it?" Keith asked, as she examined the insides with a flashlight.
"Yes!" she said. She sat down and started unpacking her gear. She shook out the wires and connected her laptop and radio to the panel.
"Can I help?" Keith asked.
Pidge shook her head and slid headphones over her ears.
"I'll just keep watch, then," Keith said. He sat with his back against the post and watched what was happening below. Without an upcoming launch, though, there wasn't much to see. Daily traffic was on the other side of the airfield, so this section was used mainly for construction and maintenance. The next moon shuttle was being assembled, but he knew that shuttle inside and out. He'd gotten perfect scores in all the cargo sims his first year at the Garrison. Keith gave up watching the airfield (they wouldn't be spotted on the platform unless they sent up flares) and laid down on his back to watch the stars.
He marked off the constellations in his head. Light pollution from the Garrison meant that many of the stars were hard to see. He'd taken astronomy classes at the Garrison's Observatory, but his favorite place to star-watch was out in the desert, where you could see every constellation and didn't have to jostle with other cadets to get a look.
He'd gone star-watching with Shiro a few times. They'd raced hoverbikes out to Keith's favorite spot and thrown down blankets so they could look up and see all the places they wanted to go. The last time, Shiro had spent most of the time talking about Kerberos and what that mission might mean for the future of space travel. At one point, Shiro had turned to him, his grin visible even in the starlight, and said, "And you'll go even further than me!"
Keith blinked until his eyes cleared and turned to see what Pidge was doing. She had the headphones clamped over her ears and was typing furiously. Periodically she'd stop and adjust some wires. Keith went back to looking at the stars and planets he'd never visit.
"Keith!" Pidge hissed. Keith sat up abruptly. He'd dozed off for a moment. "I got it!"
"You do? What do you have?" Keith asked.
"Frequencies!" Pidge said. "I've cloned all the radio settings from the Kerberos mission and I should be able to access the Garrison's outer solar system data. I've installed a Salazar-Willis box so I can tap into the tower remotely. Also I have an idea how to upgrade my power source so it's more stable." She tapped a brick-sized black box which glowed an orangish-green through the vents. To Keith's eye, it seemed to be pulsating.
"So it won't explode?" he asked.
"Oh, this one doesn't explode," Pidge said, packing up her bag.
"Oh," Keith said. "I thought-"
"It implodes ," Pidge said. "Sucks in everything around it. I'm not sure if it's sent to an alternate dimension or crushed into a cube so tiny it can't be seen by the naked eye." She zipped the bag shut and handed it to Keith. He held it at arms' length. "It'll be fine," she said brightly.
"Are you messing with me?" Keith asked.
"Welllll,” Pidge said carefully. “I might be overstating the risks a little.”
"So it won't implode or explode or whatever?"
"No,” Pidge admitted, “but it's super fragile and I had to steal some bits from Stawski's private supply closet, so please be really really careful with it?" she pleaded.
"I will," Keith said. "I promise."
They couldn’t get together again until the next weekend. It was a blazing hot Saturday, even for the desert, and Keith's concession to the weather was to leave off his jacket. He still wore a black tee, fingerless gloves, black tactical pants, and black boots when he picked her up. Pidge was wearing her lightest shorts and t-shirt.
"Aren't you hot?" she asked, wiping sweat off her forehead. Away from the shade of the Garrison, the sun baked the sand dry and the ground reflected the heat so it was like riding the hoverbike over a furnace.
"Heat doesn't bother me," Keith said. "Besides, the cabin's cool."
Relatively speaking, that was true. Objectively speaking, it was still pretty darn warm. Keith had a cooling unit mounted into the window, which rattled and chugged along, but didn't drop the temperature in the cabin more than a couple of degrees. Pidge laid out the parts for her new frequency receiver on the coffee table, pulled up the plan on her laptop and started assembling parts. A few minutes later, she got a bandana from Keith and tied it around her forehead to keep her sweat from dripping onto her circuit board.
"Can I help?" Keith asked.
"Almost done," Pidge said. She put the whole assembly together and tightened it down with screws. "Okay. Ready to go." She looked at Keith, who closed his book and put down the data pad. Pidge started up her program. The receiver flipped through different channels of white noise as she typed frantically away. The pitch rose, the static changed to a chirping noise, then evened out in a steady tone. Pidge stopped typing and frowned at the screen.
"That's it?" Keith said. "We did all that for nothing?"
"Not nothing." Pidge grinned. "Look." She turned the laptop so Keith could see what she was looking at. A stream of numbers ran across the screen.
"Numbers?" Keith asked. "What do they mean?"
"I have no idea!" Pidge said gleefully. "I'll record as much data as I can, then run them a decryption program - or maybe they're coordinates of some kind. Maybe we could go directly to them!"
Keith had his doubts, but Pidge's enthusiasm was catching. "Maybe," he said with a smile.
"Meanwhile, I'm going to fix this problem at the source!" She tugged the damp bandana off her forehead and wiped away the sweat on her nose. "Well, I guess the source would be the sun and the Earth's rotation, and the climate patterns, so not the source, but there's a factor here which can be controlled and I'm going to control it." She picked up her tools and marched towards the cooling unit.
"I've already fixed it," Keith said. "It's just old." But he didn't get up from his spot on the couch to try and stop her.
"I don't know how you're not dying," Pidge said. She knelt in front of the cooling unit and put her hand on the plug. "How long do I have?"
"Until the cabin heats up?" Keith asked. "Not long. Maybe ten minutes."
Pidge nodded grimly. "Then I better work fast." She yanked the plug out, unscrewed the front of the unit and started digging into the guts of the machine. She poked at something in the back. "Keith, when you fixed this, did you use duct tape?"
"Yeah," Keith said. He added defensively, "It works."
Pidge stared at him. "You've got the thermal line running right over the hydro port and did you even think about where you were putting the compound wires? Who taught you how to do this?"
Keith shrugged and folded his arms over his chest. "Taught myself."
"You're one bump away ionizing the core and blowing this cabin sky high!" Pidge said.
"Would it implode or explode?” Keith asked dryly.
She sighed. "Hand me my wire cutters. I'll defuse this thing and then we can go to town to get you replacement parts." She narrowed her eyes at him. "And a book on safe home repair."
The cabin was already stifling hot when Pidge finished. She checked that the laptop was still receiving numbers and they went out to the hoverbike.
The hardware store had all the necessary parts and Pidge did buy Keith a book, though he rejected her original suggestion. "I'm a little old for My First anything."
"It's all ages." Pidge grinned and showed him the book, then flipped it open. "See? Pictures! This is the hydro port-"
He snatched the book from her hand and put it back on the shelf. "I didn't actually blow anything up."
"Thanks to me," Pidge said. She looked over the books and picked out a general guide to home repair. "This one's got pictures, too." She showed Keith the technical diagrams embedded into the small text.
Keith looked at it. "That works."
Pidge insisted on paying for it and handed it to him when they left the store. "Know it, use it, love it," she said, thrusting it into his hands.
"You have a very strange relationship with electronics," Keith said. He put it in the bag with the cooling unit parts.
"Not that strange," Pidge said. "My dad and Matt are the same way." She was quiet for a moment. Keith looked over at her, but didn't speak. "When Matt's here, I'm not the weird kid," she said quietly. "I mean, I am, I always am, but with Matt around, it doesn't matter." She glanced up at Keith. "You know?"
"Yeah," Keith said softly. "Everyone at school thought I was an unstable juvenile delinquent. Shiro was the only one that believed in me." He hunched his shoulders and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Wanna get some ice cream?"
The town's ice cream shop had space-themed flavors in honor of the nearby Garrison. Keith got Saturn Swirl (butterscotch ice cream with caramel swirl) and Pidge got Lunar Landing (cheesecake flavor with creme brulee bits). They ate it on the patio under an umbrella, where they caught a bit of the breeze flowing through the town square. The breeze was dry and scorching hot and the town square felt like an oven, but they had some shade and wasn't a bad place to eat ice cream.
"They had a Kerberos Crunch just before the launch," Keith said.
"I remember," Pidge said. "Matt and I got some. Chocolate with some kind of nuts."
Keith nodded. "Shiro and I got some. The shop owner recognized him and insisted on giving us our ice cream for free." He licked his ice cream. "People recognized him a lot. He said he didn't mind talking to people and taking photos and stuff, but sometimes I wished he'd tell them to go away." He glared at a drip of ice cream that slid down the side of his cone. He waited until it had nearly reached his hand before he licked it.
"Still," Pidge said. "Free ice cream."
