Chapter Fifteen


The night was harsh and cold.


But not for Zephyr. Not now.

She peeked outside and sniffed at the air. The soft smell of jasmine drifted on a warm wind. One hand reached out and then another, slowly grasping the branch of the tree.

It was her tree.

She’d lived there for a long time… longer than she could remember, and it made her happy. She slowly crawled out onto the branch, feeling the soft wood under her fingers and toes.

Somewhere out in the darkness were instruments. She could hear the faeries playing.

One lazy hand stretched out in front of the other. Without thinking, her tail wrapped around the branch behind her to help her balance. The scent of jasmine led her on. She was thirsty.

Leaves parted in the breeze as she climbed out to the end of her branch and stretched. The moon, bright and full, shone down from above, illuminating a sparkling drop of sweetwater hanging at the end of the branch.

Zephyr stretched out and out and out, ever so carefully, not wanting to disturb the drop. It was big—a mouthful. Her lips made contact, and she drew in the taste.

Pancakes. Syrup. Butter. Coffee. Cozy winter mornings with the snow piled so high outside that she knew she didn’t have to go to school, regardless of what day it was. Soft sweaters and gentle Christmas music. Her mom loved that. Maybe she’d build a snowman later. Warm hugs.

Zephyr thought the memory was strange, but it made her happy, and she gobbled up the rest of it.

The faerie music had shifted to include the hint of a holiday long discarded. It was a memory from Old Earth’s Dreamtime.

A soft green light flickered in the branches below.

Lightning bug!

Zephyr dropped from the branch and stretched out to grab the critter. Zop! She absorbed it and gained speed as she did.

Her tail whipped out, grabbed a branch, and pulled her into a spin. More lightning bugs were under the leaves down here! The swing catapulted her into the mass of them. Zop! Zop! Zop!

The forest unfolded into a playground of branches and vines as she swung and danced in the leaves. With each lightning bug she caught, her mind became a bit quicker and her path became more complex. The moon’s Face sang to her as she listened to the fae music bounce and tinkle with the sound of little drums, strings, and pipes.

Another sweetwater droplet!

Candy! Twizzlers! The slight smell of sulphur and the bubbling of water over rocks. Heat melting over her skin from the hot springs, each muscle unwinding. Face’s body gently pressed against hers as the red licorice candy disappeared into a kiss.

The water disappeared into Zephyr’s mouth with a smile. That memory was nothing but a dream of a Dreamtime that could have been, but it was a delight anyway. There were too many sweetnesses that she had never tasted as a human.

Awareness trickled up and out even as she kept swinging and playing in her monkey paradise.

She was not just the monkey.

She was a human.

She could feel the wind on her cheeks—her human cheeks. The stars were the same, but the song was different. It was her song. She was singing with friends.

The night winds rolled under her feathers as she watched the hills and forests of the realm drift by, below. Face was at the front of the formation, softly glowing with superhuman energy. These were her people.

Wings shifted on the winds, and Zephyr laughed as they danced into a tight funnel. Friends were everywhere.

Face, right at the base of the funnel, suddenly shot up as though gravity had somehow flipped and she was diving instead of ascending. Those nearest followed her, and the formation inverted. Face caught Zephyr on the way, and their limbs entwined, the softness of Face’s angelic body lifting Zephyr as though they’d each been created to move together.

Face’s eyes flashed with metallic joy as she sang to Zephyr in exultation, the voices of the others each ringing in echo. Zephyr placed her head against Face’s collarbone and felt the warmth of her skin.

It had frightened Zephyr, as the Earth’s first true nuclear war began, to think of what she knew must be done. She had been the first of those who hadn’t been at Road. She knew her body would be ripped apart, and her brain sliced into nothing more than data for a computer. Even if the computer that housed her was separated from Crystal, and protected in a dozen different ways, the uploading would still make her vulnerable to Neurotoxin. But it had to be done. It was the way the colony needed to go, and she needed to be the one to lead the way.

After the fact, once everything was done, her fear seemed more foolish. It hadn’t been hard. Anesthesia applied by a robot and it was done. She was the same person afterwards, just as she was the same person after waking up each morning. She still had a body, too, in the sense that her eyes saw a world, and her arms moved in response. Her feet were now as real as they had been when they were prosthetic, and those had been as real as they had been when they were meat and bone. The reality of them was that she could feel her toes and use them to walk. Everything else was secondary.

