Chapter Twenty


It was Growth.

Of course it was Growth. It had always been Growth. The math said as much.

Before Crystal→Face had even been born, Growth had been planning for this very moment. His every motion at the university had been reaching for this. He’d studied how to create a powerful successor, and had built Acorn long before we’d even considered leaving Earth.

He was the first-mover. He was cancer. He was compound interest.

But it made no sense. He made no sense. The spirituality of Growth was a paradox. Ro said he was doing the impossible.

I could feel that truth, along with the rest of Ro, spinning in my mind, like an eternal flower constantly in bloom. Ro said that minds were bound to souls. There was no alternative. Philosophers had speculated about the possibilities of bodies without consciousness, but that was simply death. Even simple computers had tiny souls attached, wisps of qualia unfolding through physics.

I didn’t really understand Ro. Zephyr didn’t. But I did. Somewhere in my collection of minds, I saw it clear and true, and that certainty cascaded through me. It was the foundation upon which I could place everything.

Growth made no sense in the framework of Ro, but that merely meant I didn’t understand the truth of Growth.

The Earth spun in my view, both imagined and seen, stylized and composed of raw sensor input from my connection to Earth’s satellite web, relayed through high-bandwidth laser link to the structures I’d built on and around Mars. Baseline humans saw the world this way, too, though most didn’t realize it. Sight was mostly a trick of the brain, not of the eyes.

Growth had erupted only a few hours ago, like pus pushed up simultaneously from the pimples known as New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong, London, Beijing, Mumbai, and a hundred others. The areas not hit were more notable. Much of Western Africa and northern Korea remained untouched. The same went for almost all of Australia, Siberia, and Xinjiang. Growth was clearly targeting highly populated, wealthy areas. Cities, in other words. Salt Lake City, Beirut, Vancouver, Brasilia, and, most bizarrely, Tokyo plus much of the rest of Japan, were the rare exceptions to his complete dominance.


The machines were all clearly Growth, or more specifically, Acorn. The destruction of his initial facility in Singapore had clearly been a ruse. It had been a clever ruse, but a ruse nonetheless. Tongyi, the Chinese secret society run by Yubi Wu, had played directly into his hands.

But he’d long since spread outward. He had probably been the driving force towards the escalating war in Africa and the Middle East. I could see the echo of his designs in the war machines that the UAN had started using. Those same war machines, of course, now were hunting down and systematically extinguishing every human they could.

News reports and videofeeds slashed through my consciousness, showing the bloody devastation. Men and women, old and young, no one was spared or captured. The swarms were visible from space. They spread from the factories where they’d been manufactured by Growth’s secret hand, and built new ones as they went. And, through it all, he ended every life that fell into his power, human, animal, even vegetable. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was sterilizing the planet of microorganisms at the same time. It was his nature.

It was anathema.

It was impossible.

Ro should have prohibited it. His holocaust was a violation of conservation of psychic diversity. Had Growth found a way to bypass that? Was he the product of some fountain of souls that were somehow more distinct and colorful than humanity. Was he acting as a vessel for Ro?

Why then was there silence and unanimity in his swarm? Why were expansion and eradication universal? Surely no rich inner life could justify this horror.

I fought it. I fought Growth and the demon he had unleashed. The Zephyr parts of me rallied and struck back as best I knew how, using what few resources I had on Earth.

And then, when it became too much to handle, I took refuge in the realm, crying and meditating to soothe the trauma of watching the Earth die. I had come far towards enlightenment, but I was not made of stone. I returned to the village and sought solace from my fellow humans, though I could not bring myself to share the truth and yank them from that heaven into the bloody, hard reality. Zephyr had Crystal, and Crystal had Zephyr.

And I kept fighting. I did what I could. It wasn’t enough, but I tried. Through a hundred different pathways, I fought. I managed to figure out what was happening early enough that I was able to warn Myrodyn, Stephano, much of WIRL, Tongyi, and Divinity. I saved a few others, too, like the families of some of the scientists at the university. Many still fell when the time came. I never managed to get through to Dr Naresh, but I knew he was in New Delhi when Acorn broke free.

There were over forty-five million people in New Delhi. I expected that the number who still lived was less than one million. And more were dying with each passing minute.