Keith shrugged. "It wasn't that good." Then he heard a familiar voice.
"Keith? What are you doing here?" It wasn't a friendly voice. James walked up to the table, accompanied by a friend Keith didn't know.
Keith looked up at his former classmate. "I'm eating ice cream," he said slowly, for emphasis. "Ice. Cream." He pointed at his snack.
"Just leave him alone," Pidge snapped.
"Look out for this guy, kid," James said. "He thinks he's a hot shot because he cozied up to Shiro." He looked back at Keith. "Must've been a shock to realize you couldn't hack it without him holding your hand."
"Go. Away," Keith said. He ate a bite of ice cream, but kept his eyes on James.
"Is that why you're still hanging around?" James asked. "Trying to find another officer you can latch onto? I don't think you'll find another sucker like Shiro-"
Keith lunged at James and Pidge jumped between them. Their ice cream cones hit the ground. "Pidge, move," Keith said.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Pidge said.
"It never is. Just move ," Keith growled.
"My aunt was on the shortlist to pilot the Kerberos mission," James said coldly. "If she’d been flying the ship, there wouldn't be three frozen bodies floating out-"
POW. James staggered back, hand against his cheek, staring at Pidge in astonishment. Keith stared at her too, mouth open. Pidge shook her hand and mouthed ow! at Keith. James recovered and stepped forward, fist clenched, but he hesitated, looking down at Pidge.
"Man, he's pretty small," James's friend said.
Keith stepped forward to stand side-by-side with Pidge. "Take a swing," he said, in a rough, dark voice.
James stared at them both, then clenched his jaw. "Next time," he said to Keith, and he stalked away. His friend hurried to keep up with him.
"Ow!" Pidge turned to Keith. She held her right hand gingerly with the other. "You didn't say it would hurt this much!"
"Newton's Third," he reminded her. He lifted her hand and examined it. "You're fine. I'll get you some ice." His mouth quirked up at one side. "Can I leave you alone or are you going to get into another brawl?"
"Depends if he comes back." Pidge smiled. "That felt good. But I don't know what I would have done if he tried to hit me back."
"Dodge. Then hit him again," Keith said. "Repeat as needed. Do you want me to get us more ice cream?"
"I'll come with you," Pidge said. "I think I want to try Venus Vanilla."
They returned to Keith's cabin after they'd finished the ice cream. Pidge checked the radio, which was still spewing out numbers, and Keith sat down in front of the cooling unit with his tools and parts.
A few minutes later, Pidge came over to watch. "I've got it," Keith told her.
"I know," she said. "Oops, careful with that thermal wire on your left."
"I saw it," Keith said.
"Yeah, of course," Pidge said. She watched silently for a few moments, but when Keith reached for a tool, she couldn't help asking, "Are you sure you want to use a scale 34 for this?"
"I'm sure," Keith said.
"If you don't have a scale 36, I might have one in my bag," she said.
Keith turned to glare at her.
"You're doing a great job," she said hastily. But a few minutes later, she said, "You know, copper's not always the best-"
Keith clanked the scale 34 tool on the top of his toolbox.
"Go. Away," he said through clenched teeth. He jabbed a finger at the couch.
"Fine!" Pidge huffed. She went over to her laptop. When she wasn't looking, Keith swapped out the scale 34 for the scale 36.
He got the cooling unit working and Pidge sighed with relief when she felt the cool air brush over her.
"Okay," Keith said, once he'd put away his tools. He plopped down on the couch next to her and nodded at the laptop. "What've you got?"
"It's repeating," Pidge said. "That's good. A finite series of numbers will be easier to decrypt than an open ended series. I'll run it through my decryption software and see if I can get a hit. If not, there's a few other things I can do. I'll run the numbers through the Garrison's database to see if I get a hit on any of their data. I still think these could be coordinates."
Keith smiled. "So this is progress."
Pidge smiled back. "It is." She gave him a high five. "We'll bring them home in no time! We just gotta stay out of trouble until then."
Chapter 3: Moonshot
Pidge knew Keith was there while her hands were still on the ladder. She could hear the broadcast audio of the memorial dedication playing from his datapad. She didn't expect to climb onto the platform of the South Tower and see Keith with his knees pulled up to his chest, arms wrapped around his legs and tears running down his cheeks. She froze, but it was too late. He'd already spotted her.
"I... I can go," Pidge said quickly.
Keith shook his head and rubbed the sleeve of his jacket over his eyes. "It's okay."
Below them, a huge screen had been erected for the evening at the end of the airfield. Six months ago, both of them had been down there to watch the launch of the Kerberos mission. Now they watched the dedication of the memorial to the mission's crew from above.
"How come you're not down there?" he asked.
"It'd be hard to pretend Pidge Gunderson isn't Katie Holt if I'm standing next to my mom," she said. She sat down next to him. "What about you? I bet you could've gotten a pass on the base for this."
Keith watched the montage of photos being projected on the screen. "Actually, Iverson asked if I wanted to speak."
"How come you didn't?" Pidge asked.
Keith traced an abstract pattern on his knee. “Shiro was all I had,” he said softly. “And that’s mine. I’m not sharing.”
The photo changed into an official Garrison portrait to a picture taken at an event celebrating the cadets who had been promoted to fighter class. Shiro smiled proudly at the photographer. He had his arm around Keith, who had ducked his head to avoid the camera, though his flushed cheeks and embarrassed grin were still visible. Keith made a small, anguished noise, and pressed his fist against his mouth.
They watched the screen as Adam walked up to the podium with a couple of notecards. He gave the crowd a soft smile and launched into a story about Shiro preparing for his first mission into space. Keith rested his chin on his knees as he and Pidge watched the speeches. After Adam, Colleen came on stage to talk about her husband and son. Then several Garrison people spoke, and finally the memorial itself was unveiled. It was a rectangular fountain with engravings of all three explorers, their names, and the date of the Kerberos mission. The camera stayed on the fountain as music played and the people below lit candles.
Keith glared at her. "What's so funny?"
"Matt's hair!" She pointed at the screen. "He always tried to smooth it down and now they've engraved his picture into rock and it's all," she held her hands by her own hair. "poof! "
"It's exactly like your hair," Keith pointed out.
"Yeah, but I like it," Pidge said. "And Shiro's hair. Look, it's like," she held her hand in front of her forehead and wiggled her fingers. She snickered again.
Keith narrowed his eyes. "It looks good on him."
"Well, sure," Pidge said. "Still." She wiggled her fingers again.
Keith couldn't help a small smile. "He said it does that naturally," he said, "but I caught him styling it with mousse once." He looked down at the screen. Someone had switched on the fountain so that water flowed down grooves in the side. "He had three different guys chasing him at one point, but I don't think he even noticed. He only had eyes for Adam."
"Matt never dated anyone seriously," Pidge said. "He started seeing a girl before he left, but they broke up before -" And suddenly, she started to cry.
"Oh, hey," Keith said, looking at her in alarm. "Uh..."
"I'm fine," she sobbed. "I just miss him and Dad. But I'm fine. I know they're not dead and I'm bringing them home. It's just," she waved her hand helplessly, "sometimes the emotional part of my brain overrides the analytic part of my brain. It's just brain chemistry."
Keith cautiously put an arm around her shoulders. "We're bringing them home," he corrected. Pidge leaned against him and he held her until her tears subsided. Down on the screen, the fountain had been replaced with a photo montage as people started to leave. "I'm going to go for a ride. Want to come with me?"
Pidge lifted her head. "Where?"
"Anywhere and back again," Keith said. "As fast as possible."
"Faster than when we go to your place?"
"You think that's fast?" Keith said in surprise.
Keith sighed. He stood up and offered her his hand. "Come on. I'll show you fast."
She let him pull her to her feet. "How fast?"
"Almost fast enough to forget," Keith said.
Saturdays became their day. At first, Pidge just came over so they could listen to the radio, but soon she started bringing her homework while Keith read or studied maps or tinkered around the cabin. Sometimes they watched movies together. The radio was always on in the background, but the low tones never changed. Pidge ran them through every decryption program she could find, starting with the ones written by her brother. She wrote her own program when those ran out, tried every variant, then scrapped it and wrote a new one from scratch. Most recently, she’d hacked the top secret databanks at the International Cooperative Security Agency through their Garrison connection and was running the numbers through their system to see if she could find a match.
That day, Pidge was studying her classwork. Her frown deepened and deepened until she finally slammed her textbook shut. "It makes no sense!" she said, throwing up her hands.
