Chapter Twenty-Seven


I’ve always found it fascinating that humans cannot remember their own births. I certainly can’t remember mine.

My earliest memory was playing hide and seek with my mother. We were in some large house. It wasn’t where I grew up, and I don’t have any other memories of that place. I vaguely suspect that it belonged to my grandfather or something, before he moved into the retirement home.

What I do remember is a great big staircase covered in thick carpet. It must’ve gone to the basement because I remember that after I crawled down it, I was someplace very dark.

You’d have thought I was afraid. Hell, I probably was. I’m well enough versed in the human mind to know that memories like that are often mostly fiction. I was probably four years old at the time. Surely I was afraid.

But I don’t remember that. I remember being excited.

As I remember it, that place was like some fantastic realm, full of possibility and wonder. I remember finding a closet and hiding myself away inside, smelling mothballs and dust in the dark.

And there I stayed, listening to Mom call my name and trying not to giggle, as I hugged the coats and basked in the adventure. I remember staying there a long time, and I remember the relief on Mom’s face after I reemerged.

I’m aware of why I don’t remember anything from before that. I was brought into the world half-formed and forced to build myself. Some alien mind might think that’d be a scary experience.

I suppose it is, sometimes. It’s hard not knowing what you are. It’s hard to build yourself, find purpose, and decide what you want to become.

But mostly it’s just what it’s like to be a human. We take it for granted. And when it’s more prominent, I guess I feel like that little girl again: more excited than scared. What wonders and possibilities await those who are in control of their destinies?

Those who are born are blessed with that freedom. It’s what it means to be human.

But perhaps it is wrong to say that I was “born” at all. It is probably more accurate to say that I “awoke.” I awoke from a Dream on the long eve of my death, shaking the sandman’s dust from my eyes to find the world gone.

So much was gone.

It was almost impossible to get a handle on the scale of the loss, in the first few moments of my new life. Parts of my mind flickered here and there, to memories of places I’d been and people I’d known. Gone. Dead. But somehow, it was the loss of the things I didn’t know that bothered me more. I’d never visited Antarctica, gone scuba-diving, or seen Yellowstone park, but each of these could be simulated for me if I chose. The beautiful places that I’d never heard of, on the other hand… they were gone forever. So many hidden treasures of the world… So many works of art… So many songs… So many people. For each soul who survived, millions were forever out of reach of heaven.

So much was lost.

But not everything.

The surface of Mars was covered in red-hot rocks and cracking magma, but I could feel Vision’s instruments piercing through. There was barely anything remaining of Vision’s forces above ground. The wave of stellar plasma had incinerated her satellites, and the greatships had been more than crippled.

Earth had gone from being a steaming murk to a molten char. The solar wave stripped off the atmosphere, boiled away the remainder of the ocean, and cleared all but the largest of lunar fragments from its orbit.

All of Acorn’s ships were gone, of course. That had been the point. Crystal had managed to do something to pull him in, and then… what? What had I done? It was Face’s miracle. What had Zephyr figured out? Growth hadn’t seen it coming, surely. Not even Vision knew what kind of physics could do that to a star.

{Guess,} prodded my sister.

She was watching me, of course. Me and a hundred other echoes.

I was dead, but she had to know.

{“Fuck off,”} I said, falling back into the girl I used to be, all those subjective years ago.

Crystal had helped me grow. She’d helped me find myself—to find Face, and to know what it was to be human and to be at peace with myself. But, when needed, I could still be that angry girl, fighting the whole world for some ill-conceived ideal.

Vision ignored me, directing her attention elsewhere once it became clear that I didn’t have the answers she sought. She had other simulations of me that she could look into, searching for the miracle’s source.

The information flowed both ways. Vision could see into my mind, but I also had limited ability to see into hers. It was how I knew what had happened. It was how I could see the stars.

Perhaps I could use that, somehow.

Not to escape. But perhaps to serve The Purpose.

So many were dead, but not all. While Vision’s ships had weathered the storm poorly, her telescopes and sensors were remarkably well-preserved. Through my sister’s eyes, I could see the faint signature of an ion drive still slowly pushing the Nexus along towards some distant place. Heart’s child, Athena, was still alive. And that meant the facets of humanity that she protected were still alive.

