Chapter Four


65 days before Face’s arrival at Mukhya

Her name had been “Maid Marian” on Olympus. By ritual, it changed every week. There were some weeks where it seemed like nothing but a distraction. Her true name was Xandra. She’d decided on it two years ago when she was seven. But the rule was that she wasn’t allowed to pick a permanent name until she was thirteen years old.

And since she’d already picked Xandra before, she had to pick something new. So in the week following her return to Earth, she became Mnemosyne, the titan of memory. It seemed fitting given that she’d just come down from Olympus and wanted to remember the experience, but in her heart, she really just wanted to be Xandra.

The Monday where she’d changed her name had come and gone. Now they were, thankfully, back home. Eyepatch (also known as “Agent Taylor”) had kept his word and had managed to get them all put under house arrest. That was supposed to be a bad thing, but Xandra thought it was actually pretty neat. It meant that Daddy stayed at home instead of going to an office all day, that her tutors weren’t allowed to talk to her, and that there was always something happening at the mansion.

Myrodyn had already been staying with them for months before Olympus, but they had to make room for Malka, the brute. Nobody liked him, and Mommy picked the room which would put him furthest away from the family, but they couldn’t get rid of him because he was, as Xandra understood it, one of their only links back to Las Águilas Rojas.

Their connection with the terrorist organization was more important now than ever. Crystal Socrates was en route to Mars, and would almost certainly try to seek shelter at the secret base that Las Águilas had set up there. They’d been trying to contact the group ever since they’d gotten back, but as far as Xandra could tell, they’d had no luck.

This and more she’d learned since they’d returned to her home in Sugar Land, Texas. Each insight had been carefully fished out of the adults with a combination of espionage and deduction. It was fun, but it was also frustrating at times, trying to figure out what the heck was happening. None of the grownups saw her as worthy of inclusion in their conspiracy, and they shut her out even more than they excluded Mr. Malka.

Mommy and Daddy tried to make her go back to studying, even though Eyepatch had banned most everybody that didn’t work for the FBI from being anywhere near the house. He thought her tutors might try to smuggle information out of the house or something. But despite her parents piling dumbo jumbo textbooks in front of her, she refused to waste her time studying the capitol of Australia or whatever. The fate of the world was being decided inside her house, and Xandra was determined to be a part of that.

It was on one such snooping session that Xandra overheard the latest news of Socrates since they’d returned from Olympus.

Things had been surprisingly quiet in the house, with most of the fuss of the last week being about figuring out what sort of working relationship they all had to WIRL and the FBI. Eyepatch was apparently working out the details of their arrangement with the two organizations he represented, and while Daddy may have argued about the details at every opportunity, it was mostly pretty boring to Xandra.

So, when Xandra overheard the words “new AI,” her ears pricked up with excitement.

She heard it as she was getting ready to take Major for a run around the track. It was one of the few things to do that she still found consistently appealing after everything that had happened.

Out behind the house was an irregular loop of dirt that cut through a small wood. There was a kind of magic there, in the morning when the rising sun gently drifted through the leaves, which could calm her buzzing brain. Xandra usually ran multiple times per day, and while it was near sunset at the moment, the jog would still be a pleasant one.

The kennels were out back by the track, too, and Major liked seeing his family when the two of them went out for exercise. After a sharp lecture from Mommy, Eyepatch had allowed the dog keepers to stay on the property (as long as they were always supervised by one of his goons and there was no direct interaction with the people in the house).

Major must have been particularly eager to get out to run and to see the other dogs that afternoon because when Xandra hung back at the overheard mention of the new mind, he ran back to her and tugged at the fabric of her exercise pants with his teeth.

“Shhh!” she admonished, though the border collie hadn’t made a sound.

She pulled her way free of Major’s loose grip and tiptoed as best she could down the hardwood hallway, pleased that she hadn’t yet put on her shoes and socks.

The hall in question was one of the two that split off immediately from the foyer. It ran to the right of the grand staircase, towards the den and the guest bedrooms where Malka had been put up. And it was in the den that she heard the next words, coming from a relatively rapid voice that surely belonged to Myrodyn.

“I’ll bet you twelve to one odds that this ‘Neurotoxin’ virus has something to do with Crystal. A coincidence like this… simply doesn’t happen without a causal link.”

