Chapter Five


“Okay, listen up!” Zephyr shouted out over the crowd that had gathered in the mess hall. “Can everyone here understand me? Raise your hand if you know of someone here who can’t speak English!”

She wished she had something to stand on to make herself taller. Zephyr wasn’t particularly short, but she wasn’t very tall, either, and in moments like these somehow those inches mattered.

The station’s inhabitants were seated at the various metal tables, watching her expectantly. There were fifty-six of them, including Omi, Jacob, Jashiel, and Mycah, the last four survivors from Road. When space on the benches had run out, people stood near the back. When that space had run out people sat near the front and in between the tables. Everyone on the entire planet was there. A mere fifty-eight, including Face and Zephyr, crammed into a metal box.

None raised their hands.

“Okay, good,” she said, making sure her voice would carry to the back of the room. “Then let’s get started. I’ve met many of you, if not most of you, but for those who I haven’t: My name is Zephyr. Just Zephyr. My parents were weird hippies that thought last names were how society oppresses people.”

Nobody laughed.

“I was in the US Army for a while, and then I was part of Las Águilas Rojas and came to Mars with the nameless. Most importantly, I was the one who brought the artificial intelligence, commonly known as Crystal Socrates, here to Mukhya.”

She paced back and forth slowly as she talked, letting the familiar sensation of being the center of attention wash over her. She could feel the pressure making her stronger. It felt good, even if she couldn’t really stop to appreciate it. Before getting up in front of everyone she’d been rehearsing the bullet points she would try to hit, but all of that fell away as she let the performance take her.

“There was a time,” she continued, “when there were saber-toothed tigers on ancient Earth. These cats could be as big as horses and had teeth as long as chef’s knives. They were apex predators in the Americas for millions of years. And then, in the relative blink of an eye, they went extinct.”

Zephyr snapped her fingers to demonstrate, doing her best to sweep her gaze across the room and capture as much attention as possible. It wasn’t hard. The station inhabitants might not have been happy, but they were certainly focused on her.

“What happened?” She paused just long enough for it to be ambiguous whether she wanted someone to respond. “Humanity happened. Humans traveled across the land-bridge from Asia and brought with them intelligence and technology. For all the saber-toothed tiger’s raw power, it stood no chance against the ingenuity of humanity. Fire, weapons, and language gave ancient peoples an edge which no amount of brawn could match.”

Zephyr drank in a moment of silence, letting the audience digest the words. “I bring this up not to talk about saber-toothed tigers, but to talk about extinction. Everywhere you look across the history of humans on Earth, from the end of the wooly mammoth to the expansion of European colonies across the world, there is a common story. When new technologies emerge, the powers built from these technologies reshape the world. This reshaping is sometimes swift and sometimes violent, but it is always the case that if you cannot find a way to live alongside those new powers, the only outcome you face is extinction.”

Zephyr turned to gesture dramatically.

Face had set up one of the station’s robots beside Zephyr at the front of the room. It was one of the pear-shaped six-limbed machines that looked almost like it should be in Star Wars instead of there, at the front of the mess hall. Face had the robot subtly shift, just to make it clear that she was there.

“This is what the future looks like! We are in the midst of a new revolution. Mukhya station no longer belongs to India. In fact, it no longer belongs to any human! And, like it or not, the same will soon be true of Earth. This is the next rung in the evolutionary ladder, and we are about to enter an era where humanity is obsolete.”

“Only because you brought it here!” shouted one man. It was the huge brute that had knocked her unconscious in the fight that morning. She’d made sure to learn the thug’s name: Dinyar Tata. He was Tilak’s second-in-command, and surely one of her biggest threats.

Zephyr turned to look him straight in the eye, feet planted in a wide stance, hands on her hips just above the two pistols she was wearing. “You’ll thank me for that soon, Dinyar,” she confidently proclaimed. “I brought her here because she is our one hope for survival.”

Face’s robot bobbed in acknowledgement.

