Lucille settled into 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 practiced the layout of her control panel. She adjusted her seat until she felt at home in the head.
She examined the key Charlie gave her. The blue model robot-head dangling from its handle was identical to ZAB.
She pulled her key-ring from a belt loop on her red skintight bodysuit. Each key dangled a plastic body-part depicting Zephyrs Lucille had previously piloted. She’d learned to pilot robots in Zephyr-Epsilon-Yellow, a left leg. She graduated to a green arm, then to the green torso. 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.
The giant electronic brain booted to life. Lucille felt perfectly monstrous carrying her keys. The pilots from Earth wore hair-bands and bracelets, but Lucille had never been to Earth and didn’t care for fashion. All she needed were body-parts and skulls hanging from her waist.
ZAB’s monitors flickered blue and displayed system-booting information. Each screen emptied of text and displayed a shimmering pattern like the sky viewed underwater.
Lucille folded her arms and addressed ZAB. “Oi! I heard you can talk.”
“Yes.” It was a young masculine voice matching the exterior face.
“Well I heard you wanted to talk to me.”
“Yes.” ZAB moved the monitors with hidden mechanisms. Front and center it displayed Lucille’s previous robot, Zephyr-Alpha-Purple. “First we must fill your former position. I have two recommendations.”
“Neither,” said Lucille.
ZAB hesitated. “Z-Purple is the largest robot on the moon, but it requires Zephyr-Alpha-Purple’s coordination. You would leave ZAP without a pilot?”
“Team Purple’s training with no head-pilot. We rigged it so all the purple body-parts receive video 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 relays your commands.”
“And I’ll command them.” Lucille moved monitors herself and tapped a touchscreen. “I’ve piloted two Zephyrs simultaneously, two Alpha units in fact. If Z-Purple has no head-pilot, the position is taken by the head-pilot of next highest rank. As Lunar Commander I naturally fill that role.”
“In a high-stress emergency situation, you’d 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 Fumiko, the head-pilots of Z-Red and Orange.”
“Eisu and Fumiko are worthy of piloting ZAP,” agreed Lucille. “That’s why they stay in ZAR and ZAO. When the Zephyrs combine, Z-Red and Orange lead my legs. I need good, strong legs.”
“As your vehicle, my duty is to obey.” ZAB cleared Eisu’s and Fumiko’s profiles from its main monitor. “Let us get to business.”
All the monitors switched off. The cockpit lights dimmed.
Lucille squinted at the screens. She smacked one. “ZAB? What’s happening?” When her eyes adjusted she saw a dark reflection in the main monitor. The reflection mirrored the angular lines of her 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.”
In the recording, Professor Akayama moved her spare monitors into the video’s 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 if anyone will see this recording. I plan to die today and my ship, the Zephyr’s head, may die with me. The universe will be fewer several pests.”
Lucille slapped the control-panel. “ZAB! Explain yourself!”
Akayama pointed an 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 copies, each larger than the Earth.” Akayama rest one finger on a button of her control-panel. Lucille did not see the button on her own control-panel. “This button transmits a computer-virus which should prevent the Hurricane Planet from dividing. Unfortunately, the Hurricane receives only short-range communication. When I am close enough to transmit the virus my fate will be sealed. Zephyr, alert the Hurricane.”
Lucille’s trained ears heard Akayama’s Zephyr-head preparing its mouth-cannon. White lightning cracked across monitors as charge built on the robot’s tongue. The Zephyr-head spat a white laser.
The laser missed the Hurricane Planet but Akayama had meant to miss. The red planet stretched tentacles toward Akayama. They would take minutes to cross the cosmos.
“Today I wounded my own pupil.” Akayama slumped in her seat. “Charlie will blame himself for Bunjiro’s injury, but I commanded Charlie to perform launch preparations in my stead. Whether Bunjiro is alive and well, or dead and gone, I have proven myself an incapable leader. I’m no savior of Earth. Because, you see, this isn’t the first time I’ve betrayed my dependents. I…”
She covered her mouth like it would hide what she said.
“I built the Hurricane,” she whimpered. “That’s why I speculate short-range virus-transmission will affect it. I know how it was… supposed to work.”