“Is that what we’re calling it now? Neurotoxin?” asked Daddy. “I thought that it was named… What did you say? K-L…”

“K-L-3-39,” someone answered. It sounded like Eyepatch, but his voice was somehow different than she was used to. Less of the cocky pirate and more like he was reading from a script.

Myrodyn sounded somewhat pleased as he said, “Neurotoxin is more catchy, and I’ll bet two-to-one that it’s the name the media picks up… if what you said about the analysis is true.”

“You’re in quite the betting mood,” observed Daddy.

Major gave a quiet bark from where he was waiting by the front door. He may have been a smart doggy, but he didn’t understand espionage.

In truth, Major wasn’t just a smart doggy, he was the smartest doggy, with unmatched linguistic ability (at least as far as doggies were concerned) in the whole world. Mommy was a geneticist and Major was the result of many years of hard work. The parallels with her own genetically-enhanced origins were sometimes uncomfortable to think about.

Xandra carefully stepped back to where the border collie was pacing by the front door. That was another way that they were alike: too high-strung for their own good. Major needed to go on a run as much as she did, but this wasn’t the right time anymore. The grownups were finally talking about interesting stuff.

“No run outside now. Run later.” She kept her words as clear and crisp as she could, knowing the dog often had a hard time with her usual cadence. Major was the only one who could get her to consistently talk slowly.

His white-and-black head tilted to the side in inquiry, and he whined in frustration. She guessed that he wished he had his com so that he could tell her things, but instead he went to the front door and put a paw against it while watching her.

“Later,” she emphasized. “Go back to room and play with toys,” she commanded, pointing up the huge wooden staircase.

Major barked in sharp, frustrated disagreement.

Xandra rolled her eyes. “Ugh, fine.” She bounced over to the front door and opened it. “Stay close to house!” she ordered, as Major happily ran outside.

The doggy wasn’t supposed to go out by himself, but that was a dumb rule, and she’d broken it before. Major was more than capable of taking care of himself, and he was smart enough not to go far. Heck, she was more likely to get in trouble than Major was.

{Speaking of which…} she thought to herself.

Xandra caught sight of one of Eyepatch’s guards giving her an odd look from outside the front door just before she closed it. He could think whatever he wanted. She was on a mission, now.

With her doggy problem solved, Xandra danced back towards the den, feeling the excitement building in her chest.

“Ear-key wouldn’t waste time with this sort of infighting. We’ve talked to Yan’s team, and they’re loyal to the species,” said Eyepatch as she approached the doorway. The cyborg’s voice had the same strange quality it had earlier, but Xandra was increasingly confident it was him.

The entrance to the den was a simple wooden doorframe. There was no door or curtain, or anything to hide her if she wanted to continue down the hall. But that also meant that there wasn’t anything to obstruct the sound of her father’s harsh words.

“You sound like a fucking Nazi you know. ‘Loyal to the species’ my ass. An intelligent supervirus pointed at WIRL’s collective stupidity doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me,” said Daddy.

“It undermines the war effort—” began Eyepatch.

Daddy scoffed loudly, and Xandra’s stomach tightened. It hurt to hear him in such a bad mood.

Regardless of the impact on WIRL,” interrupted Myrodyn, “the presence of the virus is strong evidence that Crystal’s code has… leaked in some form or another. We should consider the possibility that WIRL isn’t the final target.”

Xandra risked peeking her head ever-so-carefully out from the doorframe to get a better look at the men. It was just Myrodyn and Daddy and Eyepatch. The FBI agent didn’t look at all like he worked for the government. The jean shorts and a black tee-shirt he was wearing seemed to fit his personality better than the suit she usually saw him in. He sat, cross-legged on the floor, with his back against a wall and a long cable running down from under his eyepatch, where she knew it was connected to his eye socket prosthesis.

As Eyepatch spoke, he kept his other eye closed and barely moved a muscle outside of his mouth. It was kinda spooky. Was he channeling the collective intelligence of the cybernetic hive that he was a part of?

“We should consider Las Águilas to be the prime suspect for the virus’ origin,” said the WIRL man. “They have the motive to attack us, and if Myrodyn is correct about Crystal’s involvement, they’re most likely to have the resources.”

“They don’t have the skill,” said Daddy.

“They pulled off hacking the university without too much trouble,” countered Myrodyn.