"Can I see?" Keith asked, putting aside his book. "I did pretty well in thermal tech when I was at the Garrison."
"You failed it," Pidge said.
"I aced the tests, I just skipped class for two weeks straight." Keith said. "It's creepy that you've got my record memorized, by the way."
"I didn't memorize it," Pidge said. "I just looked at it and some things stuck out." She handed Keith her homework. "Chapter sixteen, problem set B."
Keith opened the textbook and flipped to the page. He read the page. He read the next page. He closed the textbook and handed it back to Pidge, who looked smug.
"Some people," Pidge said, flipping open her book again, "and I'm not naming any Lances, but some people think that the because the pilot track is the flashiest one, it's also the most intellectually challenging."
Keith lifted his hands in defeat. "I should have known you were way ahead of me."
"Duh," Pidge said. She looked at her notebook and her eyes lit up. "Oh! That was the problem!" She bent over the page and started scribbling equations.
"Glad I could help?" Keith said. Pidge’s laptop chimed. Both of them turned to look at it. Keith jumped up. “Does that mean it’s found something?”
Pidge leaned forward and dismissed the screensaver. She read the screen, bowed her head and closed her eyes. “No,” she said. “It’s done searching.”
“It didn’t find anything? Anything at all?” Keith said in dismay.
“No,” Pidge said. She rested her face in her hands.
“You can’t just give up!” Keith said.
Pidge jumped up. “I’m not giving up! I’m never going to give up! But I’ve done everything I can think of. I don’t know what to do!”
“We’ll figure it out,” Keith said. “We’re a team.”
Pidge nodded. “Okay.” She took deep breaths. “Until we get a new lead, let’s assume the numbers are a dead end.”
“We need to start over?” Keith grimaced.
Pidge grimaced. “Essentially. This signal’s getting us nowhere, but we’ve tapped into everything the Garrison has, and that’s the most advanced communication system in the world.”
"What if we had a receiver outside the Earth's atmosphere?" Keith asked. "Would there be a better chance of getting a signal?"
"Sure, but I've already tried tapping into satellites. They don’t have the frequency receiver I built, and they’re useless without it," Pidge said.
"So you need to get your hardware up there," Keith said, pointing skyward. He tapped his hand against his thigh and nodded. "Okay. We'll do it."
"How?" Pidge said, looking extremely skeptical.
"I'll steal the moon shuttle," Keith said matter-of-factly. "There's one launching next week."
Pidge's jaw dropped. "You can't - you can't do that!"
"Sure I can," Keith said. "I've done the simulator. Besides, it's a cargo vessel. I could fly it in my sleep."
"The people on the moon base need those supplies," Pidge said. "Besides, this isn't like sneaking on base. Keith, they'll put you in prison. Maybe for the rest of your life."
Keith shrugged and looked down at his hands. "If we bring them home, it's worth it." And Pidge didn't have an argument for that.
"There must be another way," Pidge said, frown wrinkling her brow. The radio muttered in the background. "Oh!" she said, flinging her head up. "The moon shuttle!"
Keith lifted his hands. "I just said that!"
"No, listen!" Pidge said. "We don't have to steal it. We break into it, I install my own frequency receiver and we piggyback off the Garrison's communications!"
Keith's eyebrows went up. "That's a good idea."
"Don't act so surprised," Pidge said.
"They'll finish the last visual inspection at 1900 hours on the day before the launch," Keith said. "Everything from then on will be systems diagnostics."
"Which I can easily hide from," Pidge said. They looked at each other. "We have a plan," she said.
The moon shuttle launched on a Friday, so that Thursday Keith brought out his fake Garrison badge and got on the base. He met up with Pidge near her dorm and they walked toward the airfield together.
The library and the science building marked an unofficial boundary between the student section of the campus and the full-time military installation. After that point, anyone who spotted them would send them back even before they reached the airfield. The sun was below the horizon, but the campus lights hadn't come on yet, so the twilight gloom was a good time to slip through the populated area and wait for full dark. Keith flipped up the hood of his sweatshirt and he and Pidge walked as nonchalantly as they could past the library garden. Then they ducked to the left. Keith froze behind the senior chemistry lab and Pidge stopped as well. "What?" she whispered.
Keith put a finger to his lips and shook his head. They waited, holding still, until two more sets of footsteps turned the corner. Keith's hand lashed out and he grabbed one of the people by the neck and slammed him against the wall.
"Whoa, hey, okay!" Hunk lifted his hands and looked down at Keith, who'd lifted him up so that Hunk was standing on his toes. "We're all friends here! I think."
"Let him go!" Lance assumed a fighting stance. "I don't want to hurt you, but I will."
"Shhh!" Pidge hissed. "Keith, let him go. It's just Hunk and Lance."
Keith slowly released his grip. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"We could ask you the same," Lance said, still positioned as though he were ready to strike.
"We saw Pidge sneaking out and we figured he was going to see his girlfriend-"
"My what ?" Pidge asked.
Hunk took a photo from his jacket and held it out. Keith took it, and raised his eyebrows at the photo of Pidge wearing a dress and standing next to her brother. "I found it while I was going through your stuff."
"WHAT?" Pidge snatched the photo from Keith's hand.
"I was just looking for one of those salted caramel pretzel bars you had, because those were AMAZING. You got any left?" Hunk asked.
"No, and I wouldn't give you one if I did." Pidge glared at him.
"Anyway, we thought we'd come say hello or whatever," Hunk said. He frowned at Keith. "But you're not Pidge's girlfriend."
"You think?" Keith said dryly.
"Are you Pidge's boyfriend? Oh!" Hunk turned to Pidge. "Do you have a boyfriend AND a girlfriend? No wonder you're never around!"
"No!" Pidge said.
"Hello. Goodbye," Keith said. "Go away now."
"He's nobody's boyfriend," Lance said darkly. "He's Keith." The others looked at him. "My archrival? Come on!"
"Not clear on why he can't be someone's boyfriend," Hunk said. "You have time to hit on so many girls."
"You're still here," Keith said to them both. "Wanna fix that?"
Lance straightened up and brushed imaginary dust off his sleeve. "If you're Keith-"
"If ?" Keith asked.
"-then you aren't supposed to be on the base at all and by the Garrison handbook and code of ethics, I am required to turn you in." Lance rested his hands on his hips and gave Keith a smug look.
Keith shrugged and took a step towards Lance. "I could knock you out before you call anyone."
Lance took a step towards Keith. They were face-to-face now. "You could try."
Pidge groaned. She grabbed Keith's hoodie and yanked him back. Hunk put his hand on Lance's shoulder.
"You were right," Pidge said quickly. "We're dating. We just want some privacy." She grabbed Keith's arm and put it around her shoulder. "Please?"
Keith looked at her, startled, then nodded. "Yes," he said. "We, uh..." He covered his mouth with his hand, but a smile was visible anyway. Keith schooled his features and swallowed the smile. "Sorry. We're just happy together." He looked down at Pidge, who was now giving him a death glare. "What?"
"You think that's funny?" Lance asked. "You think you're too good for our Pidge?"
"Pidge is like, way out of your league, man," Hunk said. "Way out of your league."
"What? No!" Keith said. "Pidge is awesome! Sh- He's just not my type!"
"What type is that?" Lance demanded.
Pidge sighed and pushed Keith's arm off her shoulders. "He's still hung up on James," she said wickedly. "Won't shut up about him."
"I knew it!" Lance exclaimed.
"Do you want me to talk to James?" Hunk asked. "I think he's still into you."
"No!" Keith said with horror. "Fine! Here it is. Nobody's dating anyone. We're here to break into the moon shuttle and hack it so we can listen to aliens."
This was greeted with silent stares from Lance and Hunk and a facepalm from Pidge. Hunk looked at Lance, then at Keith. "Fine, you don't want to tell us, it's cool."
"You could've just said you wanted to be alone," Lance muttered. Keith stared at Lance, his face growing red. Pidge made a noise that was almost a squeak as she stepped between Keith and Lance. Keith folded his arms and intensified his glare.
"No, I get it," Lance said. "Make-out in the moon shuttle. It's hot. Who amongst us hasn't had those fantasies?" Pidge and Hunk looked at each other and raised their hands. Keith did not. "But maybe you should dial it back a little. Just sayin' - a little one-on-one time in the simulator is nearly as good as the real thing." Lance winked.
"What?!" Pidge and Hunk exclaimed together.
"What?" Lance asked. "We put down a blanket!"
"Ohgod." Pidge pressed her face into her hands.
Hunk lifted a finger, opened his mouth, closed his mouth and dropped his hand.