Lucille found nothing to say.
“When I was young, in my forties or fifties, I was lead engineer of a secret international station at the South Pole. No record of that station 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 a hundred pilots whose minds would be melded and merged with their machinery using techniques I perfected in prior secret experiments. The combined intellect could pilot the Hurricane’s complicated structure, which covered acres of the antarctic. For any physical threat to humanity, internal or external, the Hurricane would protect us. The pilots’ minds could be separated 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 is unprepared, all involved bodies immediately boil with cancerous growths. Growths filled with…” She shuddered. “Teeth.”
Lucille leaned close to her monitor. The Hurricane Planet’s tentacles approached Akayama’s Zephyr.
“So you understand my objections when my superiors explained the sponsors of 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 to its completion. The sponsors were secret rulers of wealthy nations and owners of black-market businesses undocumented and unscrupulous.
“I explained I had painstakingly chosen pilots who would not decay into cancerous pain-lumps. My superiors laughed: how could such brilliant minds as our donors succumb to something self-inflicted? Besides, without these sponsors, the Hurricane would not exist. I was lucky for their generosity. In any case the test-flight would last only minutes.
“When I tried preventing the launch from my administrator’s console, I found ignition had already commenced. My authority was bypassed.
“The instant those hundred minds were combined, they piloted the Hurricane into deep space. The antarctic program was swept under the rug; the sponsors were apparently replaceable, or had planned their disappearance, because I heard no note of their absence on the news.
“In the World-Unification I became Scientific Adviser to the newly-appointed Ruler of Earth. I used the funds to build my first Zephyr, which I currently ride.”
Lucille held her armrests. Akayama’s robot wouldn’t be called ZAB until after her death, when the production of new Zephyrs demanded color-designations.
“I explored the galaxy in this Zephyr—and in this Zephyr I sighted the Hurricane in intergalactic space. I recognized its bloody biology, just like my failed mind-melding experiments. I watched aghast as the great, red, cancerous mess swallowed galaxies and converted them into orbs of its own flesh. Uncountably many of these Hurricane Planets dotted distant skies.
“In the face of this threat I begged the Ruler of Earth to restrict humanity to the Milky Way, to stay safe from the horror I’d constructed looming beyond that limit. He acquiesced. He told the public of the Hurricane without admitting its origin to spare my name. He said no one was to leave the Milky Way, but some trailblazers entered intergalactic space. I don’t know if the Hurricane killed them or assimilated them, but they never returned.”
Lucille clenched her fists. Akayama blotted tears with the sleeves of her lab coat.
“In addition to the hundred pilots lost to madness, we lost two hundred and seven who dared trespass on Forbidden Space. Some were children. One child brought a pet bird.
“Meanwhile the Hurricane expanded exponentially. It ate the observable universe in mere years and transmuted the matter into its 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 to launch her last counterattack.
“I designed the Hurricane to be an amorphous, reconfigurable mass. I fear this is why its pilots forgot their humanity. Thus I shaped the Zephyr like a human head. The head’s pilot is not merged with the heart’s or the arms’. The combined robot’s actions can only represent agreement in intention. To pilot a Zephyr you must stand for all of humanity, not one iota le—”
The tentacles ripped her robot in half. Akayama pressed the button just before vacuum sucked her into space. The recording caught the Zephyr’s right half spinning into the black distance. The audio whistled as life-support pumped useless air.
Moments later Akayama’s communicator clicked with distant voices. “Professor! It’s me, Bunjiro! Rescue’s here!”
“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 Bunjiro, “we’re coming in hot!”
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 the Hurricane Planet fists-first above light-speed. The explosion whited-out the recording for twenty seconds. When the video returned, the planet’s surface was plasmafied in a circle a hundred thousand miles across. This would utterly obliterate an ordinary Hurricane Planet but the sun-sized specimen was barely blemished.
The combined Zephyr surfed shock-waves to the recording half of Akayama’s robot-head. “Nice work,” said Bunjiro. “Is that what’s left of Akayama’s ship?”
Princess Lucia gasped and puffed fog from the Zephyr’s hips to glide toward the wreck. Daisuke reached the Zephyr’s left hand for the still-recording camera. “No sign of her,” he said.
