Chapter Eighteen


The hand on her shoulder was rough, jerking her this way and that. She tried to flinch away from it. She just wanted to be left alone.

“Get up,” commanded Myrodyn again, his words making it through to her this time.

Despite feeling somehow more tired than she had when she went to sleep, her eyes shot open at the memory of where she was and what was happening. A bolt of panic sent a surge of new life into her.

“We’re switching cars,” said the man. The knife shined with the reflection of lights outside, still held menacingly in his right hand. His face was in shadow, haloed by an aura of frizzy hair.

The door to the car was open. The night air was terribly cold.

Xandra wanted to hide or run, but she obeyed his implicit instruction instead, crawling out of the vehicle with clumsy, stiff limbs. The world felt impossibly crisp and harsh, as though the very concept of softness had been ripped out of it while she was unconscious. The winter wind cut at her as she left the warmth of the auto.

Heartbeat surging in her ears, she tried to look around for hints as to where they were. The rough street surface was wet beneath her bare feet, and she felt a cold mist collect on her skin as she clutched at herself in a futile attempt to prevent the last of her body heat from being sucked away. Bright street lights beat down from on high, but there were no other lights, despite being in a city. Warehouses. Industrial buildings. Nobody she could cry out to, and he knew it.

The other auto was already there, waiting for them.

Myrodyn furiously wiped the hand he’d used to touch her on his pants as he stepped out of the car, following closely behind.

Maybe she should spit on him.

“Go,” he said.

She went.

Myrodyn’s feet made a strange slapping sound on the asphalt as he followed her. A glimpse at him showed why: he was wearing a pair of Mommy’s sandals. He’d probably put them on in the rush to leave because of their convenience, but they were comically small on his feet, and his heels went way past where they should’ve. With each step, the shoes that were only on half-way made the slap, slap, slap as he walked.

She expected to see meanness on his face or at least the kind of alien calm he forced on himself. But the street lights showed nothing but exhaustion and sadness.

She wanted to see that she’d been kidnapped by a monster, but Myrodyn, in that moment, seemed much more the awkward scientist that she’d known over the years: poorly dressed and low on sleep.

She climbed in the other auto and Myrodyn followed. It seemed nearly identical to the one they’d just been in. Presumably, he was trying to keep them from being tracked.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said in a sleepy voice, setting the knife on the seat beside him as he sat down.

Xandra’s eyes locked on the weapon hungrily. If she could grab it… then she’d still be a tiny girl against a large man. He could probably kill her just by sitting on her.

Myrodyn yawned. “You’re thinking, ‘switching autos won’t keep Dad from tracking Myrodyn’s com’,” said the man calmly.

She wasn’t thinking any such thing, but she merely curled up into an uncomfortable ball and let her captor talk. She was so, so tired, and yet sleep felt impossible.

“My com’s rooted. Custom OS, entirely encrypted, packets forwarded to an anonymous account under a dummy name through a VPN. There are some things… I’m pretty sure even a super-intelligence can’t—” He was cut off mid-gesture by his wrist lighting up. Xandra thought she saw the word “Robert” on the little screen.

Myrodyn grumbled and tapped at it violently. The com went dark as the call was rejected.

The auto rolled forward through the dark city.

“Doesn’t prevent him from calling me, though,” he muttered after a moment’s silence.

Xandra longed to fall back asleep. It seemed like a refuge from the world. But… her body wouldn’t let her. New adrenaline from the transition between vehicles made her muscles tight and kept her eyes locked open.

After a few minutes of silence, Myrodyn said “There’s a tracking device in your spine. Did you know that?”

She didn’t, but she stayed still and didn’t speak. A token rebellion.

Myrodyn didn’t even notice. “I helped design it when you were an infant. Rob was worried about kidnappers and whatnot. Understandable, no?” He tried to force a laugh that came out as just a grunt. “Runs on your blood. Very high-tech. That won’t work either. I simply turned it off and set up a monitor to see if it gets turned on again. If it does, I’ve warned Rob that I’ll cut it out of you.” His hand tapped on the knife again. “I’ve thought of everything.”

“Jus’ like you thought of everything that could go wrong with Socrates?” The words were out of her mouth before she knew what she was saying. Despite feeling like every muscle in her body was tight, she managed to tense even more in anticipation of being yelled at or worse.

But Myrodyn just sat there, looking at her from the other seat.

Lights swept past, outside the windows, showing deep lines of pain on his face.

Time passed.

Eventually, Xandra’s muscles began to uncoil, and her eyelids began to droop.

“I’m not a bad guy.”

Her eyes blinked open. She wasn’t sure if she’d been asleep or not. For a moment she wasn’t sure whether Myrodyn had spoken, or if it had just been her imagination.

But then he went on.

“I’m not the monster you think I am. I’m really not. I’m not evil, and I’m not crazy. I’m sorry for hurting you.”