"Go away," Keith said.
"Yeah, we're gonna-" Hunk said. He pointed back at the library garden, then grabbed Lance's arm and pulled him in that direction.
"Watch for the thruster stick!" Lance said, and followed Hunk away.
Pidge stared at where they'd gone around the corner. "I hate you," she sighed.
"Same," Keith said, the corners of his mouth quirking up. "Come on." Evening patrols would start soon.
It was easy enough to slip through the buildings up to the edge of the airfield, but there was a vast amount of open space between there and the temporary wall standing around the moon shuttle. But Keith had spent every night in the last week up in the South Tower watching patrol patterns and with the data he gathered, Pidge created a model that would tell them where the guards were going to be from sunset until midnight. All they had to do was cross the airfield and get through the door and they'd be clear.
Keith waited at the dark end of the airfield, right at the edge of the floodlights that lit the field up. Once he stepped past that, there’d be no shadows to hide in. He could see the door from here.
"Get ready," Pidge said, keeping her eyes on the program running on her watch. "Three... two... one. Now!" They ran. They couldn't afford to spare any seconds. Keith shoved the key Pidge had made into the lock on the door. Thankfully, it opened on the first try. He'd brought a lockpick set, but every moment out in the open increased their chance of discovery. He yanked the door open. Pidge dashed inside and Keith followed. He pulled the door shut and slammed the latch into place. They waited, as Pidge caught her breath, but no alarms sounded and no one yelled or blew whistles.
"Safe," Keith whispered. They'd have to get out again, of course, but they'd clear that hurdle when the time came. He and Pidge grinned at each other and turned around. Their grins disappeared.
"Oh no!" Pidge whispered. The scaffolding, which had been standing around the shuttle for the last month as it was readied for flight, was gone.
"They finished the last physical inspection today," Keith realized, his heart sinking. The panel they needed to access was inside the cockpit and the cockpit was near the top of the shuttle.
"We have to get a ladder," Pidge said with dismay. They'd have to find a ladder high enough to reach the cockpit and then drag it across the airfield without being spotted. Then they had to return it, because if anyone suspected the shuttle had been tampered with, the flight would be cancelled.
Keith folded his hands over his chest and studied the shuttle. "No. I can get up there." He knelt down and slid his boots off.
"What? How?" Pidge asked, and muttered, "I should've built a jetpack."
"The handles," Keith said. The shuttle had small handles built into the side, designed so astronauts could maneuver around the craft in zero g. They weren't designed to work as a ladder on Earth. "Do you trust me to attach the receiver?"
"Yes," Pidge said. "But-"
"Do you have a better idea?" Keith shucked off his socks and wiggled his toes.
"No," Pidge sighed. "They're pretty far apart, though."
"I can reach them," Keith said confidently.
"Okay," Pidge said. She took a deep breath and slid her bag off her shoulders. "Here it is." She handed him the small case. "Here's the tools you need and here's the key I made. Let me see your wristlink." She transferred the schematic to his wristlink. He tapped it and the diagram blew up.
"Here and here?" Keith asked, pointing to the connection points.
"Yes. When you're done, I want you to show me the panel before you close it up. It's not that I don't trust you-"
"No, I get it. It has to be perfect." Keith put the key in his pocket and everything else back in the bag. He fixed an earbud into his ear. "You hearing me?"
"Loud and clear," Pidge said, finger on her own earbud.
Keith nodded, took a deep breath, and made a running jump to the first handle. He pulled himself up and hooked his toes on the handle, putting all his weight on the balls of his feet. Fortunately, the shuttle was tapered slightly, so he could press his weight against the hull and push himself up with his legs until he could get his hands onto the next handle. But his feet couldn't get purchase against the shuttle's exterior, so he still needed his whole upper body strength to get him to the cockpit. He pulled himself up, handle by handle, until he reached the cockpit door. He inserted the key and with a beep-whir-click the cockpit door opened. Keith dragged himself inside. "I'm in," he told Pidge.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Fine," Keith said. "Let me catch my breath and I'll take care of the receiver." His arms shook badly from the strain. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing. It didn't matter if he had to eat with his feet for a week. His hands had to be steady for the next five minutes!
"Keith?" Pidge said after a minute.
"Okay," he said. "I'm doing this." He pulled up the schematic and swiped over to the page with the cockpit diagram. He found the right panel and flipped the latch open with his thumb. He slipped an elastic headlamp on his head, then had to tuck his hair into it because his bangs kept falling over the bulb. He flipped the schematic to the one for panel itself. He quickly attached the receiver. "It's done," he said.
"Show me," Pidge said. Keith put away the tool kit and closed the schematic, then pointed his phone's camera at the panel. "Can you put more light on it?" Keith leaned in so his headlamp lit it up. "The right side looks loose," she said, so Keith put his finger on it and tried to wiggle it. Finally she said, "Okay. I think it'll work. Come back down." Well, that was the tricky part, wasn't it? Five stories up and his arms still felt like noodles from the first climb.
Keith locked up the panel, checked the cockpit for any signs he'd been there, then stepped carefully out of the cockpit and onto the top handle. Bracing himself against the shuttle, he closed the cockpit door and locked it. Then he took a deep breath and stepped off the handle.
"Keith!" Pidge cried into his earbud.
Keith grabbed the handle he'd been standing on before he could slide any further. "I got this," he said, and let go. He had to do a bit of a hop and bend to avoid getting caught on the lower handle and still had two bruised shins and a way too-close-for-comfort bruise on his inner thigh, but he managed to get down the side of the shuttle in a wobbly, controlled slide. He hit the ground hard on the last one, landed in a crouch, and scraped up the soles of his feet. He sat, panting, his shoulders aching.
"Are you okay?" Pidge asked.
"Fine!" He flashed her a grin, heart pounding from the adrenaline rush. "Just let me get my boots on and we'll go."
Pidge checked the guard schedule again. They slipped out of the shuttle gate, dashed across the airfield and wove their way through the Garrison buildings. It was after curfew, so Pidge had to sneak back into the dorms, and Keith-
"I'll get out," he assured her. "Getting out is the easy part."
"We did it!" she grinned.
"We did," Keith nodded, smiling.
"We'll know if it works tomorrow night. We have two weeks before it returns to Earth's atmosphere," Pidge said.
"We'll make them count," Keith said.
Chapter 4: What the Cat Dragged In
This chapter grew too long, so now this fic is five chapters instead of four.
Pidge spent the rest of the night tuning the radio. She planned to bring it over to Keith's place the next morning, but he called her up and said his bike wasn't working.
"It's the hover suspension," he said miserably. "I know how to change the thermal plugs and the ventral plates but I don't even have the tools to fix the hover suspension."
"I might know someone with the tools," Pidge said. "If you don't mind me bringing someone out to your place?"
"No, that'd be great," Keith said.
When she hung up the phone, Pidge stuck her head out of her room and hollered, "HUNK!"
An hour later, a hoverbike pulled up in front of Keith's cabin, carrying three people. "Hi!" Hunk said. He unloaded a tool box from the back of the bike and slapped the bottom of it with his hand. "Where's the patient?"
"Out back," Keith said, jerking his thumb in that direction. "I appreciate this. Let me know what I owe you."
"I'll show you," Pidge said, and led Hunk around the cabin.
"So." Lance slid off the bike, hitting the ground with both feet at the same time. "We meet again, Keith ."
"Lance," Keith said. "How's your thruster stick?"
"A little sensitive, thanks for asking," Lance said. "So you... live here?" he asked, looking at the cabin.
"Yep," Keith said. "I'm going to go get some drinks." He went into the cabin and immediately regretted not locking the door, because Lance followed him. "Don't touch anything!" he ordered, and went to the far end of the cabin, where he had a mini fridge and a hot plate set up as something resembling a kitchen.
"Little rough, but it does have a rustic charm," Lance said. He knelt down to look at the cinderblocks holding up the coffee table. He knocked on the wood top with his knuckles. "I could send you some links for home decorating on a budget. My sister's been redoing her place." He stood up, and walked over to the north wall. He put his hands on his hips and tilted his head. "I don't know what this is covering, but it can't be as ugly as this sheet," Lance said, and reached for it.
"Don't touch that!" Keith yelled. He tossed the sodas he was carrying onto the couch and tackled Lance. But Lance had already grabbed the sheet, so the action tore it off the wall.
"Whoa." Lance pushed Keith off of him and stood up. He stared at the collection of maps, star charts, photos, sketches, and sticky notes, all connected by colored yarn.
