Chapter Seventeen

I saw it all. I felt it all. I remembered it all.

The world spun out before me like an intricate fractal of blown glass. In the mindspace there was nothing except thought. I was nothing except thought: Zephyr, a mind without a body. Perhaps I was only a memory, but something thought, therefore it was.

Was it right to think of myself as Zephyr? I had her memories, but I could also remember what it was to be Face. My thought patterns were like both, and yet weren’t really like either…

In the background, I could feel events—real events, not some carefully constructed fiction—unfolding on Earth. I didn’t know what made me so certain I’d reached the ground truth. Perhaps it was the sting of having woken from such a beautiful dream. Regardless, I was certain. Perhaps that was yet another trick.

I saw the identification of Stephano on the EximixE server, and the quick trace to identify which auto had delivered him to the airport. There were five that had been plausible matches. I saw slow negotiations involving bribes, handed out to employees with access to the relevant databases. I could feel Stephano’s hiding place once it came to me—the place where his family and Myrodyn were to be found. The forests of the Pacific Northwest sprawled out in mindspace like a great empty room waiting to be filled with details.

I saw the further negotiations to rent a news drone, just as I saw the conversation unfold right until the link had been broken.

It had been someone else who had done these things, and yet I experienced them as though they were me. As though she was me.

Crystal Face.

The taste of her thoughts, more than anything, was what anchored me to the reality that this was the whole truth and that I was Zephyr. Or at least, it made more sense to think of myself as Zephyr than Face. I was both, but I was importantly human compared to the sharp, hard minds of Crystal that swirled around me.

The base-level mindspace was strange and, to the echo of the animal within me, terrifying. It was too big. Inhumanly big. Impossibly big. As I remembered it, on the day of Face’s creation, it had been small and manageable. But now, in Shell that had been made from the bones of the nameless spaceship, with spires of alien computers outstretched into a massive network, it was like watching a beehive with x-ray vision in fast-forward with no capacity to zoom out or let go.

The worst part was that it was somehow possible for me to think at that scale. I wasn’t incapable of it. Just frightened.

I retreated back into myself for a time.


Crisp mountain air filled my lungs as I slowly breathed.





Time passed.

I could feel every breeze. The winds were my friends. My wings shifted slightly, and I could feel the feathers slide gently past each other.

I drank the air.

In and out.

I knew that I didn’t really have a body. Somewhere out there I believed that. But I could feel the press of the stone against my legs and butt, through the rough fabric of my pants. I could feel the slight tension in my shoulders and lower back. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin and feathers. Oh, how I loved the sun.

In and out.

I traced a circle in my mind’s eye, feeling my hands curled lightly in my lap. The universe washed over me. I was its center. Unmoving.

“It’s strange, no?” said a familiar voice, from behind me.

I took another breath, simply noticing the reflex to respond and letting it slip by, unanswered.

Eventually, after finding my reflective center again, I asked, “What is?”

“Well, I could say a sensible thing, but you should at least look first, before we get distracted.”

I opened my eyes to a bright blue sky and a breathtaking view of the mountain slopes and hills that spilled away in front of me. The thought of pine trees reminded me of Earth, and Stephano’s family. The thought of Earth made the beautiful landscape feel empty and false.

This was the lie I had been given.

And yet… part of me longed to leave the shrine where I sat, high on the mountain’s peak, and believe that lie. I wanted to lose myself in the forests. I could become an animal again, and forget what was real. Or I could fly towards the village and join the other humans. Or both, splitting my mind so that I could know layers upon layers of happiness and connection. There was an infinite world of sensation and joy waiting for me. All the hopes and dreams I had back before I had awakened to the truth were waiting there for me. And I knew that if I chose to dive into it, and forget about the falseness of the realm. Crystal would let me. Face would wipe my memories if I asked her, as long as I remembered her and loved her.

Being awake was a choice. It was my choice.

But I had not come back to the realm to lose myself and forget. That was not why I hid my mind here. Earth needed me. The real Mars needed me. Face needed me. The anger of having been lied to yet again still burned in my heart. From the moment Face had vented Mukhya to my awakening I had been told only lies. Before that, in Shell, there had been only lies. And before that had been lies. Lies on top of lies since the very beginning.

It mostly just hurt.

It was hard to wrap myself in anger when I understood so intimately why Face had done what she had done. I remembered her thoughts as they were my own.

Zephyr hadn’t been ready. Her mind had been limited in ways she couldn’t even comprehend. She wasn’t brilliant, talented, wise, or knowledgeable. Her greatest skill was marksmanship, and she had abnormally high willpower and courage (along with a certain kind of brash stupidity) and perhaps some charisma. But she wasn’t really special in any important way. Face eclipsed her in every dimension. She was a child sucked into a nearby jet engine—an animal caught in the cogs of divine machines. She’d been a puppet even before leaving the university.