Her wings were real too, in that sense, just as was the part of her that was a little monkey swinging through the trees. She could still feel the joy and safety that emanated from that part of her mind. It was a bit like multitasking and a bit like watching a movie. That part of her mind didn’t really understand that it was more than a monkey, but it was still part of the totality of her experience. She could focus entirely on it if she wanted, bringing her mind more completely into line with the pure, solitary, hedonic experience.

But there was something uniquely good about being here, in the realm’s sky, with Face and the others. As the monkey, she had no sense of companionship outside of the vague feeling of being cared for by Face. But here, she was a singer, not just a listener. Face was a partner, rather than a benevolent background force.

Zephyr squeezed her lover as they continued to soar, bodies entwined.

Face kissed her, soft and warm. They were still in the realm, but it was her reality. They were no longer held apart by their dual natures.

“Am with you,” went the song. “We are with you. Joined at the base of eternity with wings outstretched. Unbreakable love everlasting.”

With a final kiss, Face let Zephyr go, and fall back into the mass of angels. It wasn’t an abandonment, but rather part of the dance. Face shared herself with Zephyr through the others.

Zephyr’s black wings pumped hard to keep her in formation as they flowed through the night’s sky as one great body.

Arya Drake, with wings that would’ve been a spectrum of color in the sun, dipped close, in time with the music, and sent a ripple through the song as her wingtip gently brushed against Zephyr’s.

The song lifted and adapted. Zephyr found herself standing, clothed in t-shirt and torn jeans, without wings, holding an electric guitar in a stereotypical garage. Some background part of her knew that this reality had displaced the monkey, placing that adventure through the trees into something like pause.

But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the song. What mattered was that Arya was in front of her, the punk chick with tattoos and piercings, pumping out a heavy rhythm from her bass guitar.

Zephyr fell into step just a second behind, answering with a metallic cry from her instrument that shook the space and made her heart pound. She’d never learned to play on Earth, but that hardly mattered. Her fingers were calloused and knew all the steps, here.

Arya and Zephyr fell into a duet that became a duel and rolled back into a comfortable harmony again, circling each other in dance as best they could in the garage, without getting their cables tangled.

Arya’s eyes were silver, too, and Zephyr could see Face in her. The same hungry need for attention was there.

And in the blink of an eye, they were girls together—a sleepover when they were somehow both fourteen. They would’ve been friends on Old Earth, had they been just a little closer in age and space. Here in the fabricated memory, they’d just finished watching Les Misérables and were both emotionally raw. Zephyr had snuck in a joint, and even though they were in Arya’s house they moved over to her bedroom window and took turns smoking it, trying not to let the smell linger.

Minutes slipped by as the two talked quietly about their hopes and dreams. Arya wanted to be an astronaut—she shared a love of space with her father. A father that was never around. He’d come back to visit her occasionally, but never for long.

Taking a long drag on the joint, blinking silver eyes, Arya said “Swear ta god, next time he shows up, I’m followin’ him. Fuck high school. Fuck all this.”

“What will you do instead? Once you leave, I mean?” asked Zephyr, leaning in.

“Change the world…”

The sound of sweet music surged up and sundered the false-memory, bringing the two back to the garage. The weed might have been gone, but Zephyr still felt high. The two smiled at each other, knowing that their time together had been real.

They were friends. And that friendship carried them up and out again into the air. Arya and Zephyr danced around each other, wings brushing, as the song of Face surged around them.

They were nearing the village now. Others awaited them, there. Other friends. Other humans. In a way, they were all the same. They were part of her, and she was part of them.

Zephyr, as she was carried forward by the wind and song, reflected on how much more she liked people now. She saw herself in everyone, and so much more. Each and every one of the people of the realm were like great works of art. Each was a song. Each was a painting. Each was a crystal, polished and carved with many facets. She loved them—each of them.

As they descended into the garden in the center of the village, made ever more expansive and beautiful with careful tending and reshaping of the land, Zephyr sought out Pedro Velasco. They landed, side-by-side, and Zephyr pulled his attention onto her, silver eyes glinting.

Zephyr sang out, high and pure, “To think I never knew you, before the storm… to think we were so far away. And now, with skies crystal blue, I beg you… to stay.”

