(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)
The year is 2420.
When Charlie spoke without a roach between his lips, consonants whistled through the scarred gap. “You nailed your history exam, kiddo. What do you know about Professor Akayama?”
Lucille watched elevator-lights track their descent to the hangars. “I know she was Scientific Adviser to the Ruler of Earth. I know she constructed this moon-base. She invented Zephyr-robots, and trained Zephyr-pilots to fend off the Hurricane.”
“Do you know how she died, twenty years ago?” Charlie’s smile was a worried one, so Lucille pursed her lips. “We never let you in on that, did we?”
“You’ve never told me the whole story,” she said. “All I know is it’s classified. History-books say the same incident killed my father and mortally wounded my mother. It inspired the Ruler of Earth to abdicate executive power and step down as leader of Global Parliament. From what I’ve heard, it was the Hurricane.”
“It gave me this scar.” Charlie adjusted his eye-patch. “Zephyr Dakshi hasn’t walked since. Your mother barely lived long enough for you to stand here today.” He shook his head. “What I’m saying is… Zephyrhood isn’t all robots and shouting. I know you know that, more than any of us.” The elevator opened into the smallest, deepest, darkest hangar. In the center sat ZAB, Zephyr-Alpha-Blue, the twenty-meter tall head of the long-unmanned original Zephyr. Its left and right were different shades, as if the head had been ripped in half and one half had been replaced. Still it carried a noble gaze. Its brow bore the weight of humanity’s plight. “But this guy knows it most of all.” Charlie tossed Lucille a key and she caught it without looking. The key’s handle dangled a plastic blue robot-head. “This is your last chance to turn back. There’s no return once you to talk to ZAB.”
“Talk?” Lucille climbed the ladder at the nape of the neck. “What do you mean?”
“Akayama was more interested in consciousness than combat.” Lucille twisted open the hatch on ZAB’s skullcap. “ZAB was her personal spaceship—it was just called ‘the Zephyr’ back then, since it was the only one of its kind. She made its AI to keep her company on solo-trips through the solar system, where she sampled Jupiter’s spot. When the Hurricane was discovered, ZAB was recommissioned as the head of humanity’s protector, but the AI is still on-board.”
Lucille hesitated halfway down the hatch. “So there’s a voice in here, sir, and I’m to win it over?”
“You’ve already won it over. It graded your exams.”
“The history-books didn’t mention anything about an artificial intelligence.”
“History leaves out a lot.” Charlie lit a new roach and puffed it red-hot. “When that hatch closes behind you, you outrank me. You outrank Zephyr Dakshi. You outrank everyone. With your head on our shoulders, humanity has a face again. A direction.” He prepared a gold pen to sign her certificate of promotion. “So take your time. Enjoy the last moments before your first command.”
“Banzai.” Lucille closed the hatch behind her and descended 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. She adjusted the seat until she felt at home in the head. The control-panel was like any other Zephyr’s: flocks of buttons, levers, dials, and switches surrounded a central steering-wheel above a keyboard. The interior was crowded with touchscreen monitors for live-feeds, status-reports, and video-chats with her next-in-command.
She examined the key Charlie gave her. The plastic blue robot-head dangling from its handle was identical to ZAB. She pulled her key-ring from a belt-loop on her bodysuit, each key dangling a plastic body-part depicting Zephyrs which Lucille had previously piloted. She’d learned to pilot in the yellow left leg under Charlie’s guidance from the yellow head, Zephyr-Alpha-Yellow, ZAY. She graduated to a green arm, then to the green torso, answering to Dakshi in the green head, Zephyr-Alpha-Green, ZAG. She proved herself a worthy Commander in the red head, ZAR, and then the purple head, ZAP. ZAB’s plastic copy joined good company on her key-ring.
Lucille beamed. She felt perfectly monstrous carrying her keys like this. The Zephyrs from Earth wore hair-bands and bracelets, but she’d never been planet-side herself and didn’t care for its fashion. All she needed were body-parts and skulls hanging off her waist. She stuck her newest key in the ignition.
The giant electronic brain booted to life. All ZAB’s monitors flickered blue and scrolled through system-booting information. Each screen emptied of text and displayed a shimmering pattern like the sky viewed underwater. Lucille folded her arms. “Hey! I heard you can talk.”
“Yes.” It was an electric masculine voice matching the exterior face.
“Well, I heard you wanna talk to me.”
“Yes.” ZAB moved the monitors with hidden mechanisms. Front and center it displayed Lucille’s previous robot, Zephyr-Alpha-Purple, the head of the giant purple robot. “First we must fill your former position. I have two recommendations.”
“Neither,” said Lucille.
ZAB’s hardware clicked and beeped. Lucille got the impression she’d surprised it, and it had to process her unexpected response. “Z-Purple is the most powerful robot on the moon, but it requires Zephyr-Alpha-Purple’s coordination. You would leave ZAP unmanned?”
