Lucille settled into her Commander’s chair in the cockpit of Zephyr Alpha Blue. ZAB’s chair was angular shark leather which was either blue or just appeared blue in the giant head’s ambient lighting. Lucille mimed using the control panel to practice its layout. She adjusted her seat until she felt at home in the head.
She examined the key Charlie had given her. Its metal portion was silver, but 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 the 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 to the moon; they wore hair-bands and bracelets. Lucille had never been to Earth and didn’t care for trends. All she needed were body-parts and skulls hanging from her waist.
ZAB’s monitors flickered blue and displayed system-booting information. As the screens emptied of text they displayed a shimmering blue pattern like the sky viewed under water.
Lucille folded her arms and addressed ZAB. “Oi! I heard you can talk.”
“Yes.” It was a young masculine voice matching the exterior face.
“I heard you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yes.” ZAB moved the monitors using hidden mechanisms. Front and center 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. 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 there’s an org chart to follow. Z-Purple must relay commands to every limb. Surely the purple pilots need direction?”
“And I’ll give it to them.” Lucille moved a monitor herself and tapped the touchscreen. “I’ve piloted two Zephyrs simultaneously before, two Alpha units in fact. If ZAP has no head-pilot, the role is taken wirelessly by the head pilot of next highest rank. 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 relented. “In case you were curious my recommendations were Eisu and Feito, the alpha-pilots of Z-Red and Orange.”
“Eisu and Feito are great pilots,” agreed Lucille, “worthy of piloting ZAP. That’s why they stay in ZAR and ZAO. When all the Zephyrs combine, Z-Red and Orange will lead my legs. I need good, strong legs.”
“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.
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. It was not a reflection but a video recorded on ZAB’s internal camera.
“Konbanwa. I am Professor Akayama.”
Professor Akayama turned on her lights. She moved her spare monitors into the frame. Each monitor showed 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, 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! Explain this recording!”
Akayama pointed one aged finger to her 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 away.
“A Hurricane Planet this large 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 should prevent the Hurricane Planet from dividing. Unfortunately, the Hurricane receives only extremely short-range communication. When I am close enough to transmit the virus my fate will be sealed. Computer, alert the Hurricane to our presence.”
Lucille heard moving machinery. Her trained ears recognized Akayama’s Zephyr-head preparing its mouth-cannon. White lightning cracked across the monitors 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. They would take minutes 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 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 that the Hurricane’s crew could take the day off just before the first test-flight. In the latest board meetings without me, it was determined that the top 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 wealthy nations and the owners of black-market businesses undocumented and unscrupulous.
“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 was lucky 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 ignition 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 swept under the rug; those one thousand donors 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 in this Zephyr I sighted the Hurricane in intergalactic space. I recognized it as the Hurricane by its blood-crimson biology just like my failed mind-melding experiments. I watched aghast as the great, red, cancerous mess swallowed planets and stars and converted them to its own flesh, consuming solar-systems and galaxies. Uncountably many of these Hurricane Planets dotted 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 the Ruler of Earth to limit humanity to the Milky Way Galaxy, to keep everyone safe from the horror I had constructed which now loomed outside that limit. The technology in my Zephyr was already being implemented in pods meant to take adventurous families to new, inhabitable worlds I had discovered.
“He acquiesced. He brazenly told the public of the Hurricane, without admitting its origin 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. Few survived long before the Hurricane claimed them. I don’t know if the Hurricane killed them, or merged their minds with its thousand pilots.”
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 lab coat.
“Including the thousand pilots whose melded minds were lost to madness, we lost two hundred and seven people who dared trespass on Forbidden Space. Fifty were children. One of those children brought a pet bird.
“Since then the Hurricane has expanded exponentially. It ate the observable universe in mere years and transmuted the matter into Planet-sized cells. I established my moon base to protect humanity when the Hurricane encroached on the Milky Way.”
Akayama watched the Hurricane Planet’s tentacles grow impossibly large in her monitors. She prepared to press the button which would launch her last counterattack.
“When I designed the Hurricane it was an amorphic, reconfigurable mass. I fear that is why the Hurricane’s pilots so quickly forgot their humanity. When I designed the Zephyr, I made it a human head. The head’s pilot is not combined with the heart’s pilot or the pilots of the arms; the pilots are kept distinct so 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 into the vacuum.
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 returned the surface of the planet was plasmafied in a circle more than a hundred thousand miles across. This would have utterly obliterated an ordinary Hurricane Planet. The sun-sized specimen was barely blemished.
The combined Zephyr surfed the shock-wave to the recording half of Akayama’s blue robot-head. “Charlie, Daisuke, nice work,” said Bojack. “Is that what’s left of Akayama’s ship?”
Princess Lucia gasped and puffed fog from the Zephyr’s torso to glide towards the wreck. Daisuke reached the Zephyr’s left hand for the still-recording camera. “No sign of her,” he said.
“Where’s the right half of her ship?” asked the princess. “She might be with the other half.”
“We can’t stay long,” said Charlie. “More tentacles incoming.”
“We retreat,” said Bojack. “Akayama’s gone. Charlie, Daisuke, grab that half of her ship and we’ll bring it to the moon. Lucia, light-speed!”
“Okay!” The gray-headed Zephyr grabbed Akayama’s vessel with its two muscular arms. 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!”
“My cockpit collapsed in on me and gouged out my fucking eyeball.” Charlie audibly clicked a lighter and lit a cockroach. “So my control panel’s busted, but I can work my foot-pedals.”
“Princess, keep up the acceleration! Charlie, Daisuke, get this tentacle off us before more drag us down!”
They had no luck. The suckers 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!”
“You fired it earlier today, Princess,” 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 engines churned as the Zephyr diverted all power to its heart.
So many tentacles crawled over the Zephyr that Akayama’s recording couldn’t catch a glimpse of metal skin, but soon 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. 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 grabbed Akayama’s vessel in the Zephyr’s right hand.
“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. “Akayama’s ship 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.” Tentacles lapped at their hips. 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. 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. We barely saved you, her unborn daughter, to continue your incubation outside her womb on the moon. Even with modern medical equipment your healthy development was a miracle.”
Lucille did not respond, so ZAB continued.
“As Lunar Commander, this video could not be kept from you. You must 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.