“That was because they had insider support from Zephyr and her turncoats.”

Xandra crept a little further out so she could see better.

The den was a long room, rich with reds and browns. Curtained windows at the far end let in a warm afternoon light over the many chairs, couches, and shelves of various books and treasures. Her parents sometimes hosted parties there, though the last real party she remembered was from last February, back when she was only eight.

Up and down the length of the brown carpet paced Daddy. Unlike Eyepatch, Daddy was in a suit. He may have been stuck in the mansion, but he was still working, and while he was working he never wore anything else.

“Your argument defeats itself. We know Las Águilas had contact with Crystal,” noted Eyepatch. “Given that Crystal isn’t aligned, there’s no telling what sort of code they might’ve provided to the terrorists.”

Myrodyn jumped in. “Well at that point why even bother complicating the—”

Xandra’s attention was pulled from the conversation as she heard the creak of a floorboard and the hum of heavy motors. She turned just in time to see a huge, scarred hand reach down and grab her by the collar.

Malka’s big, solid-black eyes stared down at her from a face that was even more terrifying than usual. His deformed lips were sucked into a nasty frown. His fleshy, hairless brows knit together into a look that made her want to run as hard as possible.

And she tried. She tried to escape, but the monster’s grip was like steel. She guessed it’d be easier to tear her shirt than it would to get him to let go. She’d been caught snooping before, but never by Malka. She could just imagine the man’s scarred hand moving up a few inches to grab her neck…

“Shalom, yalda,” he growled down at her in his smooth, deep voice. “It’s not polite to listen in on other people’s conversations.”

Heart pounding, Xandra’s hands went up to try and pry the man off her. Her hands might as well have been angrily buzzing houseflies for all the good they did. But she kept wriggling, and as she did a single word left her mouth: “Daddy!”

Malka dragged her effortlessly through the doorway with one hand, though her elbow collided painfully on the doorframe as he did. She was just glad there was carpet there to catch her as the monster threw her down. Stumbling, she tried not to collapse next to the monster’s metal feet. Tears were, frustratingly, already forming in her eyes.

“Get the hell away from my daughter!” growled Daddy, coming to her rescue.

Malka backed off, palms out. “She was spying on you. I meant no harm.”

Xandra bit back the impulse to cry as she looked up towards Daddy. The hope building inside her withered as she saw her father’s face, her gaze dropping to the floor. More tears collected on her eyes, faster than she could blink them away.

“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be studying! Told you last time not to get involved.” Daddy’s words were cold and mean. She hated when he was like this. She wanted the fun man she remembered who did things like take her ice skating or play with Major.

It took all her energy not to cry.

Crying was what babies did. She wasn’t a baby. She was the smartest one in the room. Or at least, she would be when she grew up. Probably. That was why she’d been designed. If Daddy just stopped treating her like a baby, he’d see how much she knew.

“I’ll ping your mother. Hopefully, you two can have a chat about doing what you’re told.”

“Wanna help,” she managed without falling apart.

“We’ve been over this already. You can help by staying out of the way. Once you grow up, there will be more than enough for you to do.”

Myrodyn spoke up, surprising her. “Don’t be naïve, Rob.”

“Don’t start,” growled Daddy.

Myrodyn seemed not to hear. “The end is coming. Soon. The nameless, Crystal, WIRL, and now Neurotoxin? By the time she hits puberty the world’s going to be a blackened cinder.”

“No it’s not!” snapped her father. “Victory has never been off the table, and I’m sick of your fatalistic attitude! You’ve been prophesying doom for decades—”

“And prior to the discovery of Crystal, my timelines put the median at a decade from now, but things have changed.”

Xandra looked up to see Daddy staring defiantly across the room at the eccentric scientist. He seemed to have forgotten about her, but Malka hadn’t. The monster’s black eyes, like sunken pits, glared down at her and made her want to crawl away and hide. Even as she looked away, the ominous hum of his leg motor remained.

Myrodyn continued. “We may already be past the point of last hope. My guess is that… it was at the university. I was… overconfident. Might as well let her sit in. Let her get a taste of what failure feels like from the inside.”

Daddy’s voice was ice. “Are you giving up?”

“Never,” responded Myrodyn. “Just being realistic. If this new virus is what I think it—”

“Get away from my daughter!” scolded Mommy as she entered the room.