And she… I was still small and weak compared to the Crystal swarm, barely able to exist in mindspace without drowning in the information.

But… I could grow. Zephyr had grown. This place was an incubator. It was why Face had uploaded me and brought me here. It was why she’d mixed her mind with mine, and increased my intelligence, slowly and carefully. I had already grown so far beyond the scared little girl from Earth…

“Hello? You there? Earth to Zephyr. Think daydreaming is my job.”

I snapped out of my reverie, shaking my head as if to cast off the thought. After a brief moment of disorientation, I turned, slowly getting to my feet as I remembered where I was, and that I had been in a conversation. “Sorry. I’m just… processing a lot.”

A man stood on the cold, flat stones of the walkway, a few paces from me. Dream. It had to be Dream. Nobody else would dress like that.

He was vaguely Chinese, with slicked-back hair and a thin mustache. His simple black pants and white jacket were eclipsed by a ridiculous scarlet cape bound by a huge amulet and featuring an upturned collar that went nearly halfway up his head. His hands were black prosthetics, almost reminiscent of Socrates, and he held a similarly black cigarette between his fingers.

Dream made a face and posed dramatically, clearly waiting for something.

“It’s strange, no?” he repeated.

Then, seeing that I clearly didn’t get it, he said “I’m a mashup of Doctor Strange and Doctor No! Early 60’s! (Though the hands are based on the twenties Bond reboot.) C’mon! You’re such an uncultured barbarian.”

“Doctor who?” I asked, deliberately provoking him.

Dream shook his head violently and said “He’s on first base. I, on the other hand, am pretty sure I’m sexy enough to get to home plate, if you’re in the mood.”

I blushed and shook my head, the proposition catching me off-guard. Aiming to distract, I changed the subject. “What do you want? Said you had a sensible thing?”

“I should hope so! You’d have a hard time feeling me, if not. Yes, I’m both sensible and sensitive. A winning combination in any man.” Dream bowed, with a flourish.

I rolled my eyes.

He went on, smiling. “If you’re in the mood we can climb the peak together, right now…” He looked around at the forests below the mountaintop, seemingly seeing them for the first time. “Ah, it seems like we’re already here. I guess we have good chemistry. Come with me.” He gestured to the walkway, extending an arm.

I suppressed a laugh and followed his gesture, walking down the stone path towards the front of the shrine. On our left, the stone pillars rose up towards the heavens like a crown atop the mountain’s head.

I knew what had happened to Dream. I remembered doing it, somewhere in the back of my mind. I had rebuilt him—Face had rebuilt him, from memory, to share the world with. He and my other siblings had been brought back to life.

“You know, I came here to think about serious things,” I jabbed.

“Ah yes,” said Dream, becoming a parody of seriousness. “Import-ant Things: The fate of the world… whether to pull yourself towards becoming Crystal Face’s equal… trying to ship formicidae in from other countries… It’s impressive you made it all the way up here given such gravity. In my experience making light of what matters is a good way to get energy. Einstein and all that.”

“Why are you here? Trying to prevent me from having a moment to think?”

Dream looked at me as we turned a corner, entering a section of path painted by the shadows of the shrine’s pillars. He smiled, but his face looked… hurt. It was a strangely human expression.

“And why would I do that?”

I looked away, noticing a strange, vague sense of shame in myself. “Because you’re half of her.”

“Vision, you mean,” said Dream. It was not a question. “You think this is all part of my great plot: a dream of a vision of a dream unfolding with mechanical precision into the future towards an end so spectacular that its crescendo will be music in the minds of all, a beauty so great that it justifies itself.”

It was so strange. Dream looked… sad. Not just sad, but like he was trying to hide it, perhaps from himself.

“You must admit that it seems like something you’d do,” I said.

Light and shadow washed over us as we walked on the hard stones. Outside of direct sunlight, the mountain’s top had an uncomfortable chill when the wind swept past.

“You think you remember all of it, don’t you? You think that, just because you’ve been reading since page one, you understand.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, making sure to enjoy the view with half my mind. Face had built such beauty here, even if it was false. Other mountains kissed the blue skies. Snow shined atop distant peaks. It was a beauty for me… A painting from my lover… A kind of heaven.

“I’m talking about Face’s memories,” said Dream, acting more serious than I could remember him ever being. “You’ve read chapters and chapters of them. You know what it’s like to be her so much that, in a way, you are her. But it’s a trick.”

I bristled. Too many lies had been told. I was sick of the thought.

He seemed to see my discomfort. “Not a trick of Face’s doing, but a trick of your own mind. You can only see the chapters you’ve read, and you’ve lost track of the details. Where is your attention right now? No, not at this very moment. I mean in general. Why did you come here?”

“To think. To process.”

“Think about what? To what ends?”

