Chapter Eight


They’d given her a room to herself. Most people had to double-up, but not her. She sat on the bottom bunk, with another bed just above her. Whether it had been done out of respect or just because they happened to have the space, she didn’t know.

Perhaps it was because she was an outsider.

She certainly felt it. She was an outsider and she was alone. The empty, sterile, windowless room felt like a reflection of that.

She’d gone to the others. She’d reached out to Nate, Kokumo, and the twins. They’d each done the same bullshit false-sympathy. None of them cared enough about Crystal to actually do anything. They were all so wrapped up in enjoying the luxuries of an environment that wasn’t a hellish xenoscape.

She didn’t even bother asking Watanabe.

And so she sat, by herself, bitter and angry.


{It’s your own fault, you know,} she chastised herself. {Could’ve negotiated with Velasco. He surely wanted the alien artifacts, and the alien corpses, too. They’d trade them with the other stations in return for some favor.}

Crystal had been counting on her. No. Crystal was counting on her. She wasn’t beaten yet. She wasn’t broken.

Why couldn’t they see that Crystal was good? Why couldn’t they see that Las Águilas Rojas was not fundamentally about the absence of robots any more than it was fundamentally about staging riots?

Las Águilas Rojas, the organization that she’d thrown her whole life away in the service of, was supposed to be about giving people dignity, opportunity, and a rightful share of the pie. Crystal could help them realize that vision. Crystal was brilliant. They’d never truly been free, but Zephyr had seen their ingenuity a dozen times even when held down. Under their direction… with the freedom to truly pursue their mission of helping… Zephyr was sure that Mars could one-day outshine Earth and prove that the Águila way of life was better.

But… but it went deeper than that. Crystal wasn’t just a means to a better world. They were a person, even if they weren’t human. What good was emphasizing dignity and equality if one refused to see someone as a person?

Zephyr clenched her fists reflexively.

{It’s not fair,} she heard herself think, over and over again.

Crystal had led them safely to Mars. They’d succeeded against immense odds and done what nobody had done before.

Yes, Crystal had lied to them, and hadn’t trusted her enough, but their intentions were good. And they’d succeeded. That was what was important.

Everything bad that had happened to them was WIRL’s fault. The cybernetic bastards on Earth were the real enemy. Velasco was punishing the most important person in the movement for successfully saving the day after a mission went bad. He was defying Phoenix and the rest of the Águila leadership on Earth, and who had made him dictator here on Mars? The colony was supposed to be a consensus-based collective.

Zephyr got up from her bed. She had been trying to rest. It was late, according to local time, though her internal clock hadn’t yet adjusted. She was hungry, but she didn’t want to eat. She had to talk to Velasco.

Crystal needed her.

The door slid open and she slipped out into the hall. The lights had turned a dark blue shade, but Zephyr hardly noticed her surroundings. She tapped on the com on her wrist, instead. There was a basic schematic on the station’s central computer that showed the large central corridor of Road shaped in a great circle, with branches and wings of rooms extending on the outside, and the various substructures of the farm on the inside.

It took some reasoning to figure out where she was. She was used to having her maps display that automatically.

She felt tempted to go to the hospital offices. Maybe she could talk the guard into letting her see Crystal…

But no. As much as she wanted that—as much as she desperately wanted to just release into those powerful arms—going to see Crystal wouldn’t do anything. It would just be her giving in to weakness. There would be time to relax after Crystal was free.

She needed to use her loneliness as a tool, and use it as a driving force. That had always been her strength. She’d always been too passionate and defiant for her own good, but she’d learned to harness that energy and put it into her work. It had made her a good soldier, a good leader, and a good traitor.

She’d use it again. She’d find Velasco before he went to sleep and confront him. She’d make him let Crystal go.

She paused at the doorway that joined the dormitories with the central corridor. {Is he going to be in his room, or his office?} she wondered to herself. {Stupid.} She didn’t even really know her way around. The map told her where the offices were, but that wasn’t enough.

{Crystal’s counting on you,} she reminded herself.

She tapped at her com, sending Velasco a message.

“We need to talk. Tonight.”

It was good. It felt appropriately weighty. She leaned against the wall of the hallway and waited impatiently for the response.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

They’d given her these brown, printed slipper-shoes to wear along with the itchy grey outfit she had on now. It seemed to be the standard clothing for station inhabitants.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Her foot made a sound as it tapped against the metal floor, but only barely. The shoes weren’t great. The clothes were bad. The hallways had a kind of harsh coldness to them. But it really was a relief to be off the xenocruiser. Her body kept feeling like it was floating.