“The purple Zephyrs are training with no Alpha-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, and Z-Purple is in the center.” The monitor scaled-down the image of ZAP to display the whole lunar org-chart, a complicated tree based on the human nervous-system. Head-pilots of each monochrome robot were linked to the crew they commanded, and differently colored robots were linked together in an anthropoid layout with Z-Purple as the spine. On a given day, the lunar-base would have two limbs-worth of giant space-robots fighting the Hurricane while the rest of the crew worked on the moon or recuperated on Earth. Even planet-side, the Zephyrs worked remotely to maintain a bureaucratic chain-of-command. “ZAP’s pilot is meant to relay your command to the lunar-base’s legs.”
“I’ll command and I’ll relay.” Lucille moved monitors herself and tapped their touchscreens to customize settings. “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, our head and heart had better agree.” Lucille lowered ZAB’s default font-size. “So I’ll command from both.”
ZAB’s hardware stopped struggling. “In case you were curious, my recommendations were Zephyr Eisu or Zephyr Fumiko, Commanders of Z-Red and Z-Orange.” It displayed their profiles over their positions in the org-chart, atop the lunar-base’s thighs.
“Either of the twins would be worthy of piloting ZAP,” agreed Lucille. “That’s why they stay in ZAR and ZAO. On that org-chart you’ve got there, Z-Red and Z-Orange lead the lunar-base’s legs. I need good, strong legs.”
“As your vehicle, my duty is to obey.” ZAB cleared the org-chart from its main monitor. “Let us get to business.” The cockpit-lights dimmed. All the monitors switched off.
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 instead. She wore a white lab-coat and had navy hair in a tight nautilus bun. It was not a reflection, but a recording from ZAB’s internal camera.
“Konbanwa. I am Professor Akayama.” Akayama pulled a monitor so its screen appeared in the recording. The monitor showed empty black space with a red circle in the center: a Hurricane Planet. “This is my video-confession. I plan to die today, and my ship, the Zephyr’s head, may die with me. The universe will have fewer pests.”
Lucille slapped the control-panel. “ZAB! Explain yourself!”
Akayama pointed an aged finger to the red circle on her monitor. “This Hurricane Planet fled from the galaxy’s third arm after Princess Lucia’s first Super Heart Beam. Having collected mass, it is a little larger than Earth’s sun.” Lucille bit her tongue. A lone Zephyr versus a Hurricane Planet of such caliber was no contest. “A Hurricane Planet this large is ready to create thousands of copies bigger than Earth, each of which will continue consuming the galaxy.” Akayama held up a remote-control with one red button. “This button transmits a computer-virus which I hope will neutralize the planet. Unfortunately, the Hurricane receives only short-range communication. When I’m close enough to transmit the virus, my fate will be sealed. Zephyr, alert the Hurricane.”
Lucille’s trained ears recognized the sound of ZAB preparing its mouth-cannon. White lightning crackled as charge built on the robot’s tongue. ZAB spat a laser which missed the Hurricane Planet, but Akayama had meant to miss: the red planet took notice and stretched tentacles toward her. They would take a minute to cross the cosmos.
“Today I wounded my own pupil.” Akayama slumped in her seat, everything drained from her. “Zephyr Charlie will blame himself for Commander Bunjiro’s injury, but I commanded Zephyr Charlie to prepare the launch in my stead, and then I distracted him with kanji. Whether Commander Bunjiro is alive and well or dead and gone, I’ve proven myself an incapable leader. I’m no defender of Earth. This isn’t the first time I’ve betrayed my dependents. You see, I…” She covered her mouth like it would hide what she said next. “I built the Hurricane,” she whimpered. “That’s why I’m sure short-range virus-transmission will affect it. I know how it was… supposed to work. But to reveal its weakness, I must admit my crimes.”
Lucille had no response. Her brain clicked and beeped like ZAB, struggling to process this unexpected information. How could Earth’s trusted Professor Akayama have created the cosmic horror which ate the universe, killed her parents, and wounded her adopted parents? She took the fetal-position like it would protect her from what she heard next.
“Before the World-Unification, countless overlapping micro-nations and mega-corporations waged constant war. As a young woman in my forties or fifties, the group I worked for—not entirely of my own volition—was the offspring of a long-gone country, Japan, and one of its own mining industries. I manufactured drones, controlled from a distance by the consciousness of a remote pilot, for combat against the offspring of the United Kingdom and a distributor of teabags and spices, America and a brand of banana, and Japan, again, with a technology-entertainment company. It was truly a dystopian hellscape! But my drones garnered attention for my research in cognition. One day, representatives from a hundred different groups contacted me about their plan to unite the planet with a new kind of space-robot, and in my naivete, I believed in the vision they presented. They hired me to lead the construction of that space-robot in a secret station near the south pole. No record of that station exists because of what happened.