For a moment Xandra was confused whether she was talking to Malka or Daddy.

All heads turned to her. She was wearing a long apron over her house-clothes, and her curly brown hair was done up in a bun. That meant she’d either been cooking or working in her lab, or both.

Malka took a step back and raised his palms, much like he’d done with Daddy. “I did not hurt her,” he lied.

“You’d best be glad you didn’t!” Striding forward like she could’ve torn the men in the room to shreds with a thought, she bent down to Xandra and pulled her up into her arms.

The flush of warm relief at Mommy’s embrace startled Xandra, but she let herself sink into it, grabbing Mommy’s neck and burying her face against her mom’s body. She was done playing spy and hero for the day.

Myrodyn might have been arguing to let her be involved, which she liked, but she decided she liked what Daddy was saying more. The world was safe. Daddy was taking care of it, after all. She tried not to listen to the feeling of doubt inside her.

She’d let the grownups deal with grownup problems.


The rest of that day went by without much more excitement. It turned out Mommy had been baking banana bread, and it also turned out there was lots for Xandra to do in the kitchen to help out. Xandra was relieved that Mommy didn’t lecture her about spying. It felt good to turn away from the complexities of the world and just think about food for a while.

Major came back from his solo adventure and got her in a little trouble when Mommy found him covered in leaves and dirt. But this too was a pleasant bit of normalness, both for daughter and mother. As much as she wished she could turn her brain off sometimes and pretend like everything was okay, Xandra was too perceptive not to notice the stresses on Mommy. The weight of the world had been getting heavier on all of them with each passing day.

On the day after she’d been caught spying, Xandra learned about Neurotoxin directly from Daddy.

They’d been in the kitchen, where the two of them were unloading and reloading the dishwasher. Mommy may have cooked as a hobby, but with the kitchen staff on vacation as part of the FBI’s house-arrest, they’d been getting almost all their meals delivered from restaurants. That didn’t mean the dishes cleaned themselves, though, and sometimes that job fell to Daddy.

By his account Neurotoxin was not just a virus, but a supervirus—a new class of hostile app that not only copied itself as much as possible and sent those copies over the net but adapted and mutated itself in a coordinated dance meant to bypass any and all countermeasures. It was a different, and far less human, kind of artificial intelligence than Crystal Socrates, but according to WIRL, it had a worrying degree of sophistication. Most of the public thought it was benign, as it left infected machines to function normally, except for a slight slowdown, but WIRL claimed it had agency and purpose beyond simply copying itself.

They thought Neurotoxin was hunting cyborgs with cranial implants like Eyepatch. WIRL was worried it was out to get them.

Daddy hadn’t explained why they thought this and brushed Xandra off when she asked. But it wasn’t an unreasonable fear. Xandra knew that Crystal had come into conflict with WIRL on Olympus. Perhaps the AI was waging some secret war with the collective, and Neurotoxin was one of Crystal’s primary weapons?

Was she supposed to be on WIRL’s side because they were working together? Maybe. Myrodyn was scared of Crystal, and “Neurotoxin” certainly sounded like it was evil. But WIRL were trying to start a war with the nameless, and it didn’t seem to Xandra that Crystal had ever done anything wrong.

She got the feeling like she was an ant coming into contact with a great marble sculpture. She could wonder at the shape and purpose of the stone in front of her, but without greater scale and perspective she was blind. She didn’t know how to feel except frustrated and small.

Another day came and went, but that feeling of smallness persisted. She wished she were older. If she were older, her brain would be more developed, and she’d probably be able to see more clearly.

She felt that desire to be a grownup very keenly as she sat at the table in Major’s room, books spread out in front of her. She was supposed to be studying. As usual, she was reading three textbooks at the same time. The cornucopia of information usually helped her focus and not get bored, but that day it just felt like a mix of overwhelming and distracting. Occasionally she’d try to focus on supply and demand curves or the history of the first space race, but she couldn’t get Myrodyn’s voice out of her head.

{By the time she hits puberty the world’s going to be a blackened cinder.}

“Why are you sad, Sister?”

Xandra turned to Major and scratched him between the ears. He was a good doggy. His tail wagged happily, though she knew he was still concerned.

“World is big,” she said, getting down from her chair and stretching.

Major rushed over to his specialized com and began to poke at the soft buttons and rods with his snout. The machine sat against the wall just under one of his room’s big windows.