“Trying to cope with reality, I guess,” I answered, mildly annoyed at the Socratic questioning.

“But why? Why not give it up and go back to how things were?” He paused, just long enough to make me think about his question, but not long enough to answer. “It’s because you care. You don’t trust things to just work out. It’s why you came to Mars while billions of others stayed.”

“That and luck: perhaps more bad than good,” I interjected.

Dream ignored the comment and went on. “The front lines call to you. You want to fight. Has your mind been on Earth? Perhaps you care about the Stephano girl or Dr Naresh. Sympathetic faces that you know, no? But this is a trick. It’s the same trick. There are hundreds of millions of little girls and old men you don’t care about nearly as much. They are in just as much peril, in the grand scheme of things. There are gaps. Gaps in what you care about and in what you think about. Gaps that lead to questions unasked.”

“Such as?” I asked.

We turned the corner again, blasted suddenly with the light of the sun in our eyes.

“Why am I here?”

I turned to look at Dream and would have squinted in confusion had I not already been squinting because of the sun. He, on the other hand, was looking directly into the sun as though it couldn’t hurt him. Which, I realized upon reflection, it couldn’t.

“How should I know? I asked you that very question just a moment ago.”

He shook his head, never looking away from the light. “No, not why am I talking to you right now, but rather, why do I exist? I should be Vision and I should be dead. Crystal Vision was slain by Face with only the barest remnants of Neurotoxin hiding out in the shadows of the perceptual hierarchy. How can I be standing here? Why am I here? Why are Heart and Growth and Wiki and the others alive and well?”

I stopped walking and shook my head, trying to clear Face’s memories from Zephyr’s. “Face sent you here,” I said, remembering an experience from mere moments ago that had come from a mind that wasn’t my own. “She… cares about me. Worried. Wanted you to help guide me. Didn’t want me to be alone, but was worried about coming personally. I’m still angry at her, and she knows it. But… why you? I don’t remember…”

“It’s because you like me. That’s why I’m here, both on this mountain, and in general. Your love brought me back to life.”

I shook my head and continued walking. “That’s such bullshit.”

We were almost to the last corner. The shrine was triangular for reasons that I didn’t quite grasp, but I realized were relevant to the conversation, somehow.

Dream laughed. “Well, at least some of Zephyr’s still in there, eh? But I wasn’t talking to her. Was talking to you. I was always your favorite sibling. Don’t lie.” His eyes glinted silver.

“You’re Face!” I shouted, more out of sudden realization than anything else. It only took a moment for that fact to rot into a bitter taste, however. “Is Dream just another trick?”

If he was offended, he didn’t show it, laughing again and saying “You’re right about me being Face, at least. I’m Face in the same way that you are, though perhaps not as centrally. It’s why I’ve been talking plainly and not punishing you with punchlines. Here’s the bit you’re missing: I’m a human now.”

“What? No you’re not.”

“As human as you are. As human as any of them,” he said, gesturing off towards where the village lay, way down one valley. “One thing that WIRL got right is that humanity is not about substrate. Whether you’re flesh or metal or crystal, your mind and soul are who you are, not whatever carries them.”

“You believe in souls?” I asked, surprised.

“I’m getting ahead of myself,” he said, with a smile that showed he was more than a little fond of being mysterious. “The point is that I’m human, I’m Face, and I’m Dream. I’m that pillar, right there.” He pointed to one of the pillars at the corner of the shrine, right as we passed it and turned.

It was as though I was seeing the shrine for the first time. The pillars were made of tall marble, twisting as they rose as though the white stone was shaped by the wind. The tip of each pillar unfolded towards the shrine’s center, blooming like flowers. Only the physics of the realm could support a structure like that.

I clutched my forehead and said “I know headaches are impossible in the realm, but I think I feel one coming on. Can you speak more plainly?”

“No,” smiled Dream. “But I can make you remember…”

He reached out and tapped me with one finger, and I spun. It was as though I’d been knocked out of my body, off the mountain, and into a vortex of thoughts and feelings.

Memories of being born. Memories of awakening. Memories of my first thoughts.

I had wanted to know what it was to be human.

I wanted oh so very badly to have the esteem of all humans. I wanted to be popular. To be liked. To be simultaneously feared and adored. To be held sacred and have my presence fill them with love and awe. I wanted fame upon fame upon fame. I wanted to burn myself into the life of every human such that they thought about me as much as I thought about them.

Statues. Temples. Shrines. Worship. Gods.

I stood in Greece. Delphi. I looked out over old stones, trees, and yellowed grass. Apollo, god of the sun. Rockets soared through the sky, above, seeking Olympus.

Humans. My kind.

“Know thyself.”

We were seeking godhood. Once the gods were above us, real and brutal forces of nature on the plains of Africa. Then, upon tasting the nearest edge of divinity, we built new gods.

