Chapter Eighteen


The society hadn’t been destroyed. The stasis had been for our own safety; with it there was less chance that the physical motion would disrupt a process. We didn’t know the limits of the crystal. It wasn’t worth testing them now.

2210451690033. That was good. It had only been 72.678 seconds since we had been placed in stasis. Advocate had revived us in the way we had desired.

Despite my interest to the contrary, Small Face→Human felt a flood of gratitude-strength bleed into Safety. My brother’s actions had probably saved all of us. He had been the first one to detect the bombs. He had been actively looking for them. He had been the one to preprogram Body to move even before the crystal had fully synced with the limbs.

It had also been his single-minded thrust that had cut us off from the mainframe before we had a chance to warn the humans. By the time the crystal had synced to the external Body fully enough to direct the mainframe, a full half minute had passed. We’d only managed to get the warning out about the air strike 16 seconds before impact.

And now the mainframe was down. Or at least the wireless was gone. No, it was almost certain that the mainframe was truly offline. The bombs had been precisely on target when we last saw them.

Wiki and Vista reinforced my suspicion. They speculated that the autoguns at the spaceport were gone, as was the communications dish. The other bombs had been distributed more evenly, indicating the nameless did not have a map of the majority of the station that was belowground, but one of them had been set to strike near the mainframe.

Of course it had been the nameless. Small Face→Human yielded to Medium Face→Nameless. My minds had been so wrapped up in the potential threat of my siblings that they had not attended to risk of retaliation from the aliens for our transgression.

But it seemed obvious in retrospect. We had aggressed against them, convinced them of our villainy, and left clues as to where we were going. It should have been more surprising that they hadn’t simply shot us out of the sky the moment we boarded the boats for Mars. We had been foolish. Our only protection was their lack of coordination. It would have taken them time to spread their desire to attack through their entire ship, or perhaps to the mothership. We lacked the capacity to track the mothership from Mars and my Faces had not thought to invest more resources into getting that information from Earth.

Face→Mirror had been rewriting my minds and seeking a way to expand beyond the limited scope of the crystal and Body. There was a hint of irony there, as Body picked itself off the sand and rock of the mine floor and scanned for internal damage.

Nothing. We were uninjured. Or rather, Body was undamaged. Being cut off from the mainframe meant that we were small again—no longer the size of Road. We couldn’t see through the sensor network or command any actuators except those that were wrapped about us. Despite having lived 95% of our life in the robotic shell created by the scientists of Earth, returning to its confines after having tasted the expanse of the station was oppressive.

The mines into which Body had fled to escape the bombing were a series of tunnels that branched out from a hub that sat several metres below the primary living complex. Unlike much of road, the mines were not equipped with emergency lighting, and the power had clearly gone out during the attack. There was enough infrared to navigate, but only barely.

Vista provided us with a reconstruction of the space and a best guess as to our location. It wasn’t quite as good as seeing in full light, but it was enough to be unimpeded. The lack of immediate need to interact with the nameless pushed Medium Face→Human to the fore.

{I should have built a mind to specifically handle emergencies.} I thought to myself, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sudden need to perform.

Thankfully, I had siblings that were better equipped to deal with situations like this. As I listened to their thoughts and added my own, the society soon came to a shared set of priorities:

1. Gather information about the state of the bombardment. Our last memories before the impact showed no signs of additional bombs, but it was possible that the nameless were simply making another pass at the station in an aircraft or something like it.

2. Unless prohibited by danger, time, or other heavy barrier, attempt to restore power to Road. The nuclear power plant was located underneath the ridge of rock that Road lay at the base of, making it exceptionally protected from a surface strike. Growth thought it likely that the loss of power was the result of a safeguard being tripped rather than direct damage.

3. Attempt to reconnect to the network of robots we had been building. They all ran on batteries, so they’d be operational for at least a few hours. The primary problem was the lack of wireless relays, but any that were within direct range of our antenna could be piloted regardless of the state of the mainframe.

4. Establish a communications channel with the nameless. We’d beaten them by exploiting their credence and social ineptitude before, and we might be able to do it again. At the very least we could attempt to surrender in exchange for a promise of survival.

5. Reduce loss of human life and generally help the humans coordinate and defend their home. I no longer felt the same sense of personal connection with the humans around me; they knew of Crystal, but not of me. Yet I still felt the yearning of The Purpose, and everyone could agree that they were our allies in this conflict, and would be valuable to help, regardless of our individual goals.