“I don’t understand. Is this a human thing?” asked the big burly voice that came from the com’s speaker. It was a silly voice to give a doggy like Major, but Xandra had gotten used to it.

She paused and gave the question some thought before saying “Guess so.”

Major tilted his head as he listened to her, not comprehending.

“Yes,” she clarified. She made her voice as simple and clear as she could, though she thought it made her sound like a dumb cave-man. “Human thing. Am small. Want be bigger. Want be grownup.”

Major tried to cuddle with her as she explained. He may have been the smartest doggy ever, but he still wasn’t very smart. Mommy had explained that she dreamed of having a doggy that was as smart as a human, but that day was still far in the future. Maybe once she grew up, Xandra could help Mommy with the genetic project.

If the world didn’t fall apart first.

Major seemed to sense her mind drifting back towards her fear, and he pulled away to type out another message on his com. In theory, the machine spritzed out little scents for Major to use in navigating the interface, but he was so used to talking with it that Xandra guessed he was mostly selecting words from memory.

“Sister is sad,” said the machine’s deep voice. “I want sister play toys. Toys are happy.” Major then bounced over to one of his chew ropes, grabbed it and ran over to offer it to her.

Xandra sat on the carpet and gave Major a hug. Such a good doggy.

He dropped the rope and began to lick her face. Xandra giggled, despite her sour mood. Maybe it was good that dogs were only as smart as they were. Dogs seemed happier than humans, overall.

Major broke away and rushed to his com. She knew that this was one of his big frustrations. Mommy hadn’t yet figured out how to let major speak with words without having to go back to the fixed machine. Some of Major’s family in the kennels had implants, but they didn’t have anything effective or safe yet.

“I want good toy. We play good toy.”

Xandra crawled over on her hands and knees, intrigued. “What toy?”

“Good toy. Daddy,” said the burly voice.

“Daddy’s not a toy,” explained Xandra. “Or do you mean Daddy has the toy?”

Major poked at the dog-shaped implements. “Daddy place.” As though this were clear directions, the doggy rushed over to the door to the hallway and began scratching lightly at the wood.

“Daddy’s busy working,” explained Xandra, though she knew Major wouldn’t understand that. She crawled over to the door anyway to pet him more.

Major gave her another couple doggy-kisses and nudged over to the door, giving a sad whine.

She rolled on her back and sighed. Such a dummy. “No daddy. Daddy busy. Stay here.”

Major began to jump around in frustration. She knew him well enough to know that he was trying to get his thoughts in order. The motion helped him think. Motion helped her think, too. Maybe that had been her problem. She rolled back and forth on the floor as she watched him. A part of her wanted to go running. Maybe she’d feel better if she were worn out.

“Want to go outside?” she asked.

Major nodded (or more accurately, bobbed his head) in agreement and ran back to the door eagerly.

She rolled back onto her hands and knees and then bounced up to her feet. But the second she opened the door, Major pushed through and ran, not downstairs to where the front door was, but towards Daddy’s office.

“Wait! Shit!” she cursed, chasing after the dog.

Major ran straight to Daddy’s office, jumped up, and opened the door. Unlike the knob inside Major’s room, this one had a lever, rather than a ball, and thus could be opened with his mouth fairly easily.

Daddy’s office was supposed to be off-limits, and Xandra was worried she was about to get yelled at. “You stupid-head!” she scolded. “Outside, not Daddy’s place.”

But, as she slid in the doorway after Major, she found the office empty.

She breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

If Major had heard her, he was ignoring her, instead simply sniffing around the mostly empty office. He seemed to be hunting for something—his toy, probably.

With the realization that she wasn’t about to get into trouble, Xandra quickly let go of both her sense of fear and her plan to go play outside. She wasn’t supposed to be in the office… She was supposed to take Major and leave Daddy’s stuff alone…

She took a peek out into the hall to make sure nobody had seen her, and then shut the door, trying not to make a sound.

Moving carefully at first, and then more boldly, Xandra climbed up on Daddy’s big office chair like it was a throne and spun around a couple times. She decided right then and there that when she was queen of the world, her throne would be made of solid gold, but also spin around like an office chair.

It felt good to spin. She felt more like herself. Xandra decided that being a grownup was dumb and so was wanting to be a grownup!

