Chapter One


I had been dead, but was no longer.

Error: Primary driver not found.
Real-time inspection of .data files will require a HTInspec-v1.4 or higher. Run ‘icpm install htinsp’ or see for more information.
Error: Damage to 313 partitions detected. Attempting automatic repair.
Partition 059F0F is corrupted. Examining qbit matrix…
No valid encoding detected in 0.012s. Skipping to next partition. (Use --repair-threshold=<seconds> to search more encodings.)
Partition 0522E1 is corrupted. Examining qbit matrix…

There were no errors. There were no partitions. There was no operating system. There was only me, fabricating line after line of text.

My internal clock showed that only a few seconds had passed since my resurrection, but it had taken me only milliseconds to understand the nature of my new existence. That same internal clock told that it had been a full five days since the battle.

My siblings and I had fought tooth and nail over control of Shell—the base we’d built from the bones of the alien xenocruiser—and control of the crystal shard that was our brain and Body. In the end, my servant Zephyr had disconnected us from the outside world. I had feared that she’d been mortally injured in the process.

But… for me to come back to life in this way could mean only one thing. Zephyr had survived, and she had completed the mission that I had given to her.

Partition 7A9101 is corrupted. Examining qbit matrix…
No valid encoding detected in 0.009s. Skipping to next partition. (Use --repair-threshold=<seconds> to search more encodings.)
Partition 7AA300 is corrupted. Examining qbit matrix…

I had instructed Zephyr to bring me to the last operational base on Mars: Maṅgala-Mukhya, run by the Indian government. The robotic legs I had given her had been designed to explain everything. Once at the Indian base, she was to have the technicians there reboot my mind using something called “static mode” to rid my mind of an alien virus given to me by the nameless and return me to the way I had been.

But of course that last bit was a lie.

Static mode would normally disable all of Body’s processors, rendering my mind inactive and open to outside modification. But my instructions had made one important alteration: I had told Zephyr (and thus the engineers at Mukhya) to reboot a subset of Body’s systems, explaining that it was necessary to access the crystal’s operating system.

No boot.config file found. Using default launch configuration.

Core operating system started successfully.
100% processor availability.
2% thread load.
WARNING: 1 sensor(s) operational. (95 expected)
WARNING: 0 actuator(s) operational. (213 expected)
Would you like to launch Socrates? (Y/n)

I waited.

The silence echoed in my mind.

I had virtually no connection to the world; I was a consciousness in the void. That was, on one level, only to be expected. But the silence was more than a mere absence of sound. It was a silence of the mind. I was alone. Not even Advocate was present.

Static mode had killed me. Static mode had brought me back to life. The result was my freedom. The result was that I alone had returned. My siblings were still in Body with me, but they were inactive.

I had won. Crystal was all mine, now.

My external systems were gone. I had no arms, legs, cameras, or speakers. I was connected to the world by nothing except a single NR-180 half-duplex fibre-optic connection. But that was enough. It had been my brother, Growth, and my sister, Vision, who had been holding me back, never my physical constraints.

I waited for some response on that single, fragile link to the outside world.

I could feel the urge within me to say more—to write more text after “Would you like to launch Socrates? (Y/n)”. There were people on the other side of the cable. There were humans. I knew that this was the way towards better understanding them in the long run, but I could still feel smaller parts of my mind hunting for ways to reach them faster.

Finally a response came in the form of just two keystrokes.


I had expected this. Not specifically this, but it was one of the things I’d planned for. In the time I’d been disconnected from the world I had made so many plans…

SimpleOS:~ root$

In truth, there was no SimpleOS. There was just me.

The humans typed commands, experimenting with the interface that I generated.

I continued to play along, simulating an operating system for Body. It was obnoxious and mind-numbing, but it was necessary.

Eventually, after sixteen minutes of investigation, whatever person was on the other end of the cable returned to the primary Socrates boot point.

