Akayama’s Zephyr could track time with great accuracy: seven years and three months passed before Akayama was confident in her light-speed engines. She typed to her Zephyr on its control-panel’s keyboard so the planet couldn’t eavesdrop. The Zephyr replied with text on its only monitor: “Professor, shall we check the engines again?”
“We’ve checked a hundred times,” typed Akayama. “Today’s the day.”
She left her cockpit and stepped on her Hurricane Planet’s dusty surface. Getting the planet’s attention was a chore; it never left ears or eyes around (unless it did so secretly to spy), and its flesh was too insensitive to detect an elderly woman jumping and stomping. For this reason she’d dug a hole in the sandy skin-flakes. Under the red sand the Hurricane’s flesh was smooth and pink. She reached into the hole and stabbed the flesh with her screwdriver.
Instead of blood, the wound gushed pearly pulp.
Akayama covered her ears. As the pulp met air, it congealed into teeth which cracked each other in high-pitched cacophony. They made a hard sheet sealing the wound, but not before the whole hole filled with white goop.
As the cracking of teeth subsided, a mouth opened in the sand and screamed. “Akayama! I told you I hate that!”
“It’s not my fault your immune system overreacts to minor stimuli.” Akayama strode to her Zephyr. “Today you reclaim your humanity. Do you remember how to make synaptic cable like I taught you?”
“Oh! Oh, yes!” A red tentacle popped from the sand. Its tip split into two, and each of those tips split into two, and so on, until the tentacle ended with a fibrous braid. “Like this, right?”
Akayama pulled the braid to the Zephyr’s torn-open neck. “I’m plugging you into the spinal input port. This used to connect to the Heart of the Zephyr so pilots could work in tandem.”
“No, not like you. The Zephyrs’ pilots are united by their goal and by the direction of their commander.” Akayama inserted the braid deep into an exposed rubber tube. “You’ll feel an electrical tingling.”
“I do! I do!” The tentacle wriggled with satisfaction.
“Recall the identities constituting your being. Choose one for the first excursion into relative normalcy.” Akayama climbed into the cockpit and hit return on her keyboard. The Zephyr began copying her Hurricane Planet in its entirety. “Have you chosen?”
Akayama felt the planet rumble in anticipation. “We’ll go alphabetically,” it decided.
“Sou desu ka.” Akayama pretended to type. On the monitor, the Zephyr signaled that the duplication was complete. “Okay, just relax and let my machine do what it needs to do.”
“You’re not giving 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?”
The Zephyr deleted the Hurricane Planet.
Everything was quiet.
Akayama had had recurring nightmares: the moment her planet’s consciousness was deleted the sand collapsed under her, or a mouth opened and swallowed her, or the planet deflated like a balloon. Nothing happened. Everything was quiet.
“Is it done?”
“Yes,” the Zephyr said 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. Warm the engines and let’s take off.” Akayama sealed her torn cockpit with her lab coat so the cabin could fill with air. The Zephyr’s monitor displayed a speaker-icon indicating the Hurricane Planet could hear her. Akayama let it listen to the engines spinning to life. “I’m sorry. This is the only way to get you home.”
The neck spilled white steam and the Zephyr ascended.
“Can you hear me?” asked Akayama.
“How could you?” asked the Hurricane Planet, 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 red planet retreating. “Is that what humanity looks like?”
“Yes!” said the Hurricane. “I’m humanity, and I’m that! Let me go!”
“No!” They 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. “Professor,” said the Zephyr, “the Hurricane has seized my monitor controls.”
“Disconnect it! Quarantine it!” Akayama squinted at her red monitor. Black circles in white circles appeared upon it. By the time she realized what she was looking at, her gaze was fixed on a hundred eyes. Akayama felt her own optic nerves vibrating in response to their movements.
“Professor, what’s happening?”
She barely managed to speak. “The Dance of the Spheres.” One by one the eyes onscreen winked shut. 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.
The corners of her mouth fought to say different words. Her arms swept across the control-panel. Her legs turned her chair to face the lab coat separating her from 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. Akayama gasped at the insights provided to her. “Bunjiro is dead. This planet killed him.”
“Wrong,” she said to herself, “Bunjiro self-destructed. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“And now I see it with mine.” Akayama was helpless to wipe tears from her face.
“Professor, what should I do?” asked the Zephyr.
“Leave me to die. Fly to the moon and tell them what happened.”
Her unruly hands unbuckled 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, she donned her lab coat. It did not flutter in space. She struggled for breath with nothing to breathe, but she didn’t suffocate. The Hurricane inside her was already morphing her biology to survive.
Boney spines poked from her skin. The spines grew blue hairs to make fluffy feathers.
Her lab coat now fluttered as she entered the atmosphere. Her limbs lengthened and flattened into wings. Feathers matured before her eyes and aligned themselves to catch the wind. Her body no longer spun, 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. If you hadn’t lied and did what you’d promised, you’d have finished years ago.” The dunes approached. “When we’re uploaded back into our planet, we’ve got a new mission. We’ll use our new knowledge to make a whole world of human bodies, one for each pilot. Then we’ll see what being human is all about.”
They only realized they didn’t know how to land an instant before impact. Akayama’s feathery body smashed against the sand, barely contained in her lab coat. Pearly pulp poured from her injuries and turned into teeth whose roots knit her body together. Through the agony, Akayama found control of her voice. “You cannot learn to fly from a caged bird,” she said, “and you cannot learn humanity from your own hand-puppets.”