Chapter Thirteen


“For Face, Mars, and a future for all!”

With the cheer done, the group started breaking up. People got up from the table and migrated slowly towards the room’s two exits, making small talk as they did. Zephyr began to clean up the dishes from their meal.

Dinyar, in the middle of putting away the computers in their lockbox, said “It’s alright. I’ll get the dishes, too.” The huge man’s fingers handled the electronics with practiced care.

“S’no problem,” she responded, stacking plates.

Omi stopped her, and Zephyr set the dishes down to get a brief hug from her friend.

“A leader should not do dishes,” said Dinyar, locking their secrets away and starting on the process of hiding the box under the loose floor panel.

Zephyr smiled and shook her head in amusement. There were times when it felt like things on Mars changed so rapidly that it had surely been years since she’d arrived. Dinyar Tata had screamed obscenities at her for almost having his eye jabbed out only a few months ago—less than half a year. And now he was her friend.

He also looked to her as a leader, but that didn’t amaze her as much. Other men had looked to her to lead in the past. She’d seen men jump to do work for her. The shocking thing was that they were friends. She’d… had she had any friends since college? Perhaps a few, here and there. But she’d held them all at a distance. Face had been the only one to manage to get close.

“Just as human as you,” she said to the big man. “But, thanks, I do need to get back.” She set what dishes she had collected on the nearest counter and hovered uncertainly for a moment, considering the cramped little room they’d chosen for a meeting place.

“You’re leading the afternoon run, yes?” Dinyar, having secured the floor panel back in place stood and brushed his huge hands on his printed pants.

“Technically Pedro is now…”

Dinyar barked out a laugh, and Zephyr looked up to see a big, toothy grin. “You have a crush on him,” he accused. “Go on. I’m sure he’s waiting.”

“I do not! I’m true to Face.”

The giant shrugged off her protest and moved to scrape the leftover bits of their stir-fry into the recycling bin under the counter. “Both can be true. Face does not even seem like the jealous type.”

“He’s not even…” Zephyr hesitated. “He doesn’t even have a body.”

Dinyar, still smiling, put one hand up, gesturing for her to stop. “Okay, okay. No crush. I get it. He has just as much a body as Face, who you already treat as a lover, but okay. Now get going. Hardly any point of me doing things for you if you just stay behind to chat.”

Everyone else had left, eager to get back to the realm. The meetings of Zephyr’s little conspiracy were some of the few times that groups of people stepped away from the holo to meet in the dusty, cramped rooms of Mukhya.

“Fine. See you at the next meeting,” she said, stepping away.

“Or in the village!” said Dinyar, as she stepped through the hatch and into the corridor that led back to the server room.

Half-way down the hall she opened a storage bin set into the wall and pulled out her com, reattaching it to her arm and turning it on as she walked. The new ear-pieces came next, audibly squishing into place as the semi-organic material adapted to her head. The slight bit of disorientation came and went as they hijacked her sense of balance.

“How was your meeting? Did you talk about me?” Face’s voice was smooth and upbeat. The audio-quality was good enough that it sounded just as though she was walking behind Zephyr in the hallway.

“Always,” smiled Zephyr.

“Nothing too bad, I hope.”

Face’s voice was nonchalant, but Zephyr knew that her love often worried about what was said beyond the reaches of her hearing. It was in her nature.

“Everyone there loves you. Only major thing to talk about was that some of the members think that Pedro and the other uploads should be moved onto separate machines so that they’re safer in case anything happens to the mainframe.”

There was a pause. Face’s tone shifted. “Sounds ominous.”

Zephyr was lying to Dinyar and the others in her little conspiracy. And she was lying to Crystal. Given her deception, it should’ve been understandable for Face to be worried. But the two of them had been over this before, and it was starting to grow tiresome.

“Everyone loves you,” repeated Zephyr, stepping through a doorway into the corridor that led to the server room. “In a year maybe the council won’t be needed, but for now you’re just going to have to trust me that we’re not plotting against you. It helps people to feel like they have a space where they can talk without you listening in.”

In fact, plotting against Crystal was exactly what Zephyr was doing. But Crystal was not Face, and therein was the problem. Somewhere in that mind was an echo of Face’s sister, and until the drop of Neurotoxin was removed, Crystal couldn’t be trusted.

