ZALDA ZAX AND THE CYBERPOD
“Now,” said Mr Knox, “I want at least three pages on ‘Frankenstein’ by tomorrow morning.”
Kevin sharpened his pencil and started to write.
“Not now, you stupid boy. It's lunch hour.”
The break bell was muffled by the sound of trainers stampeding to the canteen for curry and chips and the click of the English teacher's shoes as he followed them.
Kevin carried on writing. ‘Zalda Zax guided her spaceship through the opening shutter. On the other side of the bulkhead was the machine that controlled the moon's orbit. After working perfectly for years, it had now gone wrong. But it had its own defence system against terrorists and might not recognise that the engineer had come to mend it...’
Unfortunately, at that point, Mr Knox returned to the classroom, possibly because he had forgotten something, but more likely to catch Kevin out. This was a man who needed someone smaller to humiliate, and Kevin seldom failed to give him a reason. The teacher snatched up the page and read it before Kevin could conceal his story.
“You stupid boy,” he sighed pityingly. “When will you learn to grow up? If you want to survive in this world you'll need both feet on the ground.”
Kevin said nothing. He suspected that Mr Knox's parents had nailed his shoes to the floor before he was tall enough to reach for the biscuit tin.
The English teacher snatched up a folder from his desk and swept out like a majestic tug battling the oncoming waves of pupil ignorance.
Kevin looked despondently at his story, roughly folded the page, and pushed it into his pocket.
All through cookery, while making pancakes, thoughts of the defective moon machine bounced back into Kevin's bored mind. Why couldn't he be gluten intolerant like Tyrone, and allowed to sit the period out in the library? To make matters worse, the class now had to make fudge for mother's day.
Kevin surreptitiously took the crumpled page from his pocket, laid it on a pastry board and began to scribble under the cover of a large saucepan of bubbling sugar. The machine had been put at the centre of the moon to stabilise its orbit round the Earth after being struck by a comet. Without the moon the Earth's orbit could become so irregular no one would survive the change in climate. Zalda Zax was the only one who could get through its defences to find out why the moon was being pulled towards the Earth. The gyroscope must have been sabotaged...’
There was a sharp, sweet smell of burning sugar. Kevin's fudge was now caramelised. He took the saucepan to the sink and filled it with water. When the teacher was able to see through the steam, she scowled and went back to her star pupil who had graduated to making a mushroom soufflé.
Kevin shook the flour from his story and wondered if he ought to forget about Zalda Zax and the moon machine and take an interest in reality, but the idea of the space woman was very persistent.
With a box of pancakes brittle enough to use as frisbees and bag of burnt fudge tucked under his arm, Kevin meandered home. He had to cross the park before it was dark or his mother would worry.
Kevin was passing the fence of the infants' playground when he felt as though he had just walked through a patch of rather stiff air. Then everything became unnervingly quiet. Even the traffic on the nearby main road seemed miles away. The playground was still there, yet on the other side of it he could see spinning lights, and they certainly didn't belong to the traffic roundabout.
Kevin watched in frightened curiousity as he realised that the lights came from an odd craft. Its shape kept changing, as though spheres were rotating inside larger spheres. Then it materialised. Common sense told Kevin to run for his life; fascination insisted he would never forgive himself if he did.
A short figure was a silhouetted against a circle of intense light. Kevin's optic nerves were numbed. It was unlikely fairies were able to plug into the National Grid, so the creature had to be an alien.
For Kevin, reality and fantasy could sometimes merge. His parents despaired of him ever telling them apart. And now the problem seemed to be rearing its ugly head yet again.
The visitor came towards him. She wore a helmet more like an Olympic skier's than an astronaut's and a gold suit, over which was a short waistcoat with pockets full of tools he didn't recognize.
There was an embarrassed silence as Kevin gawped and the astronaut gleamed.
“Hi,” said Kevin, raising a limp hand. “How's things?”
It was an idiotic thing to come out with under the circumstances, but it encouraged the strange visitor to remove her helmet and reveal a sixteen-year-old human.
She raised a golden glove. “Hi. You called Kevin?”
Kevin gulped. “That's me.” There were a million Kevins so she must have got the wrong one. “What're you doing here?”
“I need that story you were writing.”
Perhaps she had found the right Kevin after all. They couldn't all be as nerdy as him.
“Your story about the moon machine.”
Kevin pulled the crumpled page from his pocket. “You mean this? But how did you know about it?”
“My name is Zalda Zax.”
Kevin looked at the golden suited visitor in amazement. “But you can't be Zalda Zax. I thought you up.”
