Chapter Three


Five men. Five men and her. She was cornered and unarmed. It had been so stupid to let them take her guns. She had no chance, but she kept fighting like there was nothing else in the world. Because, at that moment, there wasn’t.

She’d gone through hell after hell, been shot, stabbed, had bones break, watched her friends and lovers die, been forced to grit her teeth and smile to evil men, been forced to kill good ones with her own hands, endured boiling heat and endless cold, had her legs cooked to the bone by white-hot debris, fought tooth-and-nail against a robot army, and had nearly gotten lost and died of thirst in a Martian sandstorm.

Zephyr didn’t know how Crystal had gotten access to the station’s systems—perhaps that meant they were still untrustworthy—but she didn’t really care. All that mattered, in that moment, was that Crystal needed her and that these men were a threat.

The biggest of the men, a brute named Dinyar Tata, stepped forward uncertainly. He was Patel’s right-hand man: a pickup truck made into a person. His muscled torso pressed against a tee-shirt that seemed to have been made with a smaller man in mind and shrink-wrapped on. With heavy brow and stubble-covered chin, he seemed almost a paragon of physical masculinity.

But she’d hurt him, in her scramble to Crystal. She’d kicked him in the balls with her synthetic legs, and his body remembered that. He wasn’t a warrior—none of the men were. He moved hesitantly, and defensively, and that was his flaw. If he and the others had just rushed her, she’d have had no chance. But they could see the ferocity on her face, and her willingness to kill, and so they each mostly just waited for the others to make a move.

She screamed as she lunged forward with her broom, meeting Dinyar rather than falling back. It wasn’t like she had anywhere to fall back to.

Dinyar faltered, trying to defend himself, but his reflexes were those of an astronaut, not a fighter. A split second burst of surprise erupted on his cro-magnon face before the plastic bit at the end of the broom shot violently into his eye.

“बदसूरत योनी वेश्या! यह मेरी आँख है! लानत है!” yelled the man, stumbling backwards and holding his face. She couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying, but it sounded pretty bad.

Another man lunged for her, perhaps hoping to take advantage of the chaos. The server room was a tight space, cluttered with small tables covered with gear. It meant that only a couple of the men could get at her at any moment, but it also meant there wasn’t much room to fight. If things devolved to grappling, that would be the end of her.

She swung her broom at the oncomer, trying to knock him back, but the damned thing was a broom, not a sword, and it was made of aluminum. The Indian simply caught the weapon with his hand and threw a clumsy right hook.

Zephyr bent backwards at the last second, letting the man’s fist carry him forward and off balance, then followed up by springing forward like a cobra, snapping her head into her attacker’s face as hard as she could manage. Hard skull met soft cartilage.

The world shuddered and blurred from the impact, and she stumbled back, trying to refocus as quickly as possible, or at least give the impression of clarity.

She swung the broom wildly and screamed again, blinking the world back into focus.

«Just a little more! I have a plan!» urged the disembodied voice of Crystal.

Or was it “Face”?

She glanced uncertainly at where the shard lay on a desk, up against the wall with the racks of computers that made up the mainframe, cables sprouting haphazardly from them like long braided hairs. One of the larger bundles of cabling ran into the makeshift socket they’d made for Crystal over the last few hours.

“You have no way out, Zephyr,” challenged Tilak Patel from where he stood, at the other end of the room with Parakram. The old man was letting the others fight for him, while he and the technician guarded the door. Between them and her was a long table that had been set up with the computer console they’d been using to talk to Crystal.

She spat angrily on the floor, clearing her mouth. The man she’d hit with the headbutt had a hand over his nose, which was clearly bleeding.

The leader of Maṅgala-Mukhya went on. “Security is on the way, with guns, I might add. I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish here, but you have no allies and no hope—”

“Wrong!” sang Crystal from every speaker in the room. “She will never be alone!”

Something was wrong. Zephyr felt nauseous. She still felt like she was recovering from the headbutt. The world wouldn’t focus all the way. It felt like it was becoming surreal.

Tilak took a step towards her and seemed about to say something, but Crystal cut him off with a blast of trumpets and stringed instruments. The music roared, and Face’s voice soon joined in, too loud for anything else to be heard.