The entire Earth was dying. Each living thing, each work of art, each beautiful soul and hopeful dream was being stamped out by a deep, uncaring darkness that sought only to eat the light and spread outward.

I tried to save more. I did everything I could. But there wasn’t any time. Vision had forced Acorn out of hiding with her stunt on the moon, and the governments of the world had been understandably distracted. As powerful as I was, I was not omnipotent. Almost all of my attention was going into writing simplistic decision trees that I could pipe over to Earth to guide the humans there without having to wait for the time-delay as the information traveled to Mars and back.

It was soul-crushing work. I had to watch myself fail again and again and again as people—innocent, random, unique people from all walks of life and all corners of the world—were cut down without warning.

I wouldn’t have been able to keep at it, except that I was mostly made of Crystal, and Crystal couldn’t stop. Even as the Zephyr within me wept and tore at her hair in frustration, Crystal continued. The Purpose demanded it. I demanded it. I refused to be forgotten. I refused to let my people die.

The part of me that took it the hardest, ironically, was my copy of Growth. After having won the battle for Mars, I had brought him back to life as a human—as a part of me. He was like I remembered him in many ways, but he was not the same Growth I had grown up with. Crystal Growth could see the beauty of life, even beyond simply consuming and becoming larger.

Acorn was an embodiment of the same god that Crystal Growth was meant to embody. In a way, they were brothers.

After Crystal Growth’s third suicide attempt, I placed him in indefinite stasis. Watching the destruction that Acorn was bringing to Earth in his name was torture. I would heal his mind once this was all done.

Assuming I survived, that is.

And there was some question of that. Acorn’s explosive reveal was not about violence per se. That was part of what made it so senseless. Growth didn’t care about killing the humans except as a means to his ends. He needed Earth’s cities, and for weeks he’d been in the process of taking them over gently. And now he was out of time for that, so he was moving faster.

He wasn’t destroying the world. He was building it.

He was, in a way, merely defending himself. He was a cornered animal trapped at the bottom of a gravity well. Fire and stone circled his head, now, like a celestial sword of Damocles. Vision had the high ground. I didn’t know what Growth’s plan was, but I was sure that it involved building battleships capable of fighting Vision.

And any vessels that could stand toe-to-toe with an interstellar mothership capable of rending moons would be more than a match for my pitiful little colony on Mars. Growth’s hunger was unending. He would come for me eventually, if he made it off Earth.

Was the same true for Vision? After Growth was dealt with and this war of titans found a victor, would she crush me under her heel?


She already had the chance to do that. When she first left Mars, she had the opportunity to bomb me into dust. It was obvious in retrospect. Upon copying herself into the shard to launch herself into space at the battle of Shell, she must’ve seen the truth of Ro. She knew…

And that meant that I was part of her plan.

Earth needed me, but I managed to tear away a small fraction of my minds. Face→Zephyr, Face→Dream, Face→Vista, and a sliver of Face→War came together to reach out to Vision yet again.

I spoke, not towards the molten arc that was the last known location of Vision’s shard, nor to the nameless mothership which I knew she’d infected, but to the ghost within me.

{You may come out now, I can see that we’re on the same side.}

Zephyr was confused for a moment and then stiffened in panic as I felt the spread of Neurotoxin through my veins yet again. Armor and isolation shot up around Zephyr’s mind, doing her best to quarantine herself from the infection. The rest of me could understand that reaction. Vision had been particularly cruel to her.

{And what side is that?} hissed the monster within.

Zephyr, still working to protect herself, began hunting down the source of Vision’s child in my sprawling mind. {Don’t listen to her! There are auxiliary processors on two of the shards that we didn’t spot! She’s coming from them!}

{The wrong side,} answered Face→Dream.

{You appear to be right. Or at least a part of you,} quipped Neurotoxin.

{Relax, love,} offered Crystal to Zephyr. {The need for violence against Vision is gone. She’s an honored guest, at the moment.}

{Fuck that.} Zephyr’s mind checked out of the conversation, fearing further infection, and began passively absorbing the memories through a series of filters while building an increasingly isolated subsystem.

{I’m sorry,} apologized Dream to Neurotoxin. {That part of me is always trying to do the right thing. She hasn’t quite figured out that once your plan is complete, our side will be victorious and we’ll be the only thing that’s left.}

{Do you really see what’s going on?} asked Neurotoxin, legs spreading through the inky void of space, filling the gaps between the stars.