“You gave that story to an ancestor of mine. I was named after the character you created.”
“I don't understand? Why is this story so important?” Kevin tried to flatten the crumpled page on the Tupperware box containing his pancakes.
“You gave my ancestor the idea which will eventually destroy the Earth.”
Kevin gasped. “Then ... you must be a time traveller? But I don't know anyone who could be your ancestor?“ He held up his story. “And I haven't given this to anyone. I never give anyone my stories. They always laugh at them. And it's not really finished.”
“It doesn't matter. It's the idea that persuaded my ancestor to create the moon machine.”
“You mean this ancestor really does go on to make a device that can alter the moon's orbit?”
“Right, and that's why you're coming with me to see why you shouldn’t put the idea into her head.”
"Wouldn't that mean interfering with time? I mean... Doctor Who wouldn't allow me to do that."
"What has your doctor got to do with this?"
Kevin became agitated. “But you can't alter history! It's wrong!”
“After you see what happened, you'll change your mind.”
Kevin didn't remember boarding the timeship. It just somehow surrounded him.
"I'll be late for tea," he protested weakly. He was more in awe of his mother than extraterrestrial excursions.
Zalda Zax was too busy with the controls of the ship to pay much attention. “No you won't. You can be back at exactly the same time. Why not eat your pancakes if you're afraid of missing your tea?"
Kevin wasn't that hungry.
“Fasten your safety belt.”
Without warning they entered a vortex in space where time and gravity ceased to exist. Kevin's tongue was paralysed, so he was compelled to listen to the time traveller.
“In your lifetime, the orbit of the moon becomes irregular. It affects the Earth's orbit and rotation. We now know it would have corrected itself, but people were alarmed by the change in the weather and earthquakes it caused. My ancestor invented a machine that could stabilise the orbit of a moon by increasing its atomic mass. Her original idea had been to adjust the moons of Mars so it could be made habitable for the world's huge population. That would have taken centuries, but back then it was more important to stabilise our moon's orbit."
“So what happened?”
"The machine was sabotaged and the moon came too close to the Earth. The resulting tides washed away a large proportion of the human race - mostly those who didn't have credit cards."
At last they came out of the time tunnel and Kevin was able to think again. He pulled a clean sheet of paper from his duffle bag and started to write, using his Tupperware box of pancakes as a desk.
“What are you doing?” asked Zalda.
“I have to do this homework for Fort Knox by tomorrow morning,” lied Kevin.
The time traveller gave him an unsure glance, and then guided the ship down to show him a devastated Earth. Large areas were still flooded. The surviving population were further inland, rebuilding their cities.
Kevin continued to write.
Zalda was exasperated. “What are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
Kevin had erased the original story about the moon machine. “I'm changing the plot. Hang onto your space socks - just in case.” After writing two more sentences Kevin looked up. “How about this: - 'Zalda Zax switched the controls of her ship to light drive. The cyberpod, the monster machine invented by her distant ancestor, must have thought she had escaped.'”
“No!” protested Zalda. “That's even worse!”
“Wait,” shushed Kevin. “Not finished; 'The cyberpod had originally been invented as a welding machine. Instead of heat, it used sound waves so powerful it could join together girders heavy enough to support ten Eiffel Towers. But now it was out of control.'”
“What are you trying to do, you stupid boy?!”
Before Kevin could explain, time blinked. They were suddenly light years away from the Earth. Zalda's timeship was much larger and her pressure suit was blue instead of gold.
Below them, illuminated by a giant red sun, was a round machine with hundreds of hinged appendages like legs. It was peering up at the timeship like a spider waiting to pounce. A couple of silver legs rotated as though lining up a weapons system.
“What the ...?” Changing Zalda’s identity so dramatically hadn't helped her presence of mind.
“Alright?” Kevin asked innocently.
She shook her head as her mind adapted to its new persona. “Yes ... Of course. Must have been the time hop.” Now totally accepting the situation, Zalda looked down at the cyberpod. “That thing's arming itself.”
Kevin felt smug. “It's all right, it uses sound waves so can't do any harm until it's in an atmosphere.”
Zalda Zax was not impressed. “Stupid boy, why did I bring you with me?”
“Long story. You may not believe it.” Kevin hesitated. “But sound waves can't travel through space,” he insisted.
“They can't, but its laser beam can.”
A beam of light sliced through the ship.
Alarms wailed and automatic extinguishers filled the cockpit with fine powder.
Kevin quickly fastened his safety belt. "Why wasn't the hull depressurised?"
