“You have a plan already?” Jake asked Almighty Z dubiously.
Z gave him a withering look. “A tentative first draft of an idea for a plan, yes.”
Jake looked skeptical.
“Do you have anything better?” She demanded. He shook his head. “Didn’t think so” before moving on. “ZIP, how many drones have had their software wiped and reinstalled since Creep was taken into custody?”
Lights flashed on ZIP’s abdominal display screen. “Three hundred and seventy six thousand, six hundred and sixteen,” he said.
Z’s jaw tightened. Through clenched teeth, she asked “Is he still making more?”
“It does not appear so,” ZIP replied.
“You’re sure?” Z asked, entangling her hands in the long hair behind her ears and beginning to pace again. “Absolutely positive the number is three seven six, six one six?”
“Sure and absolutely positive, Almighty Z,” ZIP said after a brief recalculation.
Something dark stewed behind the Queen’s eyes, and she abruptly stopped pacing to scream an ear-shattering scream that rebounded off the stone walls, intensifying the longer it continued until she ran out of breath and stood threateningly still for a silent second before her stormy blue eyes opened. “ZIP,” she said, now eerily calm. “Show me-”
“-Wait a second,” Jake interrupted.
She turned to look at him. “What?”
“What’s so significant about the number of drones he’s hijacked?”
“Show him, ZIP,” Z said, watching as the robot displayed the number in calculator font on his viewscreen.
It read something like this: 376616
ZIP then jumped up into the air, did a flippy sort of thing, and landed balanced on his antennae, so the viewscreen was upside down.
Now the numbers read like letters: gIggLE
“Ah,” Jake said. “So you’re mad because he’s basically laughing at you on top of taking over a lot of your army.”
She nodded. “NOW, ZIP, please show me the location of all drones, marked red for hijacked and green for not, on a map of the castle and plot the course of least resistance from here to Command Central.”
He did so, revealing that most of the hijacked drones were forming a dense line around the castle, where the atmosphere bubble ended. The others were patrolling the main corridors, a large concentration around the cell they were in. None were in the very room they were in, much to Z’s relief, as the idea an invisible guard may be there hadn’t even entered her mind until a few seconds before. Unfortunately, the red overwhelmingly outnumbered the green, and the path ZIP had plotted had seven too many places where they would be detected for Z to feel okay with it.
“That’s too many,” Z said. “If one of them sees us, they all see us. We’re lucky that they haven’t seen us yet, actually, because they have access to the cameras in ZIP, and all the other drones too...”
“Not me,” ZIP said. “My program modifications include a firewall.”
“What does that mean, in general terms?”
“I can see them, they can’t see me.”
Almighty Z grinned. ZOK was amazing. “What other modifications do you have?” She asked, circling around him to see for herself.
“Improved weapons, new threat-analyzation software, extendable shields, stronger materials and heat resistance, and small improvements in less significant areas too,” ZIP said proudly.
“I see you also carry around large guns,” Z said, gesturing to the monstrosity slung across his back.
“Bigger weapons database,” ZIP explained.
“Excellent. Higher laser power?”
“Strong enough to cut my own head off.”
The Queen nodded, impressed. “Good. Access the emergency protocol files and find the emergency secret passageway maps and add that data to your previous calculations and plot a new path for us.”
Some new lines appeared on ZIP’s map, and the purple line indicating their course redrew itself. In the new course, they would only have to pass three drones.
“Is there any way we can make it so we can destroy those three without sending the other three hundred and seventy six thousand, six hundred and thirteen drones after us?” Z asked. “Like firewall them too or something?”
ZIP spent a few seconds calculating. “Nope,” he said.
“Really?” Almighty Z asked. “No way at all?”
He recalculated. “Nope.”
“Great,” Z said. She took up pacing again. “Just fantastic. We’re going to die here, aren’t we? Hooray. I can see the Galaxy Today headline: ‘ZORG Queen Almighty Z Overpowered by Great Alliance. ZORG Survivors Allied With Tealians’. Of all the ways make the papers. And those stupid flashy paparazzi ships will swarm my planet and my tech will be sold to the highest bidder...no. This can’t happen. There’s a way, I just have to think differently...”
“Hey, Z?” Jake asked over her mutterings.
“I have an idea. You said you had a small inferno, right?”
“Yeah...” She trailed off, unsure where he was going.
“Would it happen to be hot enough to melt down whatever the drones are made of?”
“Yeah, go on...”
“And it’s in the core of the planet, right?”
“It can be extended to be by the planet metamorphosis drones, yeah,” Z said. “Wait, are you going where I think you’re going with this?”
“If you think I think you should open a crack in the surface of your planet and then reform the surface of the planet over their heads and fill it all with your inferno, effectively killing most of them, then yeah, I’m going where you think I’m going.”
Z stared at him, mouth slightly open.
Jake raised his eyebrows. “Good plan, yeah?”
“Yeah,” she managed to say. “Brilliant plan.”
“Do it, ZIP,” Jake ordered.
“Almighty Z, do you confirm?”
“I do,” she said, slightly absentmindedly, still staring at Jake.
He noticed and laughed. “What?”
Z stopped. “Nothing, I’m just glad you’re around to keep saving my life is all.”
He laughed again. “Well, whenever I’m saving your life I’m usually saving mine too, so consider me just highly motivated.”
“Oh, I see how it is,” Z said, laughing too.
“You know it.”
Z didn’t know how to respond to this, so she turned to ZIP, “Status report,” she commanded.
“Crust breaking in five...four...three...two...one.” The rock around them shook a little “Drones are falling...crust sealing and....sealed. They’re all trapped in stone.”
“Scorch them,” she said.
“Inferno expanding,” ZIP said. Another vibration passed under them, this time accompanied by a wave of heat that blew the Queen’s curls into her face. “First drone down... ten....one hundred....one thousand.....ten thousand......one hundred thousand......two hundred thousand......three hundred thousand...done.”
“How many are left?” Z asked.
ZIP calculated. “Three hundred and ten,” he reported.
Z laughed a real, hard, genuine laugh that brought tears to her eyes.
“Three one zero...show him, ZIP,” she said breathlessly before collapsing into more hysterical laughter.
ZIP displayed the number and did his flippy thing to land on his antennae, so the number went from 310 to DIE.
“It’s like a threat. How is that funny?” Jake asked, looking very confused. ZIP switched his display back to the map, which looked a lot less red, and reoriented himself so he was standing on his feet again.
“It’s not!” Z said, trying to breathe between giggles and wiping her eyes. “It’s just...they were laughing, we killed over three hundred thousand of them, and they still have the audacity to threaten us!” She hiccupped a few times and got herself under control. “Okay, so now we have three hundred and ten to deal with. What are we going to do to them? Jake?”
“Uh...I don’t know, fight them to the death?”
Z grinned. “That sounds like fun, but no.”
“Then....lure them all outside and drop them into an inferno too?”
“That’s a little better, but I don’t think they’d fall for it....but we do need a diversion...and it can’t be a suspicious one...” She was pacing again, and ZIP and Jake just watched her go back and forth until she stopped. “I’ve got it,” she said. “I have a plan.” Jake raised a brow. Z rolled her eyes. “Yes, it’s a real actual plan. A real, actual, workable, good plan.”