"Get out," Keith said, stepping between Lance and the wall.
Lance took two steps backward, turned around and left the cabin. Keith picked up the sheet, intending to rehang it, when he heard, "Hunk! Pidge! Come see! Keith is a crazy person!" Keith groaned.
Hunk and Pidge followed Lance back into the cabin. Hunk stopped on the doorstep. "Whoa."
"That's what I said," Lance said. Pidge pushed Hunk out of the way and sat down on the couch.
"Are you one of those guys that think the Kerberos mission was part of some conspiracy to replace the heads of every movie studio with ancient Mayan gods?" Hunk asked.
"That's a thing?" Lance asked.
"Oh, yeah," Hunk said. "One of my aunts claims every dog movie for the last twenty years was secretly written by Xolotl."
"It's got nothing to do with Mayan gods," Keith said furiously. "I just...." He looked at his charts and maps and put a hand on one of the photos. "I just think ancient robot lions are calling me," he said defiantly, and glared at Hunk and Lance.
Lance and Hunk looked at each other. "Do you need to... talk to someone?" Hunk asked Keith cautiously. Everyone turned to Pidge.
She lifted her hands. "I listen to aliens on my radio. I can't judge." She picked up a soda. "Did you shake these?"
"I threw them across the room," Keith said.
"I'll wait, then." Pidge set a soda carefully on the coffee table.
"Okay, you guys are messing with us now, right?" Lance said. "You're not actually insane?"
"If we're not keeping it a secret, I'm going to set up the radio," Pidge said. She squeezed past Hunk and went to get her bag from outside.
"Aliens?" Hunk said. "Like, friendly aliens? The kind that bring new technology and farming techniques and end world hunger?"
"I don't think they're friendly," Keith said.
Pidge returned with her bag. "Hunk, you're a terrible door!" she said, pushing him aside.
"Oh, what? Sorry." Hunk said. "Keith, your bike's nearly done. I'll finish and then you guys can... do whatever you're doing."
Pidge started assembling the radio on the coffee table. Keith glared furiously at Lance, who dodged Keith's gaze and stepped up to the wall. "Hm," Lance said. He rested his hands on his hips again. "Okay, this is going to sound weird, but I think I've seen this before."
"Sure," Keith said wearily.
"No, seriously, I think I dreamed it," Lance said.
Keith ignored him and sat on the couch next to Pidge. "Is it working?" he asked.
"Almost there," she said. She twisted a couple of wires together and wrapped them in tape.
"Yep," Lance said, pitching his voice a little louder. "Definitely dreamed it. There was a rock shaped like a wolf." Keith's head shot up. "And Kaia Santoro was there, wearing her gym uniform, only it was ripped right across-"
"Gross, Lance," Pidge sighed. She screwed a panel into place.
Keith jumped to his feet. "What did you say about the rock?"
"It was about this high," Lance held his hand over his head, "and it was these lumps around it that look kinda wolf-like if you squint."
"Lion-like?" Keith suggested.
Lance frowned. "Could be."
"Where were the lion drawings?" Keith asked.
Lance shrugged. "Like ten feet away, I guess? Could be more. You know how dreams are."
Keith nodded and paced in front of the wall. There wasn't much room, so he only got a few feet before he had to turn around.
"Was it real?" Lance asked.
"Maybe," Keith said.
"So Kaia really is into me," Lance said.
"No," Keith said.
Lance frowned. "You weren't in my dream."
"And I'm grateful for that," Keith said.
"Got it!" Pidge exclaimed. She switched it on and turned up the volume. Keith sat down on the coffee table.
" ...System X-9-Y. No signs of Voltron at this time. The Red Lion is still non-responsive. Zarkon's orders are...," The radio went to static.
"What happened?" Keith asked.
"It's not a perfect system!" Pidge said, typing frantically on her keyboard. "We're piggybacking off the Garrison signal but some of their transmissions may interfere-" She stopped as the signal cleared again.
"...do a sweep of the hanger and send someone to clean cell 207 because the prisoner thoughtlessly allowed its internal organs to fall from its body before perishing and it's beginning to smell like a..." the signal cut out again. Keith and Pidge both looked sick.
"Is that real?" Lance asked.
"All right, you're up and running," Hunk said, coming through the door. "I did a little fine-tuning and she should run like new. Better, even."
Keith grabbed the windowsill in both hands and looked out and up.
"We can't get there," Pidge said quietly.
"They have prisoners," Keith said desperately. "They're killing them."
" I know ," she said, and Keith looked back to see she was on the verge of tears. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. "But we can't . The Garrison doesn't have a single ship ready to launch. The next one will be the Mars shuttle-"
"In three months!" Keith slammed his fist against the wall next to the window, leaving a dent.
"I know," Pidge said, in a small voice.
"Then what was the point of this?" Keith yelled.
"To be ready?" Pidge suggested.
"I'm ready!" Keith yelled.
"Okay!" Hunk held up his hands. "I think we all gotta calm down a little, 'kay?" Keith stared at him, then walked towards Hunk. "Right, okay, can we just-" But Keith just shoved past Hunk and went out of the door. A moment later they heard the vooom of the hoverbike powering up. "You're welcome!" Hunk yelled. He turned back to the living room. "Anyone want to fill me in on what the everlasting cheddar is going on?"
Lance lifted his hands. "I was here and I don't even know."
"Keith and I think the crew of the Kerberos mission were kidnapped by aliens," Pidge said. "These aliens." She tapped the radio, which had returned to dry static. "My dad and my brother and Keith's friend Shiro. We've been trying to find out everything we can and now we know that ship is nearby and they have prisoners and they might be," she sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. "t-torturing them or k-killing them."
Hunk sat down next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "I don't understand how any of this works," he said, "but I do know you're the smartest guy at the Garrison, and maybe the smartest guy anywhere, so you'll figure something out. I know you will."
"Yeah," Lance said quietly, and then, in his regular voice, "Wait, you guys really did hack the moon shuttle?"
Lance lifted his eyebrow. "Wow. I double my agreement with Hunk."
Pidge managed a wobbly smile.
"How about I make some food?" Hunk suggested. "Good for the brain."
"I don't think Keith's got much in his kitchen," Pidge said.
"I'll manage," Hunk said.
Half an hour later, Keith returned. "Lance, I want you to come with me."
"Nope," Hunk said. "You're not going anywhere without lunch. Low blood sugar is not good for your mood."
Keith frowned. "You made mac and cheese?" Hunk pushed a plate into his hand. Keith took a bite. "How did you make it good ?"
"Improvised a little. Now sit," Hunk said, pointing at the couch.
"I can't," Keith said. He shoveled one more bite into his mouth, then pushed the plate at Hunk. "I need Lance to come look at the lions."
"Mm-kay." Hunk pushed the plate back. "After you eat."
Keith gave up and sat down to eat his food.
"You need more spices in your kitchen," Hunk said. "A little goes a long way. Do you even own a cookbook?"
Keith looked up in genuine confusion. "Why would I? There's always instructions on the box."
"What do you want me for?" Lance asked, ignoring Hunk's exasperated sigh.
"You dreamed of the lions. Maybe you'll notice something I didn't," Keith said.
"Oh!" Hunk said. Everyone turned to look at him. "I was looking at Pidge's notes and there's a whole bunch of numbers."
“Yeah, we’ve been receiving them for a while.” Pidge said. "But I can't crack the code. It’s a dead end."
"I don't think it's a code," Hunk said. "I think it's a Fraunhofer line."
"What's that?" Keith asked.
"It's a number describing the emission spectrum of an element, except this one's not a real element."
"An imaginary element?" Lance asked.
"Or one we haven't discovered yet?" Pidge said, sitting up straight.
"An alien element?" Keith asked.
Hunk pointed at Keith. "Ding ding."
"How do we find it?" Keith asked.
"I can create a tracker," Hunk said. "I hope you have more spare parts than you do spices."
Between Keith and Pidge, they scrounged up the parts and Hunk put them together. While Hunk worked, the rest of them listened to the radio, but all they heard were some maintenance orders and someone trying to get tickets to a big arena show.
"What kind of music do you think evil aliens listen to?" Lance wondered. "Big show, lots of little green men, who's on the stage."
"More little green men?" Pidge suggested.
"It's a competition," said Keith, who was still listening to the radio. "They mentioned a Champion."
"Battle of the Bands?" Lance suggested.
"It's some kind of bloodsport," Keith said, frowning at the radio.
"Okay, I'm gonna say it. You-" Lance pointed at Keith "- are a buzzkill.” He lifted his hands. “Sorry, just telling it like it is."
