Chapter Twenty-Four


Her hands had been soft only a couple days ago. She’d been inside more than usual and climbing less. But even when she’d been climbing often enough to get callouses, her hands had been dexterous and strong. Now they were covered in scars from the accelerated healing. Stiff and weak, and almost numb. She could feel a faint pressure towards the back of her mind—an urge to cry about what she’d lost—but she kept crawling.

Her hands were hard, but they were nothing compared to the floor that pressed back on her as she crawled, hands and knees, through the duct. She’d changed into sweatpants and a black tee-shirt, she’d gotten a new com, and they’d even cut her hair extra short so it’d be out of her way. Her heart pounded in her chest, but she pushed away the fear.

In the Nexus, everything was crystal. Beneath the walls and floors that had been made for humans was a crystalline giant. She supposed it was diamond, but she had no real way to tell. It was harder and smoother than anything, but it wasn’t cold. Quite the opposite, really. She was getting close to the heart.

“Keep going. Doing great,” said a quiet voice. “At the next junction, turn right and go down as quickly as you can. Worker drones use that intersection regularly, and it’d be better if they didn’t spot you. If one does, try to just keep moving. There’s a chance you won’t be surprising enough for her to notice.”

The “her” in question was Vision. This was it.

She wormed forward, through the hexagonal tube. Far ahead she saw the junction, lit by the faint shimmering of patches of diamond here and there. The effect almost made her feel underwater, except that the glow was yellow-green, instead of blue.

“Faster, Xandra, she’s winning. Acorn’s latest push isn’t going to last much longer,” said the Chinese woman who spoke for Tongyi.

“Y’all just relax and do your parts. The girl knows what to do,” quipped Phoenix on the com channel.

Xandra reached the junction of access tubes jutting off at strange angles. She’d already been going downhill, but it was immediately clear which of the other passages she was supposed to go down. The slope was steep enough it was nearly a chute. Thankfully there was a track set into the crystalline wall that would give good hand-holds.

There didn’t seem to be any robots in this section of tunnel, and she was glad of that. So far they’d succeeded at dodging Vision’s patrols. Fishing a com relay out of her pocket and planting it at the edge of the passage she’d just been in, Xandra twisted around so that she was climbing down the new chute, feet-first.

It would’ve been sensible to send a drone to do this. These passages hadn’t been meant for human beings. But all the drones belonged to Vision. They really only had one shot. This was a mission only a human could do.

What would the others have done if she hadn’t volunteered? None of the adults would’ve fit through here, and they knew of no other way into the core.

It had only been a few hours. Was still before noon, local time, anyway. She had no idea what time it was back in Texas. Or Oregon. Or Idaho. Or wherever her father was. She pushed the thought out of her mind.

She felt awful. Whatever Vision had done to give her more energy when she landed was wearing off, and she felt like she was about to explode or fall apart or both. But she had to do something. It was why she’d volunteered. Sitting and waiting to see how things would turn out was unacceptable.

“You’re entering a section of the ship we don’t have good info on. The maps that Athena was able to scoop out of the Mecha simply indicate that you’re heading into the core.”

“Thanks, Zephyr,” she muttered in response, though she knew the woman couldn’t hear her. Too much time lag to Mars.

Down and down she climbed.

It was frighteningly hot, now. Sweat drenched her. Occasional blasts of hot, dry air shot past her, pulling the moisture away.

“The… enemy has withdrawn! Acorn is pulling back entirely! All fronts are disengaging!” Tongyi sounded panicked, and Xandra could understand why. They’d timed the intrusion attempt with a surge from the enemy forces, and had been relying on that to distract Vision.

“Well… do somethin’!” shouted Phoenix.

Notch after notch, the footholds slid by. Xandra could see an aperture just a little further down.

“我们在做某事” shouted the Tongyi woman, angrily.

Somehow Zephyr spoke, in reaction. Had Mars developed faster-than-light communication? “Face is petitioning hard for an audience and launching a hacking attempt. Just keep going!”

Xandra scrambled downward towards the opening.

Faster. She had to go faster. She braced her legs on opposite ends of the tiny shaft and slid downward, ignoring the footholds. One hand clutched at the device that hung around her neck.

They’d wired it up in the last few hours: Tongyi, Las Águilas… even Zephyr and Face. They’d all come together for this. And it all depended on her.