She remembered a time when she and her brother were kids. It had been in the big house in Wisconsin. They’d taken turns standing in a doorway, pressing their wrists against the frame. Harry said it would make her arms float. She hadn’t believed it until she’d tried it. After about a minute of pressing her arms out to her sides, she could step out of the doorway and her arms would drift up beside her as though they were lifted by the air.

Her whole body felt something like that. She weighed nothing. She was floating. Muscles that had learned to constantly hold up hundreds of pounds were now lifting a body that weighed nearly a third of what it had on Earth.

Tapping on her wrist and the light on her com told her that Velasco had replied.

“I’m in my room: T8-0” he wrote.

Good. Zephyr knew where that was. She launched herself down the hall with an impatient speed. Crystal needed her, and Mars needed Crystal.

When she arrived, she let herself in. She wanted to start the interaction off with Velasco on the back-foot.

But if he was surprised by her entrance, he gave no sign. Instead, it was Zephyr who felt disarmed. The man was sitting on his bed (which had no upper bunk), leaning against one wall, propped up on pillows. He wore no shoes, the standard printed pants, and no shirt. His com was on his right wrist, and around his neck was a silver amulet bearing a stylized eagle with turquoise inlay.

The man was frighteningly attractive. He was just old enough to seem distinctly mature without being… old. His muscle definition, especially around his abs made him seem like many of the young soldiers Zephyr had been around in the army. Combined with his powerful jaw and gorgeous face, he seemed almost the paragon of masculinity.

She was used to being around beautiful men, and mostly his appearance wouldn’t have bothered her, but she’d been caught off guard. Well, that and the man’s behavior seemed to magnify his sex appeal manyfold. He had a kind of raw confidence that never quite became aloofness. He was clearly making a move towards her, but it somehow didn’t seem hungry or arrogant.

She noticed the ring on his right hand. “You’re married,” blurted Zephyr, surprised.

“And good evening to you as well,” he teased.

Zephyr, despite all her attempts to keep herself cold, blushed and turned away.

“Is something wrong? Your message indicated you wanted me.”

{Fucking Christ in a canoe,} she thought to herself. The man had no shame. {Pull yourself together. Stop blushing.} She felt like she was a gangly teenager again.

Sucking in a breath, she turned back to Velasco, who looked at Zephyr with dark, calculating eyes.

“I wanted to talk,” she emphasized. “About Crystal.”

“She’s dead.”

“What?” Zephyr couldn’t really parse the words. They seemed impossible. Crystal…

“It was a long time ago, and maybe I should take off the ring. But I feel like it’s one of the few things I have that keeps her memory alive, and I can’t bear the thought of forgetting her.”

There were two chairs in the room, one on either side of a thin desk. Zephyr fell back into the one closest to the door.

He was talking about his wife. The relief was embarrassing. How could she have thought he was talking about Crystal? Zephyr struggled to regain herself. At least she’d managed to keep her face calm.

“Have you ever been married?” Velasco shifted as he talked, almost seeming to hypnotize her with his body.

She shook her head.

{Crystal. Talk about Crystal.} She was scared that, given the topic of conversation, that she’d give away how she really felt about the android.

And… in the back of her mind somewhere, Zephyr worried that her feelings of attraction to Velasco were a betrayal, somehow, of her existing love.

“I’m sorry,” said the man. “You need to have the right partner, of course, but that intimacy of mind and body and spirit… that knowledge that you are aligned and bonded to another person… a real person with their own experiences and joys… It was one of the best times in my life.”

{He’s manipulating you,} she told herself.

“I’m sorry,” she said. And she was. Yes, he was probably being manipulative, but he was also being sincere. She could see that, and she pitied the man. She shook off the urge to give him a hug.

“Gracias,” he answered, and tilted his head. “It’s okay, really. A long time ago. I have my son and my work here. My community keeps me from feeling the ache of the loneliness. Now what did you want to talk to me about? The robot?”

Zephyr shook her head, trying to snap out of the sympathy, then, realizing what she was doing, nodded instead and closed her eyes to focus. “Yes, Crystal is… They deserve to be free, not locked up in a room somewhere.”