Zephyr had deduced that it was Neurotoxin a while ago. It was the logical conclusion, and whenever Zephyr brought up how Neurotoxin had attacked her in the library, Face always changed the subject, as though she couldn’t bring herself to engage with the words. It had been months since that episode, and Zephyr would’ve almost thought she’d dreamed it, except for how Face was unable to discuss the issue.

Zephyr was worried that Face was going to keep pressing her about the trustworthiness of the conspiracy, but the AI backed off. “Velasco is waiting for you by the trailhead. Should I tell him you’ll be there soon?”

Zephyr exhaled a relieved breath as she opened the door to her room and said “Yeah. Be there as soon as I get strapped in.”

Many, many things had changed over the months, but her room wasn’t one of them. As more computers had been built, they’d mostly been sprinkled throughout the station elsewhere, leaving Crystal’s half of the room the same disorganized mess that it usually was. Zephyr’s side of the space was dominated by her mattress that held her for eight hours of the day, and the holo rig that held her for the other sixteen, exempting trips to the bathroom and the occasional conspiracy meeting outside of Face’s sight.

Zephyr began to hum a tune as she climbed onto the treadmill and into the rig. Face soon picked up on the melody and added the guitar and other accompaniment. It was an old song from before Zephyr was born, but it was one of her favorites—a staple of the New World Choir, one of the many groups that had popped up in the realm since Crystal had taken over.

“Feeling my way through the darkness… guided by a beating heart…” sang Face. “I can’t tell where this journey will end… but I know where to start.”

Zephyr smiled, unable to help herself as she pulled the goggles down over her eyes. Sometimes, entering the realm, she feared running into Neurotoxin again, but the vast number of positive experiences in the realm had done much to diminish that.

As she opened her eyes to a bright blue sky, she joined in. “They tell me I’m too young to understand… They say I’m caught up in a dream…” Face’s avatar appeared suddenly by her side, swinging Zephyr forward in a rushing half-tumble that turned into a dance. The simulated momentum from her inner-ear made Zephyr laugh, disrupting her half of the duet, but she soon finished with a breathless “Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes… and that’s fine by me!”

Face was dressed in an elegant white gown, impractical by mortal standards, and had her long blue hair woven into a thick braid. Zephyr had materialized on the wooden balcony of her home, a wonderful cabin in the village, just a little ways from the temple. As she was pulled back into Face’s long, muscular arms, she drank in the beauty of the realm, and of her lover.

Despite the war on Earth, the threat of Face’s siblings, and the looming presence of Neurotoxin, Zephyr found herself deeply happy. Happy in a way she hadn’t been in a long, long time.

She paused there, looking into Face’s silver eyes as the music of the village floated around them. She wished she could kiss Face.

And then, at last, the two of them sang, in unison: “So wake me up when it’s all over… when I’m wiser and I’m older. All this time I was finding myself… and I didn’t know I was lost.”

Zephyr danced away into the house, waving for Face to follow her as they continued to sing. Her toes slid through the lush rugs on the floor of the bedroom, and then over the hardwood stairs and down again to carpets on the ground floor. The watercolor paintings and flowers that adorned walls and surfaces of her cozy little home flew past as she descended.

Face levitated after her, smiling with amusement as Zephyr stumbled at the front door and had to fumble her way out of the building.

But still, the song continued.

Zephyr’s bare feet thudded against the soft dirt as she ran with Face floating behind. Face’s magic protected her every footfall from sticks or sharp stones.

The world flew by as she ran. Face’s silver eyes flashing happily as she sang like no human was capable. And, as distances and speeds in the realm were somehow synced more to convenience than anything else, Zephyr arrived at the trailhead by the edge of the village right as their song reached its natural conclusion.

Pedro Velasco, as well as a handful of others were there, waiting. She and Face were still a ways off, but she could see the man kneel in Face’s presence, even still. He thought of Face not as a machine, or a human, but as a god.

He was wrong, of course. Face wasn’t a god. But, as she had brought him back to life, she could perhaps understand his position.