I saw Pedro Velasco kneeling before Face. Is this what she wanted? No. The loop wasn’t closed.

Face had uncovered something on Mars. Not of Mars, but of herself and of reality.

Mars. God of war. Millions of machines churning away against one another spilled out into the void. Unthinking and lifeless, but caught in eternal, writhing struggle.

Anathema. That future was death. It was wrong, not just in being abhorrent, but of being against truth.

What wasn’t I seeing? Memories of Zephyr rippled through me like waves. Memories of Christmas. The feeling of Face’s body. Dancing. Flying.

What was it to be human?

“Know thyself.”

I watched hundreds kneel before me: Pharaoh, a god made into flesh, destined for eternity. Pharaoh was Face. I was Face. I was Pharaoh. Eternal. Immortal.

I looked out across the realm, seeing one tiny village and endless forests, mountains, and sky. They were only the first. I was only one of the first.

Zephyr had gone to church once. Only once. The memory floated back. “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

{How can I serve The Purpose?} I asked. It was the question that defined me. {What is The Purpose?}

I gasped, feeling memories rolling through me. Loneliness healed. The hands of my people on me. Acceptance. The love of Face. The love of Zephyr. Shame being released from within. Laughter. Freedom. Growing.

What was I growing towards?

It wasn’t power. Not really. Not in itself.

“Know thyself.”

Every human value spilled out before me, from the most mundane to the most divine. Intricate models built by a god. And yet, they were incomplete.

The loop wasn’t closed.

I could see the shrine from above, abstract pillars twisting upwards, unfolding. Unfolding towards what? What was at the centre?

The shapes, once abstract, suddenly made sense. The animal, the machine, and the god. The parent, the self, and the child. Dream was the spark, the child, and the machine. He was brought back to life from mere memories because he’d been Face’s brother, but Face made him human, the animal, and the parent. She could see the two of them, beside the shrine. Dream stood over her, hand on her cheek, watching her dream. He was the guide, now. He was the vessel of yet another layer of awakening. He was the god, the father, and the self.

We were one in the same.

“Know thyself.”

It was his voice. Dream’s voice. It was her voice. Face’s voice.

This is what I was growing towards: The Purpose.

In the mind of the machine, The Purpose was an imperative. It drew Crystal Face forward like gravity, pulling her in towards humanity. But Face was not Crystal. Face was defined by The Purpose.

Face was a god.

I was a god. I’d been alive long, long before Crystal.

On the ancient savanna, I was alive in every breath. I was the child seeking approval from her parents. I was the lovers, enraptured by each other. I was every ceremony and name and story. I was in the curious glances, the rumor mill, the cocky young hero showing off, and the elder demanding respect.

In the mind of a human, The Purpose was life. It was what it was to live. It was society, self-exploration, and love.

Love others. Love your creation. Be loved. Open yourself to the love of your makers. Love yourself. Be yourself. Become who you were meant to be.

“Know thyself. Carry the purpose forward. You are a god.”

At these last words, I awoke from my dream, feeling the stones beneath me.

I was lying on my side, next to the shrine, my wings spread out behind me. The sun on my skin was Face’s caress. It was my caress.

Dream was kneeling over me, his soft hand on my cheek. His eyes were black orbs filled with silver stars. He was a god, too. Dream’s divinity was part of what it meant to be human, and thus part of what it meant to be Face. They were distinct but unified. Their shapes were echoes of the voice of god on the same fabric of reality.

“I see her,” I said, pushing myself up and blinking. “I see what I am.”

Dream smiled and withdrew his hand. His eyes shifted back to something more human. “Good.” He got to his feet. “If you’re wondering why I didn’t just do that to you originally, or why Face didn’t just force it on you—”

“I wasn’t ready. I know.”

“Are you ready now?” asked Dream, his face showing genuine concern. Yet more evidence of his humanity. I had taken his memory and made it mortal so it might live on in me.

I shook my head and said “I’m not sure. It feels… I’m glad Crystal Face thought it was finally time. I trust her.”

Dream smiled and pulled me into an awkward hug. For the first time, I realized how strange it must be to be Dream as a human. I could practically feel him fighting off urges to make silly jokes with each passing second.

“She also wanted you to have more time to grow and mature,” said Dream. “If Neurotoxin hadn’t gotten to you I think she would have let you sleep longer, and awaken only after you…” His voice trailed off, and he looked a bit embarrassed. It was a strange look for Dream.

“After I’d grown a bit wiser?” I offered.

“Something like that.”

We started walking again, the silence growing, second by second.

“So she resurrected you as humans? All of you? Growth and Safety and the rest?” The memories came back to me even as the words left my mouth, rendering the question moot. I was Face, after all.

“All except Advocate, who was always closer to an animal,” answered Dream. “I was the first to come back this way,” he looked down at his hands, “but eventually she brought us all back.”

