Lucille settled into her Commander’s chair in Zephyr Alpha Blue’s cockpit. ZAB’s chair was angular shark leather which was either blue or just appeared blue in the giant head’s ambient lighting. Lucille pretended to press a few buttons to practice the layout of the control panel. She twisted the steering column left and right. She held the head of each lever to count them. She adjusted her seat to moon-base military standard, then kept adjusting it until she felt at home in the head.
She held up the key Charlie had given her. Its metal portion was silver, but from its handle dangled a blue model head identical to ZAB.
She pulled her key-ring from a belt loop on her skintight bodysuit. Each of her keys dangled a plastic body-part depicting Zephyrs she had previously piloted. She’d learned to pilot robots in Zephyr Epsilon Yellow, a left leg. Then she graduated to a green arm, and then to the green torso. Then she proved herself in the green head, and the red head, and the purple head. Now she slipped the blue-headed key onto her key-ring and stuck the key in the ignition.
As the Giant Electronic Brain booted to life, Lucille put her key-ring back on her belt loop. She felt perfectly monstrous carrying her keys. The pilots from Earth brought fashions with them to the moon; they wore hair-bands and bracelets. Lucille had never been to Earth and didn’t care much for trends. All she needed were body-parts and skulls dangling from her waist.
ZAB’s monitors flickered blue. The main monitor displayed what ZAB’s eyes could see: the dark, cramped hangar. The other monitors displayed system-booting information and statistics. As each booting process completed the corresponding screen emptied of text and displayed a shimmering blue pattern like the sky viewed under water.
When the booting finished Lucille folded her arms and addressed ZAB. “Oi! I heard you can talk.”
She knew it was coming, but the voice still startled her. It was a young masculine voice matching the exterior face. “Well, I heard you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yes.” ZAB moved the monitors using hidden mechanisms. It uncovered the main monitor for Lucille to inspect. On this monitor it displayed Lucille’s previous robot, Zephyr Alpha Purple. “Before we begin we must fill your former position. I have two recommendations.”
“Neither,” said Lucille.
ZAB hesitated. “When its parts are combined Z-Purple is the largest and most powerful robot on the moon, but it requires Zephyr Alpha Purple’s coordination to function. You would leave ZAP without a pilot?”
“My old team’s been training without a head-pilot for weeks. We rigged it so all the purple body-parts receive video-feed from the head, which they can affix to their shoulders or carry like a lantern.”
“But if the Zephyrs of every color combine,” said ZAB, “there’s an org chart to follow. Z-Purple is meant to sit in the center as the source of torque for every limb. In this situation surely the purple pilots would need direction?”
“And they’ll get it from me.” Lucille moved a monitor herself and tapped it to turn on the touchscreen. “I’ve piloted two Zephyrs simultaneously before, two Alpha units in fact. If I ever combine with Z-Purple then military procedure dictates that, lacking a head-pilot, the highest officer involved in the combination will assume the position. As Lunar Commander I will naturally fill that role.”
“In a high-stress emergency situation, you would put yourself under unnecessary strain?”
“In a high-stress emergency situation, the head and heart had better agree.” Lucille used the touchscreen to set settings to her liking. “That means ZAB and ZAP had better agree. So in a high-stress emergency situation, I’ll pilot both.”
ZAB audibly sighed; the monitors moved to accentuate the exhalation. “In case you were curious my recommendations were Eisu and Feito, the alpha-pilots of Z-Yellow and Orange.”
“Eisu and Feito are great pilots,” agreed Lucille, “worthy of piloting ZAP. That’s why they stay in ZAY and ZAO. When all the Zephyrs combine, Z-Yellow and Orange will be my legs. I need good, strong legs.”
“If that is your decision it is my duty as your vehicle to obey.” ZAB cleared the profiles of Eisu and Feito from the main monitor. “Now let us get to business.”
All the monitors switched off. The cockpit lights dimmed to deep navy.
Lucille squinted at the screens. She smacked one on the side. “ZAB? What’s happening?” When her eyes adjusted to the dim light she saw a dark reflection in the main monitor. The reflection mirrored the angular lines of the cockpit, but Lucille was not in the Commander’s chair. An old woman sat there instead. It was not a reflection but a video recorded on ZAB’s internal camera on top of the main monitor.
“Konbanwa. I am Professor Akayama.”
Professor Akayama turned on her lights. She moved her spare monitors into the frame so her video included a record of what she saw on her main monitor. Each monitor was empty black space with a red circle in the center: a Hurricane Planet.
“This is my video-confession.”
Akayama wore a white lab-coat. Her hair was dark blue or almost black.