“I’m not here for your entertainment,” Keith snapped.
"You don't have to be," Lance said. "You can just lean back and let the awesomeness of me flow over you."
"Is that sanitary?" Pidge asked.
“This isn’t for fun ,” Keith growled. “People are dying. ”
“Maybe it’s not a great idea to go after these guys,” Hunk said nervously. “Why don’t we just let the Garrison handle it?” He got a small screwdriver from Pidge’s toolkit and adjusted the pack panel on the receiver.
“They should be handling it, but they’re not,” Pidge said.
"All right," Hunk said. "I think it's a go. Where do we test it?"
"At the cave," Keith said. He pulled on his jacket and clipped his knife to the back of his belt. Pidge quickly packed up the gear.
"Uh, should we worry that the crazy guy’s got a big knife?" Hunk asked.
"You can try to take it," Keith said, his hand on the knife's hilt.
"Nope!" Hunk said. "All good." He helped Pidge with the gear and they all mounted the hoverbikes. Hunk rode behind Lance and Pidge rode behind Keith.
"What are the coordinates?" Lance asked.
Keith pulled them up on his bike's computer and sent them to Lance. "Got it?"
Lance looked at the map. "Got it," he said.
"Great," Keith said. "Try to keep up." He hit the accelerator and the bike shot down the road.
"Better than new," Hunk said proudly.
"Wait, hang on, we don't get a countdown?" Lance hit the accelerator and followed.
When Lance pulled up at the designated spot, Keith and Pidge were already off the bike and setting up equipment.
"How'd you get here so fast?" Lance demanded. "You disappeared after the curve at the top of the cliff!"
"That's because he went down the cliff," Pidge said.
"He what now?" Hunk asked.
"It's actually fun, once you know what's going to happen," Pidge said, giving Keith a meaningful look.
"Hey, I did tell you to hold on the first time," Keith said.
"Yes, and you said 'trust me'," Pidge said, "and neither phrase carries any actual information on what you're going to do."
"I could do that," Lance said.
Keith gave him a sharp look, then said, "Two miles northeast of the Garrison, there's a little mesa with a short drop on the east edge. It's a good place to practice."
"Hey, I don't need you to tell me how to do stuff!" Lance said, then added, "But... thanks. I'll check it out."
"We're up," Pidge said. She held up a small metal dish on a rod. Hunk had a counter with a red needle that was connected to the dish by a cord. The two of them led the group into the cave as Hunk watched the needle swing back and forth.
"This way," Hunk said, as the needle sped up faster and faster. They went around a curve. "Whoa!" Hunk said.
"These are the lion carvings I was telling you about," Keith said. "They're everywhere around here."
"Huh," Lance said. He stepped up to the wall and brushed dust off one of the lions. It lit up with blue light, and the light spread to the other carvings in the cavern so they were surrounded by glowing blue carvings.
"They've never done that before," Keith said, looking around with astonishment.
"Maybe you just don't have the right touch," Lance said, smugly. He brushed the dirt off his hands. "Do you think- ahhhh!" The floor dropped out beneath them and they were dumped down a steep passage and into a puddle below.
“Whoa,” Pidge said. She stood up and wrung out the hem of her shirt. “Keith, it’s real! ”
“Yeah,” Keith said. A smile played at the edge of his lips. The giant blue robot lion towered above them, protected inside a transparent bubble. "This is what's been causing all of this crazy energy out here."
“I’m sorry I ever doubted you,” Pidge said, staring up at it in wonder.
Keith frowned. “You doubted me?”
“Sometimes,” Pidge admitted. “I mean, come on. Hearing robot lions. It’s nuts, right?” Keith scowled at her. “Sometimes I doubted myself, too.”
“I didn’t,” Keith said. She looked at him. He shrugged. “You were convincing.”
“What do we do with it?” Hunk asked. “Is it going to attack?”
Keith said. "Looks like there's a force field around it." He approached the force field and placed his hands on it. “There must be a way through.”
"Maybe you just have to knock," Lance said smugly, and did.
As the energy washed over them from the lion, Pidge heard something in her earbud. "Hang on!" she said.
“Voltron is a robot!” Hunk cried. “Voltron is a huge, huge, awesome robot!”
The lion lowered its head and dropped a footramp. "Hang on, sorry," she said to the lion. "You seem very nice, but I have to take this."
"What is it?" Keith asked.
"It's them," she said. "Hang on -" She pulled her phone from her pocket and fumbled with it until she had the radio on the speaker. It wasn't very loud, and they all had to bend over to hear it.
" it's the Champion, sir. He's taken possession of a shuttle pod. He's native to this system, sir." Keith and Pidge exchanged startled looks.
"It's Shiro," Keith said. "It has to be." Pidge shushed him.
"Seal the hanger. Lock it down! Do not let the prisoner escape."
"Sir," this voice was cautious, nearly timid, "he's already gone." There was a howl of something that could be anger or could be pain, and the signal cut back to static.
"He's out!" Keith said, with relief and joy. "We have to help him!"
"Then let's go," Lance said. He was standing in front of the lion, one foot on the ramp.
Keith nodded and looked at Pidge. She nodded back, and they went up into the lion.
"Help who?" Hunk asked, following.
They crammed into the cockpit. "Shiro," Keith said.
"He's alive?" Lance said. "He's my hero! He autographed a poster for me once."
"Great," Keith said. He leaned over to look at the dashboard. "How do you fly this thing?" He reached out to touch the panel and Lance swatted it away.
"I'll be the one to save Shiro, thank you," Lance said. He tapped the armrest of the pilot's seat. "What do you say?" The cockpit lit up. "All right!" Lance said. The lion roared and burst out of the cave.
"Are you getting anything else?" Keith asked Pidge, who was still listening to the radio.
"Nothing," she said.
"Okay, let us know-" Keith began, but they were tossed around the cockpit when the Lion did a flip. "What are you doing? " Keith yelled.
"Nothing! It's like it's on autopilot!" Lance yelled back.
"Is that them?" Hunk asked, pointing out the window. "Is that the aliens?"
"It’s Shiro!" Keith cried out. They could see the ship had taken damage and was spinning wildly as it plunged towards the ground. "We have to help him!"
The lion leapt and flew at the little shuttle.
"Wait!" Keith yelled. "What are you doing?"
"I told you, I'm not doing anything!" Lance tugged a lever to demonstrate. The lion was headed full speed directly at the shuttle.
"If we hit it, he'll be killed!" Keith said. He lunged forward and tried to grab the controls.
Lance shoved him away. "Stop it!"
" You stop it!" Keith yelled.
“Ohhh, I’m gonna puke,” groaned Hunk.
"Lance, at our current velocity-" Pidge began.
"I can't," Lance said. "I can't do anything! I'm trying!"
They watched helplessly as the lion plunged right at the tiny, battered shuttle, and they watched in astonishment as the lion caught the shuttle gently in its jaws.
"Gotta admit, I did not see that coming," Lance said.
The lion landed and carefully set the shuttle down. It sat back on its haunches, lowered its head, and unfolded the ramp. Keith was the first one down. He had the door of the shuttle open by the time the others set foot on the ground. Hunk staggered out last and went behind a rock to throw up. Lance helped Keith pull Shiro out of the shuttle and away from the burning vessel. The lion closed its jaw and Keith knelt beside Shiro. "Do any of you have medical training?" he asked. The Garrison had several medical classes that the cadets could take as electives. But all of them shook their heads.
Hunk went over to the other side of Shiro, knelt beside him, and checked his pulse. "He's got a heartbeat and he's breathing," Hunk said.
"And?" Keith asked, when Hunk didn't go on.
"And that's all I know. I'm sorry, man," Hunk said.
"There's about ten Garrison vehicles headed this way," Pidge said.
"You guys go, then," Keith said. "I'll stay with Shiro. They'll get him a doctor."
"They'll quarantine you both," Pidge said. "There's post-first-contact rules. My dad used to joke about them."
"I don't care. I'm not leaving him alone," Keith said. "But that's all the more reason for you guys to get out of here before the Garrison arrives."
"Quarantine?" Hunk asked. "Are there, like, alien viruses?"
"I'll let you know if I have any updates," Pidge said. "Keep an ear out."
"I will," Keith said.
"Ask him about my family," Pidge said.
"As soon as he wakes up," Keith said. "I promise."
"I'm coming back for you, Blue," Lance said. He patted the lion's paw.
"Good luck," Hunk said to Keith, and the three of them fled.