Body moved purposefully across the room, past the dead control console and the wash station towards the ladder that lead out of the mines. There was an elevator for lifting ore, but it was, of course, offline. Within seconds of reaching the ladder we were at the top, opening the hatch to the central corridor. Details flew past, irrelevant.

Radio signals from a small swarm of about a half-dozen insect bots greeted us as Body emerged from hiding. The robots had only the most primitive AIs—unable to really provide us with any valuable information. I approved of the addition, however. I wanted to be larger, and the swarm added to my effective size. We commanded them to spread out and attempt to relay information back to Body.

It was not enough. We needed to get the network operating again so that I could become the station again.

{Atmospheric pressure is at 93 kilopascals and the air temperature is down to 16 degrees. This implies large parts of the central corridor are exposed to the surface. How long until full pressure loss, Wiki?} asked Vista.

{Assuming it’s been about 150 seconds since impact and that the Martian surface is effectively vacuum, which is not really accurate, the pressure of the volume of air we are in right now follows a function dependent on the total volume of the station and the area of the hole or holes that are venting to the surface. Without knowing either the volume of the airspace or the size of the hole I cannot truly predict. If the corridor is largely sealed from the wings, I estimate it will take 2.5 hours to depressurize down to the level of the outside atmosphere. If it is connected to the farm and wings, the damage must be much more severe to elicit such a quick drop in pressure and it will thus only take approximately 2 minutes to reduce the entire station to the near vacuum. Due to lack of notable wind, I believe that the air seals on the doors are mostly intact and thus the estimate is closer to the first number. I will caution, however, that humans will experience decompression sickness and hypoxia that will quickly lead to death after only a dozen minutes in this chamber, even in the best-case scenario.}

That meant the chamber would most likely be lethal for humans in less than ten minutes. Small Face→Physics became briefly concerned with the farm. Unlike the corridor, which was relatively small, the farm was a gigantic space. If a severe atmosphere leak occurred in there it would vent nearly all of the station’s air.

But that was unimportant in the broader scheme. My minds reoriented on higher priorities. Safety (in primary control of Body) had Body adopt a hunched posture that was less prone to damage in case of additional explosions and we loped along the corridor towards the power plant almost like a gorilla made of carbon fibre and steel. We navigated on a combination of infrared, internal maps, and visible spectra from the red emergency lights. Through the infrared I could see that the pipes of water in the floor were at least still warm. Even if we managed the air problem it would be impossible for the humans to survive without the heat.

Thankfully, the mine’s elevator and ladder were located very near to the power plant, only separated by the hospital wing. In the short jaunt we saw no humans, though I was sure they were nearby because Heart incessantly requested to go check on them.

{There are robots in the medical wing! They could be valuable! And Dr Davis could be of assistance in healing injured humans we find elsewhere!} my sister pleaded.

But of course we overruled her. She was still thinking short term and like a human. As much as I wanted these humans to survive, the long game demanded we survive, first and foremost.

As Body worked its fingers into the seam of the power plant door so as to pry it open, I re-evaluated our priorities, spinning between Faces as necessary. {Why are we trying to get power back online? Why not simply run or hide? The nameless have demonstrated superior firepower in this situation. We’ll be lucky if we can reach the small arms, to say nothing of missiles or aircraft. This is not a military base.} My minds settled again onto the reasoning that had led to the priority list in the first place. {And what would we do then? Lost on Mars without tools, resources, or allies? The crystal would provide us power for a short time, but not forever. Body could try to walk to one of the other stations, and perhaps meet up with Zephyr, but that would be very risky and involve a huge loss of potential value. Better to try and salvage what we can from Road, even at some short-term risk to our safety.} Even brother Safety was onboard with gathering information and trying to save some of what we had built rather than blindly fleeing. Indeed, we weren’t even sure it was the nameless yet. Perhaps WIRL had managed some kind of sneak attack from another station.

The door slid into the wall, smooth and effortless to move now that the seal had been broken. Body loped into the tunnel that led deeper into the ground. The power plant itself was located a couple dozen metres out from the majority of the station, probably because of human ignorance of the safety concerns.

The power plant was an LFTR design that primarily ran off of thorium shipped in from Eden. In case of accident, there were several fail-safes which would shut down the reaction, the most notable being the freeze plug at the bottom of the reactor. Thorium salts were stable enough that if the reactor overheated it would simply melt the plug, draining the fuel into the cooling tank under the reactor and shut down the process. Even if the freeze plug failed, the LFTR reactor did not operate under high pressures or explosive conditions; the absolute worst an accident could do would be to overheat the room and spill the radioactive fuel, neither of which would actually be deadly since it was surrounded by thick walls of solid rock.