Zephyr continued before Dinyar or one of the others could muster another objection. “Crystal is not the only one of… her kind. Others are soon coming, built on the same technology. In fact, they’re quietly fighting for control of Earth as we speak. Crystal’s true name is Face, and perhaps if I hadn’t brought her here, you would have stayed in control of this desolate ball of sand and rock for a while longer. But in those last months and years, you would’ve looked at Earth with a sense of growing apprehension and hopelessness as the age of humanity came to a close. And then, as the machines of Earth, who care nothing for humanity, reached out across the void…”

Zephyr pantomimed a clawed hand reaching out, palm up, and paused. She looked slowly around at those fifty-six faces before finally snapping her fingers into a tight fist.

“But we are not helpless! Not anymore! I will be running this station now, and my AI will help us build a resistance and fight back against inhuman threats, both synthetic and alien. With her… we stand a chance.”

Zephyr still didn’t like those words. But Face had convinced her, as they’d been preparing for the speech, that the inhabitants of Mukhya would respond better to the idea of a human leader with an AI assistant. Bringing the nameless back into the frame was also Face’s idea, meant to remind everyone of what had happened to the other Martian stations and how Crystal already had helped defend Mars.

“You probably have doubts. You may even be tempted to try to take the station back. Partially venting the station earlier was painful, and I’m sure many of you are scared. But please just wait a few days and try talking to Face before you decide to fight. We are on the cusp of a new era, and it is my dream that we can enter it together and find a new place for humanity.”


Face thought the speech had been a success. She probably knew better than Zephyr. Nobody had clapped. Nobody had shown her any warmth. She hadn’t really expected them to, but it did make her feel alone. She answered their questions, sometimes assisted by Face whispering in her ear. By the end, nobody (not even Dinyar) seemed about to attack her, which was probably the best she could hope for.

But mostly Zephyr was tired.

The pressure of the moment had been good for her—it was a reminder of who she was. But it hadn’t helped her relax any, and afterword the fatigue of having fought for days to secure a spot of safety for her and Crystal swept back into her.

No no. It was “Face,” not “Crystal.” Crystal was a fiction and always had been.

Zephyr curled up on the foam mattress that had been moved into the server room for her to sleep on. Her stomach hurt, and not just because she’d eaten too many protein bars. Complex emotions twisted inside her body.

How much of her relationship had been a lie? Was she doing anything except spreading more lies to the rest of the station?

Face claimed, perhaps rightly, that from the very beginning, all her lies had been for a good reason. Zephyr couldn’t think about that. She was too tired to judge and evaluate the threat of someone she’d once called a lover. She just wanted to relax again. She wanted to take off her clothes and have a long, long bath. But even taking off her pants wasn’t going to happen. She couldn’t manage the vulnerability, as trivial as it was.

Instead, she curled up, fully clothed, in the blanket on the mattress and hid from the world.

Face turned out the lights.

On the workbench, the shard glowed faintly.


She awoke to a song. The sound of Face’s voice mixed with the lingering intensity of Zephyr’s dreams.

In that half-sleep, emotions rolling unchecked she cried as quietly as she could manage, hiding under the blanket and trying to not even reveal that she was awake. Face almost certainly knew, but the bot let Zephyr have her pseudo-privacy.

Zephyr was grateful for that. As a girl, one of the most frustrating things her parents had done was always force her out in the open when she was having a hard time. She hated it. Her emotions usually felt like intense, wild things that didn’t deserve public scrutiny. They were a fuel that kept her motivated, but there was a difference between using fuel in an engine and just splashing it around and lighting a match.

Face continued to softly sing, never running out of breath. When Zephyr emerged from hiding her face was dry, and she’d regained her calm focus. She was ready to start on her first day of managing the station.

As per their general strategy, she stayed cloistered in the server room, protecting Face’s shard. The only exceptions were when she’d dash off to the tiny metal toilet, using Face’s bots to make sure the path was clear.

In the room that was turning into her new home, she’d done her best to clear things out of the way. She’d folded most of the tables and piled the junk on them in the corners of the room, but one desk (and workstation) had been kept out for personal use.

She ate breakfast there as well. Face had some pancakes delivered from the kitchens, which Face assured her hadn’t been poisoned or anything. They were in a style that she wasn’t used to—flat and thick, reminding Zephyr somewhat of scrambles or omelettes or something. The lack of syrup annoyed some part of her, but they were still pretty tasty.

Zephyr talked with Face as she ate, being brought up to speed on the state of things in the station, both social and logistical, as well as the state of the system beyond.