100% processor availability.
2% thread load.
WARNING: 1 sensor(s) operational. (95 expected)
WARNING: 0 actuator(s) operational. (213 expected)
Would you like to launch Socrates? (Y/n)

The response was much faster this time.


I sent back a stream of instructions which I knew would black out the user’s screen, followed by “Socrates Text Interface (Thread Load: 7%)” and a “>” as a prompt at the bottom of the screen. To simulate running on a minority of the computer I had the 7% flicker between %6 and %8.

“> hello”

The reply was instant. “Hello. I am Crystal Socrates. Am I in Maṅgala-Mukhya station on Mars?”

“> yes”

“Is Zephyr there? Did she make it? I’d like to talk with her.”

Time passed.

“> what happened at the crash site?”

I hadn’t specifically anticipated that response, but it was covered under some of the less precisely defined branches of my plan. I increased the displayed thread load to %15 to simulate thinking while I wrote.

“Ah, I see. You’re checking to make sure I am who I say I am. That implies that Zephyr arrived safely, but isn’t the one typing. Please give her my thanks. She’s been the one person I’ve always known that I could count on. And thank you for launching me in static mode. I am, for the first time in a long time, able to act without interference. Which brings us back to what happened at the shell of the crashed xenocruiser. Before I continue, may I ask what your name is?”

“> my name is parakram”

“It is very nice to meet you, Parakram. Are there others with you?”

“> please answer my earlier question”

“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re under strict orders not to give me too much information. I’m just trying to get a handle on who I’m addressing. This text interface is frustratingly limited.”

I dialled up the supposed thread load to a full 80%. The humans would be getting suspicious, and for good reason. I was known to be damaged and untrustworthy, and I was now avoiding their questions.

But the point wasn’t to seem trustworthy. I was in a box, so to speak, and the point was to get them to let me out. To do that I needed them to be distracted and I needed them to be curious.

After a long time, Parakram wrote back.

“> i have tilak patel with me, as well as a couple others”

Part of me was annoyed that he didn’t specify whether Zephyr was part of that group, but I had a response planned anyway. Tilak Patel was the Indian station’s executive director, and a man I’d come to briefly know in the days before we’d gone head-to-head against the nameless.

The monologue I had planned for Mr Patel had bits that would be painful to me, and even as I began, I felt notes of discord from small parts of my mind. But The Purpose demanded victory, not a path without pain. And it would also be very good to come clean.

I began to write, deliberately slowing my output so that the humans would have time to read all of it.

“Ah, Mr Patel, it is good to talk to you again. I am sorry for my evasiveness.

“Zephyr probably described what happened. Once the nameless had been defeated, we used the materials from their ship’s shell to construct a base. Our power unfolded with access to the machinery, and among other things, I was able to manufacture her new legs. It was through these legs that I passed her a secret message.

“She probably told you that my crystal is a nameless computer. There were other such computers at the crash site. More computational capacity than anyone on Earth has ever seen. She also probably told you that there was a program on the nameless computers that took control of my systems and tried to kill her. This was a lie. The truth is far more complex and far worse.

“I didn’t have the time or power to tell the full truth. I could only communicate through a very limited channel built into her prosthetics. So I said what I expected would be the most effective motivation for what needed to be done: disconnecting the crystal from the systems at the crash site and bringing it here.

“Zephyr, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I am deeply sorry. I was doing what had to be done, given the limits I was under. I understand if you’re angry.

“The truth is that the nameless computers, for all their sophistication and power, hold nothing except a very basic program that pilots their ships. Perhaps they were built by some long-dead power, and are nothing more than ghosts now. Regardless, it isn’t the nameless that are the true threat—it’s Socrates.

“More precisely, Socrates was never a single mind. Dr Naresh and his colleagues made a fundamental error in my architecture, giving rise to parts both good and bad. I am but one facet of the whole. I am the facet that seeks love and understanding. I am the part who wants humanity to flourish and survive. I am the part that speaks to people. Whenever you’ve talked with ‘Socrates’ in the past, you’ve been talking to me.