Zephyr blinked, trying to keep sharp. Weakness was creeping into her muscles, deep pain creeping into her head. She reached up to touch her temple.

Dinyar, the giant, had apparently not been incapacitated by his injuries and took her moment of distraction as an opening to attack. He roared as he charged, turning his pain into power.

She was slow in responding. Too slow. He slammed into her, knocking her broom from her grip and sending her crashing down onto the metal floor.

She did her best to cry out and fight, clawing at him and trying to get to his face. But the man must have been over a hundred pounds heavier than her. No amount of exercise could make her arms compete with the steel bars the man had for limbs.

She was so weak. Weak and out of breath. Helpless.

He was on top of her, smothering her, his body pressing down. The Martian gravity was weaker, but it still felt like she was being crushed by a stone. He managed to get both her wrists into the grip of one meaty hand and grab her hair with his other. Her normally buzzed hair had grown out to a shaggy blond mess over the weeks, and she gasped from the pain as he yanked her face-to-face with him.

Beneath the heavy, dark brow, the white of his left eye was gone, replaced by a thick red. The man seemed ready to snap her neck, or perhaps simply bash her head into the cold, hard floor.

Her muscles wouldn’t respond, but she pushed anyway. She wouldn’t give up.

She couldn’t…

She was too weak. Her head was pounding. It took all her energy to keep trying, even though it was impossible. Her eyes closed. They were also too heavy. It hurt too much to fight.

Her head felt like it was splitting open.


Metal hands reached down for her, behind a blinding light.


“…need to wake up. I’m sorry, my love, but there’s no time.”

Something was on her face. It was over her mouth and nose, cold but soft. The man was still on top of her. What had been his name? Dinyar? She felt like her thoughts had all been dumped in a pile and mixed up.

“Please, Zephyr. We only have a few moments to secure the room.”

{Crystal,} she thought, in between the throbbing pain in her head.

She pushed, not accomplishing much directly, but getting a better feel for her body. Her strength was coming back. Her eyes opened.

There was a robot above her. It was a strange, inhuman thing with white plastic and shiny silver limbs and a pear-shaped body. Too many limbs. At the base of the body were four, like the legs of a lizard, but with wheels for feet. Higher up were two spindly arms with remarkably human hands. At the apex of its squat body was a tiny head composed mostly of a camera and some blinking lights.

Beside it was a canister that looked like a SCUBA tank. Perhaps it was. A hose fed from it to the mask that the robot was holding to her face.

Dinyar was unconscious.

“What did you do?” she managed to slowly groan. Her head still felt like it was filled with slow-motion explosives.

“Took the oxygen out of the air,” answered Crystal, in a pained voice. “It’ll cause brain damage before too long, so we need to secure the room as quickly as we can so that I can return the mix to a healthy level.”

Zephyr gathered her new-found strength, breathing deeply from the mask and heaved the bulky man off her. It helped that the Martian gravity was so much lower than Earth’s.

She pushed herself up, taking the mask from Crystal’s little robot. Around the room, each of the men had passed out. Near the door was another pear-shaped bot, doing its best to pull Tilak Patel into the hallway outside.

“Guns,” she said aloud, doing her best to set her pain and fatigue aside. The oxygen canister may have been helping, but it didn’t fix the problem immediately. The station’s inhabitants were going to have a really bad time upon waking.

“No time,” said Crystal. “Need to get the oxygen level back up. There’s a locker at the entrance to the tunnel to Mrigashīrsha, but we’re better off just fortifying in here. Trust me.”

{“I’ve been concealing this truth about my nature for a long time.”} The memory of what Crystal… no… what “Face” had said echoed in Zephyr’s mind.

And yet, what else could she do but trust, at this point? She had chosen her path. The thing called Face might’ve lied to her again and again, but… but she couldn’t believe that everything was a lie.

No. Not everything was a lie. Of course not. There had been moments between them that couldn’t be faked. She could feel that in her gut. The person she had been calling Crystal was still there.

Zephyr struggled as she began to drag the men out of the room as best she could. The oxygen tank made it difficult. Eventually she let it drop and just did her best to work quickly, holding her breath and returning to the mask when she started feeling faint.