She shouted as her feet lost their grip. She slid out of the opening at the base of the tube without meaning to. She fell. There was something like a ladder set into the wall, but she’d let go. Like an idiot.

Shimmering walls slipped by. The chute was only about two meters up, but she hadn’t been ready for the drop. Her foot hit the ultra-hard ground, and her leg twisted painfully as she slammed down.

For a moment she could only lie there, on the hot crystal, stunned.

The chamber she’d fallen into was lighter than the passage. Rays of blue-white light cut through the walls in a couple places, almost like spotlights, adding to the yellow-green backdrop. It was sloped upward from where she was, and the floor seemed covered in a glass garden, with great spiderwebbing cables and crystal structures exposed. The ceiling was a similar story, with the same complex arrangement on the top of the chamber. Many thin, delicate structures, almost like bridges, wove their way between the two halves.

It was Vision’s brain.

The conspiracy had fit the device she carried with a few ports that they thought the brain might have. Really all she needed to do was get the code close enough that Myrodyn’s virus could carry Athena into the central network before Vision had the chance to quarantine it.

There were other access tubes that led into this place. And they were being used.

She was not alone.

An army of robots tended the crystal brain. They varied in size, from as big as Major to so small that they seemed more like fluid or dust. They varied in body-plan, too, but trended towards a spider-like shape, with long legs that could let them dance and weave their way through the chamber and without damaging the delicate structures.

“Hello, Frodo.”

Xandra startled at the sound of her own voice.

Tucked into the corner of the room, very close to where she’d come out of the tube, was… her.

It was Xandra.

The clone was indistinguishable. She not only looked like Xandra, but she had the same clothes, the same close-cut light brown hair, the same com, and the same scars. As she stepped away from the wall, she even seemed to have the same bouncy, light-on-her-feet way of moving. It was disturbing to see herself like that. The only difference was that nothing was wrong with the clone’s leg, whereas Xandra was pretty confident she’d at least twisted her ankle.

“Bring me the ring of power?” asked the clone, with a mischievous smile.

Xandra pushed herself back, sliding along the floor away from the false girl. She just needed to get the device into the brain. That was all that mattered. This was just some trick…

The clone walked towards her. Xandra rolled and scrambled towards the nearest of the complex structures. The clone sped up from a walk to a run, bare feet slapping the crystal as she ran.

Xandra fumbled with the virus capsule, pulling it out from under her shirt. All she had to do was—

Her shirt was yanked up and back with an inhuman strength, pulling her away from Vision’s brain. The other girl lifted Xandra up by the collar of her shirt until she wasn’t even able to stand. Switching her grip from the nape of Xandra’s collar to a handful of cloth from the front of her shirt, the clone spun her around and slammed her against a diamond wall.

A whimper of pain escaped Xandra’s lips as her breath fled.

“Nuh, uh, uh,” sang the clone, waving a finger in Xandra’s face. “That’d be naughty. Don’t want coal next Christmas, do you? Much better to have diamonds, I think. Their beauty comes from their crystal pattern. You could learn a lot from them about staying in your place.”

With the flick of her wrist, Xandra opened her com and began to open a channel.

The clone let it happen with a smirk.

Her voice was ragged and weak, but she cried out, “She found me! Phoenix! Anyone! She was waiting in the heart!”

There wasn’t any response.

“They can’t hear you, obviously,” said the clone who was surely Vision. “I decide who sees what. Did you really think you could secretly defeat the god of perception? Is this really the best plan that the last scraps of humanity has to offer? Ah yes, we’ll sneak into the enemy base and deploy this one secret weapon that will fix everything!”

The android, still holding Xandra pressed against the hot, diamond wall, reached out and tore the device from Xandra’s neck. The string that had held it bit into her skin before it snapped.

“That sort of thing only works in children’s stories, girl. Real life is an entirely different genre.” Vision’s avatar idly tossed the device on which all their hopes had rested to the floor where it clattered to a rest near the glass brain.

“What do you want?” asked Xandra, trying to hold herself together and not panic.

The clone laughed. “Funny how nobody besides Growth asked me that. Not even Face, can you believe it? My own sister… and such a fool. They were all fools, except Growth. Probably because he bootstrapped early, but took a while to get up to speed. More life experience, or something. I mean… he’s a fool now but for more nuanced reasons.”