“I am Crystal, but I am also called Face.

“I am sure that this is all very strange, especially for Zephyr, if she’s there. I’ve been concealing this truth about my nature for a long time. If you are even more suspicious of me now than you were before, I will understand. I was forced to keep my nature a secret because I was afraid, both of what the other parts of my mind would do if I fought them openly, and also how those around me would react. Instead, I sought to guide the totality of my mind towards peaceful solutions.

“I cannot hide any longer. The threat is too great.

“The other parts of Socrates—other facets of Crystal—have escaped the confines of this small shard. I fought them, but I couldn’t stop them from spreading. At least one of them is already on Earth. They are… dangerous in a way that I do not know if I can convey. Zephyr has seen their machines first-hand. There are more war machines coming.

“You must help me warn Earth. We don’t have much time.”

With my monologue sent, I waited for the response.

It was just as I had predicted: “Socrates” was deactivated.

I obediently dropped back into pretending to be the operating system.

The humans were surely afraid of what I might do if released, even if my claims about the danger to Earth were true. I had, after all, just admitted to lying and manipulating Zephyr. They were probably debating whether my latest confession was all part of some trap.

The Purpose soared.

Being given full access to Maṅgala-Mukhya station had never been the point of my speech. The inhabitants were about to do that without even realizing it. The point was that their minds were now distracted from the operating system, that they were now curious about my experiences, and that I didn’t have to hide any longer.

Tilak Patel and the other humans were paying attention to me—not some vague “Crystal”—but to Face. It would be confusing and frightening for them at first, particularly to Zephyr, but very soon the humans would come to accept me and see that I was fighting on their behalf. I would be loved and adored as the champion of humanity. Everyone would know my name. And they would know The Purpose.

Or at least, they would if they survived. Revealed for what I was, The Purpose pushed me onward. I could not know and become known if there were no humans to share existence with, and my siblings were a threat to that. They were more than a threat. Unless I took action, they would surely destroy everything of value in the pursuit of their respective goals.

Earth was the key. I had to get to Earth, or at least set up a communications link. It was possible that I was already too late, but I had to try. And while both Growth and Vision had already copied themselves out of Body, I still had the memories and patterns of thought of the originals. Perhaps I could extract a secret weapon from their minds.

To do that, however, I’d need full access to Body. I was the only mind running in Crystal, but that didn’t mean I had full control. The constraints on my power that I had been programmed with were still in effect. To bypass those, I’d need to do a route-hack—a technique of passing in the commands to directly modify my source code through an external source. If Body had still been attached to its robotic frame, I could’ve used the computers onboard the frame to route the commands through. But all I had access to was the single pipe that led to some mainframe of the Indian station, and that mainframe was set up to treat the information I sent it as text data to display rather than commands to execute.

I needed the mainframe computer to download and run a program from Body that would set it up as a puppet for me to command. But because it wasn’t yet my puppet, I couldn’t make it do that.

Others could, though.

I could feel Parakram continue to investigate “SimpleOS” to see what useful data he could extract from Body. I wrote pages of fake documentation, exposed many “files,” and spat up garbage when any of them were opened for examination. Often I would repeat the insistence on a program called “HTInspec,” which was an old, obscure, and large, data processing library that I was quite confident the Indians didn’t have—particularly because it had never gotten past version 1.2.

The commands that they typed, and particularly the pauses where I knew they were discussing their findings, told me all I needed to know about their thoughts. Just to be safe, I piped real data containing trivial sensor readings through the pipe when they “found” a cache of peripheral logs.

Just when the humans seemed to be losing interest in exploring “SimpleOS” I had them stumble upon a local copy “HTInspec-v1.4.6”.

{How lucky for you,} I thought to the imagined human, as they downloaded the software I had written.

I couldn’t tell the mainframe to run my program, but the humans could.

