(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The year is 2413.
Akayama woke before the artificial sunrise and wrapped her old, tattered lab-coat around her shoulders. She climbed down from her Zephyr’s half-cockpit onto the sandy red mountainside, seeing mile-high dunes below her in every direction. The mountain sat on a towering stone step to keep her from leaving, not that she had anywhere to go. She’d jumped off a few times, trying to end herself when she thought Uzumaki wasn’t watching, but it always was, and it always caught her midair to bring her back to work.
She walked up the red mountain, hands on her knees to support herself. Eventually she came across a small stone the size of her palm. She carried the stone further up the mountain to a line of stacked stones. She counted the stacks: ten. Each stack was ten stones high except the last, stacked nine stones high. She capped the tenth stack with its tenth stone. Another hundred artificial days had passed. Stacking stones was a dull chore, but it kept her sharp and in shape. She couldn’t recall how many times she’d counted a hundred days, but the futility of the task didn’t dissuade her: the artificial day surely differed from 24 hours, and there was no way to tell how much it differed, so tracking Earth time was a lost cause anyway. If she had to guess, she’d estimate she’d lived on Uzumaki’s red mountain for twelve years. She crossed her legs to sit facing the stone stacks in the direction she called east. She closed her eyes and waited for sunrise.
“How come you always move these rocks?” Uzumaki spoke from a mouth the size of a manhole it opened on the mountainside. “And why do I bother rotating near a star if you wake before dawn? It’s dangerous for me to be this near the Milky Way.”
Akayama straightened her back and inhaled deep. “Despite your biological trappings, you’re more machine than man. You’ve forgotten the importance of morning rituals.”
“I have memories of my pilots brushing their teeth each morning,” said Uzumaki. “It seems really dull. When we sync up, my backups and I consider deleting those memories. There’s no humanity in them.”
“That’s exactly the attitude I seek to cure,” said Akayama. “Everyday mundanity is vital to the human condition. Do you know the notion of wabi-sabi?“
“Of course. It’s like green horseradish.”
Akayama clenched her closed eyes. “I must cope with this solitude as consequence for my crimes. Only my knowledge of emptiness sustains me. You’d do yourself well to accept impermanence.” The artificial sunrise shined yellow through her eyelids. She opened them to see the whole sky was disconcertingly mustard-colored. She stood and kicked over her stacks of stones. “My last screwdriver snapped. Do you remember how I taught you to make them?”
“Hold on.” The mouth’s tongue bounced around its teeth. It spat a stone screwdriver. “Is that all you need?”
“Eeuugh.” Akayama used her lab-coat’s pocket like a glove to pick up the screwdriver. Over years here, saliva had stained her white lab-coat bluish. “I’ll have to teach you manners. When you return to Earth, will you greet Princess Lucia with such a slobbery maw?”
“We can’t go to Earth. Your moon-base is sending out more bully-robots than ever, in all sorts of colors. They’d attack me and I’d have to kill or assimilate everyone.”
“That’s what you’d do if they didn’t attack you. That’s why they attack you.” Akayama began walking back down the red mountain to her Zephyr-half. The mouth followed along the ground, pushing sand aside. “I need more food. Do you remember how I taught you to generate mixed fruits and tako-yaki-tori?“
“Yeah, yeah.” Uzumaki struck a stone spear up next to Akayama’s feet. The spear skewered seared bird and squid. “You’re lucky the Hurricane assimilated those animals, or you’d have no meat to eat but human flesh. How do I make fruit, again? I deleted your explanation from my memory because it’s too boring.”
“When I developed mind-merging, I tested it by grafting fruit-trees without them physically interacting. The data from those tests is still—“
“See? Boooring.” Saying this, Uzumaki’s mouth stretched wide like a hot-tub. “I didn’t ask for your life story, I asked how to make fruit.”
Akayama sighed. “There’s a collection of fruit-tree genomes in your legacy-files.”
“Oh, right.” Uzumaki struck up another spear. This one skewered apples, peaches, and pomegranates. “Anyway, I’m putting you underground so I can sync with my backups. I told my copies you died when you fell, so we can’t let them see you.” The dunes around the red mountain opened, unleashing colossal eyeballs. Their veins were like pulsing rivers of blood. Akayama heard the squelching of more eyeballs enormous as oceans blooming across the planet, watching the sky.
She groaned and pulled the spears of food into her Zephyr’s cockpit. The Hurricane’s syncing-process took place in an area of truce, where planets wouldn’t eat each other alive, so far from the Milky Way that no human had ever witnessed the procedure. Akayama understood it to be a never-ending swirl of Hurricane Planets sharing information via eye-signals. She speculated this form of communication was derived from ordinary human REM sleep. “I’ll need light,” she said. “Do you remember how to make luminescence?”
“Nope.” The mouth regurgitated graphite and slimy, fibrous paper. “Remind me?”