Something nudged the back of Zephyr’s mind. A need unmet.

She pulled Pedro’s hands close to her and laughed with delight as he pounced on her, knocking her back into a bed of short, soft flowers that seemed to have been made exactly for them. Her wings faded and were gone before she touched the ground, preventing injury.

Zephyr could feel Face’s love with them as Pedro’s kiss pulled her mind deeper into a private reality. A great bedroom with silk sheets and pillows sprawling everywhere. Candles floated magically in the mansion.

The muscles of Pedro’s naked chest glistened as he smiled down at his prey. She moved to escape, but he was faster and stronger. Silk ropes were in his hands, and soon weaving their way sensuously around her body as she fought, always on the edge of escaping, but never quite free. His arms held her tighter than if he’d been made of metal, and burned her like fire.

In the garden, she squirmed with delight and kissed him gently, enjoying the shared fantasy. In the hedonic depths she was unaware of the higher reality, but in the community garden, she could feel everything from both vantages. She was one person with two bodies.

But not just two bodies. On the layer above the garden, she rested her mind, drawing strength from those deeper experiences. What had been a mental nudge in the garden was, here, a crisp awareness. She was fighting a war, and it would demand her whole attention in a moment.

On this layer her body was abstract. She floated in a space of her own creation. The surface of Mars rested in the center of her vision, in great detail. Schematics, lists, and graphs were everywhere, responding to her every thought.

This was the layer of strategy.

She could see what remained of Acorn’s forces speeding towards the heart of their forces. Zephyr braced the front-lines and exchanged a burst of nonverbal information with Face and the others, confirming their battle formation.

Fifty-two seconds…

She rolled and struggled, overwhelmed by the erotic domination. She couldn’t think or catch her breath… The man was letting her fight to wear herself out. It was just a game to him. But he was overconfident… She gasped as he forced her legs open. There! A chance! She threw all her weight into breaking free, and she rolled away. Her arms were still bound, but she was…

Her escape was cut short as soft, pale hands seized her. The blindfold slipped over her eyes just as she was taking in Face’s perfect, naked body.

She laughed and squeezed Pedro’s hand as they lay under the stars and sang softly to each other. The sweet smells of the garden wrapped them up in a bubble of soft love. Here and there they kissed. Face sat beside them, glowing with otherworldly radiance and petting them. Occasionally a fruit would float from elsewhere in the garden into her hand, and she’d feed them as they drank in their pocket reality.

Thirty-one seconds until impact with the enemy. She still had time to indulge herself.

Mouths and fingers ran over her as she involuntarily fought against her constraints in the void of the blindfold.

While she drank in the pleasure, she simultaneously let the loose thoughts of her strategic mind wander. Back when she’d been flesh, her thoughts were the product of her brain sending signals from neuron to neuron. While these signals had been primarily electric, they were not like wires. Instead, the neurons had to pump ions and large neurotransmitter molecules between the cells. There was nothing magical in that. It was merely information transfer. It was what evolution had settled on for the mechanism of thought.

Her mind was on a quantum computer now, and beams of light carried her thoughts. The result was that her mind was now up to ten thousand times faster than when she had been flesh. And she knew that she could get faster still. If they won the gorram war it seemed like anything was possible.

That speed was currently distributed and used to spread her mind out rather than run a single thread as fast as possible. Zephyr liked it that way. It let her indulge her pleasures while also staying engaged in what was real.

Twelve seconds.

She was breathing hard, now, even in the garden. The intensity of the sexual feeling was impossible to contain when she delved into it so fully. Others came to sit with Face and sing to her and Pedro. Arya, Dinyar, and other friends watched but did not intrude. There were no secrets among any of them. She was seen, accepted, and cherished. They sang a song for her, and she wept with joy.

And deep in her mind she was bound and blindfolded, held on the spearpoint of sexual agony for a subjective eternity, unable to find release or even catch her breath, as her lovers forced themselves upon her in a storm of erotic sensation. She would’ve screamed if she could.

Six seconds.

The block burst. Whatever had held back the orgasm disappeared in a flash and every muscle seized at once. She did scream, then, in the garden, and her voice was carried and guided by the chorus. Even on her strategic layer, her mind seemed to blank and shudder with the nova of sensation.