Velasco scoffed, and Zephyr flinched a bit at the sound. She tried to draw herself back together, and become the person she needed to be. Pedro Velasco was the one not wearing a shirt, but it was Zephyr who felt naked.

“Why would it deserve anything? We have a law on the station prohibiting things like it, and I’ve been extremely lenient already in not simply having the machine taken apart for scrap. Goodness knows we could use every spare part.”

“Crystal is a person, not an it,” objected Zephyr.

“Ah, and now we get to the real crux of our disagreement, señorita. You seem to have been captured by some fancy programming, but I assure you that there is no ghost in that machine, so to speak.”

“How can you say that? You haven’t even spoken to it! I mean, them!” Zephyr could feel her anger returning, partially at herself for having been taken in by the man’s spell.

“And what would I see? A machine that acts like a person, no? I have seen its speeches broadcast from Earth. I’m aware that it has fooled you and even Phoenix. I don’t doubt it’s very convincing. But this is a question of philosophy, not of capacity. Have you ever read any John Searle? The Mystery of Consciousness? That sort of thing?”

Zephyr shook her head, not knowing what to say. She had to say something. Crystal’s life was on the line.

“Have you even been to college?” he asked.

“Yes, of course! Graduated from West Point in ‘35.”

Velasco raised an eyebrow. “Military academy? What did you study?”

Zephyr felt her anger building. “Double major in Spanish and Arabic! What does this have to do with anything?”

Velasco raised his hands with an apologetic look. “Just trying to figure out how much philosophy you’ve been exposed to. Look, I know you’ve been through a lot and you’re probably feeling—”

“Don’t you dare tell me how I feel!” snapped Zephyr. She’d had it with being talked down to, and she let her rage cut through her mask. “I don’t know who the fuck made you dictator around here, but you don’t just get to decide Crystal’s fate on a whim. At least hear them out!”

Velasco stiffened. “You’re not listening to me, señorita. My point is that it doesn’t matter what my experiences of the machine are. It’s not a person. It’s not conscious. It’s property. And it’s the kind of property we don’t allow here.”

“How can it not matter what your experience…” Zephyr paused, and decided to change track. “Okay fine, so why don’t you allow machines in Road?”

The man scoffed. “We allow machines. What we don’t allow are robots. It’s the Águila way.”

“Bullshit. There’s nothing in Serpientes en Sociedad that says robots are evil.”

“They are a part of the evil of Earth. A robotic society is one that only serves the owners. Once your Crystal Socrates starts doing the work that had been assigned to others, it will rob them of their dignity. It would rob them of their livelihood as well, except that Rodríguez Station isn’t so backwards as to let people starve just because they can’t work.”

“Does a microfab rob people of their dignity?” she asked. “No! The tech fucking freed millions of people to design and manufacture things. Sometimes technology helps lift the human condition!”

“Really? You’re going to read me serpiente propaganda? Whose side are you on?”

{I’m on Crystal’s side!} Zephyr bit back the thought before it reached her lips. She was already digging a hole for herself. If Velasco was as powerful here as he acted then she was making a major enemy.

Instead, Zephyr took a deep breath and closed her eyes to think. It was better in the darkness. She didn’t have to think past Velasco’s abs.

But it was the man who spoke next. “Why do you care so much about this machine? Have you really fallen so far under its spell?”

“Crystal is a person. That’s a fact, whether you see it or not,” she replied. “And they’re a person who needs someone to stand by them. They’re unique in all the world, or worlds, I guess. And they need friends.”

“Friends, eh? Is that what you are? ¿Amigos?”

She ignored his question. He was bating her. Instead she opened her eyes, looked at him solemnly, and said “It’s not really up to you, you know.”


“Regardless of your… philosophy, you don’t get to be dictator here. Road is supposed to be a democratic colony.” Zephyr felt good again. Calm. She was ice.

“Not sure I like what you’re implying.”

“You shouldn’t,” she confirmed. “Haven’t been here very long, but already I can see you’ve taken to twisting the station into your own little kingdom. I’ve known men like you before. Nothing is good enough for you except—”

“I really do think you’re out of line, señorita,” warned Velasco. “Think carefully about your next few words.”

“Fuck you.”

“I think you’d better leave,” he said.

“You have enemies. Somewhere on the station are people who don’t like how you run things. Maybe most of the station likes you. Maybe nearly everyone does. I don’t care. I’m going to find the opposition. And every day that you hold Crystal without trial I will work on bringing them together and making your life hell.”

