Author's Note: I watched this series a long time ago, probably ten or twelve years back, and got to thinking about it again maybe because I finally watched Makoto Shinkai's Voices of a Distant Star, which I'd first heard of because someone compared it to Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu back then, while trying to watch through all of Shinkai's movies after seeing Weathering With You. I rewatched it two week ago, and I've been losing my mind over it in part because it seems almost no one in the English-speaking world remembers it. Some (fairly minor) spoilers for events up to episode 3 of the anime.
The sun was just rising, peeking up from behind the mountains and beginning to return color to the landscape ahead, as she approached the coast.
Retard throttles. Click. Afterburners off. Iriya decelerated to subsonic speeds after her dash back across the Sea of Japan and nudged her plane into a shallow righthand turn around the Noto Peninsula.
Click, click. Gravity drive disconnected and off. The controls felt heavier now, but her body lighter, and the painful, thrumming, static-electric feeling throughout it decreased to a low hum. Iriya breathed an exhausted sigh of something between relief and resignation. She had survived another sortie.
It had been an especially long and difficult one tonight, one that had taken her across the Korean Peninsula deep into the mountains of Chagang, and one that had left her in the unusual – and problematic, given the secretive nature of her aircraft – situation of overflying populated areas in the early morning hours. it hadn't been her fault – It just hadn't! There had been more resistance from their orbital landing craft than command had expected – but she never the less dreaded what the squadron commander or Enomoto might say on her return.
Her body trembled from the stress and her worried thoughts, and she gripped the controls tighter to keep them steady, taking deep breaths to try and calm her mind.
She made landfall over Niigata Prefecture, chasing the dot on her HUD that showed the way toward the point she'd dialed in to her inertial navigation system. Even after only a few short weeks she knew it by heart; north thirty-five fifty-two twenty, east one-three-eight twenty-three twenty. The flightline at Sonohara Air Base.
Hers was a life with few blessings, but she could count as a very small one having a runway on firm land to return to, no longer the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier at sea.
Sonohara itself was a blessing too. Nevada's endless, lonely deserts, its scorching summer days and frigid winter nights, had felt like hell to her, but then, somehow, the Ticonderoga's maze of gray corridors, and the forbidding expanse of the Pacific Ocean all around, had made her the open skies and firm earth there. That was before she learned to swim, and the deep blue water that stretched to the horizon felt like it might, with one false step, swallow her up without a trace.
But now, for almost the first time in her life, she was in the outside world that she had once seen only in brief glimpses from the cockpit or in half-remembered scenes, hers or the ones the other pilots shared with her. The world of green, forested mountains and farm fields, little houses and mid-rise buildings downtown. She was back in Japan, where her own half-memories took the form of an orphanage somewhere cold and snowy, a place she had always daydreamed about with a language she would have long ago forgotten if not for her JSDF handlers at Tonopah.
And Asaba was there, the first person who had ever volunteered their kindness to her. The boy who had taught her how to swim that night in late August. Though even without him, it would have been the best place she had ever called home.
But it still felt fleeting, fragile. Summer was ending and September had almost passed. She could tell her strength was waning with each day and each sortie. The cicadas had begun to die, too, like the one she had cradled in quivering hands in her club room at school.
Iriya wasn't sure she had ever seen a cicada before, but the stories she'd heard years ago had stayed with her. One of the other pilots' cloudy memories, of a childhood spent in a place of rolling green hills and looming mountains, somewhere east of the Mississippi River, was of them emerging from the ground one spring day, a countless swarm of them rising into the air and singing in unison. A short, bright, blaze of life lasting only a few weeks, just long enough to reproduce before dying.
Later she had learned that, out east, in a belt that stretches from Texas to Massachusetts, the cicadas spent seventeen years living and growing underground before that short blaze. She was about that age now, emerging from her own isolated world of gray and brown and deep blue and the smell of Jet Propellant 7, into the warm summer air and the world of movie theater dates and school festivals with folk dances, not knowing how long her joyful song would last in the end.
She glanced out her cockpit, down at that world as Nagano Prefecture began to stir. Thin meandering rivers, country roads and national highways, and single-track railway lines crisscrossed the valleys, through green and yellow fields dotted with houses and copses of trees. A bit more distantly, through morning haze, she could see the city of Matsumoto.
Pushing her plane into a lefthand turn to begin setting up her approach, she could see the landscape below more clearly. A particular yellow field came into focus along the railway tracks and her tired mind began to stray.
She wandered through the sunflowers with a broad-brimmed straw hat sitting on her head, walking in no particular direction with no urgency or worry. It was quiet, the only sounds being the chirping of birds and the gentle wind that rustled the flowers around her and the leaves off in the stand of trees that sat on a small hill in the middle of the broad field and blew through her long hair. Iriya looked over her shoulder and saw Asaba behind her, and a warm smile came across her face to match the one that beamed back at her.
For no particular reason, she started walking faster, then running, with the biggest smile she'd ever had in her life, then stretched her arms out at her sides before holding on to her hat as she felt it threaten to fall from the pace she made. She heard Asaba yell for her to wait up, but she didn't stop until she had already reached the trees, plopping down on the ground in the shade and looking up at the clear, sunny sky above them. A peaceful, empty sky with only white clouds to fill it.
Asaba caught up, panting, and she tried to stifle a laugh. It came out of her mouth anyway, and after a short moment with a bemused look on his face he began to laugh too. She didn't know why they were laughing, only that it felt good to laugh together with someone. The sun was bright and the summer air was hot around them, even with the cool breeze offering some small amount of relief.
Their laughter trailed off, the breeze dwindled, and their eyes met. They were left together so quiet and still it seemed, for just a moment, almost like nothing else existed but the two of them.
The wind picked up again, and Iriya reached to hold her hat just as the gust lifted it off her head. She jumped to her feet to chase it down, but Asaba had already gone running after it, jumping up and grabbing at the air as the hat tumbled around, the pink ribbon attached to it flapping. Another lull in the breeze and he was able to grasp the brim in his hand, and she walked out to meet him as he came back, handing it to her.
"Don't mention it, Iriya", he answered. She flinched as he ran his hand through her hair. She wasn't used to something like this, but it wasn't unpleasant, she thought. He was standing close to her, and she held her hat in front of her chest. Here, maybe, they could finally dance face to face, the chance they had missed the last night of the school festival. Or... He leaned even closer to her.
She thought she heard cicadas.
"Manta Four, do you read, over?".
Iriya was suddenly brought back to reality, but that thought of spending a hot summer day together, with no worries, lingered in her head. If only she could have that feeling, even just for a few days, she might not mind if the world ended, and all those blissfully unaware people, going about their ordinary lives without noticing the war right in front of them, along with it.
Manta Four do you-".
No. She couldn't think those awful thoughts anymore. If she wanted to reach the day when she really could visit that place, she would have to fight for it. Even if the odds were remote, she had to believe that someday a future – not just a brief moment before being overrun – like that could be real someday. And for that reason, even if it hurt and even if it terrified her, she could go on fighting.
"-...Sonohara, Manta Four. I read you."