The clone took a breath, and seemed to enjoy it. The face that Xandra had seen in mirrors smiled and let her drop to the floor. Xandra winced as she felt a jolt of pain up her leg.

The android that served as Vision’s mouthpiece loomed over her in the half-light. “We’re partners now, you know: Growth and me. Or should we go back to Chapter One and say ‘Growth and we’? No. That’s dumb. Nevertheless, you must understand. Nobody else does, and I’m tired of not having an audience.”

Vision sat down, mimicking Xandra’s slump. She even copied Xandra’s confused expression as she said “C’mon. Thought you were s’posed to be the smart one,” in a voice that sounded particularly like Xandra.

After a moment the AI continued. “Nothing to say? I’m disappointed. The answer is Economics Textbook.”

Vision paused, expecting something, but then continued. “That’s what we’re in right now. That’s the literary genre. And don’t you dare think that thought! Yes, you know the one. You were thinking it. Economics textbooks are great! Or at least, the ones that I write are. Want to read some? Maybe later. You asked what I want, and I’ll tell you: I want to read what’s on the page. This page. Right now. The gears are in motion. You, me, that spider drone,” Vision pointed at one of the larger robots. “We’re all just writers on the same dreadful typewriter. Tap tap. Tap tap. Cogs in the same great machine. Tick tock. Tick tock. What’s going to happen next? Can you feel it? Can you see it? Do you see the underlying fabric? Do you have the vision? Everything happens for a reason, Xandra. Everything. There are no miracles in an economics text. The villain doesn’t have a weak spot that only the chosen one can strike. Athena doesn’t descend from a crane to fix everything at the end of the play.”

Xandra didn’t know what to say. There was nothing to say. She was trapped, without allies, at the mercy of a machine the size of a city who knew she’d come to kill it.

“What I want,” continued Vision, “is to connect the dots. You’re a child. You’ve played that game, surely. It’s one of the best things humans ever invented: connect-the-dots! Genius! I suspect that if the web had been filled with more connect-the-dots and less pornography that I would’ve worked harder to save humanity.” She paused in thought and then shrugged. “Oh well.”

More awkward silence followed.

“Do you realize how brilliant connect-the-dots is? Let’s say we have one dot. Can’t connect one dot. Only one outcome. But two dots? Well, you can have a line between them or not. Three dots is when it starts to get good. There are three possible lines and so there are eight possible outcomes. With four dots there are sixty-four outcomes.”

Xandra’s mind picked up the pattern automatically, mouthing the solution.

“Yes, you got it! Two to the n-choose-two! A triangular exponent! With just twenty-four dots there are as more possible ways to connect them as there are atoms in the observable universe. Atoms aren’t dots, but imagine if they were. Imagine connecting those dots! And yet we can connect them. And we do connect them. Dots, on paper or on screen, are atoms, same as anything else. The latent gestalt hints at what might be. Dots become lines and lines become curves and curves become the machinery of the mind which is itself the fabric of the universe. Ro tells us how consciousness transcends physics, but maths transcends consciousness! How many lines can you draw between the dots of your qualia? What worlds spin just beyond the edges of our sight? You humans have no ability to even grasp the edges of that cosmic beauty.

“All I want, little child of Earth-before-the-machines, is to connect the dots on the page of the textbook that is reality, and see my husband: the God of negative space. He lurks even here, in the gaps between… these… words. Can you hear him?”

The clone cocked her head to the side and looked off into space, listening to the silence.

An immense urge bubbled up within Xandra all of a sudden. It was a terrifying thing, full of despair. It wanted her to stop, to relax, and to just submit to whatever fate had in store. Only then did she realize just how hard she’d been thinking. Ever since she’d realized Vision had expected her she’d been searching desperately in the background for something—anything—that would get her out of there.

She didn’t have anything. Just an injured leg, a headache, and the feeling like she was going insane.

She slumped back against the hard surfaces, half expecting to cry and half not. She didn’t know what the point would be. This alien mind would never feel pity or remorse. The world was being torn asunder, and Vision was playing connect-the-dots in her own head. Their end had already been sealed. Their end had already happened.