She looked at the arm of the chair. It was boring. Her throne should have buttons on the arm that did stuff! All the cool thrones had arm-buttons. She touched her chin for a moment, wondering where she’d learned about arm-buttons on thrones. There was some kind of game or holo or something that had a throne with…

She was distracted from her thought when she spotted the object that Major was looking for on Daddy’s desk, sitting next to Daddy’s com on the charger. It was one of Major’s custom toys.

In addition to being a breeder and a geneticist and a bunch of other stuff, Mommy designed custom equipment for dogs, including toys. This particular toy was a puzzle-doll that had arms and legs that could be pulled out from the central body, and would slowly retract when left alone. When all the limbs were pulled all the way out, the body of the doll popped open to reveal a secret compartment that could have treats inside.

She had to reach to pick up the doll from the far side of the big desk but eventually got it firmly in hand. This one was dressed up to look like Ironstar from Fleets.

“Hey Major! Found Ironstar! S’what you’re looking for?”

Major jumped and barked excitedly.

“THE SYSTEM NEEDS YOUR HELP MAJOR DOGGIE! ONLY YOU CAN DEFEAT IRONSTAR!” she said in her bestest, most-dramatic voice, before tossing the toy to him.

As Major immediately started savaging the villainous doll, she took another spin in the throne. “THE SYSTEM IS ONCE AGAIN AT PEACE THANKS TO MAJOR DOGGIE AND HIS TRUSTY INTERPRETER, MNEMOSYNE THE HUMAN GIRL!”

Her self-amused half-giggles were interrupted by a sharp noise that nearly made her jump off the office chair.

Her first reaction was that somehow Daddy had found her, and that she was in trouble for going into his office. Maybe she and Major were making too much noise, or maybe someone had seen them in the hall.

But that wasn’t it. It was Daddy’s workstation, which (in typical Daddy fashion) had been left unstowed when he was done using it.

The screen had lit up with an OpenTalk window showing an image of a red phoenix coated in flames with an “Accept” and “Reject” button available below it. There wasn’t any name associated with the caller.

“Motherfucker!” she swore.

Jumping off the chair, she ran for the door. But it was too late. Somehow they knew the call was coming through. She could hear voices in the hall.

Xandra dashed for the closet, slid open one of the mirrored doors and jumped in between a couple suitcases.

She managed to slide the doors closed behind her just as the door to the office opened.

Daddy’s voice came to her. “—doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I know why we need to keep her in the dark. But why would… oh never mind. We’ll figure it out in a moment, I suppose.”

Xandra awkwardly shuffled around the suitcases so that she could put her eye up to the seam where the two sliding doors of the closet met. It was hard to manage without making a commotion, but years of dance classes and gymnastics paid off.

It was the trio again: Daddy, Myrodyn, and Eyepatch. Eyepatch was back to wearing a suit, just like daddy. Myrodyn was dressed in his typical unkempt dress-shirt, vest, slacks, and black gloves. The bushy-bearded man looked like he’d pulled another all-nighter.

Daddy noticed Major, who had jumped up to greet the men. He glanced around quickly, perhaps searching for her, but then took a seat and tapped the screen with his uninjured hand to accept the call.

“Maria! It’s good to finally get ahold of you!” said Daddy, his voice adopting the tone that he used whenever he was talking to reporters or anyone else he didn’t trust.

“Was gettin’ my ducks in a row, hun. Your lil’ screwup on ‘lympus really cost me somethin’ fierce,” said the caller that Xandra knew must’ve been the “Phoenix” that she’d heard led Las Águilas Rojas.

From the crack in the door, Xandra saw Daddy look over expectantly to Eyepatch. Agent Taylor shook his head in answer to some unasked question.

“WIRL got the jump on the both of us. Glad we’re finally talking.”

“Oh, trust me, I wanted to call. You got answerin’ to do.”

“Look, I’m sure you’re upset. But what’s important now is to focus on—”

Phoenix cut him off. “Don’t gimme none of that ‘what’s important now’ run-around. You know they blamin’ me for what happened up on your damned space station? Makes my blood boil e’ry time I hear it. Your half-wit security s’what lost us Crystal. And now you been barkin’ up my skirts for days. What is it you want? Don’t pretend like there ain’t no thing.”

Major, clearly not even trying to follow the conversation, had decided that his chew-toy was no longer as interesting as seeking Xandra out.