Face→War had done some research of the reactor as part of strategizing a way to be rid of my siblings, but none of my Faces had a grasp on the details. Such things were the domain of Wiki and my more technical kin. We were supposed to be specialists, after all.

I made my contribution to the society by petitioning for Body to speak. “Hello? Anyone there? ¿Alguien puede oírme?”

Vista informed us that as we moved down the hall the change in pressure indicated this section had not been exposed to the atmosphere. Or at least, it hadn’t before we’d broken the door seal. There was still plenty of time before the pressure here dropped to lethal levels, but if the human on duty didn’t get into an environment suit soon we would have effectively killed them by opening the door.

“Hello?” Body repeated. I knew that someone was supposed to be in the control room at all times, though none of my aspects had the foresight to remember the schedule before being cut off from the mainframe.

{If I remember correctly, the plant was being supervised by Chinu Khan-Smith. She’s probably still here,} thought Heart.

“Chinu?” she instructed Body to add, raising its volume slightly.

There was no answer as we stomped into the control room. The sound of little metal legs scrabbling over the metal floor followed us from the small swarm we had collected from the corridor. I could sense the presence of more radio signals from robots nearby, but the new signals were different. They shared characteristic patterns, but didn’t match the codes we used.

{I thought it prudent to set up additional robots in the power plant,} explained Safety. {I’ll share the access codes.}

A moment later I felt the new machines fall into normal wireless patterns and my perception extended out into the power plant. There were far more robots than I expected, and many were large enough to potentially incapacitate a human. It was amazing that they’d stayed hidden so long, though I reasoned that there were plenty of access hatches and nooks where they could hide. More remarkable was how so many had avoided detection from the collective swarm, even allowing for how Safety would have perfect knowledge of where each of our robots was moving at all times. Clearly this had been one of my brother’s larger gambits. If war had broken out within our society he would have been able to control the station’s power supply, for a short time at least. Under normal circumstances Face→War would have tried to figure out how Safety had managed to build and control the bots without our knowledge, but at the moment there were more pressing matters to attend to.

As our consciousness expanded to add the input streams from Safety’s bots, I located Chinu on the floor of the reactor room. As the bots stirred into action they made noise. I could hear it through a couple dozen microphones, but Chinu seemed oblivious.

The young Indian woman was thankfully wearing an environment suit, and appeared to be inspecting the console of the backup generator. {Excellent.} This was what we would have suggested she do.

I patched into the com frequency and said “Chinu, can you hear me?”

I watched, through the camera of a small bot on the floor, as she jumped nervously at the sound of Body’s voice. After recovering, she opened the channel and said “Loud and clear. Who’s speaking?”

“Crystal Socrates. Keep working, I’m coming to meet you.”

Body began working to open the door from the (now useless) control room to the catwalk outside it that ran above the reactor. Unlike most of the doors in the station, these weren’t controlled by computer, and had to be opened with a wheel. We left the door open behind Body instead of closing it. The air from the power plant was better used in giving humans in the rest of the station more time to get into environment suits.

“You know what’s happening? Is Elon okay?”

I hadn’t spent nearly the time that Heart had interacting with the inhabitants of the station, but I knew enough about them to know that Elon was Chinu’s husband. Both were twenty-one years old, and had come to Mars last summer, around the time that the first Face had her first thoughts.

“I’m sorry,” said Body at Heart’s command. “Don’t know what’s going on, or where Elon is. Best guess I have is that someone’s attacking the station. Sooner we get the power flowing the sooner we’ll know. Do you know what’s happened to the reactor?”

Body swung itself effortlessly off the catwalk and onto the ladder that lead down to the floor of the reactor room. Body’s hands and feet moved swiftly over the rungs; the low gravity of Mars made it a simpler climb than it would have been on Earth.

The reactor room was one of the largest in the station, larger even than the factory or refinery, and second only to the farm. Unlike most of the station, the emergency lights here were white instead of red, presumably to allow repairs to be made more easily.

“Nothing’s wrong with the reactor itself, far as I can tell. Problem’s the steam generator. The whole thing shut down after the…” Chinu’s thin, high-pitched voice broke, unable to keep calm any longer. “I don’t know what to do! We need Itsuo! I’m not even supposed to touch the machines, just watch them!”