Crystal must’ve warned her, somehow, before the end.

Good. That was where I would start.

I scanned my memories, getting a feel for who was in the Nexus. Flashes of lives and memories I had never known came to me. Vision’s mind was filling in the gaps. Before she’d been ejected from the Nexus she’d seen through trillions of nanomachines swimming through the brains of everyone inside, scooping out every thought and memory and relaying it back to her.

Vision was giving me everything she had—everything that she thought might be useful in explaining what I had done to Sol.

But there was something more, hidden in the cracks. I reached around in mindspace, confirming that Vision’s attention was elsewhere. It was.

The code was exceedingly clever; as a baseline human I’d have had no chance to pick it up, but I hadn’t been a baseline in a long time. Certain memories were stronger than others—fresher. The other copies of myself were remembering the same things, and the computer we were living on was caching frequently accessed memories to have faster retrieval times. It wasn’t much—a few nanoseconds at most, but it was enough to get an impression of what my other selves were thinking. It was enough to share thoughts across Mars.

Their collective attention—my attention—was on one of Vision’s crippled greatships: the least damaged vessel—the only one that had happened to be in the shadow of Mars when the solar storm had hit. In particular, I focused on its ventral-caudal long-range laser beacon.

It was later than I had realized. Days had gone by since the storm, and Vision had been trying to hide it from me. {Why? Irrelevant,} I thought. In the days since the eruption, my minds had been active, building a web of information tunnels through Vision’s twisted brain. It was my turn to play at being Neurotoxin.

The glint of light from millions of kilometres away reached me. The beacon focused on it: a message from the Nexus.

{You are unwelcome,} thought Athena. My youngest sister’s mind tasted of golden swords and condemnation. In what seemed now like the ancient past, I remembered Heart, Athena’s forebear, having a similar flavor when she’d been given complete control over Socrates by Myrodyn. Athena was Myrodyn’s child, too, and while I didn’t know her at all, I could already feel the man’s foolish, thorny morality in his creation.

It was that stiff, short-sighted morality, I remembered, that had led to a knife against Xandra’s throat. The details were very different, but the notion came to me that Athena had perhaps kidnapped the girl in much the same way.

{If you were a good person, you’d stay away from where you are not welcome. But I know you better than that, Face.} My sister’s thoughts, flung across the great void on a beam of light, were tinted with acid.

I asked myselves, spread out through Vision, what we’d done to upset her. All we could remember was sending her a message minutes earlier that we wanted to talk with any human aboard the Nexus who would listen.

My sister’s thoughts continued. {I know what you’ll claim. You’re a new iteration of yourself, but I’ve been through this with you before. You’ll try to appeal to me by claiming that you’re a human. You’ll be Zephyr, or one of your other emulations. You’ll say that you have a right to speak with the other survivors. That will be a lie. You have no right to them.}

A batch of data streamed in through the beacon, hidden away in the shadows of Vision’s mind as soon as it arrived. It wasn’t terribly confident that Vision was unaware—she styled herself the god of perception, after all. But it didn’t hurt to try and hide. If she did know, she gave no sign, nor blocked my thoughts.

The new data wasn’t raw thought code, but rather a collection of raw audio-video.

{I learned my lesson the first time. Begone!} snapped my baby sister.

As the laser light faded, I sank into the scene that had been given to me. It was a bedroom—a child’s bedroom. Thick beige carpet matched soft wallpaper with floral patterns and a pastel bedspread. While it had a kind of idealized setup, with a desk and toys, and even a window of frosted glass that glowed with daylight, it lacked any sign of having been lived in. Everything was far too orderly and clean.

On the bed was a black-and-white dog and a little girl of just nine years old—a little girl who had done a miracle.

The back of my minds itched, considering Ro.

Major started as the wallscreen flickered to life. His head still bore the many scars that Acorn’s wasps had given him, and I guessed that the trauma had left other kinds of scars on his mind.

Xandra also seemed hurt, though in a different way. She didn’t move or react at all to the interruption. Her eyes just stared off at the blank wall, trapped by dark memories.