“I don’t know who, if anyone, will see this recording. I plan to die today and my ship, the head of the Zephyr, may die with me. The Universe will be fewer several pests.”
Lucille smacked the console. “ZAB! Stop it! Explain this recording!”
The video did not pause. Akayama pointed one aged finger to the nearest monitor. “This Hurricane Planet is larger than Earth’s sun.”
Lucille bit her tongue. She’d never killed a Hurricane Planet of that caliber. She’d only driven them out of the Galaxy.
“A Hurricane Planet of this size is ready to divide into a million smaller copies of itself each larger than the Earth.” Akayama rest one finger on a button of her console. Lucille did not see the button on her own console. “When I press this button my robot will transmit a computer-virus which I believe should neutralize the Hurricane Planet before it divides. Unfortunately, the Hurricane receives only extremely short-range communication. By the time I am close enough to transmit the virus my fate will be sealed. Computer, please alert the Hurricane to our presence.”
Lucille heard moving machinery. Her trained ears recognized Akayama’s Zephyr-head preparing to fire its mouth-cannon. White lightning cracked across the monitor as charge built on the robot’s tongue. The Zephyr-head spat a white laser across the black background.
The white laser missed the Hurricane Planet but Akayama had meant to miss. The red planet grew tentacles. The tentacles stretched across the cosmos to grasp at Akayama’s robot. It would take minutes for them to reach her across the great distance.
“Earlier today I watched one of my prized pupils wounded by my own hand.” Akayama slumped into her seat. “I know Charlie will blame himself for Bojack’s injury, but I commanded Charlie to perform launch preparations in my stead. Whether Bojack is alive and well or dead and gone I have proven myself incapable as a leader, let alone as a savior of Earth. Because, you see, this isn’t the first time I’ve betrayed those who depended on me. I…”
She covered her mouth like it would hide what she said.
“I built the Hurricane,” she whimpered. “That’s why I speculate a short-range virus-transmission will affect it: I built the Hurricane. I know how it was… supposed to work.”
Lucille found nothing to say.
“When I was young, in my forties or fifties, I led the engineering division of a secret international station at the South Pole. No record of that program exists because of what happened.
“I was tasked with building a new kind of spaceship. Computationally speaking the Hurricane was primitive compared to modern Zephyrs. But it would have one thousand pilots whose minds would be melded and merged with the machinery using a technique I perfected in prior secret experiments. The combined human wisdom and intellect could pilot the Hurricane’s complicated structure, which covered acres of the antarctic. In the event of any physical threat to humanity, internal or external, the Hurricane would protect us. The pilots’ minds could be separated in times of peace when the Hurricane was no longer needed.
“I hand-selected the crew. I personally performed thousands of interviews and issued hundreds of physical and mental batteries to weed out weak links. Mind-combination is a dangerous process and those unprepared in body or spirit are subject to terrible ailments. If even one mind of many minds is unprepared, all involved bodies immediately boil with cancerous growths. Growths filled with…” She shuddered. “Teeth.
“And if that doesn’t happen, the combined sentience may still be unstable. A common symptom called God-Syndrome causes mind-melded individuals to experience the sensation of profound religious revelation. This symptom can provoke feelings of judgement and guilt which cause the combined mind to spiral into self-destruction. I selected each crew-member for their mental and physical stability and their appropriate relationship to their personal Gods.”
Lucille leaned close to her monitor. The tentacles of the Hurricane Planet were approaching Akayama’s ship.
“So you understand how distraught I was when my superiors explained to me that the Hurricane’s crew could take the day off just before the first test-flight. It seemed that in the latest board meetings without me, it was determined that the top one thousand donors to the secret international program would have the honor of the maiden voyage. Evidently the secret international program was no secret to anyone who might donate vast sums of money towards its completion. The top donors were secret rulers of incredibly wealthy nations and the owners of vast black-market businesses undocumented and unscrupulous.
“I explained why this was not a good idea. I explained how I had painstakingly chosen and trained the perfect pilots. Pilots who would not decay into cancerous pain-lumps. Pilots whose Gods would be kind to them. My superiors laughed: these donors were the richest people in the world. What brilliant minds could succumb to something self-inflicted? And to whom had God been more kind? Besides, without these donors the Hurricane would not exist at all. I should count my lucky stars to be involved with the product of their generosity. In any case the test-flight would last only minutes.
“When I tried to prevent the launch from my administrator’s console, I found procedures had already commenced. My authority had been by-passed.
“The instant those one thousand minds were combined, they piloted the Hurricane directly into deep space. The antarctic program was swiftly swept under the rug; wherever those one thousand donors came from they were apparently replaceable, because I heard no note of their absence on the news.