“The Hurricane’s original design was primitive compared to the Zephyr, but its hundred pilots would have their minds melded together and merged with their machinery using techniques I perfected for the purpose. Only their combined intellect could pilot the Hurricane’s complicated structure, which covered acres of the antarctic. The Hurricane would protect humanity from any threat, internal or external, and the pilots would be separated when they’d brought the planet peace. With that purpose in mind, I hand-selected the crew from countless individuals across the globe. I performed thousands of interviews and issued hundreds of physical and mental batteries to weed out weak links. Mind-merging is a dangerous process, and those unprepared in body or spirit are subject to terrible ailments. If even one mind among many is unprepared, all involved bodies immediately boil with cancerous growths. Growths filled with…” She shuddered. “…Teeth.”
Lucille leaned so close to her monitor that her breath fogged the screen. The Hurricane Planet’s tentacles approached Akayama in ZAB.
“So you understand my objections when those representatives who hired me explained that the anonymous rulers of my sponsoring micro-nations and mega-corporations would have the honor of the maiden voyage. I told them how I’d painstakingly chosen pilots who wouldn’t decay into cancerous pain-lumps, but they laughed. How could such brilliant minds as our powerful leaders succumb to something self-inflicted? Besides, without them, I couldn’t have produced the Hurricane at all. I was lucky for their generosity, and I should be thanking them. 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 way Akayama’s arthritic shoulders bounced when she cried made Lucille’s shoulders bounce, too.
“The instant those hundred minds were combined, they piloted the Hurricane into deep space. Those anonymous rulers were apparently replaceable, or had planned for their disappearance, because I heard no note of their absence—but they must have been load-bearing, because the World-Unification began just fifteen years later. Historians now say the Hurricane’s first sighting caused the World-Unification, because this is an easy, reasonable story, but the truth is the reverse: the Hurricane’s desertion allowed the World-Unification to occur. I became Scientific Adviser to the head of Global Parliament, Ruler of Earth. I used the funding to build the head of the Zephyr, which I currently ride.”
Lucille gripped her armrests. Akayama’s robot wouldn’t be called ZAB until after her death, when the production of new Zephyrs demanded color-designations. This, at least, made sense to her, while the rest of her historical knowledge crumbled.
“For a few years, humanity enjoyed the advantages of being a space-faring civilization, establishing new homes on the rare habitable planets of our galaxy. In my Zephyr I thought to explore further than anyone, entering intergalactic space—where I sighted my Hurricane, as if it was waiting for me! It looked nothing like what I had built or intended, but 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 cosmic horror I’d constructed looming beyond that limit. He acquiesced and told the public of the Hurricane without admitting its origin to spare my name. In fact, the lie that the Hurricane’s discovery began the World-Unification was probably fabricated for my sake. But galactic lock-down proved to be a half-measure: the Hurricane blitzed the Milky Way’s borders and devoured all it could before Earth mobilized a response. It ate several planets humanity had colonized. There’s no way to know if the Hurricane just consumed the inhabitants’ bodies for mass, or if it assimilated their minds into its own, but frankly, I pray for the former! Since then, humanity has remained Earth-bound.”
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 at least twenty million people who dared settle near forbidden space. I say ‘at least’ because these settlers left little paper-trail after they were devoured. We do know some of them brought their children with them, and some of the children brought their pets.” She sobbed. “Mostly birds! They fare well in space.
“Meanwhile, the Hurricane expanded exponentially. In a few decades it transmuted the observable universe into its planet-sized cells. I transported the solar system near the galactic center, and devoted my moon-base to protecting the Earth when the Hurricane comes too close.” The Hurricane Planet’s tentacles grew impossibly large in Akayama’s monitors. She prepared to press her remote’s red 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 my Zephyr like a human head, and designed its additional units to continue the shape of a human body. The head’s pilot is not merged with the pilots of the heart or the arms, so the assembled Zephyr’s actions can only represent agreement in intention. To pilot a Zephyr you must stand for all of humanity and not one iota le—“
The tentacles ripped ZAB in half. The camera in its left half watched its right half spin into the black distance. Akayama pressed her remote’s red button while vacuum sucked her into space. The audio whistled as life-support pumped useless air. Moments later, ZAB’s on-board communicator clicked with distant voices. “Professor! It’s me, Bunjiro! Rescue’s here!” His image appeared in the corner of the recording. His playboy expression was replaced with grim candor.
“We’re arriving above light-speed,” said Charlie, appearing on Bunjiro’s right, smoking a roach. “What’s your condition?”
“She’s not responding,” said Dakshi, appearing on Bunjiro’s left.