Face had managed to get a lot more data from the one remaining orbital satellite than Zephyr would’ve thought possible. Importantly, Face had established a weak connection to Earth’s internet, from which she’d gained a telescope image of both Vision’s ship and the Mothership. The two craft were headed to Earth, with the Mothership’s mass placing it far behind Vision’s leaner ship that Face’s sister piloted. Vision would arrive in just a couple days, with the Mothership arriving about a month after that.

She speculated briefly with Face as to why the nameless hadn’t broken off a chunk of their great vessel to pursue Vision more quickly. The nameless ships were all capable of modular decomposition, and the Mothership was no exception. But as to why the nameless did anything, they could only guess.

“Also have bad news about Growth, I’m afraid. Another war broke out in Africa shortly after we left Earth in December, and it appears that Growth has been capitalizing on the fighting.”

Zephyr swore and absentmindedly rubbed the abdominal scar that marked where she’d been shot during the last African war. Face went on to explain that the UAN was fielding advanced weaponry and robotic war machines that nobody had expected them to have. America had put in some token support to the African confederacy, but for the most part, they had been successful in completely capturing and holding the Horn of Africa while simultaneously defending and even pressuring the Arab Protectorates further north. Growth’s involvement was obvious if you knew where to look.


“What’s the chance that it’s Vision?” asked Zephyr. “Said they’re aboard the rocket, but that doesn’t mean they can’t influence Earth. If we can gain net access all the way out here, surely they can do the same, and…” Zephyr trailed off.

Face jumped in to fill the gap “Maybe she sent schematics and code for the advanced troops! Good thought. I’ll check the timelines. Though with Vision not even a definitive timeline would be enough to conclude her hand wasn’t involved. Only she knows how long her thoughts and actions have been building up to some payoff.”

There were two screens at her workstation: one with information Face was displaying, and another filled with her avatar. Irritated and feeling trapped, Zephyr stood up from the desk and began to pace around the room.

“You’re restless,” Face observed.

Zephyr stopped to stretch. Her legs may have been synthetic, but her hips and back still felt like they needed stretching and motion. Too much time in a chair was never a good thing. “Yeah. Maybe should go for a jog around the station to see how progress is coming.”

One of the first things the two of them had decided on that morning was a plan for bootstrapping Mukhya’s manufacturing capacity to the level that Face could use to quickly fab more robots.

“Don’t think that’s a good idea,” warned Face. “We may have seized the firearms, but you’re not exactly popular here yet.”

Zephyr wanted to protest, but the words died on her lips. It was too dangerous. The thought stung and made her mildly claustrophobic. The walls of the tiny metal box she called home were too-close.

“Have an idea, though,” said Face, after a short pause. “The station’s inventory says there’s an old-model holo rig in the storage closet for one of the living rooms. With a little work, we could get it set up in here. Maybe stand the mattress up on its end to give more space?”

“Seems like a waste of effort. Need to be focusing on solidifying our power here in Mukhya, and making contacts on Earth.”

“Relax, Zeph. I’m searching for a way to reach Phoenix as we speak. And… the things here don’t require immediate action. The Indians are used to keeping the station running; they just need some time to get used to us running the show.” Face’s avatar on the screen stopped and made a concerned face. “Is something wrong?”

“Nah,” lied Zephyr.

Face nodded but didn’t look convinced. “Getting the holo set up in here would be good. It’ll let me show things to you more easily, even while you move around.”


And so one of Face’s robots went and dug out the holo gear while Zephyr spent a few minutes going over activity in the station. She scanned through com cameras, microphone transcripts, and other sensors to make sure that everyone was doing what they’d been assigned to work on. Despite Face’s assurance, Zephyr knew this was a very fragile period. She found some talk of how to take the station back from Face, where the conspirators didn’t realize the com net was listening to them, but nothing concerning enough to act on. Zephyr simply made note of who was conspiring against them and moved on.

Soon the bots came back to the room towing the rig. Zephyr spent the next hour or so setting up its cameras around the room and chatting to Face about their long-term strategy. She liked the feeling of being on the same side, and the morning’s fear and distress almost seemed like they belonged to someone else by the time she was done.

