At the command-tower of her moon-base, Professor Akayama greeted the stars. Only the withering belt of the Milky Way winked back. The rest of the sky had been eaten by the Hurricane, the blood-colored monster which infested the observable universe. When the Hurricane’s planet-sized cells encroached on the Milky Way, Akayama’s moon-base sent humanity’s protector: the Zephyr.
Akayama operated a control-panel labeled in English and Japanese. She watched a crater open like a manhole and leak white exhaust from a sub-lunar hangar. “Bunjiro, Princess, Daisuke,” she said into a microphone, “Hurricane Planets are snatching stars from the galaxy’s third arm. Begin preparation for Princess Lucia’s first combat-piloting experience. Everyone, just keep your heads and follow procedures.”
Behind Akayama, forty technicians in military uniform relayed multilingual commands to mechanics in the crater. There, a blue-gray metal human torso over a hundred meters tall rest on a launch-platform. Its detached right arm was hung on the wall—the right arm’s pilot was supposed to help Akayama evaluate the Princess from the command-tower.
“Professor Akayama,” he said sitting beside her, “sorry I’m late.” He was an American with a tousled golden haircut, chewing the end of a smoldering cockroach. “How’s the princess holding up?”
“Charlie, trade seats with me.” Akayama stood and brushed folds from her lab-coat. “My arthritis is acting up. I need you to finish launch-preparations. And get that roach out of your mouth, you know there’s no smoking near sensitive equipment. Don’t give me that look! I’m your elder by a century!”
“Yes, Professor.” Charlie dutifully swapped seats and ashed his roach. On the control-panel he twisted dials, turned a key, and lifted a lever. “Can I still smoke in the Zephyr’s right-shoulder cockpit?”
“Of course. That air’s filtered through the life-support systems.” Akayama watched steam pour from the crater. She had remarkable eyesight for a 120-year-old. “Charlie, I wanted to discuss an error in your report on Princess Lucia.”
“Professor, the princess is more than ready to pilot the Zephyr’s heart. I’ve flown with her before. She’s a better match for the position than even Commander Bunjiro was.”
“Not that. Look here.” Akayama pulled a clipboard and pen from her lab-coat. “You were brave to try writing my name in kanji, but you wrote Akayama…” She drew a sun and moon beside a trident. “Bright mountain. My name is Akayama…” She drew a cross on four legs and another trident. “Red mountain. Akai Yama Hakase, not Akarui Yama Hakase. Understand, deshou ka? Still, not a bad try for an American. Just write in English from now on.”
“Of course, Professor.” Charlie tapped a microphone. “Commander Bunjiro, the Zephyr is cleared for take-off.”
“Hey, Charlie!” shouted Bunjiro, transmitting from the Zephyr’s head. “Our life-support saves power when you’re not smoking the place up! Take-off in three, two—”
The blue torso shot from the crater on a column of clouds puffed from its hips. Daisuke, pilot of the left arm, swept the exhaust away as the Zephyr departed the solar system at light-speed. Princess Lucia, in the robot’s sculpted muscular chest, switched on her audio-communication. “How’s my take-off, Professor?”
“Excellent, Princess.” Akayama leaned over Charlie to reach the microphone. “In the Zephyr’s chest you control not just the main engines, but also the Zephyr’s greatest weapon: the Super Heart Beam. Using it to obliterate just one Hurricane Planet will cause the rest to flee back outside the galaxy—but it puts immense strain on the chest’s pilot. When Bunjiro piloted the chest, he could withstand firing the beam only once a week. I understand he’s taught you everything he knows. Are you prepared, Princess?”
“Yes ma’am!” In the third arm of the Milky Way, the Zephyr found a hundred red planets grasping with hands, kicking with legs, and dripping with tentacles. Lucille steadied herself at the sight of Hurricane Planets absorbing whole stars and dividing into countless copies of themselves. “Bunjiro, Daisuke, transfer power, please!”
“Transferring power,” said Daisuke.