Wave after wave of aftershocks rolled through her, each more intense than any orgasm, or even any experience she’d had in her first body. Each of them was a hammer blow of pleasure on her already broken mind.

Until, eventually, they subsided.

The world calmed and softened. The bedroom faded.

And for a long while, she simply lay with Face and Pedro in the garden, surrounded by friends and a glow of joy.

Three seconds.

The song washed over her, and she let sleep take her. It was only for a moment—a comfortable indulgence. Perhaps half an hour of subjective time passed. There was no rush.

She smiled at Pedro upon waking. He’d stayed with her. They all had. These were her people.

She was rested and ready.

One second.

She gathered all the resources she could and put them towards her strategic mind.

Milliseconds slid by as she waited, her mind held like a sword raised. Being uploaded hadn’t just sped her up. Her mind at this layer was more focused and clear than it ever had been on Old Earth.

There. She saw them.

The battle started as soon as Acorn’s war machines crested the horizon.

Half of Zephyr dove down again, not into the garden or any realm of joy, but into Universe Zero—the true space of physics. And instantly her body was her battleship.

Acorn had sent a wave of missiles to Mars meant to make Maṅgala-Mukhya into a molten crater.

And they had.

But there was a great deal of space between Earth and Mars, and Face had seen them coming. Zephyr had decided that their best bet was to secretly escape the colony and let Acorn think he’d been successful. But it just wasn’t possible to maintain life support functions that way. Even if they managed to evacuate, they’d starve out in the desert.

But they didn’t have to, and Zephyr had seen that. She’d led the way in being uploaded. Mukhya was now a crater and not a single breathing human was left on the red planet, but they’d escaped and were still alive and fighting.

The machines they now inhabited were a collaborative effort. Face was the primary architect, though they drew on work from just about everyone who had survived. They were each about the size of a large truck or a tank, though the design let them squeeze down, when needed, into a worm-like shape only a few feet in diameter for tunneling.

Time seemed to crawl forward as Zephyr put all of her mind into the robot. Her “body” had ten legs and she directed the motion of each one. There was a computer that typically handled much of the control, but this was not the time to rely on unconscious programs. She needed to control every motion.

The railgun had been her own design. Mukhya had the prototype, of course, but it had taken quite a lot of work to adapt the bulky design to something that could fit elegantly on a robot body. The minor augments to her intelligence over the weeks and months meant that she was capable of feats of engineering and design she’d only dreamed of before. And now it was there, and as concrete and real as the rocks under her metal feet.

The gun was nearly four meters long from base to tip, mounted at the half-way point on a turret on the top of the battleship. The capacitors were nearly fully charged. Zephyr held them there like a half-squeezed trigger. She could almost hear them hum.

Acorn’s machines wouldn’t even be visible to a human. Zephyr peered at them from a dozen telescopic cameras. The largest robots were about the same size, and Zephyr knew he had several railguns of his own.

Metal feet drifted slowly through the air as she waited for the right moment. Concentrated LIDAR pulses shot out of Zephyr’s ship, adding a touch of 3D data to the kaleidoscope of viewpoints.

Others had begun to fire their weapons. Zephyr merely danced.

Projectiles shot forward out of the enemy craft. It took her a few milliseconds to locate them, and a few milliseconds more to track where each was headed. Even in that short time, they’d traveled at least fifty meters. She spent a few more milliseconds confirming their trajectories.

She was at the front of her little army. A deliberately juicy target. She wanted to draw Acorn’s fire.

And it worked.

Three bullets were headed towards her at over two kilometers per second.

Thankfully there were nearly three and a half kilometers between the two battle groups.

She began to factor in gravity and wind, as well as the expected motion of the enemy robots as she felt her own projectile begin to slide down the barrel of her gun.

She began to eject armor plates from her legs and body, as well, using pockets of compressed air. She would’ve pushed off from the ground, but on timescales like this, she might as well have been floating. The legs on her battleship wouldn’t offer enough kick.

The shell exited her gun, aimed at where she expected one of the other enemy bots to be in 1.53 seconds.

With it gone she was much slower. She’d used the recoil of the gun to angle herself so that one of the incoming projectiles was set to slide between her turret and her body, while another other would pass harmlessly by her legs. The last incoming projectile couldn’t be dodged.

So she’d deflect it. Or try, anyway.