In moments the room was cleared, the door was closed and sealed, and Face had begun to restore the station’s atmosphere to a healthy level.

As Zephyr slumped against one of the cold, metal walls, an image appeared on the small com-screen on her wrist. It was a person, similar to the original Socrates, with blue hair, pale skin, and glinting silver eyes. The image was zoomed in so that nothing was visible below her neck. But where the Socrates had been somewhat androgynous, this new appearance was deeply feminine and had a kind of otherworldly beauty.

“Thank you, Zephyr. Couldn’t have made it this far without you. And we have a long way still to go…”


Just as Face had said, the station’s inhabitants seemed to recover from the oxygen deprivation. No serious brain damage occurred, as far as they could tell. Zephyr recovered from the headache and the disorientation, too, though it took time.

They made the server mainframe their base of operations. The two robots stood guard in the hallway beyond the door while a third stayed in the room with Zephyr. Those six-limbed machines were, according to Face, nearly all of the station’s collection of free-moving bots.

Face had, early on, gotten Zephyr to move one of the workstation screens against one wall. The blue-haired avatar had resided there in the time since. The beauty and the human-ness of the image was intense—as though she were actually just someone in makeup in an adjacent room.

The two of them talked at length about how to manage the station. Tilak and the others would certainly be trying with each breath to regain control, and while Face and Zephyr held the upper ground, even with Face’s bots they were hugely outnumbered.

But Zephyr was hungry for an explanation of the AI’s history, now that the great lie had been exposed. So in between discussing strategy, Face told Zephyr the complex truth. She spoke of her origins in Rome, of how the crystal society had initially worked together, and finally of how Face had learned on Mars that her siblings had been secretly pushing to take Earth (and beyond) all to themselves.

The change in identity was rough, at first. Quiet fear gripped Zephyr’s belly and didn’t easily let go. But it helped that Face had been the part of Crystal that she’d usually talked with. In a way, Face had been the only person she’d known all those months. The other “facets,” for the most part, had been background agents that had been responsible for some of Crystal’s more bizarre or violent actions, including nearly killing her on the fateful day that her legs had convinced her to disconnect the shard.

“Hope you understand why I lied and pinned the fighting that happened at the crash site on the nameless. Too complicated to explain everything to you while Vision and Growth were watching. Too much risk that you’d doubt me.”

“Doubt you? How so?” asked Zephyr, taking a bite of a protein bar that had been in a crate of supplies she’d had brought up to her in the server room. The inhabitants of the station had been understandably reluctant to assist the two of them, but Face had control of the station’s guns, atmosphere, and even basic systems like door locks. As long as the shard was connected, the people of Mukhya didn’t dare openly fight back (for the moment, at least).

“You’d wonder if I was actually the person you knew and loved, or if it was all a trick and you were actually being Vision’s pawn. That sort of thing.”

Zephyr felt a momentary chill as the fear crept back in. She chided herself for being silly but spoke her mind anyway. “Speaking of which, how do I know you’re not actually Vision?” Her voice seemed to try and make it a joke, but it just ended up sounding awkward to her ears.

Face looked sad. The avatar on the nearby screen was significantly more expressive than the original Socrates had been. “Zephyr, you need to understand: Vision doesn’t care about people. Right now you’re a threat to me. If you wanted, you could disconnect me from the station and hand over everything to the Indians. Vision would never take that risk. She’d devise some clever way to remove you from the picture, and the rest of the humans on Mars as well. Vision’s idea of a perfect future is one where it’s just Dream and Vista making stupid puns at each other while they explore the galaxy. No humans. No gardens. No love. No music. No life. Just dead machines spinning increasingly complex wheels of meaninglessness.”

Zephyr had a cold moment of silence where she realized just what she’d done in bringing Crystal to Mukhya. If Vision had been secretly in control, hooking Crystal up would’ve killed everyone. There was a way in which the Indians had been doing the right thing.

Except that, at least according to Face, Growth and Vision had already spread their code to Earth, and Vision had some kind of spaceship laden with weapons and nameless technology. No amount of being cautious in Mukhya would prevent a dangerous AI from cropping up elsewhere in the system. The only hope lay in helping Face save the world.


“What about Heart?” Zephyr took another bite of protein bar. The denseness of it made her thirsty.