Chapter 5: Quarantine
Keith hid his knife inside his boots and sat down next to Shiro. He reached for Shiro's hand and felt metal. Keith lifted it and stared. "What did they do to you?" he whispered. He put the metal hand down gently and wrapped his hand around Shiro's flesh hand.
The Garrison trucks parked in a half-circle around Keith, Shiro and the shuttle, with the Blue Lion on the other side. Keith's mouth went dry when soldiers emerged from the vehicles with guns drawn, but he didn't move.
A woman got out of the vehicle and walked over to him. Her hair was gunmetal gray and tied back in a tight bun. A soldier walked beside her, gun ready. They stopped about fifteen feet away. "Keith?"
"Professor Montgomery," Keith said. A man got out of another vehicle and stepped up beside her. He was carrying his own weapon.
"Is that... Officer Shirogane?" he asked. It was Mr. Harris. Keith had had a class with him. Biology. Mr. Harris had once said Keith shouldn't have been allowed into the Garrison. In front of the whole class.
Keith nodded. "He needs a doctor. Please."
"He came down in that?" Professor Montgomery asked, looking at the shuttle.
"Yes," Keith said.
"And that?" she asked, raising her eyes to look at the lion.
"It was in the desert," Keith said.
Professor Montgomery nodded, not in agreement, but as a signal that the information had been received. She turned to Mr. Harris. "What do you think?"
"We can't examine the vehicle and the... lion... until we've got failsafes in place. Everything here needs to be placed in bio-containment immediately," he said. He gave Keith a narrow look. Seems like Mr. Harris's opinion of Keith hadn't improved.
Keith gritted his teeth. "Officer Shirogane sustained these injuries while on duty as a pilot and it is the Garrison's responsibility to provide medical care immediately ."
"Son, this is not your call to make," Mr. Harris said. Keith nearly lunged at him, but Professor Montgomery held up her hand before Keith could move.
"Keith, I promise you that Officer Shirogane's well-being is of utmost priority," she said. "We have a medical team on the way. I hope you understand that you are under quarantine as well."
"The guards are authorized to use lethal measures to maintain quarantine," Mr. Harris warned.
"I'm not leaving Shiro," Keith said.
“If you’re not family-” Mr. Harris began, but Professor Montgomery interrupted.
"If you comply with all instructions, there's no reason you can't stay,” she said. “It’ll free up a guard,” she said to Mr. Harris, who reluctantly nodded.
In less than an hour, the Garrison had erected dome tents with insulated corridors. Two med techs came out in hazmat suits with a rolling stretcher. They lifted Shiro onto the stretcher and rolled him into one of the tents. Keith followed, staying within an arm’s length of Shiro. The tent was furnished with a folding chair and an exam table. Keith sat down to wait anxiously while the techs transferred Shiro to the table and began an examination. One left and came back with a rolling tray with a set of syringes laid out on it.
"What is it?" Keith asked, leaping to his feet. "What's wrong with him?"
"Please don't interfere," one tech said. He lifted a syringe, examined it, and drew blood from Shiro's left arm.
"What on Earth do we do with this?" the other tech asked, pointing at Shiro's metal arm. "Should we detach it?" He pushed up Shiro's sleeve. "It seems to be fused."
"It's what?" Keith asked. He tried to move in and get a look, but the tech blocked him.
"Stay out of the way or you'll be removed."
Keith stepped away and put his back to the tent wall. He folded his arms over his chest and forced himself to hold still.
The techs took samples of his blood, hair, clothing, and even the dirt on his cheek.
"That's from the sand at the landing site," Keith said dryly. One of the techs glared at him and he shrugged. "Just thought I'd save you some time."
The tech looked him over and said, “We’ll need blood from you as well.” He picked up a syringe.
“No,” Keith said. He took a fighting stance without thinking about it.
“He’s right,” the other tech said. She handed the first tech a collection vial. “You’ve been exposed.”
“Exposed to what?” Keith asked.
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” the first tech said. “Take off your jacket and show me your arm.”
“This is stupid!” Keith protested. “I didn’t even go anywhere!
“If you’d followed proper containment procedures, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” the second tech said. She walked around Shiro and the two techs stood between Keith and the doorway - and more importantly between Keith and Shiro. Keith knew he could get past them, but could he get past them and carry out Shiro safely? And where would he find medical care for Shiro? He still hadn’t woken up.
“Fine,” Keith snapped. He yanked his right arm out of his jacket and offered it up to the first tech. The man took his sweet time finding a vein, but Keith had never been afraid of needles, so he only glared impatiently.
When the vials were full, the techs packed up everything and left Keith alone in the room with Shiro. Keith put his jacket back on and slipped his earbud in his ear. "Pidge? Are you there? ... Pidge?" It took her a minute or so to pick up.
"Keith? Does he know anything about my family?" she asked.
"He's not awake yet," Keith said, keeping his voice low. "What's going on outside?"
"We're in the dorms. We're on lockdown. Everyone's supposed to stay in their rooms, but of course, no one is." She sighed. "And we got detention for missing our simulator session."
"Who cares?" Lance was apparently behind her. "That was way better than any simulator!"
"Yeah, you didn't crash it." Hunk as well.
"They should have cameras all over that place. I'm trying to get a visual on you," Pidge said. There was a moment while she worked, then she said, "Okay, I'm in,” she said. “Wave?”
Keith looked at the camera and lifted a hand. "Can you find out what they know?" he asked. "The techs have been taking samples but they won't tell me anything and Shiro's still unconscious."
"Let me see," Pidge said. She was quiet for a moment, then, “No, they’ve logged the samples, but there’s no results yet.”
“Okay.” Keith said. He gripped the edge of the bed and looked down at Shiro. Why had his hair gone white? Was it a symptom of something worse?
“I’ve tagged the file,” Pidge said. “I’ll know the moment it’s updated.”
Keith tried to sit, but he couldn’t hold still. He paced around the exam table, arms folded over his chest. It was at least half an hour before Pidge came back with more information.
"Okay, Takashi Shirogane. They don't know anything. His blood's normal and they've sent the other samples to a lab on base, so nothing there yet. He's got a concussion, which is probably why he's knocked out."
"Is it bad?" Keith asked.
"Hard to tell until they do a scan. The sooner he wakes up, the better," Pidge said. "What happened to his arm?"
"What do they say about it?" Keith asked.
"Nothing. They took a couple of surface scans but they don't know anything. They don't even recognize the metal it's made from! The aliens did that?"
"The techs looked like they were about three seconds from dissecting him," Keith growled.
"What do you want us to do?" Pidge asked.
"Nothing yet," Keith said. "I'd better see if he wants me to break him out before I get both of us thrown in the brig. But if they try to slice him open, we're gone."
"Keith… they’ve got a file for you, too.”
“I know,” Keith grumbled. “They took blood. I think they just wanted to stab me with something.”
“Your potassium and ferritin are really high,” Pidge said. “Maybe you were exposed to something.”
Keith shook his head. “They’re always like that. They did a bunch of tests on me when I was a kid and there’s nothing wrong. I’m just a mutant.”
“Maybe you should get out of there,” Pidge said.
“I’m not leaving Shiro,” Keith said firmly.
“They’ve got a bunch of stuff flagged on your record. One of the doctors has requested more tests,” Pidge said.
“It’ll be fine when they compare their results to my Garrison medical records,” Keith said.
Pidge was quiet for a moment, and Keith could hear the usual dorm noises behind her. The TV was on and a couple of people were yelling at each other about a missing book. “I just have a bad feeling,” she said.
“I’m not leaving Shiro,” Keith repeated. “I don’t know what they’ll do if no one’s looking. He’s… he’s Takashi Shirogane, and look how they’re treating him!”
“Yeah, and you’re not Takashi Shirogane,” Pidge said. “I just want you to be safe.”
“I can take care of myself,” Keith said.
Pidge sighed. “Okay. Tell me if there’s anything you need.”
“I will,” Keith said. He moved a folded chair next to the exam table and sat down, leaning forward so he could rest his elbows on his knees and grip his hands together. He waited for Shiro to wake up, or for the techs to return, or for Mr. Harris to barge in demanding answers. His eyes grew heavy, and he rested his head against the table just for a moment...
He woke to the sound of a groan beside him and jumped to his feet. "Shiro!" Keith said.
Shiro's eyes opened halfway. "Keith?"
"Keith!" Pidge said in his ear.
"He's awake!" Keith said, nearly giddy with relief. He's alive .
"Keith!" Pidge said louder.
"Gimme a sec," Keith snapped.
"We don't have a sec! Keith, they're on the way."