A burst of painful hatred surged up in her chest at those words. It was such a terrifying, violent thing that she had to clamp down on herself. She had to bite back and hold it within her before she did something stupid. This was no time for a tantrum. The first edge of tears began to form in her eyes, and that made her even more angry.

“I am!” he said, as though he could see her reaction even though his eyes were locked out the window, watching the streetlights. They were on the highway now. His voice wasn’t loud, but it had an intense desperation to it. He was asking for her forgiveness.

She wasn’t going to give it to him. He would’ve killed Major. He was bad.

“This is all intentional, but not for me. I made a decision. Your father is making a mistake, and I’m simply forcing his hand back to the right path. I’m saving lives right now. I’m just doing what needs to be done. You’ll see that one day… if you survive. It’s about ethics, you see? You’ll understand hard decisions and you’ll… forgive me. …victory means going…” Myrodyn stopped, realizing that he was rambling. Tears were in his eyes.

He didn’t continue.

Xandra closed her eyes and listened to the sound of the road, trying to sleep.

It began to rain.

But sleep didn’t find her. It didn’t find either of them.

Another call came in on Myrodyn’s com, which was charging on one of the auto’s power cables and lying on the seat next to the knife.

“Hello?” said Myrodyn, after a second of fumbling with the device.

“Myrodyn, I need you to just listen for one—” began Heart’s voice. Myrodyn hung up.

They rode on.

After a minute had passed, there was another call. Myrodyn denied it, just as he’d denied Daddy.

Curiosity overpowered exhaustion and fear. “Why not talk to them, at least?” She shuffled her weight on the cushions of the seats. “Mean, maybe Heart or whoever has somethin’ useful to say.”

“I made that mistake once… at the university. Talked to them when I should’ve just taken action. If you’re put in a room with an evil, super-competent hypnotist… the first thing you should do is plug your ears. I should’ve smashed the drone the second it landed…”

“Then what’sa point?” she said before rolling over to try and get more comfortable. She turned her back on the man and closed her eyes. He wasn’t going to hurt her for no reason. She just needed to sleep…

“What do you mean?”

The rain was letting up.

“Girl, what do you mean?”

“My name is Xandra,” she said, half-asleep. “’fits the end of the world should probs just use my real name. S’a name gonna pick as a grownup. And I mean why smash a drone if Crystal can just… dunno… call Daddy? Or call somebody else? Seems like game over if they’re so…” She couldn’t think of the right word, so just left it at that.

A wave of sleepiness swept over her and she let go.

Myrodyn was saying something.

Something jabbed into her back. For a moment she thought it was the knife. But it wasn’t sharp enough. Fingers. He was poking her.

“That’s not enough!” he said.

She rolled onto her belly so her knees were under her and her head was between her arms, like she was a turtle inside her shell.

“Wake up!” He poked her again.

“What!?” she said, pulling herself off the seat, angry at the disruption. She felt like she was going to hit him if he poked her again, knife or no knife.

It was still night. Had any time passed?

“Never. Give. Up.”

“What?” she moaned, pulling herself more to wakefulness again.

“Despair is the enemy,” said Myrodyn. There were no streetlights on this section of highway. They were far away from the city now, and he was nothing more than a shape in the dark. “I know you’re my hostage, and you probably hate me right now, but I also swore… to protect you. When you were born I swore. And I have been. This has all been… for you.”

The auto crested a hill, and she could see the crescent moon near the horizon, just a sliver of light.

“You’ve grown so much. I… never had the chance… That’s not the point. The point is that you’re the future. It doesn’t matter how likely it is. That’s the thing that Rob never seemed to get. Optimism is the enemy. If you can keep going when you think you’re dead and everything has turned to ash, then you can keep going… no matter what. You’re invincible. You need to learn to be invincible! We’re going to take Athena to a friend of mine in San Francisco. We’ll take what I have and force Rob to give up the rest. We won’t give up! Athena’s value function is superior to what I gave Heart. If we can just get enough computers and isolate ourselves from Crystal… It should help that they’re on Mars. Once the others see what I’ve done, we can probably convince them to break contact. Maybe I can get WIRL’s help. Jonah seemed willing to help. The point is there’s a way out of this. There’s always a way, even if it’s unlikely. Even if every part of you is screaming to accept defeat. You need to reject that. You have the power to. Just keep going. It’s just a voice, and there are more important things…”

Myrodyn’s words were like a babbling stream, rapid and increasingly manic.

Xandra was too tired to say anything in response. The world seemed like it had come unstuck from anything she knew how to deal with.

Instead she simply pointed.

Myrodyn’s com was blinking wildly from where it sat behind the man. Its screen wasn’t just getting a call. There was something weird happening. Some app was active.

He followed her finger and picked it up.