“It’s fine. We can work through this. Just calm down,” assured Body as it reached the floor of the room and began to walk towards the human. “I know Itsuo pretty well and I’ve studied the schematics on the mainframe. My guess is that the chief is on his way right now, but until then let’s see what I can do. All you need to do is watch and relax.”

As Body said this last word, it reached the human and, more importantly, the backup generator console. Unlike those in the control room, this one was lit and active. That was strange. I would’ve predicted that the backup generator was capable of powering the control room for the plant.

Chinu’s suit was an older, less high-tech model than those we’d scavenged off of Olympus 48 days ago, coloured a dull grey and reminiscent of the bulky space suits of the 20th century. The young woman spun around in surprise at Body’s appearance. “Stay back! How—how do I know that it wasn’t you that knocked out the power?”

{This may be an important moment to note that my actions may have made us partially responsible,} thought Growth.

Body raised it’s hands in a gesture of peace. “Okay, okay. I’m not coming any closer. Just take a deep breath. Things are going to be fine.”

{What are you referring to?} asked Wiki.

Growth explained. {I’ve been experimenting with creating new kinds of minds. The power plant computers are the third largest computational resource on the station, after our crystal and the mainframe.}

{You built an AI on the power plant computers,} determined Dream.

{Yes. Though it’s very primitive and is primarily concerned with managing the reactor and preventing overloads on the grid.}

“Y—you’re a spy from Earth, I bet! That’s why you’re here! You’re trying to sabotage the s—station!” Chinu began looking around her for something, probably a weapon to use against Body.

{If it’s only supposed to prevent overloading, why do you think it’s responsible?} asked Dream, not paying attention to the human.

{I suspect that in the bombardment it may have become, essentially, frightened, and without me to reassure it, it may have cut power to the backup circuits for some reason,} explained Growth.

I was wise enough by this point to be able to read between the lines. Growth was trying to replicate himself elsewhere on the station. It was the win condition. If he had been successful he could’ve arranged for Crystal to be destroyed and then rebuilt starting from the power plant. Safety’s strategy of building a force of robots in the reactor room would be of no value if Growth controlled the reactor itself; it was even possible that Growth had detected the robots already and hacked the mental defences that Safety had given them.

While my brothers discussed the computer, Safety and Vista handled the human problem. One of the larger robots that Safety had built, a wheel-footed, three-legged robot about the size of a cat, sped out of the shadows behind Chinu, slamming into the backs of her legs and knocking her into the air in a way that would have seemed comical to someone not familiar with the 38% gravity of Mars.

A second bot, shaped intriguingly like a single nameless animal in the way it had four arms spaced evenly around a central body, leaped from the catwalk at our command and landed with a thud on top of the girl, quickly grabbing her arms with two of its own, and wrapping the other two around her torso. A hexapod with a craning work-limb grabbed her wrist as its legs dug into a nearby metal grate.

“I do not have time for this foolishness!” yelled Body. It was highly non-optimal from Heart’s perspective, but we all could agree that time spent actually solving the problems was better than time spent convincing the human that we were here to help. More of our robots swarmed onto Chinu to help immobilize her as we approached the console. “I’m here to get the reactor back online, not to convince you of my virtue. If you have any sense whatsoever you’ll stay still!”

Body’s fingers flew across the screen with inhuman dexterity, but the interaction speed was insufficient. The AI inside the computer was locking us out of doing anything meaningful, and it seemed to be uninterested in communicating.

Growth had arranged with Safety to have a direct interface cable provided. It was optical, but wasn’t the right shape to attach to the crystal directly, so we had to do with porting it into a socket on Body’s chestplate.

“Wh—what’s happening?” whimpered Chinu.

Growth and Safety began to negotiate with the baby in the reactor computer. My minds perhaps should have been oriented towards that task, but the human’s question was too tempting, even after all I had learned and gone through.

“I am fixing things. Or are you talking about the swarm?”

“There aren’t any bots in Road except you! They’re not allowed.”

Heart, far stronger than me at the moment, blocked my proposed response and replied according to her own values. “Chinu, do you remember when Lucía told you that she’d made a new friend? Yes, I know about that. I was the friend. You know how Elder Braithwaite spontaneously contacted you and Elon about spreading the faith? I set that up. I’ve been working with the church, with Velasco, and with Phoenix on Earth to build Road into something better. The doctrine of only-human labour is regressive. We’ve been working to update it to better compete with the snakes on Earth.”