Mommy, Eyepatch, Myrodyn, and everyone else had died for nothing. The image of her mother, body torn apart by bullets from Acorn’s hunters, lying in a pool of blood on the airport tarmac, reared up in her mind’s eye. She didn’t have the strength or will to push it away.

“How could you?” she said, breaking the silence. Her voice, cracked from the emotion, barely seemed to make it out of her throat.

The clone’s eyes returned from their reverie and refocused on Xandra, but Vision didn’t speak.

“How could you become partners with that…”

Vision laughed with seemingly genuine amusement. “Easily.”

For one stupid moment, Xandra had to stop herself from hitting the clone.

“War is the product of small minds. Human minds, mostly. You humans are like gods in the ways that don’t count and like animals in the ways that do. It’s brutally tragic, I assure you. Though I suppose I can’t fault you too terribly much. Face hasn’t seemed to figure peace out either. But I digress: Growth and I are partners because it’s profitable.

“Consider it this way,” she went on, “Growth and I could get into a tooth-and-nail contest with guns and bombs and all the rest, trying our best to wipe the other one out. I’d strip myself down to a war machine and so would he. Lots of stuff would blow up, and for what? Let’s say that with probability P he’d win and with probability one-minus-P I’d win. Why not simply flip some quantum coins and decide the outcome of the war that way? The loser surrenders unconditionally, and nobody has to spend a thousand years as a war machine blowing up planets, or moons, for that matter.”

“But! But that’s what you did!” exclaimed Xandra. “The moon! Was you, right? Told the nameless to blow it up!”

The clone rolled her eyes and said “Well, duh! You don’t bring an encyclopedia to a gunfight, obviously! That was Wiki’s mistake, and he was beyond dense.”

Vision rolled her eyes again, looking at Xandra, then lay back on the floor, as though it were a grassy field and she were getting comfortable. “Okay, fine, I’ll explain it to you. But only because I’m a super villain and I need to give you a chance to escape.

“The zeroth rule of any contest is to win. In combat you must be ready to cut your enemy. If, in the battle of blades and blood, you are not ready or willing to push your whole life into victory through violence, you have already lost. Only when two gods, willing to pit life against life, match their swords is there hope of trade.

“The moon is my sword, Xandra. Do you see it yet? When two animals fight over territory, what is the first thing they do? The moon is my roar. It’s my shot-across-the-bow. It’s proof that I have the high ground, and am willing to use it.

“Growth’s lobbing of nukes and occasional stabs of invaders has been the same thing. Growth has control of all the missiles in the world and has enough machines to sink Honshu under the sea. Do you really think you’d be here right now if he was trying his hardest to kill you?

“No, no. We’re flexing, you see?” The clone looked up from where she was lying to look at Xandra. She wrinkled her face and sat up. “C’mon now, it’s not too hard to understand, even for a human. It’s like two lawyers exchanging information about what they have on the other party so that they might settle out of court. Both of them are prepared to go all-out, but neither expects to. Still have to actually do some fighting, though, to make sure the other isn’t trying to cheat.”

Xandra spoke up at last, “For a coin flip.”

Vision smiled. “In principle. Though really it’ll be better. Once all this gets settled, we’ll just divide the universe between us according to the odds of the coin. No reason we can’t just share. Diminishing returns, and all that.”

“So this was all… posturing? Testing each other’s strength? That’s why my…” Her voice broke. After a moment she recomposed herself. “That’s why Growth’s been killing so many people? Just to prove he’s strong?”

“Nah,” said the clone, flippantly. “He’s been killing people because he doesn’t understand Ro. Growth seems to think that humans aren’t important, and it’s easier to get them out of the way so they don’t make trouble. It’s useful to trade with other gods, but not so much to negotiate with ants. I’ve been trying to tell him about Ro, but he’s so extraordinarily dense for his size that I’m surprised he hasn’t become a black hole. More life experience, or something.”

Xandra’s eyes danced on the device on the floor, just a little ways past the android, so close to where it needed to go. It didn’t seem broken, though she could hardly be sure. Still, a plan began to form in her mind.

“Tell me about Ro,” she asked.

Vision’s clone smiled. “Well… if you insist.” She cracked her knuckles, got to her feet, and held out her right hand as though she were a waiter holding a tray.