“Where’s the rest of her ship?” asked the princess. “She might be with the other half!”
“Can’t stay long,” said Charlie. “More tentacles incoming.”
“We retreat,” said Bunjiro. “Charlie, Daisuke, grab that half of her ship. Lucia, light-speed!”
“Okay!” The gray-headed Zephyr grabbed Akayama’s vessel with its two muscular arms. They fled, but not fast enough—a tentacle constricted the Zephyr’s arms to its sides with sickening crunches. “Oh no!”
“Don’t panic!” shouted Bunjiro. “Charlie, Daisuke, damage report!”
“I can’t—” Daisuke vomited. “I can’t feel my legs!”
“Can you reach your control panel?” asked Bunjiro.
The Zephyr’s left hand secured its grip. “Hai.”
“Charlie, come in!”
“My cockpit collapsed and gouged out my fucking eyeball.” Charlie audibly lit a cockroach. “My control-panel’s busted, but I can work my foot-pedals.”
“Princess, keep up the acceleration! Charlie, Daisuke, get this tentacle off before more drag us down!”
They had no luck. Suckers bonded to their metal skin. Princess Lucia shouted to Bunjiro. “Commander, fire your mouth-cannon!”
“This back-up head doesn’t have that function!”
“Then I’ll use my Super Heart Beam!”
“Princess,” asked Bunjiro, “are you sure you can fire it again? If we transfer power and it doesn’t work, we’re done for!”
“I know I can,” said Lucia.
“Quick vote. Aye!” said Bunjiro.
“Aye,” said Charlie.
“Aye,” said Daisuke. The engines churned as the Zephyr diverted power to its heart.
So many tentacles crawled over the Zephyr that Akayama’s recording couldn’t catch a glimpse of its metal flesh, but white 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 chunk of the Hurricane Planet. The Zephyr wiped off gore with its left hand.
“Nice job, Princess.” Charlie’s voice was distant like he didn’t have enough blood to speak. He grabbed Akayama’s vessel with the Zephyr’s right hand.
“Accelerating to light-speed,” said Lucia. With the last of her strength she activated the hip-turbines and pumped fog behind them. “Get us home, Commander Bunjiro!”
“More tentacles incoming,” said Daisuke. “Can we outpace them?”
Akayama’s recording captured the approaching tentacles. “Yes we can,” said Bunjiro.
“Commander, are you sure?” asked Charlie. The Zephyrs and the tentacles raced above light-speed. “Akayama’s ship is slowing us down.”
“Hold onto it. It’s the only way to know what happened here.” Bunjiro 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 know what happened: Akayama came here to die.”
“You’ll make it. I promise.” Tentacles lapped at their hips. “Princess?”
“I love you.”
“I know you can do this without me.”
“Bunjiro, no! Commander!”
“Take care of the galaxy for me.”
The gray replacement head popped off the neck. Lucia wailed. “Bunjiro, I’m pregnant!”
The tentacles wrapped the gray head. Bunjiro’s ship exploded as the headless body escaped.
ZAB’s lights became bright. Lucille huddled in the Commander’s chair with her arms around her knees. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” said ZAB. Lucille’s shoulders bounced as she cried. “When your mother fired the Super Heart Beam she was catastrophically overexerted. We barely saved you from her womb to continue your incubation on the moon. Even with modern medical equipment your healthy development was a miracle.”
Lucille just sobbed, so ZAB continued.
“As Lunar Commander, this video could not be kept from you. You now understand humanity’s enemy the Hurricane.”
Lucille released her knees and breathed deep. She cried mere moments ago, but her face was dry. She kept her eyes closed.
“Since Akayama’s death the moon-base has been defensive,” said ZAB. “You may accept this precedent or initiate new orders.”
“Oh, things are changing around here,” said Lucille. “But I need time to think.”
“I waited twenty years for you,” said ZAB. “I can wait a little longer.”
When Lucille popped the hatch and exited the head, she brushed off Charlie’s condolences. “I’m sorry you had to see that, Lucille.”
She just stood before ZAB. Its left and right were different shades split by a seam down its nose, like the head 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.