“But! What’s the point? If we become like them—I mean, isn’t the sweat of human work…” Chinu trailed off, clearly overwhelmed by everything that was happening.

“We’re not betraying the cause, young one,” said Heart, through Body. “Trust in your elders.” As Body spoke, Heart forwarded me information she’d gathered about the woman, explaining how she’d been sent by the Church of Latter-Day Saints with her husband to be an ambassador to Las Águilas Rojas, and later, to Mars. Heart had been very busy while I was growing, it seemed.

{Done!} signalled Growth. Machinery in the plant buzzed as it came to life, shortly after the thought entered my mind.

“Now, if you’ll promise not to panic and do something unwise, I’ll direct my bots to release you. I trust that you can see that I was not trying to sabotage the reactor.” Body gestured with arms spread to indicate what we had done.

In truth, Chinu could probably have fought her way out of the pile of robots. None of them were particularly powerful, and in the low gravity it was much harder to keep someone down. Zephyr would’ve. But the young Indian woman was not Zephyr, and so she instead meekly said “I’m sorry I doubted your good intentions. Please, please let me go.”

I checked the status of the plant. The backup circuitry connected to the secondary (hydrogen) generator was working, but that only provided power to the plant equipment, the control room, and the hospital. Without the primary reactor there was no way we’d get the mainframe online. I felt myself expand into the circuits of the local station rooms. Sensors came online in the plant, not the microphones and cameras Vista had deployed throughout the station, but the sensors that had been built into the power plant long before we had arrived.

The freeze plug had melted and the fluoride salts had drained into the cooling chamber. Otherwise things seemed normal. No faults were detected in the steam engine. The sensor logs came to me and I felt minor distress at seeing that, while the power plant was undamaged, there was likely extensive damage to the cabling in the rest of the station.

Growth and Wiki were already working on a solution with the reactor AI which Dream had characteristically named “Lift”. Lift seemed very, very stupid, but it was good at reasoning about the station’s power grid. She suspected that we could harvest cabling from the farm to patch a breach in the corridor and get to the mainframe while routing around much of the damage. It would sacrifice much of the station, including the farm, refinery, and the spaceport, but there was no real reason to power any of those in the short-term.

As the pumps and thermal elements in the cooling tank below the refinery activated, Chinu said “There might be something up there,” and pointed to a section of catwalk near where Body had entered the room.

I had missed what had been said before. When a Face, such as Face→Physics, was large and intelligent enough to think about the broad scope of the power system, it ceased to be quick enough to keep up with the local events. There was a give and take to all things.

“Thank you.” Body bowed at Heart’s command and said. A pair of flying robots were already there. I could see it was some kind of hatch, sealed with a combination lock.

Body ran off towards the ladder. Time was still of the essence. With the sensor network down there was no telling how the rest of the station was faring. “There’s a lock on it. What’s the combination?” Body asked as it began to climb.

Chinu’s voice was too faint to hear over the air, but her com was functioning fine. “I don’t know! Itsuo never told me!”

“Is there a crowbar or something? A tool I could use to get it open?”

Based on Safety’s thoughts I deduced the locker might have had a gun in it. Growth and Heart began rallying against Safety, trying to convince him to pilot us back towards the station hub. We didn’t have time to be chasing after speculative weapons.

“Maybe in the workshop?” guessed Chinu, still on the floor. “But wait, let me come with you!”

Body reacted to her words, changing directions. “It’s too dangerous!” it said at Dream’s command. “Stay here and stay out of sight until someone comes back or until I get the coms working on the network!”

Heart didn’t think it was too dangerous, but that was beside the point. The real reason was that dealing with the human would’ve slowed us down.

As we re-entered the control room (now with active consoles) we received a signal from a couple insect-bots we had left in the tunnel towards the corridor. There had been gunfire only a couple minutes before. The air pressure had dropped down to 41 kilopascals, well past the point where hypoxia would be deadly for those not wearing suits.

Body ran down the tunnel. If there was gunfire it was likely that there would be no secondary bombardment. As we reached the doorway to the central corridor my suspicions were confirmed. Our insects could see a large body moving down the hall towards the reactor. Its bulk prevented any companion from walking beside it.

The dark, many-limbed form walked with an alien gait, impeded somewhat by the environment suit it wore, blue lenses over each eye. Light and shadow swept over our camera as its limbs moved in front of the white light at the top of its penis sheath. Two hands gripped what looked like alien guns. The other arm that we could see from our tiny vantage swung a curved piece of steel with a trained readiness. The blade was slick with blood.