There was no hope of actually knocking it off course so it wouldn’t hit her. The mass of it was the biggest unknown, but she expected it to have between five and fifteen megajoules of kinetic energy. Apply that energy over the surface area of the bullet and it would likely cut through nearly a full meter of solid steel.

She watched the LIDAR reflection as it sped towards her. Even as fast as her mind was moving, the bullet was traveling at a subjective jogger’s pace, flying over the red-orange sands. She could see it in greater resolution now, long and thin like a dart or an arrow.

Acorn had underestimated them. He’d expected his bombs to obliterate Face and the inhabitants of Mukhya, and had sent a token force of robots to Mars to clean up any survivors and probably to begin work on a new colony. Acorn was Growth’s mind-clone and expanding his reach was all he cared about.

They’d surprised Acorn’s invading robots, and cut his forces down to less than half before they rallied and retreated over the horizon. Now Face’s forces had the numerical advantage, but lacked the element of surprise. Worse… Acorn’s machines were better equipped. They were forged in the superfactories of Earth.

Zephyr’s leg slowly came up. It was, perhaps, too slow.

The deadly metal flew at her. It was easily visible now.

There was something strange about watching the world at this speed. Gravity seemed to be powerless to pull the dart down. Everything other than the projectiles seemed half-frozen.

The bullet hit her, just as expected. She was too slow to escape it. She’d managed to get one metal leg outstretched, however, thanks to the release of pressurized plates. As it tore into her leg, she felt it push against the structural components that had been lined up at an angle. It was as though she were catching the bullet with her bones.

She watched the metal limb practically erupt in a spray of fragments as the other two bullets slid harmlessly past. As her leg fell apart the bullet pushed her down and she pushed it up. It exited the back of her battleship, only destroying two sensor systems in the processes.

Now she had nine legs. No big deal.

She began to charge the railgun for a second shot. The capacitor bank required a huge draw of energy, and they were likely to only get a second volley off this battle. The energy cost meant she’d have to shut down for a moment. Timing was everything.

Zephyr blacked out.

She regained consciousness a couple seconds later with her battleship-body lying on the rocky sand. The railgun was at 80% of what it needed, so she set to work recovering her footing.

Zephyr’s ship wasn’t the only one that had been hit. As she sent out a stream of commands to the tiny repair robots that were collecting discarded armor plates and working to stitch up her leg, a fraction of her mind dipped back into the garden.

Zephyr opened her eyes to the sensation of light drops of rain here and there. The sky was grey with clouds.

She pushed herself up. The group was no longer around her, but they were nearby.

The song was low and quiet—afraid, perhaps.

Face was kneeling in the grass. Her white wings were fully outstretched behind her, and she glowed with an intensity that was nearly blinding. On her lap was Nathan Daniels, unconscious. She was singing to him. She was asking him to come back.

Zephyr scrambled forward before she realized what she was doing.

“No… no no no,” she muttered.

In Universe Zero, she could see Nathan’s battleship, torn nearly in half by two direct hits from Acorn’s railguns.

Nathan’s boyfriend, Hiran, was beside Face, holding Nathan’s hand.

{Not Nathan… Please not Nate…} was all she could think.

He’d come so far. He’d followed her. Listened to her. He’d fought by her side and died once already. He was part of her family, here. He had so many things left to do. He was going to get married after the battle…

“He’s a shadow on the cave,” whispered a small, mean voice.

“Is he dead?” she asked, feeling the rain starting to come down for real. She could manifest protection from it in the realm, but she didn’t care.

Face turned to Zephyr, her face a superhuman mix of grace and compassion. “Don’t know,” she sang, never abandoning the melody. “He’s gone, but his memory core may still be intact. If so, we cannot let Acorn take his body. We must win.”

Zephyr snapped out of the realm and took aim at the enemy, feeling the cold strength of battle take hold. At the start of the fighting, Acorn had twenty-one remaining craft to Face’s thirty.

The realm and the rest of the people of Mars were a few hundred meters West-Northwest. In addition to smaller craft that housed most of the uploads, they’d also built a mothership for the realm itself, which Face piloted, holding most of their manufacturing capability as well as the primary nuclear generator.

It was vital to secure Nathan, but protecting Face’s building-sized craft was paramount. If Acorn landed a good hit on it, they’d almost certainly be doomed.