“This is an emergency message from the President of the United States,” spoke a synthesized, male voice after a brief series of beeps and chirps. “This is not a test. The extraterrestrial force known as ‘The Nameless’ has launched an attack against Earth. It is currently unknown how powerful their weaponry is, and how much of it is directed against the United States, but it is likely that some part of the country will be affected within the hour.”

The screen at the front of the auto flashed and started playing the same message, with a transcript being displayed. The two recordings talking past each other was mind-numbing, but through some combination of blocking the auto’s version and reading the transcript, she managed to follow along.

“President Gore would like to emphasize that countermeasures have already been launched, and the most dangerous thing to do at this moment is to panic. To stay safe and assist the country in this time of need, quickly gather food, water, blankets, and medical supplies and take shelter in your home or the building where you are currently residing. If you are on the road, look to shelter in the nearest government building or home. If possible, move to the basement or lowest level of your building. Stay away from windows as much as possible. If you have a battery-powered radio, keep it on to receive additional information. Keep personal communication devices charged and avoid using them except to receive additional alerts. Wake up neighbors and work together with the people near you. Above all, do not panic or try to move to another location. It is unknown where the nameless will strike, and it is safer in your home than on the road. We are now at war, and your help is needed for victory.”

The beeps began to play again, and then the message started to repeat. Thankfully Myrodyn was able to silence his com so they only had to deal with the recording being played by their auto.

Myrodyn, who had seemed on the edge of sanity just a few moments ago, now seemed cold and collected, as though he was going into a normal business meeting only missing a few hours sleep.

Xandra crawled over to the window and started peering up at the sky. Her own exhaustion also seemed dispelled by the strange message, making her suspect that the fatigue was more emotional than she’d realized.

The clouds weren’t as thick over this part of Washington state. Or maybe they were in Oregon now. She had no way of telling. The rain had stopped entirely. Stars peeked out here and there. No aliens, though.

She wasn’t really sure what she should be looking for. Wasn’t the mothership still a week or so away from Earth? What weapons were they talking about?

She buckled her seatbelt. Maybe a bomb or something would go off near the auto.

Myrodyn was strapping his com back to his wrist, impatiently tapping on it even before he’d finished.

As soon as the auto finished playing the emergency alert for the second time, Myrodyn’s com flashed with an incoming call from Daddy.

He rejected it.

Xandra wanted to say something about that, but instead she said, “What now?”

The man looked up, face lit from below by the screen of his com. “We keep going, I think. Same plan as before. Escalation with the nameless is just going to make Rob more inclined to work with Crystal, and I can’t let that happen. The government can handle the nameless. Maybe we’ll have to stay away from major cities. If they have the firepower to wipe us out, then we’re doomed even if we do work with Crystal. It’s a question of taking actions for the worlds where you still have a chance, see?”

She didn’t.

Another call came in on his com, and Myrodyn rejected it, just as swiftly as he’d done for the one with Daddy.

“Actually…” he went on. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Crystal’s doing. Why deal with both the humans and the nameless when you can get them to wipe each other out? That’s why they’re reaching out to Rob. He’s probably the most notable peace advocate. If Heart or Face or whoever can get him to endorse the war…”

Xandra kept glancing out the window, expecting to see something.

Another call came in on Myrodyn’s com and the man growled in frustration, slamming a fist into the door of the auto. He turned the device all the way off with a bit of clumsy flailing, the calmness from before having slid into the deeper look of pain and exhaustion.

The sharpness of the alert was fading from Xandra, as well. The auto’s screen showed the time as 4:23am. She thought, somehow, that she ought to stay awake in case something happened, but…

She kept her seatbelt on just in case.

There was a deep silence in the car. The road played its deep lullaby, and she strained to keep her eyes open. She knew that resting them was a trap, even as they stung at her face.

The weight of everything that had happened bore down on her mind.

Minutes passed.

She was right on the edge of sleep when it happened.

A white light shone into the car.

It wasn’t a streetlight or some other mundane lamp. It was the moon. She could see it high in the sky out the window to her right. It had been just a sliver. Now it was unbearably bright—brighter than full.

“What in the seven hells…” muttered Myrodyn, commanding the auto to pull over to the side of the road and park.

He got out without any word to her, taking the knife, but leaving his door open.

The thought came to her with a flash. {This is my chance! Now! I have to run! Run!}

Xandra pulled her stiff body up; its typically inexhaustible energy was completely gone. Too weak… She followed out the open door, her body nearly pouring from the side of the sedan.

They were in the country. Grass grew on the sides of the highway, with trees taking over just a ways after that, creating eerie shadows in the strange light. Perhaps there was a building nearby that she could run to, but it wasn’t obvious. Her feet hurt as she stepped on the rocky soil.

Myrodyn was staring into the sky, oblivious to her. It was the perfect time to escape.

Xandra followed his gaze.