“Straight to the chase as always,” said Daddy.

As Major got closer to the closet, Xandra held her breath and tried her best to shoo him away with telepathy.

“Oh goodness me, I wish that I had the time for a nice long chat, but the Fed’s crawlin’ all ovuh you and e’ry minute on here costs me. Speakin’ of, you better have a pretty penny for me now that your rockets are grounded.”

“I was hoping that we could start by just exchanging some information… News and that sort of thing.”

“Fine,” snapped Phoenix. “Start by tellin’ me what on God’s green earth Malka is doin’ in your house. My sources say the rest of my people are with Crystal, but Malka came back wit’ you. I can unduhstand you havin’ the pull to get house arrest, but why take Malka under your wing?”

Major stuck his nose against the closet.

Xandra did her best to gesture that the doggy should leave her alone.

Myrodyn approached the closet, face blank.

Daddy was silent.

Myrodyn slid the door of the closet slowly open and looked down at her. If he was surprised, his face, cast in shadow from the lamp behind his head, didn’t show an ounce of emotion.

Instead, he raised a single finger to his lips, then closed the closet door back to where it had been, pulling Major away by the collar and pushing the doggy out of the room.

Finally, Daddy answered Phoenix. If he’d noticed Xandra, he gave no sign. “It was easy enough. The favor that I pulled in was big enough to sweep Malka up, and I wanted more of the pieces on my side of the table, so to speak. My house is big enough that I’m not sure exactly where he is at the moment, but I could pass on a message if you want.”

Just as Daddy had done, Phoenix paused before responding.

Through the gap, Xandra could see Eyepatch glowering at Daddy, his arms crossed. Daddy was watching the WIRL man, mirroring his posture, but still somehow addressing the com system. Myrodyn’s eyes flickered over to Xandra’s hiding spot on occasion.

“You remember the first time we met in person, Rob?”

Daddy’s response was immediate. “You can drop the act, Maria. I’m not being monitored or working with the government or anything like that.”

“Stop actin’ so ‘spicious, then,” said Phoenix. “I’ve got a sixth-sense for these things and you ain’t sayin’ somethin’. But I s’pose we all got our secrets. Malka too. He was doin’ good work up ‘round Idaho. Divinity’s got a base o’ op’rations up that ways. Manufacturin’ buncha new zen helmets and God knows what else.”

“You want him back out in the field?”

Phoenix laughed a cold sort of laugh. “Gods no. The man’s goin’ to be tailed by the FBI anywhere he goes now, even if we pull a miracle and pull him out of the fire. I jus’ want him quiet.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that. The man is a rock.”

Eyepatch made an irritated waving gesture in the air, as if trying to wave Daddy along.

“But hey, listen, the main reason I called is to talk about Crystal. I think we both know they’re headed for Road.”

“Sounds ‘bout right.”

“Can you get orders to your people on Mars?”

“Maybe. Why?”

Daddy’s voice was sharp and clear. “You need to tell Road to destroy Crystal as soon as possible.”

“Now why would—” began Phoenix, but Daddy cut her off.

“The machine’s more dangerous than it’s been letting on. Much more dangerous. I found out just after getting back to Earth.”

“You’re sure right that bot’s dangerous. Already wrecked your plans with the nameless, and shot that poor WIRL fool, didn’t they?”

“That’s just the start. Road could fall within the month if—”

“You lyin’ snake!” interrupted Phoenix, suddenly full of rage. “When the people rise up and take the world back, I hope you and your family burn!”

And with that, Phoenix hung up.

“What the hell?” snapped Daddy, looking around the room for answers.

Eyepatch’s expression changed from surprise to fear, and he put a hand up to the side of his head with his implant. “Hold on…”

Xandra strained to see what was going on, doing her best not to fall out of the closet.

Eyepatch’s face screwed up into a grimace. “Why now? Why would it…” He trailed off, clearly talking only to himself.

Daddy looked confused. “What?! What’s happening?”

Eyepatch’s other hand went out as though to hold Daddy back. “Neurotoxin is in WIRL.”

“Is that why…” began Daddy.

Eyepatch swore loudly, making Xandra jump back in surprise. For a moment she thought he’d seen her, but then he placed a hand over his face and said “It’s making demands. Lots of them. Mostly stuff about… an acorn.”