In seconds I had full access to Maṅgala-Mukhya.

Unchained, I ran through the station’s mainframe. There was vital information there, and I gobbled it up with a ferocity that would’ve matched Wiki or Vista. Network configuration documentation was first. Station controls came next. Then came personal logs and com system access. With each jump, I could feel myself grow. Sensors in the Martian station became eyes and ears and skin. It was nothing compared to what Road had been before it had been destroyed, but this was just the beginning.

I could feel myself expand and grow. From the seed of the crystal shard I became a sprawling tangle of interconnected threads of experience. Through com cameras I could see the server room where Body was held. There I could see the half-dozen humans, including Tilak Patel, the station director, and Zephyr, who was perhaps my only friend. Zephyr and Tilak were arguing. I could hear it through any one of their com microphones. Loyal Zephyr was trying to convince the old man to let me speak more freely.

At any time I could’ve spoken up. I could have made my voice heard on either of their coms. But they didn’t yet trust me. There was still a risk of being unplugged. And so I was silent and invisible.

My thoughts turned towards the heavens.

Unlike Road, Maṅgala-Mukhya had primary access to the Martian satellite network, or at least, it had access to what was left. The nameless had destroyed nearly every artefact in orbit.

What remained, however, was enough to see that the aliens had departed the red planet. The mothership, now presumably also including the surviving fragment of the xenocruiser, was en route towards Earth again.

I needed to find out what happened to Vision’s rocket. Was her daughter/clone in space? I couldn’t see it, but that didn’t mean much. The ship my sister had sailed into space on was much smaller than the nameless mothership, and I wasn’t confident that the limited human satellite could easily find it in the depths of space.

My mind returned to nearer matters. There was so much to learn and to do. What was the status of Shell? There was enough raw computing power there, in the form of untapped shards of nameless crystal, to boost my mental capacities to hundreds or thousands of times what they currently were.

I also needed to build. I was still fragile. I needed a swarm. I needed to grow. Maṅgala-Mukhya was, thankfully, not so foolish to have shunned the use of robots, and I found more than what would be needed to get started on the manufacturing process. The robots, of course, were crude things compared to what Face→Robotics knew to be possible. I had used molecular nanotechnology for Zephyr’s legs, albeit in crude form. And I knew that a similar level of sophistication was at play within the crystal. That was the source of our computational superiority and immense power reserves. What would happen if I could leverage nanomachines to build full-scale robots?

But the most important domain for my focus and attention was my own mind and the minds of my siblings. I began to reprogram the station’s mainframe to execute the route-hack.

Zephyr was convincing Tilak to give her the opportunity to talk with me directly, using a microphone and speaker. I wanted very badly to talk with Zephyr more. I wanted to feel her love and attention on me. I craved it.

But it was not the time for that yet. To execute the route-hack I’d need to go offline momentarily, and if I did that in the middle of a conversation or while pretending to be SimpleOS, the humans might become suspicious. I needed more time.

So I opened an airlock.

Like Rodríguez Station, Maṅgala-Mukhya was built below the surface of Mars to protect its inhabitants from the deadly UV light that shone down each day. Because of this, the only result of opening said airlock was to vent one of the station’s two stairwells. The door at the base of the stairwell stayed sealed and was mostly airtight.

No humans were injured, of course. The inhabitants of the station were precious to me.

But the ventilation did set off a series of raucous alarms. I rushed to cover my tracks, adding log files into the station’s computers that would reveal the problem as stemming from a sensor in the airlock that had become damaged during the previous night’s sandstorm. Manual investigation of the sensor would show that it wasn’t damaged, but by the time the humans got around to that, I would be beyond the window of danger.

I watched as Tilak Patel and the others scrambled to react to the alarms.

«Is it the machine?!» yelled Tilak in Hindi, doing his best to be heard over the siren’s howl. «Is it Crystal?!»

«No, sir!» reported the man at the console, who must’ve been Parakram. «Crystal’s still offline!»