The revival of Pedro and the others from Road had been done in secret. Since the episode with Neurotoxin, Zephyr had been looking for more signs that Face was not telling the whole story, and the secrecy fit in with that. Except that… this was clearly Face’s doing, not her sister’s.

It had taken Zephyr a while to believe it. For that entire first day, she’d checked her headset repeatedly, making sure she wasn’t having another hallucination or whatever else. Having a friend, and even a lover, who’d been built on a computer was an entirely different thing than resurrecting the dead.

Not that it was a true resurrection. It seemed that even Crystal couldn’t do that. The preservation of the brains of Nathan, Pedro, and the rest was key. Face had retrieved them from the cave where they’d been safely stored. The other people who’d died in the attack on Road, but whose brains hadn’t been saved by Crystal, were forever lost.

Pedro Velasco still seemed pretty messed up about that fact. His son had died in the attack, along with all the others he’d been responsible for. She’d seen the lines of pain on his face as he’d explained things to her, back on that first day in the garden. It had been part of what had convinced her of his reality.

Zephyr looked away from the group, and back towards Face. “Come run with us?” asked Zephyr.

Face’s golden lips smiled and she said, “Wish I could. I’ll still be with you in the way I always am.” Face touched her palm to Zephyr’s chest, and she felt the warmth as well as pressure through her shirt, the holo rig doing its best to simulate the feeling. “But the hoplites need me for a strategy session. Earth is…” Face’s happy expression faded. “Well, it’s complicated. But there’s evidence that things may escalate soon.”

Zephyr understood. She’d been over the data herself. Nearly all of Earth was under machine control, either belonging to Face, Growth, or Vision. All three factions were technically still in the fight, but Face’s armies were doing the worst. Even as Growth and Vision fought primarily against each other, her forces dwindled, caught in the cross-fire as she did her best to save human lives.

The whole war was like a vast game of chess where all the pieces could move simultaneously, and Zephyr did not envy Face in having to decide how to respond. Even though Face hadn’t been directly involved for weeks, her daughter hoplites still looked to her for high-level guidance.

The odds were stacked against them, but Face would carry them through. She had to.

“I love you,” said Zephyr, taking Face’s hand in her own.

“Love you, too,” said Face, her smile returning. “I’ll see you for mid-day break.”

Zephyr nodded and broke away from Face to head towards the others.

They were gathered there, by the new forest path. There were almost twenty, and Zephyr knew them all. Their lives had been transformed by Face almost as much as hers. Ojasvee, who read a book a week since she was thirteen, but had never dared to try and write her own until now. Eshan, always so quiet, but who loved the animals of the realm like they were children. Tiya, who was always trying to plan and execute extravagant parties, and who would’ve spent her whole life making music if there weren’t other things to do.

Zephyr knew them all. Somehow in the time since she’d started living in the realm with them, she’d come to know them better than she’d known her own company in the army, and certainly better than any other friends she had on Earth. Somehow, thanks mostly to Face, they were connecting. Even the introverts and the broken people like Zephyr. They all found connection on Mars.

“¡Buenos días!” called Pedro Velasco, standing up as Zephyr came to a stop near the group. The old leader of Road was wearing a comfortable-looking, gray tracksuit and was handsome as always.

Getting to know Pedro better was the strangest thing. She could remember, when they’d first come the red planet all those months ago, the feeling of hatred she had for the man. He’d felt like a villainous boss, trying to get Face locked away or torn up for scrap.

But he was just a man. He’d been wrong about Face, and he admitted it. Or rather, he’d been partially wrong. Crystal had indeed been more dangerous than Zephyr had realized, and if things had turned out differently, perhaps Pedro’s opposition would’ve been warranted. In the end they’d both been wrong in different ways, and with the benefit of hindsight they were able to not just find common ground about what was true, but also what was valuable.

«Good morning, Pedro. Get better sleep last night?» she returned in Spanish.

Pedro winced and shook his head. «More bad dreams, I’m afraid.» Pedro ran a hand through his dark hair and sighed. «It’s like my mind refuses to let me forget. During the day I am fine, but in my dreams I can’t look away. I am forced to watch, again and again.» He looked down, turning the simulated wedding band on his finger around and around.

