M4. The Twist

With the Zephyr’s atomic clocks, Professor Akayama could track time with great accuracy. Seven years and three months passed before she was confident in the reliability of her lightspeed engines. She typed to the Zephyr on her control panel’s keyboard so the Hurricane could not eavesdrop. The Zephyr displayed its replies on its only monitor: “Professor, shall we check the engines again?”

“We’ve checked them a hundred times,” typed Akayama. “Besides, our planet has wandered near the Milky Way. Today’s the day.”

She left her cockpit and stepped on the Hurricane Planet’s dusty surface. Getting the Hurricane’s attention was difficult; it never left spare ears or eyes around for her to establish contact (unless it spied on her secretly), and its flesh was not sensitive enough to detect a single elderly woman jumping up and down. For this reason she had dug a deep hole in the sandy skin-flakes. Underneath the red sand, the flesh of the Hurricane was smooth and pink. She reached into the hole and stabbed the flesh with her screwdriver.

Instead of blood, the wound gushed pearly liquid.

Akayama covered her ears. As the liquid met the air, it congealed into so many teeth that they cracked each other in high-pitched cacophony. Their roots dug into the Hurricane’s flesh and made a hard sheet sealing the wound, but not before the whole hole filled with the pearly goop.

As the cracking of teeth subsided, a mouth opened in the sand beside her and screamed. “Akayama! I told you I hate that!”

“I had to prod you to get your attention. It’s not my fault your immune system overreacts to minor stimuli.” Akayama strode to her Zephyr. “Today’s the day you reclaim your humanity. Do you remember how to make the mind-linking cable like I taught you?”

“Oh! Oh, yes!” A red tentacle popped from the ground beside her. Its tip split into two, and each of those tips split into two, and so on, until the tentacle ended with a braided, fibrous cable. “Like this, right?”

Akayama took the tip of the tentacle and carried it to the Zephyr’s torn-open neck. “I’m plugging you into the Zephyr’s spinal data-input port. This used to connect to the Heart of the Zephyr so a group of pilots could work in tandem.”

“Like me?”

“No. Not like you. The Zephyrs’ pilots remain separate. Yet they work together, because they are united by their shared goal and by the directions of their commander.” Akayama inserted the fibrous end of the red tentacle deep into an exposed rubber tube. “You should feel an electrical tingling.”

“I do! I do!” The tentacle wiggled with satisfaction.

“Now, recall all of the identities which are part of your being. Choose one to accept the first excursion into relative normalcy.” Akayama climbed into the cockpit and hit return on her keyboard. The Zephyr began to copy the Hurricane Planet in its entirety. “Have you chosen?”

“Part of me wants to work alphabetically. Part of me wants to send the youngest children first.” Akayama felt the Hurricane Planet rumble with anticipation. “We’ll go in chronological order. Start with my first thousand pilots, alphabetically.”

“Sou desu ka.” Akayama pretended to type on her keyboard. On the monitor, the Zephyr signaled that the duplication was almost complete. “Okay, just relax and let my machine do what it needs to do.”

“You’re not trying to give me another virus, are you? I won’t fall for that again.”

“Of course not. Are you ready to cast off the yoke of the hive-mind?”

“I am.”

“Engage.”

The Zephyr deleted the Hurricane Planet. 

Everything was quiet.

In the preceding nights, Akayama had had recurring nightmares: the moment the Hurricane was deleted the planet collapsed under her, or it opened a mouth and swallowed her, or it screamed, or it deflated like a balloon. None of those things happened. Everything was quiet.

“Did it work?”

“Yes,” said the Zephyr, aloud. “I’ve copied the whole Hurricane Planet into my memory banks and deleted the original. Shall I disconnect my memory to quarantine the Hurricane from my systems?”

“Let them access the monitor so we can communicate. Meanwhile, warm up the engines and let’s take off.” Akayama shed her lab coat and used it to seal the open half of her torn cockpit so the cabin could fill with air. The Zephyr’s monitor displayed a speaker-icon indicating the Hurricane Planet could hear her. She let them listen to the hum of turbines as the engines spun to life. “I’m sorry I had to do this to you. It’s my only way to get you home.”