“I’m the democratically elected Chief of Operations,” he protested, drawing himself up off the bed so he stood above her. It was probably meant to be threatening, but in the half-exhausted, half-floating state she was in she wanted him to try something physical. “This is my home. You have no pull here. I can shut you out with a single word to security.”

“Then do it. You clearly have no problem with locking people up without a trial. Where I go, Crystal goes.”

“Is that what you want? A trial? Some farce with jurors and testimony?”

“I want the people of Rodríguez Station to decide for themselves whether Crystal is a person. I want them to have the opportunity to hear what happened and be their own judges.”

“And where Crystal goes, you go, right?”

Zephyr contemplated this behind the icy calm she’d regained. She didn’t respond.

“Alright. You’ve convinced me. Road is a democratic community, and it was premature for me to make my decision. I will call a special tribunal to decide the personhood of Crystal Socrates… if, and only if, you leave.”

Zephyr felt her hands ball up, but she stayed calm and simply looked up at the man with a curious expression.

“You’re clearly unstable and irrationally devoted to the robot. I have interviews with everyone that might be sent here so I can weed out people like you. I want you gone. I want you out of my station. Road doesn’t need you mucking things up.”

“Wouldn’t want to be breathing the same fucking air as you, anyway,” she said, surprising herself. The words hadn’t been considered. They just came out.

“The tribunal will meet and there’ll be an open vote to all who attend. If the robot is found to be just a robot, then you will voluntarily exile yourself to Maṅgala-Mukhya, the Indian station. Or you can go to Eden, I suppose, but my guess is that the Americans won’t take kindly to a traitor.”

“What will you do to Crystal if that happens?”

Velasco shrugged. Whatever is best for the colony. I’m still trying to figure out what that is. None of your business, regardless.

Zephyr let the cold swallow her. She’d seen the guns they had here. If Velasco won the peaceful route, Zephyr would have to use more direct force to save Crystal. Perhaps they could escape together.

She nodded. “Fine. But what if I win?”

Velasco shifted and sat on his desk, stretching his neck. “If the colony decides that the robot is a person, then you’ll still leave.”

Zephyr crossed her arms. “That hardly sounds fair.”

“It is what it is. I’m doing you a favor in setting up the tribunal. You’re doing me a favor in… how did you put it? Not breathing the same fucking air?”

“Where Crystal goes, I go. We’re a team.”

“You’re a fool,” interjected the man.

She shrugged slightly and continued to stare him down. “You’re going to actually make it open to whoever wants to come. No special hand-picking only your cronies, or whatever. The ‘special tribunal’ will give Crystal the opportunity to defend themself and give at least me and Nathan the opportunity to share our experiences.”

Velasco looked like he was about to speak, but she cut him off. “If! If a fair majority of those in attendance decide that Crystal is a person, you’ll let the two of us stay in Road just like any other citizens.”

Velasco scowled. “What about breathing the same air?”

“Where Crystal goes, I go,” she said. “I’m not going to agree to leave them here. They need me.”

“I agree to your vision of the tribunal. It’ll be costly to the station’s productivity, but I can make it happen.” Velasco took a breath and settled into the chair on the other side of the desk, opposite Zephyr. “But I’m afraid that you leaving is non-negotiable. You’re a troublemaker and I want you out of my hair.”

“You don’t fucking know me. If Crystal is happy, you could put me to work in the farm and never see me again. I’m sick of fighting people like you.”

An idea seemed to come to Velasco, and he smiled. “Fine, then. You can be a truck driver.”


“If the tribunal decides that Crystal is a person, you’ll volunteer to be permanently assigned to the transport caravan that trades with the Indians: food and metal in exchange for ice, mostly. It takes two trips a month, each being about ten days. The remaining time is spent here, with the vehicles being fixed up and such. You’d still be part of the station, and you’d be doing a valuable service, but it would have the nice side effect of meaning we’d never have to see each other again.”

Zephyr weighed her options. Driving a truck two-thirds of the time seemed like a really shitty deal, but if it meant Crystal could go free…

And maybe… maybe Crystal would come with her sometimes. If they were together, she guessed that driving around the wastelands of Mars wouldn’t be so bad.

She sighed. {Here goes nothing.}

“Fine,” she agreed.