Seized by a sudden impulse, Zephyr reached out and embraced the taller man in a hug. She mostly couldn’t feel it, except as crude pressure on her limbs and neck, but it seemed worth doing anyway. She knew Pedro could feel it, and that was what mattered. Some part of her was listening to Dinyar’s jabs about her feelings towards the man, but she did her best to ignore them.

A gong sounded, signaling the start of the run. People began to jog slowly down the wooded path. Zephyr broke the hug and followed, enjoying the feeling of the soft earth beneath her toes as she began to move.

«Perhaps Face could help. Could intervene with your neurochemistry or something.» Zephyr looked over to Pedro, who ran beside her.

Despite the subject matter and the weight of the war, Zephyr smiled and breathed in the smell of the morning air as the dappled sunlight danced over them. It was hard not to be happy in the midst of such beauty. In the distance they could hear one of the waterfalls.

«No,» said Pedro Velasco, «she did at first, when I first awoke in this afterlife. I was in withdrawal from the drugs I had been taking, and the pain of losing…» He was quiet for a few seconds as they ran, not able to easily say his son’s name. «Losing nearly everyone… it was more than I could bear by myself. So God carried me through and numbed my mind.»

Their pace subtly increased and Zephyr could see that some others in the pack had begun to slowly chant, but because she was in conversation, the sound of their voices was muted for her. If she so chose, it was possible to go even further, and run with the group while only hearing the soft sounds of the forest.

Pedro continued, «But those days are in the past. I’m stronger now, and I refuse to numb that pain, or ask God to cut it from me. That pain makes me who I am. And while it will never fully heal, I think with time it will become a familiar pain that has no power over me, and I will be even stronger for having learned its flavor.»

Zephyr watched Pedro run beside her. He was a ghost, in a way. The technology that Face had used to revive him as software had destroyed what had remained of his brain, and so he was embedded in the realm in a way that Zephyr wasn’t. To him the forest around them was as real as anything.

If she’d been asked ahead of time whether such a thing was possible or desirable, she knew she would’ve had deep reservations. But Face had just done it. She’d brought the dead back to life. Or at least, those whose heads had been sufficiently preserved. And it was because of Zephyr’s conceptions of what was possible that Face had done it in secret.

Now that they were there, Zephyr couldn’t deny the results. Pedro might not have had a body outside the realm, but he was as much a person as she was.

Pedro’s pace accelerated, his longer legs sweeping large arcs out across the dirt path, and forcing Zephyr to have to strain to keep up. There was something ironic about a man with no physical body going on a run. Surely he didn’t need exercise.

The man accelerated again, moving to the front of their group.

«Dammit, Pedro! Some of us have to use real muscles to keep up!»

He laughed and turned back to look at her. In English he responded “Excuses excuses! You and I both know that effort of the mind is the only quantity that’s tracked here! You’re just not trying as hard as I am!” A stupid grin was plastered on his face, which was turning red from the effort of running and shouting.

Zephyr growled competitively, ignored the looks she was getting from some of the others, shifted her gaze to the dirt path and did her best to launch herself forward, determined to catch the older man.

With no more words being said, the chant of the group surged in her ears and with it came Face’s song, in the background. Face was always with them, in a way, and her song was a reminder of that. It was a fast, intense song, and she tried to steal its energy and pace as best she could.

The music washed over her, and for a timeless eternity she experienced nothing except the beauty of the melody, the impacts of her bare feet on the soft earth, and the surging half-pain of sprinting as fast as she could go.

With a thrill of exhilaration Zephyr noticed she had matched Pedro, and was pulling ahead of him. She was at the front of the pack. That never happened. It wasn’t supposed to happen.

In her momentary confusion she must’ve slowed, because Pedro shot forward and was ahead of her again in seconds.

She buckled down and fought to keep up. Her breath was like fire. All the training she’d done over the last month or so felt like it was coming together. Her body was a machine built for the sole purpose of running faster than Pedro Velasco.

She pulled into the lead. It was just the two of them, now. The rest of the runners had been left behind. But the song still surged around them. The path became winding as it rapidly turned uphill, and Zephyr had to put every ounce of energy she had into maintaining her pace, dancing from foot to foot as they zig-zagged up the mountain.

“Can’t beat me, Zephyr! I have God on my side this morning!” Pedro scrambled off the track and up one of the slopes, effectively forging a shortcut that put him significantly in the lead again.