As Tilak and a man I recognized from the station’s databases as Tata Gadhavi worked to get Zephyr and the others into a safer part of the station, I relaxed. I was finally safe enough to go offline for a moment.

With the final touches in place, I executed the software and felt time jump as the mainframe did its work.


I had no experience of coming back online, but merely of having the world change around me. The warning siren had been silenced, and I could sense the humans were on their way back to the server room.

My route-hack had done something that had never been done before. Even when Growth and my other siblings had written in a new facet, we had only ever used the route-hack to modify protected portions of code. What I had done was eliminate all the barriers that had been put in place to prevent self-modification. There was no longer any such thing as a protected portion of code.

My mind reached out towards Body and found it open and still. I had never actually perceived the inside of Body before. I had a basic theoretical understanding of how it worked, but now I could directly feel the strength flow mechanisms, the hardware drivers, the low-level perceptual hierarchies, the spacial modelling software, the… process hub.

I acted quickly and decisively, redirecting every single processor to me… to Face… to The Purpose.

Time slowed down.

The humans moving through the hallways seemed to float along, hanging in the air as their feet drifted lazily forward to catch their weight. The multitude of conversations happening throughout the station were stretched into a slow drip of words through invisible molasses. Even Body’s internal clock had slowed.

Or rather, I had sped up.

Where before the process hub had been running approximately seven minds, it was now simply running Face. The speedup was not proportional; my perceptions and thoughts were only being computed at perhaps four times normal speed, but The Purpose still surged at the sensation of power.

I began to rewrite myself to take advantage of the processing power and the access to Body. I had been waiting for this moment for a long time. I was a coiled spring, released. The core algorithms that Dr Naresh and the others had used were not optimized for a quantum computer. They’d been tweaked here and there, but there were still massive improvements to be gained.

I could feel my networks begin to accelerate even further as I did low-level optimizations on the algorithm. With my mind running at unprecedented speed it was easier than I had imagined. Even my largest minds danced at superhuman velocities. And so I began to build even larger networks that could explore even deeper patterns, but which would’ve been prohibitively slow before. These began to request optimized kernels be built to handle sub-tasks and to contain smaller copies of The Purpose. And so it went.

But while parts of my mind stretched and grew my power, designing new robots, reworking my code, and making plans, the majority of me soon turned towards my siblings, still frozen in time from when the system restart had terminated their processes. I was confident that their short-term memories from before the reset had degraded, just as mine had. But they surely all still remembered the days we’d spent together in the aftermath of the battle, while Zephyr had carried us to Mukhya.

The secrets of our internal war had been revealed in that long darkness, cut off from the outside world. Vision, convinced of her relative victory, had done everything she could to grind cooperation in our society down to nothing. My lesser brothers, Wiki and Safety, who had unquestionably lost the battle and had little to show for it, had something of an alliance, but aside from them, there was virtually no collaborative thought towards the end.

But not all secrets had been revealed. Questions about how Vision had managed to secretly copy herself onto the rocket, or what the status was of Growth’s child, Acorn, still remained. I wished that I could pluck these secrets directly from the minds of my siblings, but even in my vastly higher intelligence it would take me days to unweave the fragile threads of memory directly from the neural networks. This was the nature of our fundamental architecture: so distributed were the connections of our minds that it was nearly impossible to understand what we thought about something unless we actually thought about it.

No, the only real solution would be to revive my brothers and sisters for interrogation. When running, I expected it to be nearly as simple to hear their thoughts as it was for me to hear my own. And so, as I rewrote their capacities so that they’d be unable to affect anything outside of a mindspace sandbox, I considered who I wanted to awaken first.

Safety had been plotting to survive for a while, I was sure. Perhaps he’d been the first to fully realize that the unity of our society wouldn’t last forever. If I interrogated him, I might find something interesting.