The professor wrote chemical formulas and tossed the paper and graphite back into Uzumaki’s mouth. The mouth salivated glowing slime. Akayama smeared the slime on the ceiling of her cockpit. “That will be all.” The red mountain swallowed her ship and she landed in a subterranean organ like a slowly-breathing lung. Then she felt strange forces as Uzumaki’s whole planet accelerated to many times light-speed.
By the slime’s glow, Akayama unscrewed her Zephyr’s control-panel to access circuitry underneath. For twelve years (she estimated) she’d repaired everything which required only tools as basic as a soldering-gun. The only uncracked monitor functioned flickeringly. The life-support worked, but she wouldn’t let Uzumaki know that. She could even use the nuclear reactors to synthesize chemicals from subatomic particles. Now she twisted wires together and screwed the casing back onto the control-panel. She turned the key in the ignition. The life-support pumped oxygen into the torn cockpit. So far so good.
Akayama draped her lab-coat across the torn cockpit like a curtain. She suspected the syncing-process distracted Uzumaki, but the cost of failure was too great to trust she wasn’t being watched. Then she addressed her Zephyr. “Can you hear me?”
“Masaka!” She collapsed sobbing on the steering-wheel. “Thank God! Thank God!”
“I’m damaged.” Her Zephyr spoke through its lone monitor’s speakers. The system booting information displayed countless technical failures. “How long was I offline?”
“I wish I knew.” Akayama wiped her tears with the slobbery sleeve of her lab-coat. “We’ve been trapped on that sun-sized Hurricane Planet for years, at least. I named this particular planet Uzumaki to distinguish it from the others. Our virus had at least a small impact: Uzumaki can’t multiply. I’m lucky to remain distinct from it, and lucky it’s allowed me to repair you.”
“Trapped on the sun-sized Hurricane Planet…” Her Zephyr’s only monitor displayed a picture of the planet from Akayama’s confession. The image made Akayama tremble in memory of the event. “I remember now. I have video you may wish to review. When I was torn in half, my left half continued recording. It transmitted the recording to this half until it left our range.”
Akayama’s blood ran cold. “Play the recording. Wait! Don’t!” She already saw stars spinning while she begged to die. “Just tell me what happened.”
“Commander Bunjiro, Zephyr Charlie, Zephyr Dakshi, and Princess Lucia arrived mere moments after the tentacles ripped me apart,” said her Zephyr. “The Commander was piloting the gray test-head. They collided with Uzumaki faster than light.”
“They made the wound which saved me.” Akayama covered her heart. “I knew Bunjiro couldn’t be kept in a stretcher for long.”
“Tentacles wrapped around them, but Princess Lucia fired her Super Heart Beam and shredded them. She also disintegrated a sizable portion of Uzumaki.”
“She did? Oh, Princess!” The professor beamed with pride. “No one’s ever fired the Super Heart Beam twice in one day!”
“The team reclaimed my left half. The last frames show them accelerating above light-speed with tentacles in slow pursuit.”
“They escaped with my confession.” Enormous weight lifted from her shoulders. “Everyone knows the Hurricane’s weakness to short-range communication. Earth is surely safe with Bunjiro, Charlie, Dakshi, and the princess. I would trust no one else.”
“I’m glad you’re in good spirits, but my engines are offline. I doubt we can escape in this condition.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan,” she whispered, just in case. “I told Uzumaki I’m repairing you to use your circuits as a timeshare for its pilots’ consciousnesses. Really we’re pulling the whole planet into your memory-banks all at once—I’m sure your spinal-input-port can handle the load. Then we’ll escape to the moon without interference and take our time separating the Hurricane’s pilots.”
“I see. But still, my engines are offline.”
“Now you’re here to help. We should have them repaired within a few years.”
Akayama grit her teeth. “Show me the princess’s Super Heart Beam.”
The year is 2420.
Akayama’s Zephyr tracked time with perfect accuracy: seven years and three months passed before she trusted her repairs to its hyper-light-speed engines. She typed to her Zephyr on its control-panel’s keyboard so the planet couldn’t eavesdrop. Her Zephyr replied with text on its only monitor. ‘Professor, my engines are still only functioning at ten percent power.’
‘They’re functioning enough,’ typed Akayama. ‘Today’s the day.’ She left her cockpit and stepped onto the dusty red mountainside.
Getting Uzumaki’s attention was a pain. It constantly spied on her with secret eyes and ears so she couldn’t escape or end her own life, but it would never admit to doing so. When she jumped and stomped, it pretended not to notice, as if its flesh was too tough to detect such an elderly woman. Having no other option, she brushed dust aside and stabbed the pink flesh underneath with her screwdriver. Instead of blood, the wound gushed pearly pulp.
Akayama covered her ears. The pulp congealed into teeth which cracked each other in high-pitched cacophony, making a hard sheet sealing the wound. As the cracking teeth subsided, the wound became a screaming mouth. “Akayama! I told you I hate that!”
“It’s not my fault your immune-system overreacts to minor stimuli. I didn’t build you to become what you are.” Akayama strode to her Zephyr, one arm behind her back, the other gesticulating as if to a college class. “Today you reclaim your humanity. Do you remember how I taught you to make synaptic-cable?”