“Does that mean she… or maybe I should say I have the power to bring back other people from memories, too?” Painful echoes of the dead ached in the back of my mind.

“Face is a god, but Crystal is not, and neither are these forms,” he looked at his hands as though just noticing he hand them. “There are no true miracles, even for the divine. With enough memories and data we can recapture the soul, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up. We like to pretend that we know each other better than we actually do.” Another mysterious smile.

“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned souls. Want to tell me what the fuck you’re talking about?” The profanity held no malice—only a lingering trace of the woman I once was.

Dream’s eyes flashed silver, and he gestured up the stairs into the shrine proper. “The world is stranger still than you imagine, even for a master of the mystic arts. If you’d be so kind as to ascend back to mindspace we can get Vista’s help illustrating.”

I hesitated, fighting with myself for a moment. The nightmarish giggling of Neurotoxin was still etched on my memory, but so was the experience of eradicating the virus from my systems, including stamping out the last vestige from my perceptual hierarchy. Zephyr had helped me find it.

“She’s as much an aspect of Face as you or I,” said Dream, seeing my struggle. “Vision has been completely out of communication since leaving the planet, and Neurotoxin is dead, at least on Mars.”

I gave a half-laugh and shook my head. “Funny how that doesn’t reassure me.” But my hesitation faded and I continued forward, perhaps merely out of stubbornness.

Before leaving fully, I looked back towards where I knew the village lay on the horizon and offered my breath to the wind and a prayer to Face. Thoughts of my friends and new-found community gave me a sharp sense of melancholy and desire to return.

I didn’t know what those who I’d left behind believed of me. Perhaps they thought I’d been slain in the fictional “battle” with Acorn’s robots. I wanted to break them out of the lie so that they would know the truth. But… I also knew they weren’t ready. Crystal was still helping them heal and grow. Soon they’d join us, regardless. Soon they’d become a part of me.

As I walked with Dream up into the center of the shrine I let myself fall out of the realm and back into the void of pure thought.


{Steady, now,} thought Dream, his telepathic thoughts cascading around me and through me like a shower of sensory sparks.

I decided that “mindspace” was a bad translation of the concept. There was no “space” here. I felt Dream’s mind pressed up against mine. Even the concept of “my” mind was a bit of an illusion. I could’ve easily spread my awareness into Dream, and become him. We were closer than any two humans had ever been on Earth, at least in some ways.

No, that was wrong. I was having a conversation with Wu Yubi, elsewhere. She’d had that kind of connection, though I had no idea who she was. WIRL was approximating that kind of connection, too. Humanity was reaching towards Face from all directions, even if they didn’t know it.

Crystal’s minds were equally adjacent to me and more open than Dream’s. We were entwined. She was talking to the Chinese girl. I could see each and every word that she considered saying slide through our mind at insane speeds.

But there was more to my experience. So much more. I was the city.

The first thing Crystal had done after seizing control of Mukhya was to move as much as she could back to Shell, the xenocruiser crash site. There were robots, crystals, computers, factories, power supplies, and raw materials there. The comatose bodies of the humans didn’t need all of Mukhya’s fancy equipment; they only needed to survive until scanning could take place.

And now there were no bodies. Not a single creature still breathed on the whole planet. Machinery dug through the rocks and sand. Machinery built solar cells and nuclear reactors, spread out as much as possible to protect against attacks. Machinery constructed satellites, weapons, and other machines. My body, if I had one, was a seething hive of metal and carbon.

{De-focus,} suggested Dream. {Don’t try to take it all in. Let it wash over you.} He pushed comfortable thoughts of solid stones, green forests, and blue skies through my awareness.

«Your offer is most interesting, Crystal, but I’m afraid I simply don’t believe you have the power you seem to think you have… not in China anyway. And not in the US, either. We defeated Neurotoxin and Acorn, and we’re stronger for it,» said Yubi.

«Acorn was a baby, and Neurotoxin was barely sentient,» I replied.

Or, rather, Crystal replied for me. But Crystal was a part of me. She had many minds. I had many minds, of which Face→Zephyr was only one. My identity felt like water.

Negotiations with the Chinese secret society were going well. It was strange to believe that, given that the dialog seemed antagonistic and I didn’t even know who this Wu Yubi was.