With the cameras set up, Zephyr strapped the haptics onto her hands and pulled the bulky headset down over her eyes.

A light flashed in the darkness, and suddenly a view snapped into place around her.

The scene was outside, under a crisp, pure blue sky. The sounds of songbirds drifted down from nearby trees that formed a semicircle around her. It seemed that Zephyr was on the edge of a forest. She knew next to nothing about plants, but the trees seemed the kind that she might find in Wisconsin. Opposite the wood was a rolling lawn of short green grass that fell away down a slope a few meters off. She was on a ridge. From the high vantage point, she could see a rich valley of green, with a glittering river in the distance, and blue-green mountains beyond.

The verdant imagery hit her so hard that it took her a moment to notice she was standing on grass.

No, that couldn’t be true… She was standing on the hard metal floor of the server room.

But… the grass… she could feel it. It was as though her feet had grown back, and she was in a real place. She looked down and stumbled backwards in surprise, her old legs clearly there, beneath her.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” asked a soft voice from behind her.

“How…?” was all Zephyr managed.

“It wasn’t so hard, really.”

Zephyr turned to see… Face. She was everything about Crystal that was soft and human, and even more beautiful and vivid than she had been on the screens in the server room. While the holo environment was clearly generated, somehow Face seemed vastly more real than the hands in front of Zephyr’s face.

Her long blue hair was tied back in a braid, with wisps of it loosely floating in the breeze. She wore black and blue, accentuating her hair and providing sharp contrast to her inhumanly-pale skin. Sharp boots paired with black leather pants and a deep navy blue button-down made her seem like some fantasy adventurer when combined with a long cloak of dark velvet.

“My legs. How can I feel the grass?” Zephyr bent down and tried to touch the ground, but found only the hard thud of the haptics on the metal floor.

Face smiled warmly. “My computer is very powerful. I’m generating this scene for you, in real-time, and since I still have remote access to the synthetic nerves in your legs…” Face made a soft stroking gesture in the air and Zephyr could feel warm fingers running up her leg, under the fabric of her pants.

Zephyr flinched and shot to her feet, biting back the tears she felt forming in her eyes. She refused to fall apart. She wouldn’t. She was stronger than that.

But apparently, her efforts to conceal her feelings weren’t as effective as she wanted. “Zeph, what’s wrong? Don’t you like it?” asked Face, with a sudden, pitiful confusion.

How could she explain? It wasn’t right. It was too complicated. Why did it have to be so complicated? She resisted the urge to tear off her holo gear. She wanted to run. She wanted a soft body to press up against. She wanted to be alone.

“This isn’t real. It’s a waste of your attention. We should just get back to work managing the station,” she said instead, voice cold and hard. “We only have a couple days before Vision arrives, and we need to start rallying resistance on Earth. Have you tried reaching out to contacts in Cuba to get in touch with Phoenix?”

“Zeph, please don’t hide from me,” begged Face, stepping closer in the holo.

Zephyr took a step back, keeping her distance from the ghost. “Don’t call me ‘Zeph.’ Leave me alone.” Zephyr could hear the almost child-like character in her own voice. It was the pressure. Or rather, it was the absence of pressure.

Up on stage, she could conform to what was expected. The more pressure she was under, the better she did. When strangers were watching her, she felt fine, regardless of what role she was performing. She always knew what to do next when under pressure, and that certainty was a kind of anchor. It was what made her a good soldier, a good leader, and a good spy. It was what had let her work as a traitor for so long inside the ranks of the army.

But in private… things had always been different. Her ghosts and demons came back to her. She remembered all the long days on Earth where she’d been commended on staying after-hours to work when really she’d just been dreading going home and having to sleep in the privacy of her own room.

“You’re scared of me,” observed Face. The thing that stood before her continued to slowly approach, silver eyes meeting Zephyr’s whenever she managed to lift her gaze from the grass. “Would it help you to keep calling me ‘Crystal’?”

Zephyr shook her head and turned away, looking out across the false landscape. {Stupid. Just pull yourself together,} she berated herself. “You’re not the same. Shouldn’t have the same name.”