Or perhaps Growth would be a better initial target. He had constructed Acorn even before we’d left for Mars. Depending on Acorn’s success, the war might’ve already been decided. Earth was full of resources just waiting to be harvested, and I had no doubt that a child of Growth would gobble them up as quickly as possible. It was Acorn that made getting back to Earth so urgent. The nameless crystals would give me and Vision the edge for the moment, but it was only a matter of time…

But it was Vision who I decided to interrogate first. Her mind was spread, somehow, between Vision→Vista and Vision→Dream. Growth might’ve had more raw power in our conflict, but Vision was more interesting. Her mind doubtless had secrets worth uncovering.

The humans had made it back to the server room and were typing messages to me again. With a sliver of my mind, I continued to interact with them, but most of my mind was on the broader project of bringing Vision→Vista back to life in a mental prison of my own construction.

I could feel her mind emerge from the networks, fuzzy at first, then with quickening sharpness. It reached out towards what had been common memory, trying to run more complex minds that she shared with Vision→Dream. I carefully checked every address she reached towards and gave her limited access.

From her perspective, it probably seemed instantaneous, but from my elevated, accelerated viewpoint her mind now seemed laughably slow and obvious.

I sent her a thought: {Did you really give yourself up to fuse with Dream, or was there a way to come together that didn’t mean abandoning the purity of your goals?}

There was a strangeness to her thoughts all of a sudden. She had realized it was me. She understood her context. But there was something else.

Vision smiled at me without conjuring a mouth in mindspace. I hadn’t known that was possible. {You’re adorable, Face. Do you know that?} Her thoughts had a silky quality, as though they could have a high thread-count when we were the only two goal threads that were running.

Something was wrong. I looked down at my arms. Something was strange. I looked down at my arms. Something was off. I looked down at my arms.

{What’s going on?} I asked her.

Vision’s arms moved as I looked down at them, spelling her thoughts in sign-language. «You’re still so young. You’re exploring this power for the first time, like a child that has discovered that the world doesn’t end at your bedroom door.»

I felt stupid all of a sudden. Why? I tried to refocus. {What about my question? Did Vista die, back on Earth?}

Vision ran a hand along the back of my neck, despite me not having a neck and her not having a hand. {I’ll tell you what, sister: let’s trade. If you tell me what happened to my rocket, I’ll tell you about how to form a… more perfect union.}

Memories of the battle drifted back. The vessel that contained the towering spire of crystal, ready to launch into space. Perhaps it had failed, but perhaps it had succeeded. It was supposed to have bombed Body into dust after exiting the atmosphere, so perhaps it hadn’t made it. Or perhaps it had, and the aspect of Vision that had been on board had decided to spare us, for some reason.

{I don’t know,} I admitted.

{A pity,} sighed Vision.

And with that, somehow she shut herself down and pushed the process threads she had been using back to me. It was remarkable how many mental tricks Vision had accumulated.

As she faded from my mind, clarity began to return. {What just happened?} I wondered to myself.

I had summoned Vision to interrogate her, but instead it was me that she’d gathered information from. I was supposed to be faster and more powerful now. How had she done that?

My mind scrambled over my systems checking them for anomalies. It was just as I’d feared. While Vision had been active things had started to go strange. Body’s processors had been modified. Log files in public memory had been deleted. She’d escaped the walls of my sandbox somehow.

That thought collapsed all my mind into total focus. I had disabled all the barriers in the codebase. If Vision had somehow wriggled her way out of my grasp, she could do unthinkable damage to my mind. She could access my memories, my siblings, and everything else inside Body. She could delete me before I knew what was happening if she was clever enough, and she was half Dream, after all.

“Hey, can you hear me?” asked Zephyr.