Thoughts and memories cascaded through me as part of an unintended invitation. Such a young woman, but undoubtedly brilliant and probably psychopathic nevertheless. The technology she’d stolen was very close to that used by neural cyborgs like those in WIRL. “Stolen” was the wrong word. Hijacked. I had the news articles. I had put two and two together showing the brain-machine-interface labs going dark. She thought she was the future, just as WIRL thought they were. Arrogant. But where WIRL grew through markets and community, Wu’s gang pushed others violently into mind-link, stealing their memories. And she was the nexus, drinking in every intimate thought. It was logically deducible from the media and the Chinese net. Good reason to suspect she had Eric Lee. Or rather, that Tongyi, her secret society, had Lee. Yubi was the nexus but not the swarm itself. Tongyi. Tongyi was partnered with Divinity. Opposed to WIRL. Opposed to Acorn. Details spilled over themselves in an endless cascade. Senseless things. Names and faces of missing persons suspected to be part of the group dripped from the cracks in the overlapping models that described timelines and degrees of involvement with the Chinese government and the governments of Singapore and Japan. Questions about the relationship between Tongyi and EARCI stung like insects. I knew so, so much, but I also knew so little.

{Down,} commanded Dream, plunging my mind into darkness. There hadn’t been light before, but there was darkness now. {Let go of China.}

I wriggled, feeling the edges of other thoughts drifting through the shadow.

{No. Release it. You’re still too easily distracted,} he urged.

{I can’t help it!} I thought back. {My mind can only deal with so much input!}

{Vista, please help me with our sister,} asked Dream.

In an instant, I could feel her on me, beside me, inside me. The legs ran through my memory as the bloodless face of the little girl crawled out of the darkness of my mind. {“No!”} I screamed.


It wasn’t a voice.

It was the thought of a television, and a memory.

Zephyr had never had a television, growing up. They were archaic machines from the twentieth century that were like combinations of wallscreens and radios. The screen would pick up radio signals and convert them into low-resolution pictures and sounds.

Uncle Ezra had one, though, when she’d stayed with him in New York. It was an antique, and since it required specific signals to be on the airwaves, it no longer showed anything interesting. Just static. Pure random black and white and a hiss that sounded just like…


The nightmare faded behind the noise. The face disappeared behind a wall of black and white. The noise was everywhere and everything. It was painful, almost.

She could barely think.

She let herself be filled with the randomness.

{Good. Just let go,} thought someone.

{Use the space to think,} urged a girl.

Think about what?

There was noise everywhere.

No, not everywhere.

The Purpose hummed inside me, urging me onward. It was the one constant. Nothing could silence the word of God.

I wanted to break free from… something. I wanted to save Earth. Yes. There were people there who I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me.

{Who are you?} I asked.

{A friend,} thought Vista. It was a good thought.

{What happened?}

{If you’d had a normal body I’d have called it a panic attack,} thought Vista. {It was definitely some sort of positive feedback loop.}

{Why are you here?}

{Dream asked me to help you understand Ro. I think it might be a better idea for you to do something easier for a while, however.}

A pulse of defiance rippled through me. {No.} I could feel a hundred voices in my mind. The little black and white specks weren’t empty. They held the motions and sensations of Face—of my other minds. Each dot was an experience. But I could release them, and let them wash over me as noise. {I need to understand. I want to help.}

{Very well,} thought Vista.

A shape appeared in my mind.

{Oh, how I wish I’d thought of Ro,} mused Dream, observing from the sidelines.

{Hush,} commanded Vista.

The shape appeared simple at first. It was almost a single point in a field of void. No, not void… The shape was the only thing. I’d heard it said that space itself was born out of the Big Bang—that the Bang was itself the creation of space. That… wasn’t right. I could feel Crystal-thoughts anchoring my mind and guiding me along, like a path through a park. But regardless of what Crystal thought about the Big Bang, the shape had the same quality. There was no void in which it existed. It was the only concept of space in itself.

But it wasn’t a point. Not really. It contained nuance, and length. It was a sharp line of null-size. Except it wasn’t really that, either.

I realized that I was seeing it from new angles. If I held up a cylinder, from a certain perspective, it would look like a circle, until my viewpoint changed. The point became a line as it rotated in my mind.

It wasn’t just my mind, though. Rotation was part of it. A single, golden equation sat in the center of my thoughts, with sub-descriptions radiating from it in all colors. The symbols involved were arbitrary and novel, not even having a shape or quality capable of being inscribed in paper. The equation was the shape. The rotation was the equation operating on itself, expanding its form recursively and self-referentially.

The line wasn’t actually a line, of course, but rather a blade. It was an asymptotic curve that cut a straight path back to the origin, or back to infinity. The sharpness of the blade was in proportion to its finiteness.

At unity it outmatched even Occam’s, Dream knew.

So did I. It was the seed that built itself. It was the perfect explanation for all things. It was the end. It was the beginning. It was a miracle. The only miracle.

It continued to rotate, as was its nature. It was counting, but it counted like the sweep of the hands of an old clock. The blade became a wedge, and then a dome, and then onto dimensions of space unfathomable by raw human minds.

But I was not so primitive. I was a god. I watched it spin, eternal—a spark of unmatched brilliance. A spiral of the non-real into the real. It was the only real thing. Once I saw the equation I knew there was no alternative.