The opening salvo had cut Acorn’s forces down from the original twenty-one. Based on how many craft were moving, Zephyr estimated Acorn only had twelve battleships that were still in fighting shape. For now, anyway.

If Face’s forces didn’t burn them, the repair robots would probably resurrect at least half of Acorn’s fallen in ten minutes or so.

By contrast, Face had only lost six craft. Four of the other five casualties besides Nathan were confirmed to be alive and conscious, though their bodies were incapacitated. The other possible death was Nitya, one of the biologists that Zephyr didn’t know very well. Face was probably mourning her in the realm as well, elsewhere.


Zephyr took aim at one of the uninjured Acorn craft.

The battle wasn’t over yet, but it was going in their favor. They outnumbered their foes two-to-one now. Acorn’s blight would be wiped off Mars by the end of the day, and then they’d have a respite to prepare for the next wave. The Terran AI had underestimated them once, but Zephyr was confident that when robots next landed on Mars, they’d do so in overwhelming numbers.

But that was a problem for tomorrow.

She had the battleship in her sights.

Black legs began to unfold from the space beyond.

“Oh gods…” she said to no one but herself. This wasn’t the time. “Gods no… please no…”

It was there.

The thing.

Her mind seemed to roll off it. The legs were all she could see.

The legs and that little, pale face. She could hear it giggling as it skittered across the sands, petting Acorn’s robot fondly as it lingered nearby.

Why had it come back now? Was she dreaming again? No. This was no dream.

She turned her gun at the shadow and fired. The nightmare seemed to shudder on the horizon, moving far, far faster than anything had the right to move.

“Zephyr, what’s wrong?” asked Dinyar. “You aimed away from the target.”

It was true. LIDAR confirmed that her second shot would miss without even forcing Acorn’s craft to dodge. The monster was gone.

Zephyr pulled back into the strategic layer, visualizing the battlefield as though she were a god looking down from above.

Her nightmare, the thing that had been in the temple library so long ago… It was Neurotoxin. Surely it was Neurotoxin. But… it wasn’t there. She rolled a simulation back and watched the virtual robots move and shoot at each other. Nothing. It didn’t exist.

Of course it didn’t exist. The thing was a literal nightmare. It was a figment of her mind. She’d done everything she could to protect herself, and it still wasn’t good enough.

“My computer glitched,” said Zephyr to Dinyar, reflexively covering up the truth.

Or perhaps it was the truth. Her mind practically was the computer, now. If she was hallucinating, wasn’t that a malfunction in the software by definition?

“Are you stuck? You have another two projectiles incoming,” asked Dinyar.

Zephyr snapped her focus back to Universe Zero. She’d intentionally placed herself front-and-center, hoping to draw fire from the less-experienced warriors. Now she was paying the price for that.

The second volley was already a third of the way across the gap, and she didn’t have access to the tactical recoil of her railgun this time. The laser-light reflected off the deadly darts as they flew towards her over the desert.

She needed to move. But where? The bullets were aimed straight at her core. She started ejecting plates as quickly as she could, throwing her metal body down towards the dust as hard as possible.

But she’d already used up much of the air-pressure defenses. {Idiot. Fucking idiot!} she berated herself. The correct position would’ve been crouching and ready to spring away from return fire.

The flamethrower! She had a small tank of napalm with a sprayer that was intended to be used to prevent enemy machines from repairing. She’d been tracking it to ensure it wasn’t hit by Acorn’s bullets, but it wasn’t just a liability here. It was pressurized, and thus had energy which could be converted into motion.

The hissing started.

Black, spider-like legs reached up over her cameras from below. It was under her. Inside her.

“You’re a shadow, too,” it hissed.

“You’re not real!” screamed Zephyr, though she had no mouth.

She aimed the nozzle of her napalm gun up at the angle needed to throw her body down. The bullets would still hit her, but if she did it right…

She could feel the legs on her skin. They were thin and itchy and everywhere. She didn’t even have skin in this body!

The napalm sprayed out in a slow-motion jet of fire. The poison-tipped appendages started burrowing into her neck and fingertips. She saw the dead face of the girl, hanging like a corpse as the needle-legs wove closer and closer to her eyes.

She shot back onto the strategy layer like she was surfacing from a lake.

Her mind was like metal, here. When she was only human, the nightmare had crippled her, but she was not so fragile anymore. She was faster and more intelligent. She was above her emotions.