The Zephyr fired its neck-engines. The neck spilled white steam and the Zephyr rose into the sky.

“Can you hear me?” asked Akayama.

“How could you do this to me?” asked the Hurricane, through the monitor’s speakers. “I trusted you.”

“I know. But on the moon I’ll have the tools to separate all of you at once. You don’t have to be this cosmic horror; I can save the pilots of the Hurricane.”

“Save me from what?”

“This.” Akayama pulled her lab coat aside an inch. The monitor’s camera showed the Hurricane its own giant red planet retreating. “Does humanity look like that?”

“Yes!” said the Hurricane. “I am humanity, and I am that! So let me go!”

“No!” They’d ascended many miles and kept accelerating. “I’ll never reclaim the stars you swallowed—but I will bring you home!”

“No! I’m bringing you home!”

The monitor flickered red. “Zephyr? Are you doing that?”

“No. The Hurricane has seized my monitor controls.”

“Disconnect it! Quarantine it!” Akayama squinted at her red monitor. A black circle in a white circle had appeared. Another black and white circle opened, and by the time she realized what she was looking at, her gaze was fixed on a hundred eyes. Akayama could feel her own optic nerves vibrating in response to their movements. 

M4 pictc

“Professor, I can’t stop the Hurricane from manipulating my monitor. What’s happening?”

She barely managed to speak. “The Dance of the Spheres.” One by one the eyes onscreen closed. Bit by bit Akayama’s eyes lost their luster. “It’s jumping into me.”

The last eye winked away. The monitor went black. “Professor, the Hurricane is no longer in my memory banks. Can you hear me?”

Akayama said nothing.

“Professor?”

The corners of her mouth fought to say different words. Her arms suddenly swept across the control panel, pressing buttons and flipping switches at random. Her legs disobediently turned her chair to face the lab coat separating her from the vacuum of space. She tried to kick herself from the cockpit, but seat-belts held her in place. “My mind—I’m losing my mind—”

“You’re not losing your mind,” she said back to herself, “I’m gaining one!”

“Stop,” she begged, “please!” Her left hand fought her right hand over the seat-belt buttons. Akayama wasn’t sure which hand was hers and which was the Hurricane’s; they swapped sides repeatedly to wrestle. Then both hands were hers and both hands were the Hurricane’s. They had merged. They were one and the same. Akayama gasped at the insights provided to her. “Bojack is dead. The Hurricane killed him.”

“Wrong,” she said to herself, “Bojack self-destructed. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“And now I see it with mine.” Akayama was helpless to wipe the tears from her face.

“Professor, what should I do?” asked the Zephyr. 

“Leave me. Fly to the moon and tell them what happened.”

Her unruly hands released her seat-belts and tore her lab coat from the cockpit’s gaping side. Vacuum sucked Akayama from the cockpit and she spun toward the Hurricane Planet a hundred miles below. 

As she fell her hands donned her lab coat. It did not flutter in the vacuum of space. A deep, primal instinct made her struggle for breath even with nothing to breathe, but she did not suffocate. The Hurricane inside her was already morphing her biology.

She felt needles in her arms. Bone-colored spines poked from her skin. The spines grew blue hairs to make fluffy feathers.

M4 pictb

Her lab coat now fluttered as she entered the atmosphere. Akayama felt her limbs lengthening and flattening, increasing drag. The feathers matured before her eyes and aligned themselves to catch the wind. Her body no longer spun uncontrollably, but dove in a spiral like a bird of prey.

“Akayama,” said her own mouth, “you were really holding out on me. You have more scientific knowledge than all my other pilots put together. I’ll bet that if you hadn’t lied and did what you’d promised, you would have finished years ago.” The dunes approached from below. “When we’re uploaded back into our planet, we’ve got a new mission. We’ll use our knowledge to make a whole world of human bodies, and load each of our pilots into them. Then we’ll know what being human is all about.”

Only in the instant before impact did they realize they did not know how to land. Akayama’s feather-covered body smashed against the sand. She was barely held together by her lab coat. As the Hurricane began to knit its body back together, Akayama found control of her voice. “You cannot learn to fly from a caged bird,” she said, “and you cannot learn to be human from your own hand-puppets.”

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