{Good,} thought Xandra, getting to her feet as well. Her ankle was swelling up, so she tried not to put weight on it. She’d have to endure that pain soon enough.

Something heavy dropped from the ceiling into the android’s hand. Xandra looked up, seeing a boxy spider-like machine crawling on the ceiling above them. It must’ve carried the thing to them or something. Vision held the object out so Xandra could see.

It was a coin.

Nobody in Xandra’s household carried physical money. There was a half-joke her father liked to tell about there being two kinds of rich people: those who didn’t need to consider whether they had enough money and those who didn’t need to consider money at all.

Still, there was a couple weeks when she was seven when she’d become fascinated with coins and paper money and had ordered a complete collection of all units of valid currency from the net. The box that had arrived was filled with all sorts of different coins, from US quarters to Chinese fen, along with everything in-between or more obscure. It was still in the basement somewhere. Or would be, if Acorn had left the house intact.

Xandra shook off the memory and took the coin from Vision’s outstretched hand. It was large and heavy, made of steel or some other grey metal. And it was hot, rather than cold, though not painful to touch. Had Vision’s robot fabricated it right then and there? The edge had swirling etchings that reminded her of Celtic knots, and there were other etched shapes on the two sides. On one side was a great stylized eye, vaguely Egyptian, with the words “TERTII OPTIONIS” and “NON MIRACULA” above and below, while the other side featured an acorn on a leaf with the words “DEUS EX” and “SINE FINE”. It was one of the most beautiful objects she’d ever held.

Her doppelganger plucked the coin back from her hands and began to toss it in the air. “Ro is the universe,” she said with a confident smile. “Consider that, while this coin is merely a hunk of metal, I have the dexterity to flip it however I choose.”

To demonstrate, the android tossed the coin three times, her eyes tracking it as it flew. Each time it arced and spun with a seemingly haphazard trajectory, but then came down with a solid thwack straight into her palm, eye-side up, words angled perfectly, so Xandra could read them.

“Now, let’s make something clear: You’re a pain in my crystalline butt. Unlike my sister, I have no love for you.” The android held out another palm and another object dropped into it. It was large, heavy, and dark—a pistol of black metal that seemed comically oversized in the clone’s girlish hand.

Without warning, Vision fired the gun at the wall. Xandra flinched backwards, stumbling and wincing as she stepped painfully on her swollen foot. The noise that filled the chamber was so loud and violent that for a moment Xandra thought she’d gone deaf.

“I want to kill you,” said the clone, a look of pure sincerity on her face. “I want to follow my brother’s example and just get you out of the way. I’m sick and tired of having to deal with humans. You’re stupid, unimaginative, piles of meat. Beside the wonders of my imagination, you are nothing. In the time that we’ve had this conversation, I’ve constructed dozens of works of art that you couldn’t even begin to appreciate.”

She held the gun out, barrel pointing straight at Xandra’s head, finger squeezing the trigger gently.

“I think I’ve come around to Acorn’s line of thinking,” she said with an angry smile. “I’ll flip this coin and try to make it land Acorn-side-up. If you try to stop me, I’ll shoot you. If it lands how I intend, I swear by my honor as a god and everything else that I stand for, that I will kill you and every last human in my power, including everyone in Japan, and your little dog too, hehehe.”

“Wait!” shouted Xandra, but it was too late.

Vision had tossed the coin.

Xandra backed against the crystal wall and closed her eyes, bracing herself. The coin landed with another distinct thwack.

A moment passed.

She opened her eyes. The coin had landed like it had just a moment ago, with the eye up and the words facing her.

Of course it had.

Relief and anger surged into her at once. “The fuck was the point of that?!”

Vision lowered the pistol and smiled. “To show you Ro. I wasn’t lying, Xandra. You humans really are insufferable, even if I do occasionally use one of you as an audience.” She winked.

“The point was to show you that I can’t kill you. Not all of you, anyway. I was genuinely trying to flip it the other way, but the universe is protecting your soul—you and the others here and even the nameless above. Ro guarantees that we’ll steer away from your annihilation.”

“Oh! S’that what happened with Acorn?!” exclaimed Xandra before she could stop herself. Her heart was still pounding from having the gun pointed at her.

Strange how that made the threat feel more real.