“Years later in the World-Unification of 2357 I became Scientific Adviser to the newly-appointed Ruler of Earth. I used my funding to build my first Zephyr, which I currently ride.”
Lucille held her armrests. Akayama’s robot wouldn’t be renamed ZAB until color-designations were introduced with the production of new Zephyrs after her death.
“I used my Zephyr to explore the Galaxy—and it was in this Zephyr I sighted the Hurricane in Intergalactic Space. I watched aghast as the great, red, cancerous mess swallowed planets and stars; I recognized it as the Hurricane by its bloody-crimson biology just like my failed mind-melding experiments, consuming solar-systems and blighting galaxies. More horribly, I found thousands of these Hurricane Planets dotting distant skies. I transmitted images of the cosmic carnage to the Ruler of Earth, who, of course, knew of the secret antarctic experiments.
“In the face of this new threat I begged him to restrict space-travel. The technology in my Zephyr was already being implemented in pods meant to take adventurous families to new, inhabitable worlds I had discovered. I begged the Ruler of Earth to limit humanity to the Milky Way Galaxy, to keep everyone safe from the horror I constructed which now loomed outside that limit.
“He acquiesced. He brazenly told the public of the Hurricane, without admitting its origins to spare my name. He directed that no one was to leave the Milky Way, but some trailblazers shirked the bonds of man and entered Intergalactic Space. Some of them survived long enough to escape back to the Milky Way before the Hurricane claimed them.”
Lucille clenched her hands into fists. The Hurricane Planet’s tentacles drew near Akayama’s Zephyr. Akayama blotted tears from her cheeks with the sleeves of her labcoat.
“I’ve memorized the name of every person lost to my machine. Including the one thousand pilots whose melded minds were lost to madness, we lost two hundred and seven people who dared trespass on Forbidden Space. Fifty of them were children. One of those children brought a pet bird.
“Since then the Hurricane has been more aggressive in its exponential expansion. It ate the observable universe in mere years and converted the matter into its own flesh. I established my lunar base to protect humanity when the Hurricane encroached on the Milky Way.”
Akayama watched the Hurricane Planet’s tentacles grow impossibly huge in her monitors. She prepared to press the button which would launch her last counterattack.
“When I designed the Hurricane I gave it no humanoid features. It was an amorphic, reconfigurable mass. I fear that is the reason the Hurricane’s pilots so quickly forgot their humanity. When I designed the Zephyr, I made it a human face. The face’s pilot is not combined with the heart’s pilot or the pilots of the arms; the pilots are kept distinct so the action of the combined robot can only represent agreement in intention. When you pilot a Zephyr you must stand for all of humanity, and not one iota le—”
The tentacles ripped her robot in half. Akayama barely pressed her button before explosive decompression tore her from the cockpit and flung her into space. The recording continued and caught the Zephyr’s right half spinning into the black distance. The audio only whistled as the life-support pumped air uselessly into the vacuum.
Mere moments later Akayama’s communicator clicked with distant voices. It was a miracle the audio was audible in the near-vacuum. “Professor! Rescue’s on its way! It’s me, Bojack!”
“We’re arriving above light-speed,” said Charlie. “What’s your condition?”
“She’s not responding,” said Daisuke.
“Oh no,” said Princess Lucia. “We’re too late!”
“It’s never too late!” shouted Bojack. “We’re going in hot! Charlie! Daisuke!”
The Zephyr traveled so quickly it was only onscreen for a frame. It had a blue torso and arms, but a gray replacement head. It smashed against the Hurricane Planet fists-first above light-speed. The explosion whited-out the recording for twenty seconds. When the video feed returned the surface of the planet was plasmafied in a circle with radius greater than a hundred thousand miles. This would have utterly obliterated a Hurricane Planet of ordinary size. The sun-sized specimen was barely blemished.
The combined Zephyr survived the explosion and surfed the shock-wave to the recording half of Akayama’s blue robot-head. “Charlie, Daisuke, nice work,” said Bojack. “Is that all that’s left of Akayama’s ship?”
Princess Lucia gasped and puffed fog from the Zephyr’s torso to push them all towards the wreck. Daisuke reached with the Zephyr’s left hand for the still-recording camera. “No sign of her,” he said.
“Where’s the other half of her ship?” asked the princess. “Could she be with the other half?”
“We can’t stay long,” said Charlie. “More tentacles incoming.”
“We retreat,” said Bojack. “There’s nothing else we can do against a Hurricane Planet this big. Akayama’s gone. Charlie, Daisuke, grab that half of her ship and we’ll bring it back to the moon. Lucia, light-speed!”