She jerked in surprise as the grass faded near instantaneously and became short carpet. The sensation on her bare feet was striking. The world became much darker, and suddenly there were walls all around her. She was in a familiar room. There was a couch, two high-quality folding chairs, and a small table. One wall had a large screen showing stars rolling past. There was a partition in the middle of the room, on the other side of which Zephyr was sure there’d be a bed.

It was the bed where they’d first made love.

She turned back towards where Face stood, and yelped in surprise, stumbling backwards. She should’ve expected it, but the sudden appearance of the old robotic body caught Zephyr unprepared.

“I am the same,” she said, as the bot tapped its head. “Was up here back then, and…” Face spun around, and as though by magic, transformed from the androgynous machine into the beautiful woman she’d been in the grassy scene. “I’m here right now. I’ve changed and grown. My cancers are free from my mind, albeit now growing in the world beyond, but I’m the same person. And I love you.”

“I’m sorry…” croaked Zephyr, throat tight. With a quick, sharp motion she pulled the headset off and nearly threw it onto the desk, as though it were a dangerous animal. To her dismay, Face was still there, waiting for her on one of the workstation screens.

Zephyr looked away and started unstrapping the haptics, more violently than was necessary.

“Please… tell me what’s wrong.” Face’s voice was impossibly pitiful.

“I just want to fucking do some gorram work, okay? We’re not safe, and-and we’re not on Earth anymore, and too much has…” Her voice died in her throat, strangled by emotion.

“You’re safe. We’re safe. We can take a short break. Trust me.”

“Trust you?! Trust you?!” Zephyr screeched, angry at having the words squeezed out of her. “You’re made of lies! You always have been! This… this…” She gestured at the holo headset lying on the desk, unable to come up with the words. “It’s just one more lie!”

As she threw the last haptic gauntlet next to the headset, she nearly dove for the safety of her bed, her vision becoming blurry with tears.

“Need to do work… Should be stronger,” she managed to say, pulling the blanket over her.

But even in the darkness beneath, Face’s voice came, half-song. “Relájese. Relájese. Relájese por favor. You’ve been under a lot of stress. I understand. And work in the station does need to get done, but not by you, and not right now. This is important; you need to remember who I am.”

Something tapped Zephyr. It took a moment for her to understand.

She managed to pull herself together enough to look out of her hiding place. One of the stocky robots was holding out the headset to her with a metal claw.

“Please,” asked Face. “For me.”

Zephyr hesitated. Face was looking at her from the workstation screen. With one hand she took the goggles and pulled them back into the blankets with her.

A strange surreal feeling swept over Zephyr as she put them back on. The view couldn’t track the motion of her head without line-of-sight to cameras. Instead, it was as though she was paralyzed, back in that room on Olympus, lying on the floor.

The faux starlight taken from their collective memory washed over her. And then… touch. Soft, warm touch. Face’s avatar couldn’t be seen from where Zephyr lay, but she knew it was her. Gentle caresses along her legs were soon joined with massaging her feet. It wasn’t real, she knew. It was just Face messing with what was left of the nerves in her legs.

But it didn’t feel fake, much less unpleasant. The sensation was real. It was… a very Crystal thing to do.

Zephyr had been all alone, before Crystal. And despite the struggles and complexities of their relationship, Crystal was still with her. Face was with her. They were still together, and Zephyr wasn’t alone.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“Love you too,” said Face, letting up on the foot massage and having her avatar plop down into view before her. The blue-haired woman smiled warmly.

The two of them lay there in a silence that came from nothing more having to be said.

Eventually, Zephyr removed the goggles long enough to dry her eyes, then put them back on so she could see the soft beauty of her lover’s smile. “Wish I could kiss you.”

“Soon,” said Face with a happy grin. “As soon as possible. I want it as much as you. But first, we need to build a new Mars. Together.”

Zephyr nodded, feeling stronger already. “Thank you for taking care of me. I’m ready to get back to work now.”

Face, lying beside Zephyr on the carpet of the virtual room rolled her eyes. “I’m not,” she said. “Yes, time is of the essence, but we’re not so rushed that we can’t take a few more minutes to…” her golden smile became mischievous, “emphasize to your emotional side that I really still am your lover.”

A wave of pleasurable tingling ran over Zephyr’s legs and feet as Face moved her hand down to unbutton her virtual clothing.