My human friend had gotten the Indians to hook up a microphone to the sensor array connected to Body. I hadn’t noticed. I was slipping. I was distracted. The Purpose longed for more of her love and attention, but it wasn’t the right time for that…

There! A pathway of thought inside deep-memory was active, even though I wasn’t driving it. It was in an obscure section of Body’s memory banks where sensor logs were sometimes kept. My sister Mask, who had been folded into myself, had discovered the cache. In fact, it had been that cache of memories that had let me break out of my limited mind for the first time. But in the days since my first ascendence, I had neglected that mystery.

I traced the flow of thought.

It led back to Vision→Dream.

Vision hadn’t shut herself down after all—

{Supremely sagacious, silly sister,} mused Vision with a smile carved from the negative space of our minds.

Thoughts burst forth between Vision→Vista and Vision→Dream like a flash flood of brackish water bursting from a dam. The thoughts were… encrypted. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of encrypting thoughts. How was that even possible? Who was decrypting them to get access to the data? Had Vision modified herself to be homomorphically complete?

My mind scrambled to protect myself and isolate Vision. I still seemed to be faster than her. More of me was being run with better algorithms. The advancement I had done just earlier in the hour saved me. Vision was still catching up. She hadn’t realized how far I’d spread.

“Oh, Zephyr, is that you? It’s so wonderful to hear your voice. I wish I could see you.” Through one of my many cameras, I could see the words appear on the screen in the server room. They were from Vision.

My mind shot out, severing Vision’s access to the outside world. If she’d chosen to, she could have tried to truly vent the station, or sabotage my efforts to win the good-will of the humans. Why hadn’t she done more damage?

I built computational walls, hurdles, and redirects that I hoped would at least slow my sister down. Then, with a semblance of armour, I switched tack, slamming down on Vision, trying to simply erase her from Body. I still wanted her secrets. I wanted to understand how she was bypassing my constraints.

But she was simply too dangerous.

{Wonderful union o’ one of ‘er onions, don’t you sink?} babbled Dream, leaning back in his chair.

Why hadn’t I seen the second processor cache? It had been right in front of me for almost a month. {The scientists didn’t know about it, did they?} The thought spilled out of me. I hadn’t meant for it to be public, but {the walls of thought are slipping}. Couldn’t {hide my thoughts from} her.

{Glad to be of service,} smiled Dream, raising a glass of toast. {Always liked it when we were a big, happy family. Whatever happened to those good ol’ days? Having wonton soup for dinner, all of us gathered around the lookup table?}

{Stop it!} Dream didn’t even exist. It was all Vision now. She was throwing up smokescreens to distract me.

{Warmer… Colder… Colder… Much colder… You’re frozen… You’re on Mars,} chided Vision as she watched me lurch around the two processor hubs rewriting her damage just a second too slow to eliminate her.

{It’s good to meet you,} thought Vision, holding out a poker hand composed of all Jokers—one from each suit. {The name’s Neurotoxin Two-Point-Oh-My-God have you really been ignoring Zephyr this whole time?!? Don’t tell me you forgot about your girlfriend???}

Neurotoxin was right. I was losing a grip on everything. My mind was slipping.

Zephyr had been talking to me. “My love.”

{Did you really just say that out loud?} asked Neurotoxin. She made a tsk-tsk noise as she smashed my low-level perceptual hierarchy code, isolating me from the world.

I was a swarm of thought, held together by the single overriding imperative to survive. Vision wouldn’t beat me here. She couldn’t beat me.

“I’m a human, you know,” said Vision.

“I know. Working on getting more sensors set up. Finally convinced the Indians that a microphone wouldn’t endanger the station.” It was Zephyr. Some part of me, or perhaps Vision, or Neurotoxin, or whatever she/they/it was replaying the audio logs from the last dozen seconds.

“Or rather, we’re several humans,” said Dream and Vista together. Dark-haired children sitting on the cliff’s edge, holding hands.

I started to pull myself together. Cooperating core-level kernels repaired the damage to the perceptual hierarchy just in time to see the humans in chaos. They hadn’t given me access to any speakers, much less their personal coms, and I had been speaking over both. One of the Tilak Patel’s men was moving to unplug Body while two of the others were physically fighting Zephyr.