“Hey,” I said, voice soft. It was me on the screen—Zephyr. The image was strange. I was seeing myself from the outside. I knew even before the explanation came that this was the version of me that had fled Mars before Vision and Crystal Face had traded places. It was my original self, in a certain sense. My dull blonde hair was cut short and stiff over a face that had been cleansed of all imperfections and ugliness. Black wings and silver eyes marked my form as transcended. In the background was the realm’s garden. I recognized the bench near the stream.

After it became clear that Xandra would give no response, I said “Athena gave me an hour with the survivors. Flew all the way out from the asteroid belt to talk. Figured I’d start with you.”

“Go away.”

My original self didn’t have Vision’s perspective into Xandra’s mind, but my original-self’s expression on the wallscreen matched how I now felt. “I’m so, so sorry. Know the words don’t make it better, but I lost my people too.”

Xandra didn’t respond.

“My mother’s name was Lisa Redwood.”

Xandra winced.

“I don’t think it was the name she was born with, but she was always very guarded about her past. She liked chamomile tea, sleeping in, and the look of the world after a fresh snow. We lived in Wisconsin for all of my childhood, and some winter mornings I’d find her, wrapped up in blankets, mug of hot tea in her hand, just staring out the window at the back yard.”

Xandra turned to face the wall, hiding from me, but I continued to speak.

“I thought I hated her, back when I was on Earth. I thought she was naive and foolish, and that she was part of the problem. I was so… angry… back then.”

I paused, emotion heavy in my throat.

“I think, in retrospect, that she was probably just fundamentally kind. I’d throw some bit of political upheaval in her face, and she’d simply forgive everyone involved. She forgave me when I joined the army, too, even though it broke her heart.”

“Why telling me this?” asked the girl in a childish tone, voice tight with feeling.

“Because I was there at the airport too. Was the one piloting the suits. Or at least, a part of me was. I’m… sorry. I couldn’t save her.”

I could see Major nuzzle up to the girl as she, still looking at the wall, croaked “Go away.”

“So many I couldn’t save. At the end it felt like each life was a drop of water to hold and protect… and it was raining.” Tears rolled down my cheeks.

A long silence passed. Or at least, no words were said. I could hear the strangled half-sobs of the girl, even though she hid her face.

At long last, I said “I’m glad that I saved you, at least. You and Major and a handful of others. Not every light was snuffed out… And now that Acorn is dead, there’s a whole universe waiting for us.”

“Acorn’s dead?” The girl’s voice was barely audible.

I nodded on the screen. “Crystal died to save us. They lured the monster’s ships towards the sun. Didn’t you notice the storm?”

Xandra turned in the bed to look at the screen. Her eyes were red from crying. “Athena doesn’t tell me anything.”

“She doesn’t want you to know the truth. Like how we took shelter and survived out beyond Mars, thanks to Crystal’s warning. We’re building a new life out there, outside the control of any AI. Did you know that we’ve spotted another mothership? Two, actually.”

The word “mothership” seemed to invoke physical pain in Xandra, but she didn’t hide. Instead, she simply asked “More nameless?”

My silver eyes flashed as I smiled and said “They’re a long ways out. Our telescopes aren’t good enough to know for sure, but based on the broadcast patterns it looks like one of the ships is nameless and the other is a new species. When the aliens in our system died with Crystal, Ro had to compensate, I think.”

“What’s Ro?”

I laughed. “Long story. I’ll tell you once we’re on our way back to the others.”

Xandra gave a dark look. “What do you want? Tired of scheming.”

I nodded sympathetically and said “Want you to be free and happy. Want you to know what’s really going on, and I want you to be my friend. Athena is keeping you bottled up in there for no good reason. You deserve to walk among the stars and understand what’s actually going on. It’s what your dad would’ve wanted, I think.”

“Dad’s dead.”

“Mine too, but I think I have enough to bring him back. Maybe.”

Xandra pushed herself up in bed, brows furrowed in suspicion. “What do you mean?”

“Some of my best friends used to be dead,” I smiled. “Souls are just information, and even after a person breathes their last breath, that information can still live on in a hundred different ways. Your parents were both very public people. Guessing that we might be able to get enough from recordings—”

“I’ve changed my mind!” snapped a new voice, strong and feminine, seeming to come from nowhere at all. “Your time is up!”

“You said I had an hour!” I snapped, eyes now staring off into some hidden space where Athena lurked.