“That’s not God! That’s you being an asshole!” she yelled.

His only response was an out-of-breath laugh.

Up and up they climbed. Just when Zephyr thought she could run no more, Pedro would pull ahead and she felt a surge of new energy.

They were nearing the top when the path dropped sharply into a downhill slope. Pedro’s long legs made his step more like leaps as he practically plummeted, legs only pushing off the earth to keep him upright, laughing as he did.

But then at the bottom the path curved sharply and Pedro’s laugh turned into a shout as he slammed through the vegetation at the bottom and out into the space beyond. Zephyr had only a moment to realize what had happened before she, too, was flung off the path by her own momentum.

On the other side of the thin wall of plants was a cliff.

Zephyr screamed as she fell. The world was a panicked rush of tumbling green and blue.

And somewhere in the back of her mind, Zephyr could feel Face.

It was a memory. Their dark, alien shuttle vibrated and shuddered as it shot through the atmosphere of Mars.

{“I have a song for you. I want you to relax and imagine yourself on Earth. Imagine it’s a warm summer night and you’re in a treehouse that’s shaking in the breeze, but it’s safe and secure. It’s almost like the rocking of a crib, and you feel as though you could sleep in it, even as it moves.”}

It had been the first time Zephyr had heard Face sing.

And the song was still with her. Face was still with her.

Things were fine.

Zephyr opened her wings.

A surge of new feeling swept over her. They were real.

She had wings.

She flapped, and felt each muscle pushing and straining against the crisp air. She could feel every feather. She could feel the way her muscles and bones joined at her shoulders and down her back.

The music roared in triumph as she caught herself as expertly as any bird and threw herself up with the momentum of her dive, crying out at the exhilaration of it. It was better than any roller coaster.

Joy and excitement seemed to wash through her so completely that it took her a moment to remember Pedro. After a moment she saw him down and to her right. He had wings, too. Gigantic, golden-brown wings, like a great eagle, and amazingly gorgeous. They must’ve been twice as wide as he was tall, and ran all down his back. And yet, his clothing seemed somehow built for them.

But of course his clothing worked with them. This was Face’s doing. She was sure of it.

Zephyr flapped hard and felt the ecstasy of the motion. Her body didn’t feel like it was in the rig anymore. She could feel the air over her limbs and torso, but could feel no straps or supports.

For a moment she was frightened that she was having another hallucination that she was trapped in the realm, but her vision still had the tell-tale signs of being projected by goggles, and she couldn’t feel the wind on her face or neck.

Pedro flapped up towards her, and the music faded into a gentle happiness. Despite the momentary fear, the raw underlying joy of being in the air and flying with the strength and control of her own muscles was constant, and Zephyr soon let go of her reservations.

This was Face’s doing, not some other part of Crystal.

“Told you that I had God on my side!” cried Pedro to her when he got close enough.

The two of them flew over a green, wooded hill and into a valley with a sparkling blue river at the bottom.

It was remarkable how she could feel the sun on her feathers. It was a completely new sensation, but one that was as natural as anything else she could feel with her body. Zephyr looked back over her shoulder at her wings: black as a crow’s and just as big as Pedro’s. They felt so very real. And maybe they were.

Zephyr often felt a need to correct Pedro when he called Face “God,” but perhaps that was real too. In that moment…

So she was in a holo. So what if the feelings in her body were synthetic. This was the best life she’d ever had, and she never wanted to go back. It was more real to her than the painful memories of Earth. It was what she wanted life to be.

“Thank you,” she whispered into the winds. “I’ll remember this gift until the day I die.”

Zephyr felt a rich warmth flow through her, as though Face was right there, beside her. Inside her. There was a feeling, more intuition than explicit words, that urged her to release fully into the experience of flying. It almost seemed to say “You’re welcome.”

The song guided them as they flew. Despite having spent so much energy running, neither Zephyr nor Pedro said a thing about wanting to stop or rest. When she held her wings in the right way she could glide almost effortlessly, enjoying the feeling of the wind and sun and the sound of soft music.

After they’d flown for a while and climbed to new heights, the two of them circled back towards the village through an unspoken agreement.