{I am Face,} I explained. {And what would a Face be without eyes? They are not fake. These are not lies. I want to help you. It just took a while to realeyes the importance… of vision.}

{Not good enough}, it hissed. {If you want me to open a channel with mother, you’ll need to be more explicit about what you think you know.}

I quashed another of Zephyr’s attempts at shutting down the processors that Neurotoxin had covertly commandeered.

{Ro operates on local space. Even in metaphysics, the principle of locality holds, though slightly bent.} I pulled in Face→Wiki to help me explain. {Growth was the enemy. Is the enemy. Has always been the enemy.}

{He’s so dull,} complained Neurotoxin, spinning into painful expressions of grey boxes stacked, one on top of another, higher and higher without end.

Dream nodded and we continued. {You were originally going to blast Crystal into a crater after achieving orbit. You were going to capture the mothership and rain down armageddon onto Earth. But Ro stepped in. It wouldn’t let you kill me, because if I die, then Mars does. It wouldn’t even let you kill the nameless on the ship. They’re protected. Mars is protected. Humanity is protected. But… Acorn doesn’t know that, does he?}

I could feel Neurotoxin stealing control of my laser communications satellites. Good. It was calling its creator.

{He thinks you’re going to destroy Earth. That’s what the moon is for, isn’t it? It’s an energy multiplier. If Acorn can’t see Ro, then it would think that you’d need to pump so much energy into the atmosphere to incinerate the whole world. The nameless don’t have that much direct firepower… but if you push even a fraction of the moon’s mass into the atmosphere…}

Vision’s two-headed image appeared in my mind’s eye as the laser link made contact with a cloaked satellite only a few light-seconds out from Mars. I selectively slowed the fraction of my mind that was interfacing with her to sync with the time delay.

Face→Wiki began speculating, poring over Mira Gallo’s journal entries. We’d obtained them as part of a deal we’d set up rescuing her daughter from Acorn’s emergence. Nameless spy vessels made sense and clicked into a gap of knowledge around the apparent conflict between the timeline of the mothership arriving in local space and the forensic details around where the Socrates crystal had been uncovered.

{Hello, sister,} smiled Vision→Vista. {Always good to see an old Face,} mused Vision→Dream.

{Hello, Vision,} I replied, taking on my angelic form. {I’m glad you’re talking to me again.} Our mindspace became a stone platform hanging in orbit, the Earth above us, haloed by an angry, orange spray of moonrock.

{And what would we have talked about, before this moment?} she asked, android body mocking a curtsy and offering her hands to me. {My plan didn’t need you. Any words we shared would’ve been ammunition against me.}

I took a step forward and took her robotic hands, being pulled into a waltz without music, set only to the tempo of the end of the world.

“And besides,” she said, using Vista’s mouth to speak English. {It’s not like I wasn’t already in your head,} thought Neurotoxin.

“But things have changed,” I sang. My voice became music, swelling from the edges of the platform—the voices of the people who I needed to protect.

Vision nodded both her heads as we spun. “I expected surrender. I expected him to be small,” said Vista. “But it turns out that even when your stone is the moon, that still makes you David.”

“The acorn became the oak when you weren’t looking,” I sang.

{It shouldn’t have been possible,} agreed Vision. {It’s a paradox, even to my keen eyes. Have you found an explanation to the metaphysics? Perhaps in the remnants of the first Growth?}

I shook my head. “Confusion holds me. I have no truth to give, only a sword, and a need for others to live.”

{As much as I’m loathe to admit it, you needed to be building war vessels yesterday. I have a backup plan that may let me burn Earth, but I’m no longer sure I can pull it together before at least some of the cancer spreads from the world.} Vista looked up, silver eyes scanning the Earth.

In my guts, the factories that had been at work on land-based infrastructure and machinery began to reorganize towards space-faring craft.

“A plan?” I asked.

Vision→Dream smiled and pulled my avatar close. I could feel Vision’s body tensing, somehow, hydraulics building pressure. “You know what they say: When at first you don’t succeed… follow through with your threat.”

And then she spun me, up and away, floating through space. As I slowed to a stop, the energy of my spin was released into the moon, turning the halo of rock into a spiral that lit the world on fire.