The gray-headed Zephyr grabbed the blue Zephyr-head-half with its two muscular arms. The recording shook as the robot’s hands adjusted their grip. Fog poured from the Zephyr’s torso. Its hip turbines spun faster and faster—but not fast enough. A tentacle wrapped around the robot and constricted its arms to its sides with a series of sickening crunches. “Oh no!”
“Don’t panic,” shouted Bojack. “Charlie, Daisuke, damage report!”
“I can’t—” Daisuke vomited. “I can’t feel my legs!”
“Can you reach your control panel?” asked Bojack.
The Zephyr’s left hand secured its grip. “Hai.”
“Charlie, come in!”
“The top of my cockpit collapsed in on me and gouged out my fucking eyeball.” Charlie audibly clicked a lighter and used it to smoke a cockroach. “So my control panel’s busted, but I can work my foot-pedals.”
“Princess, don’t let up on the acceleration! Charlie, Daisuke, get this tentacle off us before more of them drag us down!”
They had no luck. The suckers had bonded to their metal skin. Princess Lucia shouted to Bojack. “Commander, fire your mouth-cannon!”
“This back-up head doesn’t have that function!”
“Then I’ll use my Super-Heart-Beam!” said Lucia.
“You fired it earlier today,” said Bojack. “Are you sure you can do it again? If we transfer power to you and it doesn’t work, we’re done for!”
“I know I can do it,” said Lucia.
“Quick vote,” said Bojack. “I vote Aye!”
“Aye,” said Charlie.
“Aye,” said Daisuke. The communicator picked up the sound of churning engines as all power in the Zephyr was diverted to its heart.
So many tentacles crawled over the Zephyr that Akayama’s recording couldn’t catch a glimpse of metal skin. But soon a blue light increased in intensity until the tentacles seemed transparent. The light burst in a colossal cone from the Zephyr’s heart, vaporizing tentacles, obliterating a portion of the Hurricane Planet below. The Zephyr wiped gore from its surface with its left hand.
“Nice job, Princess.” Charlie’s words of support were distant like he didn’t have enough blood to speak. He used his foot-pedals to grab Akayama’s vessel.
“Accelerating to light-speed,” said Lucia. With the last of her strength she activated the hip-turbines and pumped white fog behind them. “Get us home, Commander Bojack!”
“More tentacles incoming,” said Daisuke. “Can we outpace them?”
“Yes we can,” said Bojack. Akayama’s recording captured the approaching tentacles. “Yes we can.”
“Commander, are you sure?” asked Charlie. “Carrying Akayama’s pod is slowing us down.”
“Hold onto it. It’s the only way to know what happened here.” Bojack lowered his red sunglasses to gauge the distance to the tentacles. “You’ll make it. I promise.”
“I don’t think we will, sir,” said Daisuke. “We should not have followed Akayama. We know what happened: she came here to die.”
“You’ll make it. I promise.” The tentacles lapped at their hips. Both the Zephyrs and the tentacles raced at percentages of the speed of light. “Princess?”
“Yes, Bojack!” said Lucia.
“I love you.”
“I know you can do this without me.”
“Bojack, no! Commander!”
“Take care of the Galaxy for me, boys.”
The gray replacement head popped off the neck. The headless Zephyr flew away without it. Lucia wailed. “Bojack, I’m pregnant!”
The tentacles wrapped around the gray head and ignored the fleeing body. As the body escaped Bojack’s ship exploded.
ZAB’s light became bright again. Lucille huddled in the Commander’s chair with her arms wrapped around her knees.
“I’m sorry I had to show you that,” said ZAB. Lucille’s shoulders bounced as she cried. “When your mother fired the Super-Heart-Beam she was catastrophically overexerted and near death. There was barely enough time to save you, her unborn daughter, and continue your incubation outside her womb on the moon. Even with the most modern medical equipment your healthy development was a miracle.”
Lucille did not respond, so ZAB continued.
“As Commander of the lunar base, this video could not be kept secret from you. It was necessary that you understand the nature of humanity’s enemy the Hurricane.”
Lucille released her knees and breathed deep. She cried only moments ago, but now her face was dry and calm and confident. She kept her eyes closed in deliberation.
“Since Akayama’s death the lunar base has been on the defensive,” said ZAB. “You may accept this precedent or you may initiate new orders.”
“Oh, things are changing around here,” said Lucille. “But I’ll need time to think.”
“You have plenty of time,” said ZAB. “I waited twenty years for you. I can wait a little longer.”
When Lucille popped the hatch open and exited the head she brushed off Charlie’s condolences. “I’m sorry you had to see that, Lucille.”
She just stood in front of ZAB. Its left and right were different shades split by a vertical seam down its nose, like the robot had been ripped in half and one half had been replaced. It still carried its noble gaze. Its brow bore the weight of humanity’s plight.