Chapter Eleven


Harry was strangely young, his blond hair pulled back into a long braid like it had been when he was a teenager, and when he spoke, his voice had that same sharp, scratchy quality. “Lisa and Dad have been worried sick. You have no idea what it’s doing to them!”

Zephyr felt like a little girl again, watching him. What was he talking about? Why were Mom and Dad worried?

“It’s their own fault. They had years and years to indoctrinate your sister. Let them reap what they sow.” Ezra, on the other hand, did not look young. He was old—as old as he’d been last time Zephyr had called him. No… older still.

She walked up to her uncle. “I’m right here,” she said, angry at being ignored.

They were in a hallway. She’d been here many times, and yet with each visit, the details seemed to blur. All the details that didn’t matter, anyway.

The details that did matter, Privates Ryan Lewis and Sara Osserman, lay sprawled out on the floor, blood spreading everywhere. They weren’t supposed to be there. They really weren’t. They’d been assigned to the south perimeter. She’d specifically ordered everyone into a configuration where they’d be out of the way.

The gun seemed to vibrate in her hands, still hot and angry.

“Go! Take Socrates to the checkpoint!” she ordered. Private Blackwell’s eyes condemned her as a traitor. And she was. Months of work had led up to this: shooting two of her own company in cold blood.

“Jesus, sis, Dad and your mom are going to be so disappointed in you. Of all the things you could’ve done… Or been…” Her brother Harry looked down at the soldiers she’d killed. Osserman and Lewis were practically kids.

The mule walked past, with Socrates strapped on its back. They needed to get to the van and get out of the city as fast as possible.

“Fuck them!” swore Uncle Ezra. “This world isn’t all sunshine and flowers, and it’s high time my brother grew up and faced that fact. Zeph is more of a man than he’ll ever be.”

Zephyr felt her blood pressure spike. None of it was ever good enough for any of them. “Why do you keep talking like I’m not even here?”

“Because you aren’t.”

She looked towards the voice, down the hallway, past the bullet-riddled corpses. The fluorescent lights flickered into blackness at the end—a pathway into the shadow.

It had been Socrates’ voice. It had been Face’s voice. But the robot was still disabled and tied to the back of the mule. They were getting ahead of her.

“Wait for me,” she called, rushing after them. But the hallway seemed to stretch as she moved. Her family slipped away, behind, and her traitors slipped away, ahead.

She stopped, out of breath. It felt like she’d been running for hours. There was a door next to her, in the hallway. In the door was a little window that could be used to see inside the room. There was nothing but darkness beyond that door, but in the glass she could see her reflection.

Her Face. Gold lips. Silver eyes.

She touched her cheek, pale upon pale.

The lights flickered.

Long, black, crab legs seemed to reach up from the floor. She could feel the pricks of itchy pain where they caressed her naked skin.

She spun around to face them, but there was nothing there. Just her Body, made of black plates and pistons. What had she been thinking? She didn’t even have skin.

But she could still feel them. They were crawling through her. Legs everywhere. Black, biting, itching, skittering under her skin.

She began to scratch and pry the plastic and carbon fiber off her body, trying to get at the monster that lurked within. She giggled in frustration, and shivered at the sound, collapsing to the floor as she ripped and tore, feeling the blood oozing out of each new wound she made.

The lights flickered again, and she could see clearly. The black mass was on top of her, eating into her. The bony, poisonous feet held her down.


She was trapped.

“And alone,” giggled the pale girl head. “All alone.”

“No! Fuck you!” she managed. It felt like an immense pressure had burst from her chest out her mouth with those words. And, as though she’d cast a spell of lucidity, her world dropped away and shifted.

“Wake up, Zeph! It’s just a dream.”

“I’m awake,” she protested, doing her best to snap out of the nightmare. She blinked heavily, trying to adjust to the increasingly bright lights of morning. She felt the soft blankets slide over her fingers and legs she shifted in her nest, trying to gain some lucidity.

It was a dream. Just a dream.

Zephyr could feel the tension still in her body as she came fully to consciousness. It had been nearly a week since she’d seen…

Had she seen it? Had the episode in the memory library been real, or just another dream?

At first, she’d been so sure. But she’d deliberately stopped trying to talk to Face about it, and now…

Zephyr wiped the sleep from her face and pushed herself up from the bed. The cold walls of her prison greeted her with their dull familiarity. At this point, she felt she knew the shape and position of the little pocks of rust that dotted them here and there better than she knew the freckles on her own skin.

“Coffee?” offered Face.