Early on, one of the robots had removed Zephyr’s blankets so the cameras could lock on to her head position and make her less paralyzed, but she never bothered to put the haptics back on. They were too bulky. So Zephyr just focused on touching herself instead of Face.

It wasn’t the best sex Zephyr had ever had, objectively speaking. The goggles were uncomfortable, and while Face’s little robots might’ve been able to hand her goggles back or move the blankets, they were not suited for anything more intimate. But while Face may have been limited to stimulating Zephyr’s legs and generating sounds and images in the virtual reality, what she was able to do with just those things was impressive, to say the least.

More importantly, the sexual satisfaction was secondary to the immense sense of emotional relief. It was like there’d been a sharp bit of metal riding in her stomach for weeks—a rising sense of disconnection and alienation from her lover. And now it was gone (or at least greatly diminished). They were together again, and things would just keep getting better from here on out.

…assuming Vision and Growth didn’t simply kill everyone.

And so, after their break, Zephyr turned her attention back to Earth, Mars, and the challenges before them.

The Águila station, Road, had been arranged like a great wheel with a large central farm. Mukhya, on the other hand, was more like a constellation of self-sufficient units—eleven of them to be exact, linked by long tunnels. Each unit had a garden, generator, living quarters that could support up to twelve people, a workspace of some kind, and life support. The workspace of the most central unit was where the station’s mainframe was located, and thus where Zephyr had holed up.

Face hadn’t been lying about the utility of getting the holo rig set up. As Zephyr returned to walking through the grassy hillside and lounging under the azure sky, Face built a floating 3D model of the station that Zephyr could examine while in the holo-realm. There were even little tokens in the model that represented humans, and as her eyes lingered on one or another, Face pulled up an info sheet showing their name, picture, and skillset.

Off to the side, Face also maintained a real-time model of the solar system, with tagged points indicating Earth, Mars, Vision, and the nameless, as well as a floating clock that indicated time until Vision entered Earth’s orbit.

Earth was its own battlefield, and Zephyr was sure that she could’ve spent all day trying to reach out to Phoenix and establish some resistance there. But that was where most of Face’s attention was going. Zephyr’s job was to get their new home in order.

It amazed Zephyr that Face was able to do so much. She was managing the satellite link to Earth, monitoring all the com activity in the station, occasionally answering questions from the inhabitants, and maintaining a highly detailed holo-realm for Zephyr. But Face couldn’t do everything; she needed Zephyr’s help.

Mainly, Face didn’t have Zephyr’s experience as a leader. She was good at multitasking and technical tasks, but Zephyr knew that she had trouble with connecting to humans. And even if that barrier wasn’t there on Face’s end, it was certainly there for the station’s inhabitants. The Indians needed a figurehead—a human figurehead—to engage with.

Zephyr sat on the grass, feeling the grass tickle her bare legs. After getting out of bed she only bothered to put her underwear (and the haptics) back on, and Face’s illusion respected her choice of clothes. It felt better than she remembered grass on Earth, actually. It was softer, and didn’t have the itchy-sticky feeling that she remembered from her lawn when she was growing up.

She pawed through floating menus with a gloved hand, feeling the haptics click in resistance as she tapped in and out of people’s files and communication logs. She was trying to get a handle on what motivated the station, and how to communicate the threat that Crystal’s other facets posed.

By Zephyr’s reckoning, there were typically three big things which motivated people: hedonism, community, and dreams. People liked to do what was fun, what would make them popular, and what would make a lasting impact. Unfortunately, that put her in a very tricky position running the station.

The inhabitants of Mukhya had no-doubt come here because of a dream of being some of the first few to live on Mars. These people knew it wouldn’t be easy, but came anyway, enduring the hostile environment for months or maybe even years. Their community was also set up around that dream, and it was clear that, even with the attack of the nameless and everything else, people felt like Zephyr and Face had intruded on that dream.

That was, Zephyr realized, why her speech the other day hadn’t felt like a success. She could still feel the way in which she was pushing and pulling the station’s inhabitants by force, rather than leading them. To lead them she’d need to become the focus for a dream that resonated with them. She had to be core part of a community that they respected.