“You’ve got this, Princess,” said Bunjiro.
Energy crackled from the Zephyr’s head and arm to its chest. Akayama checked diagnostics on her control-panel. “I knew the princess would be the perfect pilot the moment we met,” she told Charlie. “Firing the Super Heart Beam requires embodying the ideals the Zephyr represents. As daughter of the Ruler of Earth, Lucia knows how to stand for humanity!”
“Professor,” said Charlie, “look at the neck!”
The Zephyr’s neck had eight locks securing its head to its body. According to the control-panel’s diagnostics, four locks were open.
Akayama grabbed the microphone. “Lucia, don’t—”
The Super Heart Beam exploded from the Zephyr’s chest. White light shot thousands of light-years and vaporized whole Hurricane Planets. The force of the beam whipped the Zephyr backwards.
The Zephyr’s head snapped its locks and spun through space above light-speed. Bunjiro was thrashed in his cockpit when the Zephyr’s head impacted asteroids. Akayama cried: “Mou iya dawa!”
“Bunjiro, come in!” shouted Charlie into the mic. No response. “Princess, Daisuke, get him back to the moon! We’ll prepare med-bay!” Charlie shook his head. A tear dripped down his right cheek. “This is my fault, Professor. I was responsible for the launch-preparation.”
Akayama was gone. Charlie lost her in the commotion of the command-tower.
Firing the Super Heart Beam had exhausted her, but Princess Lucia couldn’t sleep that night. She just lay awake in her bunk in her blue, skin-tight, military-issue bodysuit.
The doctors said Bunjiro’s surgery would last hours and he’d be bedridden for days. Charlie said it wasn’t her fault, but Lucia reviewed the test in her mind. Could she have leapt from her cockpit to save him?
“Princess!” Daisuke pounded her door. “Emergency! We need you in the Zephyr!”
“Oh no!” On her way, she tied her blue hair in a military-regulation ponytail. “What’s wrong? Another Hurricane invasion?”
“Worse.” Daisuke explained in the elevator down to the sub-lunar hangar. His gray-green uniform was adorned with rows of medals. He straightened his green crew-cut while he spoke. “Akayama Hakase commandeered the Zephyr’s head from the repair-bay. She’s about to break light-speed leaving the Milky Way, right toward the Hurricane!”
“What? Why?” They ran across catwalks to the headless Zephyr. Charlie already sat in the right-shoulder-cockpit in his yellow uniform. He lit a cockroach and held it in clenched teeth. Lucia hesitated outside the chest-cockpit. “I can’t do this. My first combat-piloting experience was a disaster!”
“Get in, Princess!” shouted Charlie.
“Before she left, Akayama gave you perfect marks,” said Daisuke. “So did I, and so did Charlie.”
“Hey Daisuke, same here!” A gray replacement-head floated onto the Zephyr’s shoulders. Bunjiro popped out the skull-cap and waved to Lucia. His red uniform bulged with bloody bandages. He lowered his spiky red sunglasses to check the eight neck-locks. Satisfied, he posed with two fingers in a V for Victory. “One little crash ain’t gonna stop me!”
“Bunjiro!” Lucia entered her cockpit and buckled her seat-belts. Bunjiro, Charlie, and Daisuke appeared on her computer-screens.
Charlie blew smoke from his cockroach. “Good to see you back in business, Commander Bunjiro.”
Lucia turned her key in the ignition and punched a code on a panel of buttons. Daisuke stretched the Zephyr’s left arm. “Commander,” asked Daisuke, “are you sure you’re fit to fly?”
“Sure as sure!” said Bunjiro. “The moon-base is giving us the green light. Hit it, Princess! Let’s save Professor Akayama!”
Lucia yanked a lever. The Zephyr’s hips fired billowing exhaust and they rocketed from the crater. “Jumping to hyper-light-speed.” Lucia flipped switches. Charlie and Daisuke brought the Zephyr’s arms across its chest.
On a column of clouds thick as cream, the Zephyr shot into space.