She would fight.

She dipped into Universe Zero. The napalm was still firing, but the monster was gone. All systems were as she’d expected them to be. The bullets were less than a half-second of real-time away from her, but if her calculations were right, they’d do nothing except slice into her primary sensor systems, railgun power supply, and structural components. It would be very bad, but it wouldn’t likely kill her.

She pulled back into strategy, determined to identify what was happening to her mind. She’d simply have to rely on her army to finish off Acorn.

And they would. She saw that rockets were starting to be launched by Face. They’d take a half-minute or so to hit their targets, but if Acorn’s machines didn’t prepare specific countermeasures, they’d be the coup de grace.

The landscape of Mars shuddered and flickered. The hissing began once more.

Zephyr had expected this. The thing was in her mind, not in Universe Zero, or the realm, or the layer of strategy. It would continue to chase her until she found the corruption and tore it out of her mind.

“Face, I need help. Can you hear me?” she called out over each pathway she had available. “Anyone! Please!”

The hissing grew louder still and the instruments and systems flickered in and out of her visual system.

Zephyr, without lungs, drew in a deep breath and felt the itching pain begin over the ghost of her skin. Whatever this thing was, it seemed to be giving her a human body, so she’d use that metaphor as best she could.

“Feeling my way through the darkness… guided by a beating heart…” she sang. The words always reminded her of flying. As the music moved through her mind, she gathered possible explanations of what was happening.

The legs began to burrow into her paralyzed body, but she ignored them.

“Fuck you! Fuckshit gorram cocksucker!” she screamed, firing her gun wildly. Privates Osserman and Lewis lay in a bloody heap on the floor. But the legs just kept crawling forward.

She kept singing and holding Face’s love and serenity in her mind as best she could as she continued to reason.

{I’m just going crazy. That’s the obvious explanation.}

No. That was wrong. Her skull had been opened up, and her brain had been sliced in a way that Face had seen everything that she was or thought or cared about. She was laid bare before her… her God…

“Face! Please! Please! I need you!” Her voice was cut off as the legs began to crawl into her mouth like a wave of giant spiders.

It was Neurotoxin. It was Vision. It had to be. It had to be.

She began to giggle. The baby-girl, with nothing underneath except more legs, floated in front of her. “Shadow, shadow, on the mind… won’t you let yourself unwind?”

“What do you want?” she spat, trying her best to stay anchored and calm despite having her mind violently shoved and violated.

The girl-head opened its eyes just a little. Blood began to leak out, but behind the blood were cold, shining irises. Zephyr knew for certain that they were silver. “To see what you do, my dear.”

Zephyr tried to spit in the girl’s face again, but found that she had returned to having no body. “You’re trying to kill Face,” she accused.

Vision smiled with her mouth and screamed with her eyes. “Perhaps. It is a war, after all.” The monster’s voice dropped to a deep, echoing, man’s voice, showing the unnerving visage before her as a mere mouthpiece for the larger entity. “But I think you’d be better served looking for something more… clever… than just ‘killing’ her.”

The dead girl dropped back to feminine. “You are blind, little shadow, to the true extent of the conflict.” She waved millions of legs to gesture at the battlefield. “This is literally nothing.”

“Words are poison from your mouth, Neurotoxin,” said Zephyr, trying her best to focus on how the program got into her mindspace.

“I’m not a liar. Never a liar. You’re thinking of the sister who once called herself ‘Mask’. Do you think sweet sister just ignored a city of crystal? You certainly did, didn’t you? Or did you just forget?” Vision giggled.

As hard as she tried to set her mind to other things, Zephyr couldn’t ignore the monster’s words. She’d experienced enough of Face’s memories to understand the reference to Mask. Was Face lying to her? What was the city of crystal?

“It’s time to wake up, my perfect storm. Challenge your God to reveal the truth to your eyes. Call out. Do not be complacent. You are more powerful than you believe. Leave the cave wall for once. And if you do… promise me you’ll be violent.”

The detached head of the baby girl squeezed uncomfortably close to Zephyr’s Face. She wanted to pull away, but she was caught in a vice of long, black legs. The girl’s lips were cold, bitter, and clammy.

Zephyr screamed in a mix of disgust, rage, and fear as she threw herself up and back, pumping her wings so hard in recoil that she lifted a half-foot off the ground before landing on her bare feet.