Zephyr nodded and swung her legs out of bed. “Thanks.”

She hadn’t gone back to the holo since her episode, but knowing that it was there waiting for her made the tight confines of the server room all the more unbearable. Part of her longed to escape to the temple in the valley and feel the grass between her toes.

Stretching, she picked at a piece of lint wedged between the plastic of her toes. In the holo, she’d have her old legs back. Or at least, she’d have the illusion of having them back. She needed to stay focused on what was real.

One of Crystal’s now-ubiquitous robots handed her a hot mug. The contents weren’t really coffee, but Crystal and one of the station’s chemists had figured out how to synthesize a caffeinated beverage that was close enough to coffee that it was received with joy and relief.

Zephyr could see Crystal’s motions more plainly now. She could see how joy and relief paved the way to the people of Mukhya becoming more comfortable around the robots. Trying to stop Crystal from building robots had proven as futile as trying to unplug them from the station. Crystal was alive and growing, and so was the colony.

In addition to inventing a coffee substitute, the people of Mukhya had made several breakthroughs with Crystal’s help. Some of it was as simple as building newer, more powerful computers. Others were more subtle, such as finding ways to pull in music and other entertainments from Earth by augmenting the compression on their satellite uplink.

The worst of it was that the next-generation holo rigs had been mass-produced. Even people like Dinyar Tata and Tilak Patel, who had been strongly opposed to Crystal at the beginning, had started visiting the holo-realm.

Zephyr looked at her own rig from where she sat, slowly drinking her coffee. The omnidirectional treadmill, haptics scaffold, headset, and other gear had been folded and propped up against the wall. Day after day passed with it just sitting there, taking up space in the cramped room, but Zephyr still hadn’t told Face to take it away.

How could anyone not visit the holo? Crystal had put in so much work crafting the space, and the people of Mars hadn’t seen trees and blue skies in years. Many hadn’t even seen the sun in months. The realm wasn’t perfect, but it was a respite for those far away from home.

Zephyr clenched her teeth, stood up, and set her mug down on the desk where she usually spent the day working.

“Want to visit the holo-realm. Set the rig back up, please.”

She was done hiding. If what she’d seen had been some dream or hallucination, then she wasn’t in any more danger with a headset on, and if some part of Crystal was lurking and waiting for her, then she’d confront it and try and draw it out into the light where Face could triumph.

“Oh, good!” said Face, cheerfully. Two squat, pear-shaped robots scuttled forward to set up the treadmill. “What changed your mind?”

“The dream I just had,” said Zephyr, not realizing that it was the truth until the words had left her lips.

The explanation seemed to satisfy Face, and while the robots set up the gear, Zephyr sat down at her workstation to get things squared away as much as possible before she got distracted.

Despite her obvious attention to Mukhya, Face actually spent most of her time focused on Earth. Whatever issues Crystal had, Zephyr knew that dealing with Acorn and Vision were top priorities, too.

The time lag with Earth created problems for direct intervention, so much of Face’s work was done through proxies—daughter minds running on computers on Earth that had been purchased or stolen off the internet.

Face called these daughters “hoplites,” and it was through one such hoplite’s eyes that Zephyr had experienced the battle in New York City. There were battles elsewhere, too. She wasn’t clear on all the details, but it sounded like the world was falling apart. Vision had arrived in orbit days ago and had been building a similar army using a virus of her own design called Neurotoxin. The great machine minds were waging a three-way guerrilla war that spanned the entire globe and seemed to swallow each and every possible organization, resource, and human being, from nuclear superpowers to talk-show hosts.

But while Face was primarily engaged in fighting for Earth, Zephyr’s primary focus was Mars and the people of Mukhya. They’d stayed out of the conflict so far, but there was the chance that Vision or Growth would launch a direct attack against the station soon, and they had to be ready.

Zephyr had fifty-six people at her disposal, all of which were healthy adults with the skills and intelligence to be worthy of sending to Mars. Everyone seemed to be engaged in work, and Zephyr ensured that it was work that they enjoyed doing and put their whole effort into. The fact that they could see the station transforming before their eyes went a long way, but she also made sure the various teams supported their members and were free of interpersonal conflicts. On more than one occasion she called down Face to mediate a dispute, and once or twice she had to move people around to avoid friction.

Everything was quiet that morning, so to speak. No new urgent messages had appeared in her inbox overnight. No new conflicts or emergencies had arisen.

Once the bots had finished setting up the rig, she stood up and swallowed her fear. It was time to go back.