Keith looked at the door to the tent.
"No! Not the Garrison!" Pidge said.
"Keith?" Shiro weakly propped himself up on his elbows. "Where are we?"
"Oh no," Keith said to Pidge. "Where? When?"
"As far as I can tell, they're near Neptune, but they're moving way faster than any Earth ship. They keep mentioning the Champion - I guess that's Shiro - and Voltron. I don't know which one they're after."
"What's going on?" Shiro asked.
"You landed in some alien ship," Keith said. "We're under Garrison quarantine and there's an alien warship headed for us."
"They found me," Shiro said. He sat up abruptly. "The ship I arrived in, do you know where it went?"
"It's quarantined around here somewhere, but it was on fire when you landed. I don't think it'll fly," Keith said.
"Take me to it. It's our best shot." Shiro ordered.
"No, I think we have another option," Keith said. "Pidge?"
"On it," she said, her voice low. "We're breaking out of the barracks. We're on foot, though. We left the bikes at the cave."
"Take a Garrison car," Keith said.
"It's going to be tough to steal an officer's keys while we're on lockdown," she said.
"Don't need 'em," Keith said. "Pick a standard issue vehicle, no more than five years old, and find the lower panel in the center console." He gave her the instructions on how to hotwire it once she’d opened up the panel.
"Got it," Pidge said.
"See if you can work up a distraction while you're out there," Keith said.
"I'll try," Pidge said.
"What's your plan?" Shiro asked Keith.
"We found a ship in the desert," Keith said. "It's a huge, flying, blue lion. It's part of something called Voltron."
"Voltron!" Shiro exclaimed.
"You know what it is?" Keith asked.
"It's a weapon," Shiro said. "I don't know much about it, but they want it, so I think we need to find it."
"The aliens?" Keith asked.
"Were the Holts with you?" Keith asked.
"We were captured together," Shiro said. "I don't remember what happened after." He shook his head. "There's a lot I don't remember."
"We’ll figure it out." Keith put his hand on Shiro's shoulder. "I think you hit your head pretty bad. Can you walk?"
"Ever since I was a kid," Shiro said. He carefully slid off the table and put his feet on the floor. And wobbled. Keith caught him before he fell. "You're taller."
"I grew," Keith said. "It could be a few minutes. Maybe you should sit down."
Shiro shook his head. "Feeling better every second. Tell me about Voltron."
"I've been following this weird energy ever since I got kicked out of the Garrison," Keith began.
"You got kicked out?" Shiro asked.
"Um. Yes," Keith said.
"Okay, we'll come back to that later," Shiro said. "Weird energy?"
"Yeah, I tracked it into the desert," Keith said. "Pidge built a radio, because she's trying to find her family, and we've been picking up transmissions of these aliens who are looking for the Voltron. That led us to the blue lion."
"The Galra," Shiro said. “Those are the aliens you heard.”
"Is that what they're called?" Keith said. "That's how she knows they're coming, but we don't know how long-" There was an explosion, which lit up the sky and the tent and shook the earth. "Pidge!" Keith yelled.
"It's okay, that was us!" Pidge said. "There's your distraction. I've got video of the quarantine area and I'll let you know when to go. Oh, by the way, I owe you a cooling unit."
"That was my cooling unit?"
"Yeah, that's what happens when your thermal line and your hydro port meet your compound wires!" Pidge said. "I think your house might be a little scorched. I tried to pull the cooling unit out of range but - Lance, go around the rocks, not over them!"
"I'm gonna hurl," Keith heard Hunk say.
"Oh, oh!" she said suddenly. "They're pulling everyone away. The guard on your tent is gone, Keith. Let's see..." she paused for a moment, "okay, if you take a direct line west, you shouldn't meet anyone until you actually get to the lion. There's three guards at its feet."
"Weapons?" Keith asked.
"Handguns," she said.
"How far apart are they?" Keith asked.
"They're standing right next to each other and talking. I don't think they're supposed to be doing that," Pidge said.
"They're not, but it's good news for us," Keith said. "I'll take them out. You should have a clear path when you get here. See you soon."
"See you," Pidge said.
"What's going on?" Shiro asked, and Keith filled him in on the situation.
"I'll leave you at the mouth of the tent, I'll take them out, then I'll come back to get you," Keith said.
"No way," Shiro said. "I'm not letting you take on three armed soldiers alone."
"You can barely walk," Keith pointed out.
"I've fought tougher opponents in worse situations than this," Shiro said.
"Yeah? Well, this time you don't have to. You've got me," Keith said.
"I'll sneak up on them and take them out before they can draw their guns." Keith said. "Just be my backup. I'll signal you if I need help."
Shiro examined him and then nodded. "Okay."
They made their way through the tent village and to a point where they could see the lion. Like Pidge had said, the guards were whispering together and kept looking over their shoulders in the direction of the explosion. Keith left Shiro propped up against a tent pole and snuck around while the guards were looking the other way. It was quick work for him to disarm them and knock them out. He ran back to Shiro and politely did not point out that Shiro was still having trouble staying upright. He just let Shiro lean on him as they made their way to the base of the lion.
Keith looked up at it. "Hi," he said.
"This is incredible!" Shiro said, looking at the lion in awe.
"It should lower its head so we can get in," Keith said. "Hi!" he waved a hand at the lion. "It's me, Keith. We met earlier?"
"Is it sentient?" Shiro asked.
"It's... something," Keith said. "Sorry if I'm being rude," he said to the lion, "but it's an emergency. Can you let us in?"
"Er, hello," Shiro said. "My name is Takashi Shirogane and we could really use your help." They waited. There was no response.
A Garrison vehicle tore down the road and skidded in a half circle before stopping just next to one of the lion's feet. Lance jumped out of the driver's seat, Pidge climbed out of the back with her gear and Hunk threw himself out of the car and puked behind one wheel. "He drives as well as he flies," Pidge said of Lance.
"Yikes," Keith said.
"Hey!" Lance said, looking up at the lion. "Blue, baby, how ya' doing?" The lion roared, then lowered its head and opened the ramp.
"Amazing!" Shiro exclaimed.
“It likes Lance,” Pidge observed dryly.
"Yeah, I've got a special touch," Lance said. "Shiro, right? I'm Lance." He offered his hand, and Shiro met it with his metal one. Lance looked down at the metal hand in surprise, then shook hands.
"This is Pidge," Keith said, as she approached. "And there's Hunk," who was following after her, still looking a little green.
"Nice to meet you," Shiro said, and shook their hands. "Let's get inside. I don't know how much time we have."
"Good idea," Lance said. "Do you want help?" He made like he was going to take Shiro's arm off Keith's shoulders.
"I've got him," Keith snapped. Lance backed away.
The five of them crowded into the cockpit with Lance in the pilot's seat and the Lion launched into the sky.
Later, after the excitement (and terror) of their first fight as Voltron wore off, the newly-minted Paladins went off to their newly-assigned rooms to get some sleep. Keith went to bed in his empty room, but despite his exhaustion, he couldn’t fall asleep. He got up, and following an instinct, he walked down the long hallway to the hangar of the Green Lion. He found Pidge working on her laptop with her equipment spread around her.
“Hi,” he said. He leaned against a wall and folded his arms over his chest.
“Hey,” Pidge said, without looking up from her work. “You couldn’t sleep either?”
“Nope,” Keith said.
“How’s Shiro?” Pidge asked, and this time she did look up at him.
“He’s going to be okay,” Keith said, with a small smile. “He’s safe now.”
“Except for the Galra Emperor trying to kill us all,” Pidge said dryly.
Keith shrugged. “We can all look out for each other.” He pushed a lock of hair out of his eyes (which promptly fell back in place). “Thank you. I owe you.”
“You do,” Pidge said. She hit two keys, set the laptop down and stood up. “Did Shiro say anything about them?”
“He still can’t remember,” Keith admitted. “But he will. And those prisoners we rescued might know something.”
Pidge nodded half-heartedly.
“Pidge,” Keith said, spreading his hands wide, “we can go anywhere now. We can take on anyone! Voltron is the most powerful weapon in the universe!”
“Great, we can blow up ships,” Pidge said bitterly. “How’s that going to bring my dad and brother home?”
“I don’t know,” Keith admitted. “But we’ll figure it out. Just tell me what you need.”
“Right now?” Pidge’s voice cracked. “I think I need a hug.”
Keith hesitated for just a moment, then strode over to Pidge and wrapped his arms around her. She pressed her face against his shoulder. “I swear to you, we will bring them home,” he promised.