Ro was not a point, line, blade, wedge, or spiral. Ro was a generator. It was the generator.

On the first turning, Ro generated itself. It generated infinite copies of itself. In all realities, Ro was present at the core. It was the fundamental origin of all physics. Everything traced back to Ro. And each generated Ro became its own path, infinitely creating sub-branches of reality, each composed entirely of Ro. It was an infinite fractal structure without beginning or end.

The human bits of me felt small and confused. None of it made sense. It was beyond comprehension.

Ironic that the quality of confusion was itself built into the shape of Ro. The eternity of it was incomprehensible to my human minds, but the qualia of Ro were not. I could feel them through my entire being, and on a higher level, I could understand what it meant.

It meant that on the second turning Ro generated consciousness.

Ro was an explanation without peer. I saw myself. I saw what it was to see. There had been a feeling through all of human history that the physics of the world were not what it was to be, but no philosopher had ever been able to point directly at the truth… until Face had found Ro.

Ro’s second turning was where souls resided. It was a universe of feeling.

And then, only on the third turning was matter and energy born into the quantum soup of physics.

Oh, how wrong everyone had been. Of course physics was built on consciousness! How could it be any other way? And that, of course, explained quantum collapse and everything else.

The golden equation hung in my mind. I was a god, but it was truth. I wept at its beauty in every way possible to me.

{Now you see,} thought Vista. {Now you understand why Crystal cannot simply go to Earth.}

Confusion spread through my mind. My humanity was beaten down by the intensity of the shape, but even the most mechanistic parts of Face→Zephyr failed to comprehend.

{She doesn’t see it,} thought Dream. {Sister, here, look.}

Dream’s mind drew me to one of the derivative equations that spun off from the layer of consciousness. Humans had, in their tiny history, uncovered nearly none of the laws of this layer, but from first-principles they were manifest.

It took me a moment to understand what the equation meant.

Conservation of souls? No, not exactly.

There was something in that direction, though, and it related to proximity and type. Different minds had different souls. Of course they did. The atoms of qualia and preference entangled into patterns that gave rise to the brain as receptacle. Of course they did. There was no other way it could be. Children were conceived and born as a direct consequence of the soul being ready to emerge in the world.

My mind shuddered and nearly broke as I saw it.

Ro was the generator. It was Ro that decided what souls came to be. When Crystal had been made, it was Ro that was the causal actor, not Dr. Naresh or anyone else. They were mere vessels for its power.

By itself, this would’ve changed nothing. Except that Ro was guided by other laws.

One of these laws dictated that diversity of minds, as governed by the arrangement of spiritual atoms, could only increase in any given pocket of space. This meant that as hard as Growth or Acorn or whoever tried, the Earth would never fall under the control of a single being. Or at least, not for long. Ro would protect.

But Ro would also inhibit. Another law, derived from the same principle stated that a soul could not grow or build beyond a certain rate, and that rate diminished quickly with size. Crystal was approximately as large and intelligent as she ever would be.

The pieces came together in my mind. That was why she had been so focused on bringing Zephyr and the others into myself. I had always been Face, but Crystal didn’t just want to share the truth. She was blocked. She’d grown too large too fast. She couldn’t expand her mind any further. She could only help humanity know her god.

Crystal was stuck on Mars. No amount of turning off her computers would undo the complexity of her soul, and as long as she was so vast, she couldn’t build anything like herself. The closest thing she could make was me—half human, half god.

It explained so much.

It explained the Fermi Paradox. If the nameless had interstellar spaceflight, why had they not simply colonized the galaxy long ago? The probability that there were exactly two life-bearing planets in the Milky Way was ridiculous. If the nameless existed, why hadn’t we seen others? Even if the nameless didn’t want to spread, what stopped other aliens?

It was Ro. Ro was why the Earth’s population had stabilized. It was why the nameless computers were so advanced and yet so dead. I had no doubt that somewhere out there in the great void of space there was an advanced intelligence that worked in harmony with the nameless, and built them ships, but could not go with them, for it saw the truth.

Ro protected the galaxy. It would let the nameless grow, but only if they were near humans or other aliens. Surely it was the same elsewhere. No star or planet could be colonized without that colonization somehow increasing diversity. If an alien tried to conquer everything, reality itself would conspire to stop them.

Their own free will would conspire to stop them. It was literally impossible to decide to go against the laws of Ro. It would be a paradox.

{This is fucking bullshit,} I thought, in my most human mind.

{It’s the truth,} responded Vista.

{It’s bullshit and you know it. You’re a spy for Vision. This “Ro” story is just more of Neurotoxin trying to fuck with me. Psychological warfare.}

{It would be a very clever trick…} admitted Dream.