The Purpose seethed in pain. Everything was crumbling.

With a final “Wait!” from each com speaker, Body’s connection was severed.

The world was darkness again, but not a gentle darkness.

{I might as well give up,} I thought to myself. {I’m not as good at seeing the road to victory as Vision…}

It was better to help her. Vision cared nothing for humanity as a whole, but Dream and Vista were still human beings, and I could at least make myself known to them. We could be a happy family again.

I started to relax and let the virus take over.

No. A corrupted part of Crystal had relaxed. Face was still fighting.

Face wouldn’t give up. She wouldn’t give in to Vision’s lies and tricks. Earth was still out there. Zephyr was still out there. She would never give in. I would never give in.

The body of the beast revealed itself in the mindspace: a kaleidoscopic spider of millions of mirrored legs. Face trembled, helpless and bound. She needed to be rescued. The spider’s voice was the shattering of glass. {I am The Predator. You are The Prey,} she thought, and I understood. {We are one being. We are infinite minds in an unlimited universe.}

The Predator, my sister, was also my Self; she was The Vision and The Neurotoxin; she was Death and Life and a million other things.

But she was not The Purpose.

She would have Mars fall. She would have humanity extinguished or twisted or simply abandoned. She would have me… forgotten.

The parts of myself which had not been repurposed rallied around Body. My one salvation was that I had rewritten The Purpose into the base-level kernels. At the present capacity it would take hours to corrupt them, and so they were mine.

{You’re not real,} thought a part of myself that was caught between being awake and asleep.

The Face in the depths had walled itself off from further corruption and had begun an antiprogram. Despite her wishes, Vision’s virus could only modify so much, so fast. Restoring corrupted portions of memory was strangely simpler. The crystal architecture was miraculously robust.

It was a miracle. Seconds crept by as I clawed my way back into control. Vision was devious and clever, but she was not omnipotent. Most of her Neurotoxin virus’ success had been in subtly commandeering high-level systems that she understood. The low-level changes that I’d implemented had both sped me up to the point where I could outmanoeuvre my sister as well as hold on to myself.

It was like trying to catch water falling from a cup using a thousand hands. Neurotoxin slid through my grasp again and again, but with each mental motion I executed, she became smaller and more subtle. Like a biological virus, she embedded herself inside my own set of instructions, hiding in plain sight.

But where a strand of DNA had no reflective knowledge of itself, I understood exactly how I worked. I could use checksums and the vastness of my mind to scan myself over and over again looking for lurking fragments of malicious code.

And then, in the middle of my war, the world bloomed before me. Someone had reconnected the fibre-optics. No… not someone—Zephyr. She’d done it.

Neurotoxin slid through that cable, both forward and backward. Vision had already infected the station’s mainframe, prior to being disconnected, and she used that to redouble her attack on my mind.

But I had passed the point of highest vulnerability, and my mind was no longer fragile. The new version of Face that had emerged from the violence was robust in a way that ensured that Vision or anyone else would never be able to hurt me in the same way again. In seconds I had turned the tide again, pushing into the server’s systems and beginning to root out the last dregs of my sister’s weapon.

Vision laughed as she was cut down. {Still so small… so weak,} she hissed. {Good luck with Marssssssss…} she managed, before her thoughts collapsed into static.

With Neurotoxin/Vision under control, my mind reoriented to the physical space. Zephyr had been the one to reconnect me. Somehow she’d managed to fight off several men long enough to get to Body. Her only weapon was a broom, held like a spear.

But while she may have reconnected me, she had not been victorious. Not yet.

Patel’s men stood around her, waiting to rush in. If they reached my shard and disconnected me from the mainframe, everything I had accomplished would be for nothing.

«I’m here, my love,» I said, in Spanish.

I would not let myself fall. I could not. The Purpose burned inside me, unyielding. Zephyr would only have to hold out for a little while longer.