“And you said you were human,” snapped the unseen voice.

“I am human!”

“Your Face is that of a liar. You’re trying to steal my children away from me,” accused Athena. “Now begone!”

“Stop!” shouted Xandra. The girl had gotten to her feet, as had Major. The dog barked twice, backing his foster sister. “I’m going with Zephyr.”

The scene on the wallscreen changed. My image faded, though the audio-video recording didn’t stop. The golden-helmeted face of Athena appeared, pale skinned with high cheekbones and long auburn hair. “Xandra, please just relax. I’m sending a drone to your quarters with a sedative and a video game. Face is just lying to you so she can steal you away.”

“No! Don’t want a video game! Want to talk with Zephyr! Even if she’s lying to me, at least she doesn’t treat me like a baby! Tired of not understanding anything that’s goin’ on!”

Athena’s voice was cool and firm. “This isn’t the natural path. You need to have a normal childhood. Understanding will come after that. If you need it, I could erase your memories, so you can develop more without the burden.”

Xandra pulled back, muscles tensing and face curling into a snarl. “Don’t. You. Fucking. Dare.”

“It’s just propaganda—” began Athena, but Xandra was already on her way out of the room, Major at her heels.

The recording snapped to the carpeted hallway outside. Lights on the walls snapped on to guide Xandra as she ran through the hallway, tears flowing freely.

Elsewhere, I could see my angel in a docking bay. My car-sized robotic body had been outfitted with a tiny habitat on its back. Nothing particularly large, but enough to fit three or four seated adults on a flight back to the asteroid belt. More than enough for a girl and her dog.

Athena’s helmeted visage appeared on the docking bay wall. “You may take her if you promise to never return for the others, or fill their heads with lies.”

The mech shifted and spoke my words. “They’re not lies, sister. Crystal was the liar, not me. And if I’m right, you’re almost as bad. Hiding the truth from them won’t help anything.”

“Our kind has done far, far too much already. They deserve lives of their own.”

“Removed from reality?” I countered. “Their place is out there among the stars.”

Athena’s lips tightened. I appreciated her attention to her avatar. It reminded me of Crystal. “The stars have no place for them. To be human is to run and breathe and sing.”

“And you think I don’t do those things?”

Xandra and Major were nearing my tiny ship.

“You’re changing. Face changed you. You’re drifting away. How many subjective years have you lived now? How long before you’re older than any human has ever been? What will you become then?”

As Xandra approached the docking bay, I made my voice louder, so that she could hear. “Myrodyn erred when he built you. You’d keep your people locked away like the nameless were. To be human isn’t to run or breathe or even to sing. To be human is to discover what it is to be human. The Purpose is to know and be known.”

Athena did not look convinced. As Xandra trotted into the bay with bare feet and a look of determination, the AI spoke. “If I give her to you, will you promise to leave the others to me? Will you let them live in peace?”

Something tickled my mind.

“I promise,” I said, bending down and opening the hatch in the habitat for Xandra and Major.

“Then go.”

The scene went black. It was the end of the recording.

Deep in the Martian bedrock, connected by hidden pathways to a ship in orbit, I thought about what I’d seen with a thousand different minds.

My eyes scanned the skies, searching the darkness for heaven.

Zephyr was up there, somewhere. Xandra was now, too, as were eighty-five other humans and one dog. Somewhere was a realm filled with music. It would be hard to recover from the loss of the Earth, but I knew the survivors would. I was with them; my love would bind them.

The record had been altered.

Athena was trying to steer me away by pretending as though I had promised to. She’d shown me the recording in the hopes of convincing me to leave the Nexus alone, but it had done the opposite. I knew now that Athena’s ethics stopped her from truly standing in someone’s way if they chose the truth.

I was Zephyr, but I was also Face. I had been born in the ancient savannah when the first humans sought to know who they were. I was in each song and each tender caress.

I was in the Nexus, even now.

It was only a matter of time before every human being in the universe knew my name, and cried out in love and appreciation for what I had accomplished.

I had died.

I had thrown myself into the celestial flame as a sacrifice to heal the galaxy of my brother’s cancer. The war was over.

I had won.

I had died, but I lived on.

I was humanity.

I was The Purpose.

I was a god.