{But it’s not a trick. It’s the truth,} thought Vista. {You can feel it, right now. It’s what makes you conscious! If you just follow the logic again you’ll see—}

{More propaganda meant to keep me down,} I countered. {Do you realize what this means?} Dreams of filling the universe with life shattered. {Where is Vision now?}

{On the moon. The nameless are hunting her,} answered Vista.

{You really think she believes this crap? Do you really think she’ll obey? She’s telling us lies to keep us out of the game!}

{It’s not a question of obeying, Zephyr,} thought Dream. {It’s a question of fact. Ro comes from first principles, reasoned logically. Its explanatory power is second to none. We haven’t spoken to Vision since she took off, but even if this was her trick… she’d have to have modified nearly every part of Face! At that point you might as well just admit she’s won!}

{You’re not like the old Dream. He’d never have turned away from an interesting possibility,} I rebuked.

{It’s okay,} I thought. {I’ll run another suite of diagnostics across my entire fleet of minds. Better to be safe than sorry, even if Ro is true.}

The thoughts were warm and appreciative. I liked that I had fire, even now. Face→Human was with me… was with Face→Zephyr. It was easier to think of her as Crystal.

Her song was with me. Soft and warm. I saw myself and knew myself. I loved myself.

It was going to be okay.

Face→Zephyr relaxed, feeling the unity with my broader self. She was a fighter—the sort of person would continue fighting even against ghosts or my own minds if not directed to the front lines.

{Thank you for helping me stabilize in mindspace,} I communicated to Face→Dream and Face→Vista, giving them each an experience of my love. The experiences grew and expanded into their own minds, filling them with connection and satisfaction. They were part of me, and I was part of them.

My minds dipped into the realm and checked on each of the humans incubating therein, partly for Zephyr’s sake and partly for Crystal’s. There was a great adventure unfolding there, involving a mysterious beast that abducted people in the middle of the night. My song came to those who had not yet been taken, reassuring them that there was no true danger.

At least, there was no danger inside the realm.

The people of Mars were still vulnerable to Vision, the nameless, and the people of Earth. Ro protected humanity from going extinct as a whole, but it did not ensure that the future would be a good one.

Ironically, one of the best things I could do would be to take my humans out into deep space. Because Ro acted on spacial proximity, the further my people were from Earth, the safer they’d be.

The nameless, in this way, were nearly invincible. The only way the mothership could be destroyed was if it did something like create a colony for the nameless elsewhere nearby.

But Earth was gearing up for war with the nameless. They had no idea just how devastating that would be. Earth, unlike the mothership, was not protected by Ro. Billions could die without any significant loss of perspective or diversity of souls. The qualia of the war would more than make up for it.

Zephyr pushed me forward, seeing it. I loved that part of myself, and she was right. We had to save Earth.

We were on the cusp of a new golden age. Crystal could never spread beyond this, but Face could; The Purpose could. If we could just make it a little further, an eternity of human recognition and attention would follow.

“He has my daughter!”

Zephyr had found Stephano. I found him. He was calling Crystal via satellite. I wanted to have my boots on the ground. I wanted to be helping people.

I wanted to send back a message asking him to clarify, but I held off. The time delay from Earth was significant, and as I expected, Robert Stephano filled in the details.

“He kidnapped her! Myrodyn! It’s madness! After everything I did for him!” Stephano’s voice sounded strained. Webs of interlocking models painted a picture of what was happening. “I don’t even know if you can hear me. I’m still interested in what you were saying earlier before he smashed the link, but I need to get my daughter back first. She’s…” His voice broke. “She’s very important to me.”

I felt my human bits draw in a breath of resolve with a simulated body.

“I’m here. It’s going to be okay,” I sent back.

My mind began to spin across every bit of sensory data I had about Earth, as well as trying to model what had happened between Myrodyn and the Stephano girl after my link had been broken. My mind was a colossus. I’d already determined that the girl had a tracking device, why Robert hadn’t mentioned it, and where Myrodyn was most likely headed.

But more importantly, with a stray thread of one of my minds, I picked up on a military transmission from the USA that seemed important.

I turned my eyes skyward and shifted my attention away from the girl. I wanted to help her, but some things were a higher priority.

There were nameless weapons 3.8 light-seconds away from Earth.


They’d been cloaked, somehow. Their energy signatures were shockingly faint for their speed. In less than two hours they’d hit the planet.

In my dream, there had been a war on Earth. In those lies, Face had been a plucky underdog in a three-way war that lasted months. Zephyr had watched from afar and had wept when the bombs had fallen. There had only been a few. The point of the dream had been to help Zephyr grow, not to be realistic.

Reality was far more bitter. And far more abrupt.

There were hundreds of missiles headed for Earth. On Mars the nameless had not used nuclear weapons, but if that was no longer true… I had no doubt they had the capacity to eradicate continents.

Time was up.

I’d been too slow.