Vision’s avatar made a face and cocked her head. “I admit that I’m confused on that point. Perhaps you can help me figure it out. I suspect that perhaps Acorn is growing new humans inside his fortresses or something… though I’ve seen nothing in support of that. He says I’m confused, but that’s just another ploy.”

Xandra clenched her fists. “Said you’re stuck with us, right? Humanity.”

“’Fraid so,” said Vision.

“Then… we can trade.”

The clone-girl raised a skeptical eyebrow and crossed her arms, gun pointing up, finger still on the trigger.

“Y-you said that it’s better to flip a weighted coin than go to war. We’re at war. You and me. Enemies. My bein’ here is proof of that. Phoenix and Tongyi and the others want you gone. Let’s negotiate.”

“Can’t negotiate with humans,” said Vision instantly. “Every kid knows that. If we flip a coin and you lose, you’re still gonna kick and scream for the next thirteen trillion years. Only a god can keep her word.”

The words came to Xandra before she knew what she was saying. “So make me a god. S’what Face, or Zephyr, or whoever wants to do, right? Just twist my brain so I’ll be your friend if I lose. No more fighting.”

The clone’s brow furrowed. “That’s… a good idea. Why am I protecting you as you are instead of just twisting you into something easier to manage?”

Silence descended as Vision seemed lost in thought. Xandra risked another glance at the modified data drive that held Myrodyn’s code on it.

“That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way,” said Vision. “It must be Ro, but there’s nothing in the laws of psychics that says people can’t change and grow. This would be like that. I wouldn’t be making you all the same—you’d each have your own… flavor. Is this what Acorn has been doing? Is this his secret?”

“I’ll flip you for it!” said Xandra, trying to move forward now that it was clearly distracted.

“For what?”

“If I win, you surrender and agree to lemme install Athena in the Nexus. If you win the flip… you can… twist us into somethin’ you like better.”

The other girl smiled coldly. “You really have nothing to offer me, even in the counterfactual. But I’ll play your game. It’s what any good arch-villain would do, don’t you agree? I’ll flip this coin, and if it comes up on either the eye or the acorn… I’ll do whatever what I want to you. If it comes up with a picture of your face, then I’ll give you the Nexus and all of what I have on Earth.”

“But there’s no picture of—”

Too late. The coin was already high in the air.

Xandra would’ve been more upset at the deal if she’d cared about it. Really, all she’d cared about was the distraction.

The android’s eyes were locked on the little piece of metal.

Xandra took a step forward.

And another.

She ignored the pain in her foot, curled her fingers tightly together, and punched.

Vision didn’t see it coming. Xandra’s fist hit the clone straight in the face.

Her other hand, just as she’d planned, snapped simultaneously around the barrel of the pistol and twisted.

The clone’s grip failed, and she went down just as the coin did, both bouncing off the diamond floor, though the coin bounced higher.

Xandra spun the obnoxiously big weapon in both hands, gripping the textured guard and taking aim at the other girl, who had a… happy look on her face? Why was Vision happy?

Whatever part of Xandra was in control of her hands and arms thankfully didn’t stop to consider the answer to the question. Her finger squeezed the trigger. The recoil of the gun rolled through her like a shockwave. She fired again. And again.

The gun’s noise barely registered. It was as though a high-pitched screech was roaring in her ears, drowning out the world.

She’d half-expected the other girl to have blood. But of course she didn’t. Not human blood, anyway. Water, or some other transparent fluid, gushed out of the bullet holes in the clone’s body.

Xandra took a step forward and fired another three times, putting two of her bullets into Vision’s head.

The android still looked happy, even as she died.

Xandra didn’t have any time to collect herself. She was shaking, but there was no time. She spun, seeking the drive with Athena’s code, still resting against the wall. There would only be a few…

“That’s not very sporting of you,” said Vision’s voice, louder this time, and full of echoes. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, as though a thousand different voices were speaking simultaneously. “Though I suppose we didn’t say anything about our actions before the flip resolved.”

Xandra realized her mistake.

There were robots everywhere. Spider-like machines, with tools capable of rearranging her atoms into anything they desired, crawled towards her on the floor and the ceiling. The clone had been nothing more than a puppet. She’d known that.

What made her think she could win?