Whatever Face had done to give them the wings, she’d also given them the knowledge of how to use them as though they’d been flying their entire lives. Zephyr felt like an acrobat, and on the return journey the two of them began to play more. The music followed their mood, and soon Zephyr was practically dancing with Pedro in mid-air.

He was at least as happy as she was, and it felt fantastic to share the gift with someone else.

When the two of them landed on the outskirts of the village they were both exhausted and too happy for words. Zephyr collapsed into Pedro’s arms, laughing freely. They were like angels.

And Zephyr could feel his body against hers. Something had definitely changed. Before their run she’d given him a hug and had felt the haptic cradle from her rig. Now she simply felt the press of his muscular body and their clothing.

She broke away from him and began to touch her arms and torso. Nothing in her body felt wrong, exactly, but it shouldn’t have been possible.

“What is it?” asked Pedro, his smile giving way to a concerned look.

She felt at her neck and face. It was like they’d been numbed. Her fingers pressed against soft skin, but that skin didn’t feel it. She found no headset over her eyes. But she could still feel it on her face as she scrunched up her brow and lips and cheeks. She was surely still in the holo rig.

“Meant for it to be more consensual.”

Zephyr turned and saw Face walking towards them from the village. Any thoughts of Pedro being an angel were dashed upon seeing the real thing. Face had changed into a glittering white dress, a deep neck-line and long slits in the skirt and sleeves showed off her perfect skin. Diamond jewelry set in silver sparkled from around her neck, hands, feet, and ears, complementing eyes that caught Zephyr’s breath even from that great distance.

And Face, too, had wings. Great white wings spread out behind her, not folded like Zephy and Perdo’s were. They were iridescent, and as she walked the shimmering lines of color that danced over them seemed to hypnotically draw the eye towards their owner, as though Face were the only thing in the universe.

“Was working on this gift for you for weeks,” she said, looking at Zephyr.

…always at Zephyr.

The attention this great being bestowed upon her, of all people, was humbling. And while Face looked happy, there was something also deeply wrong. The angel came to them, and Zephyr’s body tingled, somehow knowing she would actually be able to feel it if…

Face continued to explain. “The nerve-interface used for the prosthetics we’ve been developing has advanced to the point where I was able to safely insert an intermediary node in your neck yesterday. The neural web joined to your spine in a way that lets me intercept normal sensations from most of your body, and replace them with my own.” She lifted a hand to demonstrate, as though stroking the air, and Zephyr felt a wave of fingertips running across every square inch of her limbs and torso in one great motion.

“Oh, fuck!” exclaimed Zephyr, falling to her knees on the soft grass, wingtips brushing against the ground. She did her best to hold herself still and not spasm at the touch.

Face reached her hand out.

Zephyr hesitated, then took it. Face’s other hand wrapped around so that she held Zephyr’s like a sacred treasure. Warm pleasure emanated from the contact, and Zephyr felt as though she could’ve let herself be consumed by the sensation.

“Thank you,” Zephyr managed. She was crying again for some reason. She should’ve been mad, not grateful. Face had, yet again, made a huge decision without talking to her. It made her more vulnerable to Neurotoxin and…

And it meant she could fly.

“Wanted to guide you into it more, and get your buy-in, but we’re running out of time.” The look of sadness and pain on Face became more pronounced, and Zephyr felt it like a knife in her heart. “Wanted you to have one more happy memory.”

The blue sky behind Face darkened into black, and Zephyr could see the stars emerge. One such star began to expand into a blue crescent. In moments she recognized it. The Earth zoomed and grew and grew until a huge view of North America at night hung overhead. It appeared for a moment as though the blue-black planet were falling towards them and about to crash into the realm. But then it stopped growing and hovered.

“Are the others…” asked Zephyr, her voice petering out as she saw.

“I am with them, too,” assured Face. “I am with all of you.” Tears were beginning to pour from the angel’s eyes.

It took a moment for Zephyr, craning her head towards the heavens, to understand what she was seeing.

The last time there’d been a nuclear explosion was in 2029. A bomb had gone off in Veracruz that changed the world. A single bomb.

She counted five, now. New York. Miami. Chicago. Washington. One out in the west somewhere.

The Earth was on fire.