"It's a time ship."
Kevin was an avid Doctor Who fan, yet didn't for one second believe that the way the Tardis hopped time had anything to do with reality. "What's the difference?"
"You don't know much, do you."
Totally deflated, Kevin listened as Zalda explained the universe created by his inspired helpfulness.
In this dimension the cyberpod had laid waste to several mining planets in its search for minerals to weld, cutting through bulkheads and compelling the miners to escape up emergency shafts to the surface. From there they watched as their hard won ore was smelted and welded into mountainous works of art. They were so monstrous the sight of them would have sent any life-form with a sense of proportion into shock.
“Oh well,” Kevin muttered, “better than the Earth drowning I suppose.”
Zalda looked up from programming repairs. “What was that?”
“Nothing. Just wondering how long this cyberpod's been on the rampage?”
“Long enough to give metal sculptors a bad name.”
“I mean, it hasn't actually killed anyone, has it?” Kevin asked anxiously.
“The only casualties so far have been a few art lovers who had seizures.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Send it to art classes.”
“Switch the thing off - with a missile. What else?” Zalda opened Kevin's box of brittle pancakes and broke a piece from one.
Kevin knew it would give her indigestion. “Can't you reprogram the thing?”
She stopped crunching. “How?”
“Doesn't it have a remote control unit somewhere..? “ Kevin foundered; he hadn't had time to write one into the story before the plot gained this dangerous momentum of its own.
“Yes,” said Zalda, “and the cyberpod has hidden the thing where we can't find it.” She helped herself to another pancake. “These are good.”
Different dimension, different taste buds, thought Kevin, thankful he wasn't going to be blamed for upsetting her digestion.
“Its inventor must have had a spare system?”
Zalda looked amazed at his naivety. “This cyberpod is the 52nd model in the series and the only other remaining remote control unit is in some satellite museum of space research.”
“Has anyone tried it?”
“You have got to be joking.”
“Well, didn't you bring me along because I knew the inventor?”
Zalda bit thoughtfully into another pancake. “Well, yes.”
“I know she wouldn't have designed a machine like that without a safety backup. I come from centuries before you and we could think of the obvious.”
Having finished the pancakes, Zalda put aside the box and Kevin hoped she wouldn’t notice the small bag of burnt fudge. It was unnerving to watch anyone eat his cooking, even if they did enjoy it.
Zalda tapped into the ship's memory. "All right. The museum's only four light years away.”
Kevin didn't enjoy the sensation of his molecules parting company as they time hopped through space and, when the sixteen-year-old Zalda Zax told him she had actually been alive for two hundred years, he wasn't surprised. He just hoped he'd still be eleven if he ever got back home.
Despite the time hop, the cyberpod was still on their tail as they orbited the space museum satellite.
Zalda put the time ship slightly out of dimensional phase to baffle the cyberpod's scanners before it opened up with its laser in an attempt to remodel the ship into another tasteless sculpture. They would only be safe for a short time, so she took the beam lift down to the museum to see the curator.
Kevin watched as the cyberpod stalked round and round the ship like a huge boy-eating humbug, trying to focus on its target. Any movement would give the timeship's position away, so Kevin remained still. He felt as though felt he had been sitting there hours by the time Zalda returned with a plain grey box.
“That it then?”
“Well I didn't go down for the Traghartax's crown jewels.” She opened the museum piece and tried tuning into several frequencies. “This had better work.”
There was a laser strike. The ship was now in phase and the cyberpod had sliced a piece out of its hull. Safety shutters whirred into place.
“Hurry up!” panicked Kevin. “Me Mum'll go mad if I don't get back home tonight.”
“Oh shut-up,” snapped Zalda, trying to concentrate.
After what felt like an eternity being buffeted by laser fire, the glowing shield that protected the cyberpod was lowered.
“You've done it! You've done it!” whooped Kevin. “Now you can reprogram it. You could get it to relandscape all the damage it's done.”
“First, I'm going to program in some artistic sense.”
Kevin didn't remember arriving back by the infants' playground. Zalda had probably sent him to sleep because he wouldn't shut-up. He must have imagined it all of course but, just in case, Kevin took the Zalda Zax story from his pocket and ripped it into small pieces, which he tossed into the nearest waste bin. It was then he realised that there were no pancakes rattling about in his Tupperware box. And the bag of caramelised fudge had disappeared.
For his homework on Frankenstein, Kevin rewrote the cyberpod story.
Mr Knox gave him two out of ten and a letter to take home for his mother.