“Oh no,” said Princess Lucia, appearing beneath Bunjiro. “We’re too late!”
“It’s never too late!” shouted Bunjiro. “We’re coming in hot!” The Combined Zephyr arrived so quickly it was only onscreen for a frame: a blue torso and blue 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, and when the video returned, the planet’s surface was plasmafied in a circle hundreds of thousands of miles across. This would utterly obliterate a smaller Hurricane Planet, but this sun-sized specimen was barely blemished. The Combined Zephyr surfed shock-waves to ZAB’s recording half. “Nice work, team. Is that what’s left of the Zephyr’s head?”
Princess Lucia gasped and puffed fog from the Zephyr’s hips to glide toward the wreck. Dakshi reached the Zephyr’s left hand toward the still-recording camera. “No sign of the professor,” he said.
“Where’s the rest of it?” asked Lucia. “She might be with the other half!”
“Can’t stay long,” said Charlie. “More tentacles incoming!”
“We retreat,” said Bunjiro. “Charlie, Dakshi, grab that half of her ship. Lucia, hyper-light-speed!”
“Okay, Commander!” said Lucia. The Combined Zephyr grabbed ZAB’s left half, but didn’t flee fast enough—a tentacle constricted its arms to its sides with sickening crunches. Charlie’s and Dakshi’s video degraded to static snow. “Oh no!”
“Don’t panic!” shouted Bunjiro. “Charlie, Dakshi, damage report!”
“I can’t—” Dakshi vomited. “I can’t feel my legs!”
“Can you reach your control-panel?” asked Bunjiro.
The Zephyr’s left hand secured its grip on ZAB’s left half. “Yes, sir!”
“Charlie, come in!”
“My cockpit collapsed and gouged out my fucking eyeball.” Charlie audibly lit another roach, having lost his first. “My control-panel’s busted, but I can work my foot-pedals.”
“Princess, keep up the acceleration! Charlie, Dakshi, get this tentacle off before more drag us down!”
They had no luck. Suckers bonded to their metal skin. Princess Lucia shouted. “Commander, fire your mouth-cannon!”
“This backup head doesn’t have a mouth-cannon!”
“Then I’ll fire the Super Heart Beam!”
“You fired it earlier today,” said Bunjiro. “Are you sure you can do it again? If we transfer power and it doesn’t work, we’re done for!”
“I know I can.” Lucia and Bunjiro locked eyes. Their cockpits were fifty meters apart, but appearing on each other’s monitors, they were only inches away. One little look communicated everything.
“Quick vote. Aye!” said Bunjiro.
“Aye!” said Charlie.
“Aye!” said Dakshi. Engines churned as power diverted to the Zephyr’s heart with the crackle of blue lightning. So many tentacles crawled over the Combined Zephyr that Akayama’s recording couldn’t catch a glimpse of its metal surface, but the tentacles turned translucent when white light intensified. The light burst in a colossal cone from the Zephyr’s chest, vaporizing tentacles and atomizing a chunk of the Hurricane Planet. Dakshi wiped away gore with the Zephyr’s left forearm.
“Nice shot, Princess.” Charlie’s voice was weak like he didn’t have enough blood to speak. He grabbed ZAB’s left half with the Zephyr’s right hand.
“Accelerating to hyper-light-speed!” With the last of her strength, Lucia activated the hip-turbines and pumped fog behind them. “Get us home, Commander Bunjiro!”
“More tentacles incoming,” said Dakshi. “Can we outpace them?”
Bunjiro turned the gray head to look back. “Yes we can,” he said.
“Commander, are you sure?” asked Charlie. The Combined Zephyr and the tentacles raced faster than light. “Carrying the Zephyr’s head is slowing us down.”
“Hold onto it. It’s the only way to know what happened here.” Bunjiro lowered his pointy red sunglasses to judge the tentacles advancing behind them. “You’ll make it. I promise.”
“I don’t think we will, sir,” said Dakshi. “We know what happened: Professor 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!”
“Protect the galaxy, okay, Princess?”
The gray replacement-head popped off the neck and Bunjiro’s image disappeared. Lucia wailed. “Bunjiro, I’m pregnant!” Tentacles wrapped up the gray head, which exploded while 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 gasped for air 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 know the origin of Earth’s enemy, the Hurricane.” Lucille released her knees and breathed deep. She cried mere moments ago, but now her face was dry. She kept her eyes closed. “Since the death of Professor Akayama, the moon-base has been largely reactionary under Zephyr Charlie and Zephyr Dakshi. You can 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 climbed down the head, she brushed off Charlie’s condolences. “I’m sorry you had to see that, Commander.”
She just stood before ZAB with her hands on her hips. Its left and right were different shades, ripped in half and half replaced. Still it carried a noble gaze. Its brow bore the weight of humanity’s plight.