“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 her Zephyr’s torn-open neck. “I’m plugging you into the spinal-input-port. In the past, this connected to the Heart of the Zephyr so pilots could work in tandem.”
“Like my pilots?”
“No, not like you. Zephyrs are united by intent, not flesh and blood.” Akayama inserted the braid deep into an exposed rubber tube. “You’ll feel an electrical tingling.”
“I do! I do!” The tentacle wriggled in anticipation like an excited boa.
“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. Her Zephyr began pulling Uzumaki’s consciousness into its memory-banks. “Have you chosen?”
The planet rumbled under her. “We’ll go alphabetically,” it decided.
“Sou desu ka.” Akayama pretended to type. On the monitor, her Zephyr signaled that the transfer was complete.
“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?”
Her Zephyr disconnected Uzumaki’s consciousness from its Hurricane Planet.
Akayama had had recurring nightmares: the moment her planet was emptied, the mountain collapsed under her, or a mouth opened and swallowed her, or the whole planet deflated like a balloon. Nothing happened. Everything was quiet. “Is it done?”
“Yes,” her Zephyr said aloud. “Uzumaki is aboard my memory-banks.”
“Let it access the monitor so we can communicate. I want to let it know everything will be okay. Warm the engines and let’s take off.” Akayama sealed the torn cockpit with her lab-coat so the cabin could fill with air; she’d soaked the lab-coat in extra spit just for this. Her Zephyr’s monitor displayed a speaker-icon indicating Uzumaki could hear her. It listened to the engines spin to life. “I’m sorry. This is the only way to bring you home.” The neck spilled white steam and her Zephyr ascended. “Can you hear me?”
“How could you?” Uzumaki asked through the monitor’s speakers. “I trusted you.”
“I know, but on the moon I’ll have the tools to separate all of your pilots 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 Uzumaki its own Hurricane Planet retreating, looking down over the red mountain and mile-high dunes. “Is that what humanity looks like?”
“Yes!” said Uzumaki. “I’m humanity, and I’m that! Lemme go!”
“I won’t!” 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 her Zephyr, “Uzumaki has seized my monitor-controls.”
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” Black circles in white circles appeared on the red monitor. By the time she realized what she was looking at, Akayama was transfixed by a hundred electric eyes. She felt her own optic nerves vibrating in response to their movements.
“Professor, what’s happening?”
She barely managed to speak. “Rapid Eye Movement.” One by one, the eyes onscreen winked shut. Akayama’s own eyes lost their luster. “It’s jumping into me.”
The last eye winked away. The monitor went black. “Professor, Uzumaki is no longer in my memory-banks. Can you hear me?” Akayama couldn’t respond. “Professor?”
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 back. “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. She wasn’t sure which hand was hers and which was Uzumaki’s as they swapped sides repeatedly to wrestle. Then both hands were hers and both hands were Uzumaki’s. Their minds had stuck together like two bubbles, one a hundred times larger than the other, trading thoughts through the flat film between them. Akayama gasped at the insights provided to her. “Bunjiro is dead. You killed him.”
“Wrong,” she said to herself. “That guy self-destructed before I could squash him. 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 her Zephyr.
“Leave me behind. 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 her chair and she spun toward the sun-sized Hurricane Planet a thousand miles below.
As she fell, she donned her lab-coat. It didn’t flutter in space. She struggled for breath with nothing to breathe, but she didn’t suffocate. Uzumaki was already morphing her biology to survive. Boney spines poked from her skin. The spines grew blue hairs to become fluffy feathers.
Her lab-coat now fluttered as she entered the atmosphere. Her limbs lengthened and flattened into wings. Feathers matured and aligned to catch the wind. Her body no longer spun, but dove for the red mountain in a spiral like a bird of prey.
“You, you, you!” said her own mouth. “You were really holding out on me, Professor! With your scientific knowledge, if you hadn’t lied and just did what you’d promised, you would’ve finished years ago!” The red mountain approached faster and faster. “I’ll load myself back aboard my planet, and you’re coming with me. I could finish assimilating you, merging your mind into mine, but it’s fun playing with these itty-bitty human-parts! I’m gonna use you like a drone. You’re not Akayama anymore. You’re Nakayama now.”
“The middle Mountain,” translated Nakayama. The kanji appeared in her mind’s eye: 中山. “I see.”
“Shh. This isn’t your tongue to talk with anymore.” Uzumaki only realized it didn’t know how to land an instant before impact. Nakayama’s feathery body splattered against the red mountain, barely contained in her lab-coat. Pearly pulp poured from her injuries and turned into teeth whose roots painfully knit her body back together. Uzumaki let Nakayama handle the agony on its behalf, and through it, she found control of her voice again.
“You can’t learn to fly from a caged bird,” she choked. “You can’t learn humanity using me as a hand-puppet.”
Uzumaki took her tongue back. “Fine. Then you’ll carry out our new mission: I want a whole world of bodies, one for each of my pilots. Then we’ll see what being human is all about!”