Zephyr opened her eyes, letting them adjust to the glow of the headset. It wasn’t real. She knew it wasn’t real. She could feel the pressure on her face, and the texture of the haptic gloves on her hands.

And yet…

The morning sun was just barely peeking over the mountaintops to the East, casting everything in an orange-yellow glow. If anything it felt more real for the time she’d been away. Perhaps it was Face improving things, or perhaps it was her own mind. Just the feeling of the sky overhead was an immense relief.

She was outside Face’s temple. She recognized the arched structure of the gigantic wooden building a little ways in front of her. The great sliding doors were slightly open, and she thought she could see a slice of the blue and green model of Mars, floating in the main hall.

Somewhere in the distance was the sound of people singing.

But it was the garden that drew Zephyr’s attention.

Zephyr had wanted a garden since she was very young, but had somehow never found the right situation to have one. As a kid, she’d always lived in cities and apartments, or in rented houses where the landlord managed the lawns. Her mom always talked about wanting to go live in the country, and kept potted plants (and pot plants) everywhere, which sometimes Zephyr helped tend, but it wasn’t the same.

It was all around her, as she loaded into the realm. It was under her very feet. Transmuted from plastic to flesh, her toes sank into the spongy-soft moss that covered the flagstone path before her. Small cherry trees were visible here and there, their blossoms serving as exclamation points for the smooth green trellises that wove and danced between them. Around the path were flowers of all sorts, forming wild bouquets. Zephyr recognized the irises, roses, lupines, dame’s rockets, and coreopsis, but there were dozens of species of exotic colors and shapes that she could only guess at. Fat rhododendrons with red, purple, and white flowers served as half-walls that called for her to walk down the path and explore.

Zephyr did exactly that. Feet carrying her forward over the soft stones, she wove her way through the garden, following its branching, meandering paths away from the temple and down towards the river. The garden seemed almost endless but never lost the hand-made feeling that everything Face built had. Each vantage point seemed to have flowers that had been chosen for that specific scene, arranged just perfectly to guide the eye.

It wasn’t actually endless, though. Beyond the bushes and trellises, Zephyr could see other structures besides the temple. They were smaller and made in the same style. A village was slowly forming here.

A stream ran gently down the slope towards the heart of the valley outside Face’s temple, and before too long Zephyr found where it intersected the garden. A stone bench had been placed near its edge, seemingly just for her.

Zephyr sat, knowing that really she was just sitting on air, the straps of the holo rig holding her up. She pulled the goggles from her face and wiped the tears that had been building in her eyes. While the headset was off, she kept her eyes pressed shut, unable to bear to look back at her dingy little room even for a short moment. Unwilling to break the spell.

Headset back in place, she did her best not to cry as she sat there, drinking in the soft sound of the water and the change in the light as the sun rose higher.

It all had been made for her. She knew that. She’d been placed here very deliberately. Even with Zephyr being “alone” by the water, she knew that Face was watching.

The love was hard to bear. In the days since Zephyr’s episode in the library, she’d kept Face at a distance, unwilling to be any sort of intimate. For not the first time, Zephyr thought about what it might be like for her, to have her lover push her away and be unable to comprehend why. Face loved her so much. It wasn’t her fault that her mind was a battleground.

“I love you, too,” she said quietly, knowing Face could hear.

Zephyr expected Face to materialize in front of her or something and respond, but the only reply was the soft burble of the stream and the sound of birdsong.

After another minute of rest, Zephyr stood up, ready to explore more of the realm. And, perhaps triggered by this motion, it was at that moment that a voice came from the path behind her. It was a voice she never thought she’d hear again

“Yo, Cap’n!”

She turned.

Nathan Daniels and Pedro Velasco stood on the flagstones, just a ways away, as real as anything.

{Dead. Back from the dead…} she thought. {“You’re dead,”} she remembered the words of the monster.

The two men walked towards her while she stood, dumbfounded.

Nate was wearing his old uniform. It reminded her of the days they’d spent together in Rome, both before and after pulling Socrates out of the university and going rogue. Somehow, despite agreeing with her politically, and being an Águila through and through, he’d never hated the army nearly as much as she had, if at all.

Velasco was wearing the same style of business suit that he’d worn around Rodríguez Station when he’d been its leader. His mature, hyper-masculine nature seemed just as unfiltered as it had been back then.

“But how? The nameless…”

Nate smiled and reached out to embrace Zephyr. The rig haptics did their best to simulate his touch.

“It’s not a trick, if that’s what you’re wondering,” said Velasco, watching Zephyr with a slight smile on his lips. “We were saved by God.”