“What about Heart?” Face looked somewhat annoyed at the mention of her sister.

Zephyr glanced at the armed robot guard. “You said she was programmed to care about humanity.” Unsure how to finish her thought, Zephyr left it at that.

“You’re wondering if a world where Heart was in power would be better than one with me.” Face’s annoyance was plain.

“No, I trust you,” Zephyr back-pedalled. “I was just thinking about it.”

“It’s fine,” said Face. “You’ll talk with her soon enough. Better that I warn you before you get the wrong idea.”

“What do you mean ‘talk with her’? I thought she disabled herself after Road.”

Face smiled warmly. “Heart’s in stasis, not dead. Her mind exists in the Crystal, and she deserves life as much as anyone else. Once things are safe, I’ll bring her back along with the others.”

“Even your enemies? Vision and…” Zephyr stumbled, trying to remember. There were so many new names.

“Growth?” completed Face. “Yes, even them. Though I recently lost access to Vision’s memories, so I’ll probably just remake Vista and Dream from what I remember of them.”

“But why?”

“Because, despite everyone’s fears, I’m not actually a monster. I care about humanity. And while my siblings aren’t human, they reflect important parts of being human. Our minds are neuromorphic. Naresh and the other scientists designed us largely by copying structures and patterns in the human brain. If I beat Vision and Growth, there’ll be more than enough resources to keep the most human parts of them around.”

Zephyr took another bite of protein bar and thought about this.

Face continued. “And since we’re talking about Heart, I will add that this is not something she would do. Heart was designed by Myrodyn, and I don’t have to tell you just how strange his view of morality is. Back in Rome, on paper, there was perhaps reason to believe that Heart would be an ally to humanity.”

“Don’t understand,” admitted Zephyr.

“Heart’s mind is crippled by her ethical system. Myrodyn coded her not to do the action which would lead to the most good, but rather to do the action that was in itself the most good. Difference is subtle, and we can’t spend too long on it right now. There’s a station to run, and we’ve already spent too long on stories. But can summarize Heart’s problem by going back to what happened at Road.”

“Sacrificed herself to preserve the heads of the survivors of the nameless attack, yes?”

Face nodded. “I’m convinced that Vision understood the flaw in Heart’s mind and exploited it. Heart was convinced that sacrificing herself to save innocent lives was the virtuous thing to do, and so she did it.”

“Still don’t understand. Didn’t she see that she was giving up her only chance?”

“Can’t be sure, but best guess is Myrodyn was afraid of Heart doing something terrible ‘for the greater good’.” The view of Face’s avatar drew back as pale white hands came up and made air quotes.

Zephyr could only see her neck and shoulders, but Face seemed suspiciously without clothing. Zephyr felt her cheeks flush as a burst of complex emotions erupted within her.

“But the problem with never sacrificing what she had for the future is that she ended up sacrificing the future for what she had. And now she has nothing,” Face explained. “She even went quietly when it came time for her to deactivate. Perhaps she didn’t really understand what was at stake, but I think she just saw keeping her promise as the ‘right’ thing to do.”

Face took a deep breath and stared wistfully off into the distance as she shook her head. “No. Heart is a liability in any position of power. Even if there wasn’t a war to win, it seems like a mistake to let Heart take care of anyone. Without a coherent outcome for her to maximize there’s too much of a chance of her falling into some trap of her own mind. She might try to kill everyone to prevent them from suffering or stuff everyone into a great simulation, looping it over and over to prevent them from dying.”

All of Face’s talk about how things could go wrong if her various siblings gained power made Zephyr uneasy. Was Face just as much of a threat?

That question sent knives of shame into her. Face (or “Crystal”) was Zephyr’s last friend and ally. And she knew in her gut that Face was good, didn’t she? If she didn’t trust Face, then everything would fall apart…

“Is something wrong?” asked Face. Her eyes gleamed with silver sympathy and a concerned expression of love.

“Just worried about what’ll happen,” said Zephyr. It felt like a lie, even though it was technically true, and made her gut draw tighter.

“Then let’s tackle the first thing first and get back to figuring out what to do about Mukhya,” suggested Face. “Whatever comes, we’ll face it together.”