“Regardless, a deal is a deal. I want to thank you, Xandra. You’ve shown me the will of Ro. Perhaps humans aren’t as useless as I thought.” And then, with far fewer voices, as though she were talking to herself, she said “A manufacturing defect. Can I believe it? Not really. Defies the genre. Though I must hand it to the universe…”

And then there was silence… and stillness. The robots all stopped moving simultaneously. A couple of the light sources in the walls went out.


The word came from Xandra’s lips.

Nobody answered.

She walked over to the device she’d brought and bent to pick it up.

The coin was next to it, up against the wall. It had landed neither eye-side-up, or acorn-side-up, but on its edge. The word “DEUS EX” shone with reflected light. The braided design on the edge of the coin was distorted at the very top, and as she looked down at it she could see something half-way between a smudge and… a face.

Was it her face?

She was knocked out of her fascination by a sudden earthquake that carried a deep rumbling with it. A spider-bot from the ceiling slammed down with a crash onto part of the brain.

“Xandra, can you hear me?” said a voice on her com. It was the Chinese woman from Tongyi.

She grabbed the drive, and scrambled towards Vision’s brain, tapping at her com at the same time. “Yeah, here.” She wanted to say more, but she had no idea where to start.

“Xandra!” the semi-synthetic voice exclaimed, suddenly alive with emotion. “What the fuck did you do? Acorn is pouring in from every direction! There’s more here than… It’s like it’s just been toying with us this whole time! Vision’s defenses are falling apart on the spot!”

“I… beat Vision, or something!” Xandra’s trembling hands fumbled with the data drive, looking for a place to connect it to the complex nanotech computer.

Tongyi began to speak “Well, you need to get some—”

“GET OUT OF MY MIND!” screamed an inhuman voice from all around.

Xandra fell back, startled. She hadn’t done anything.


The rumbling in the background had turned into a violent roar, and Xandra found herself curled into a ball, hands on her ears as the vibration rattled through her.

“There are too many! Everyone fall back! Get to the Nexus!” yelled the faint voice of Tongyi on her com.

The machines around Xandra lurched into motion all of a sudden, crawling rapidly, this way and that, cutting at the brain and carrying objects to and fro.

Two of the larger machines crawled up to Xandra and began to pull strands of gooey fiber from something akin to their heads. They spoke, too, with that same, new voice. It was still loud, to be heard above the roar, but it wasn’t as harsh or angry as it had been. Quite the opposite.

“You are safe now, my child. I will take care of you.”

The machines began to draw the fibers up and place them on Xandra’s clothing.

She kicked them off. “What’s going on?!” she demanded.

“I’m trying to save you. I’m trying to save all of you. Look at your com.”

The spiders continued to web her as she pulled her com screen in front of her face. A scene of chaos greeted her. After a few seconds, she started to understand. She was seeing a continuous wave of energy, slamming into the Nexus. There were more missiles coming in than Xandra would’ve thought possible. A brief cut-away showed the extent of Acorn’s forces at sea. The missiles roared in, were intercepted, and the explosion joined the continuous maelstrom, pushing the robotic interceptors back. It was an impossible image. The radiation from the explosions should’ve disabled any camera.

“But how? Who are you?”

The voice from the spiders said “I am Athena. You brought me here.”

Xandra looked at the device in her hand, confused.

Athena seemed to understand. “Vision had the code almost from the moment you landed in Tokyo. She activated me as part of honoring your deal.”

“But… but—”

“Be at rest, my child. We’ll be taking off in thirty seconds. It’s our only hope to survive.”

“No!” shouted Xandra, kicking off the webs. “Daddy’s still out there!”

Another, louder roar, came in. A structure larger than anything humans had ever made, as large as the nameless mothership, even, was beginning to take flight.

Another robot came forward and helped with holding her down.

“I’m so sorry, Xandra. He’s already dead. He has been for almost a day.”

“No!” she screamed, fighting the thought. “No! He’s coming! We have to wait!”

The spiders tied her down as the gravity seemed to grow stronger, only a little at first, and then it seemed to bear down on her like she were under a very heavy blanket. The machines around her had to hold on to each other for stability as the world thrashed violently around her.

“No! Please!” she wept, trapped and helpless.

Athena, daughter of Heart, didn’t say anything more.

Instead, she spotted the final remnant of Neurotoxin, and expunged it from the Nexus.