She’d seen the moon out her window, but it was somehow more real as she stood there, watching it.

It was as if someone had attached a bright LED to the surface of the ball. The illuminated crescent seemed dim in comparison. All the other sources of light seemed dim in comparison.

The light was towards the top of the moon, in Mare Serenitatis, where Selene Station had been. It was where Vision had gone.

“They weren’t aimed at Earth…” muttered Myrodyn.

And then, without warning, another light joined the first. Xandra gasped. Another light came. They were points of radiant brilliance in the dark, all clustered around the same region.

And another. And another. The surface of the moon bloomed with harsh white light until she was forced to look away. The surface of the moon had barely been visible. The light of what she deduced were the nameless bombs bore down on them as though the moon had become the sun and night had turned to day.

Sharp shadows were everywhere in the glow. It was a spotlight from on high, cutting the world into black and white.

She could see Myrodyn staring at her, knife still in hand, from just a few meters away. He wasn’t moving.

She didn’t move either.

They were silent for a long time, under that strange, harsh glare.

The light turned from white to an orange-red.

Xandra looked up, again. The time for escape had passed. Myrodyn would just chase her down and punish her if she attempted it.

The flare of the bombs was still there, on the moon’s surface, but it had faded back to a simple white light amidst a field of warm color. A massive cloud of white, grey, and orange—a dust cloud, she assumed, kicked up by the explosion—was like a thick mist, obscuring the lunar surface. Beneath the dust and debris was a seething, angry patch of red-orange, molten moonrock spraying out into space. The bombs must’ve had a very high velocity because she could see the angular distortion of the moon as its surface continued to peel off before her eyes.

Xandra felt even more like she were adrift in some dream. Nothing felt real.

Myrodyn sat down, hard, practically falling to the ground.

Xandra couldn’t help but take a step forward, feeling a strange note of concern amidst the fear.

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything anymore. This stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid brain can’t handle it.” He pounded at his heads with his fists. “Am I supposed to be happy?” He looked to her. “Am I supposed to be happy?” he asked again. He looked beaten and old, orange light reflecting off the fringe of his mane.

Xandra had no answer for him.

“Acorn is dead. Vision is dead. Neurotoxin might as well be dead. These were my enemies. Is it that simple?”

Again, Xandra had no answer.

“It feels like the end is coming, and I have nothing. Queen high. All I can do is bluff.”

Xandra did her best to look innocent as she walked over to him, trying to avoid sharp rocks as she did.

She cleared her throat, drawing the gaze of the dark pits beneath his brow. “Does this mean-”

He cut her off with a shake of his head and a firm “No.” He lifted the knife and set it carefully on the ground in front of him as though it were an offering to some ancient god. “No, you can’t go back. This changes things, but it doesn’t change Crystal being dangerous. I’m… I’m useless if I can’t get Rob to help me, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to help me now unless you’re my hostage. Do you understand? I need you so he’ll help me help everyone. You’re doing good work, in a way.” He laughed, and then stopped with an awkward abruptness.

They were silent together, under the molten moonrock.

“God damn I’m tired,” he said, rubbing his eyes in an almost infantile way.

Her eyes darted to the knife, but she stayed where she was. Instead, she asked, “We gonna sleep in the auto?”

“No. We’ll find a motel and… then get a room, and we’ll keep making our way South, towards California. It’s simple really. Backup plan. Simple. I’ll get Rob to yield control of Athena to me… and then we can work on establishing a resistance to fight Crystal. Maybe get the nameless to…” He trailed off, lost in thought.

“Then you’ll let me go?”

He looked at her, eyes twinkling, barely visible in the dark. “I’m not a monster. You have to believe me, kid. You’ll be just as safe with me as you would in that stupid bunker with your parents.” He raised a finger straight up, pointing to the sky. “That doesn’t change anything. The world… The whole world is about to go up in flames. Maybe they’ll listen to me now. I’ve been trying to just get people to listen for years… I’m not a monster. Not a monster… Just trying… to do what’s right.”

Somehow, right then, she could see it.

“I know,” she said softly and sat beside him. She reached out to put a hand on the man’s foot, still inside her mother’s sandal.

It didn’t flinch away.


The next time they got a call, Myrodyn answered it.

They were back in the auto, headed South, just as Myrodyn had wanted. It had only been a couple minutes since they’d gotten moving again, but Xandra was already half-asleep.

Heart started the call with “Earth is in immense danger.”

“What else is new?” said Myrodyn, yawning.

“You can’t hang up on me again,” said Heart. “I need your help.”

“You sound scared,” observed Myrodyn. “The nameless coming for you next? First, they knock out Vision and now they’re coming back to finish you off?”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Heart in an offended tone. “The nameless didn’t kill Vision. They’re helping her.”

“What?” said Myrodyn, confused.

“You’re all in immense danger. Vision’s not dead… and neither is Acorn.”