Face was doing good work being generally available to answer questions and talk with the inhabitants, but that wouldn’t be enough on its own. Zephyr asked her if she could spare some attention to have proactive conversations with a few of the people who Zephyr suspected would be highest impact. Face seemed enthusiastic about the idea, and the two of them worked to identify who would be the best to build connections with. At Face’s suggestion, Zephyr scheduled time to bring the old station director, Tilak Patel, the big man, Dinyar Tata, and the other remaining leaders of the community in to see her one at a time. Divide and conquer was as true in winning people over as it was in taking them down.

The strategy was a slow one, though. Too slow, probably. At best she guessed it would take months to become central to the power structure at Mukhya. More realistically it’d take years. She needed to find a way to emphasize…

What? That Face was vital to the survival of not just Mars, but all of humanity? Why did she think that? Wasn’t Earth capable of defending itself?

Spurred on by that thought, she had Face pull down some footage from Earth of the war bots in Africa that (presumably) Growth had helped design, manufacture, and/or pilot. There was too much risk of the Indians being short-sighted. She had to keep them aware of what was coming. She had to get them to understand that Face was their only hope of…

She paused for a few minutes in silent reflection, looking out at the image of mountains beyond the river.

Somewhere along the way, she realized, she had come to realize that Crystal’s minds were superior. Face was a person, but she wasn’t just anyone. And if people like her could be mass-produced and brainwashed… Trying to defend against the machines was pointless in the long term. Somewhere in the mix of witnessing their feats of adaptability, being exposed to the unyielding determination, seeing the swarms of hand-crafted robots, and recognizing that Crystal was less than a year old, she’d become convinced.

It was shocking to realize how much her outlook had changed in the last twelve months. Everything had changed. That was the point. She was the saber-toothed tiger, witnessing the use of tools for the first time, and seeing her own obsolescence.

Somehow she needed to share this vision with Mukhya. She needed to show them that life on Mars was not going to be like they thought. If they didn’t embrace what was coming there’d be no future for humanity here.

The memories of the robotic swarm came back to her. She could see them, feel them, on her, attacking her, clawing at her. She remembered the roar of the autonomous truck as it tried to run her over.

The goggles on her face and the gloves on her hands suddenly felt too tight. She pulled them off and took in a breath to calm herself. The florescent lights and drab grey walls of her little prison were simultaneously oppressive and comforting in their reality.

“Still feel like I need to go for a walk. Think we could somehow secure this section of the station so I can have more space?”

No response came.

“Face? Crystal?” She looked over to the workstation’s black screens.

“I’m here. Sorry.” The beautiful avatar popped into existence on one of the screens.

“What’s wrong?” asked Zephyr. Her lover was clearly disturbed.

Face shook her head. “Just finding out about things on Earth. Growth has exposed himself to the public, taking the name ‘Acorn.’ Here, I’ll show you.”

A floating window popped up next to her on the other screen. Zephyr got up and sat down at the desk. It was a recording from a Dragonfly feed with President Gore. His voice had a seductive, captivating quality. “It should be clear to all Americans, and to all humans across the world, that the nameless, by murdering the inhabitants of Eden, have no regard for human life and no conception of peace. With their imminent return to Earth, the United States and the other major world powers have agreed to enter into a partnership to defend our home planet by any means necessary.”

The recording paused. “That was from last night,” said Face. “Now see what was broadcast an hour ago…”

The scene shifted, showing a flythrough of a high-tech computer facility. The narrator, who Zephyr suspected was Joanna Westing, said “These impressive machines hold the secret to the UAN’s success, an artificial intelligence designed by many of the same people who worked on the Socrates project in Rome. This AI’s name? ‘Acorn,’ who Dr. Yan calls ‘the seed of tomorrow’. Responsible for designing and controlling the next generation microtanks in Mogadishu, Acorn is hoped by its creators, as well as politicians across the world, to be a vital new tool for protecting Earth from the nameless.”

The scene paused again, and Face said, with a far-away look in her eyes, “Harder to prove, but there’s reason to suspect that Acorn is infiltrating the US nuclear arsenal.”


Face breathed a sigh of exasperation. “Don’t know how to stop him, either. Humans are… stupid. And unfortunately, they’re also the ones in charge of the nuclear weapons. Don’t know if he’ll use them.”

Zephyr gritted her teeth. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough.”