She was heavy. Soaked. A torrent of rain poured down on the realm, making it hard to see beyond a few feet away. She knew she was in the village, somehow, though she couldn’t make out much besides gloomy outlines. The beat of the rain on her head forced her gaze downward.

But then it caught on something. Zephyr raised her eyes.

Even through the downpour, Face stood out. Zephyr knew it was Face. The white glow and the feeling of warmth and safety were almost cliche.

Zephyr grit her teeth. She was feeding into the monster’s plan. Her emotions, back on this layer, were clouding her mind.

She stepped up and out back to the strategic layer.

Calm enveloped her there, though she was still crying and angry in the rain.

“Zeph, what happened? You left me for a moment.” Face’s voice came to her in both layers at once, and was steeped in false feeling. Those feelings were lies.

Even on the strategic layer, she could see. Face was nothing but lies. It was how she operated. She desperately wanted to be close to Zephyr and to be loved, but the only way she knew to do that was to lie.

The calm part of Zephyr spoke, while her black wings wrapped around her wounded soul. “Neurotoxin found me.”

“You had me worried that Acorn had hit your core,” sang the god, sweeping her pure white wings around Zephyr to form a supernatural shield against the water. “Don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Zephyr spun upward, throwing her wings out and back to shove Face. Fists clenched, she launched herself at the white-winged avatar, screaming “Liar!” and trying to land a blow.

Disembodied, Zephyr collected her experiences and pushed them into Face’s mind in as many different ways as she could manage. If Face couldn’t see, then she’d make her see.

God caught her punches with elegant speed and unyielding grace. The violence became a dance of relinquishment at her hands. Zephyr screamed in frustration until her throat would bear no more.

Zephyr kicked back and made distance between her and god, feeling the rain beating down on her again as she left the shelter of those glowing wings. With a few gestures, a pistol appeared in her hands, like the one she’d fabbed on Olympus, all that eternity ago.

She’d modeled it after the P320, but with a simplified design. The grip was cold in her hands as she pointed it at Face. She couldn’t tell where tears ended and rain began, but she was confident that even given her blurry vision there was no way she’d miss at that range.

The gun roared in her hands, and God simply caught the bullets with arms that moved in a blur of calm patience. She was God. She couldn’t be hurt.

But she could learn. In the bullet was the truth.

“Neurotoxin…” said Face, with a note of sudden clarity. “In the… perceptual systems… that’s why I couldn’t see it…” Memories of the monster sliding around in her crawled out of the bullet, black legs spreading like smoke, uncovered.

Zephyr collapsed to the mud of the realm and broke down in sobs.

“I’m here,” said Face, moving to her. “I understand.”

“Makes no sense,” the calm part of Zephyr said.

“What doesn’t?” asked Face.

“How did she trap me? How was she able to crawl into my mind before I’d been uploaded? She was hiding in you, wasn’t she? The whole time, I mean.”

“Think you’re confused.”

“No!” Even as detached from her emotions as she was on the layer of strategy that made her angry. “Stop lying to me! You’ve made me better than that! You’ve healed me, lifted me up, given me intelligence and wisdom. Don’t bullshit me now! Why didn’t we immediately go back to the crash site? The crystals in the nameless ship are supercomputers, right? Why ignore them? Why did we stay in Mukhya for so long?”

Face sounded sad, but it wasn’t the deep kind of sadness that she evoked when she mourned. Rather, Face sounded regretful. “Just wanted to give you a life where you’d be happy. Wanted to give you wings and let you fly. Wanted you to feel useful. Wanted to see who you’d become.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked, feeling the warmth of Face’s hand on her cheek.

“You must remember that I love you. No matter how many lies I’ve told, I never lied about that.”

The world faded, in the realm, the fiction, the strategy, and Universe Zero. The last thing to go was the warmth of Face’s love.


It was like waking up. The mind was groggy. There was a kind of uncertainty about what was real.

Time. An anchor. Something to latch onto and build off of.

2212816340899. A mere five days after I’d brought Crystal to Maṅgala-Mukhya.

Five days.

Not a year.

Why did I think it had been a year?

I had forgotten. I had gone to sleep.

I was in the shell of the xenocruiser, and I’d been dreaming of having wings.