Chapter Fifteen

Tavonda Davis

She had only just put on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” when the alert sounded on her com. Sometimes Tavonda Davis had an assistant, but today was Christmas eve, and she was the only person in the station’s meager hospital.

Or at least, she was the only human.

She rushed into the room where the little alien was being kept in the pressurized tank she’d built. She’d turned the lights down in the room for just such an occasion, but even in the dimness she could see.

It was awake.

Thank the stars, it was awake.

Tavonda slowly walked closer, trying to calm herself. She didn’t want to startle it. Its tiny black eye moved to follow her, though it seemed more focused on her body than on her face. {Logical. They don’t have heads, so the center of the body would be a natural place to look. I must look so strange to it,} she thought.

After over two whole weeks in a coma, it had woken up on Christmas eve, of all days. The blood pressure monitor was showing 116/65 mm Hg for the upper section and 139/111 for the lower section. The levels were elevated from earlier, but it was impossible to tell if these were normal levels. Small animals had lower blood pressures as a rule, but higher blood pressure would be needed on a world with higher gravity. Where those two effects left the little alien’s levels was unknown to science. This guy was literally the first living nameless ever to be studied by humans.

It reached out with a scrawny arm and touched the glass. Tavonda stopped investigating the readouts. Most of the data was useless right now, anyway. Without a baseline they were just numbers. She put her hand on the glass, hoping it wouldn’t be seen as aggressive. The doll-like alien child stretched out it’s symmetrical, four-fingered hand and placed it up against hers in imitation.

“Hey, kiddo. Welcome back to reality.” she said with a smile. Its arm was jointed strangely and covered with black plates that reminded her of a crustacean or other arthropod, but somehow it seemed delicate enough to be cute.

Out of the three nameless children that had taken the newcomers to Mars, only this one had survived. Ironically, it was the smallest of the three. The newcomers had called it E.T., but Tavonda had been calling it Runt. Everyone knew nameless didn’t have names, so it was arbitrary either way.

Runt’s arm dropped back down to rest on its body. It was very certainly on the edge of consciousness. The nutrient gel that she’d been synthesizing seemed to be sustaining it, but if there was any sort of imbalance Runt was doomed to slowly starve to death.

Tavonda put her arms into the gloves that were slotted into the tank. It was always a tricky thing to do, as the pressure in the tank collapsed the fingers, and required her to push and prod them to allow her hands to squeeze in. Once that was dealt with she turned her attention to inspecting Runt for the hundredth time. He was lying on his “back”, legs stretched out to one side. The first things to check were the couplings on the artificial stalk that slid into the bottom animal’s mouth. The nutrient gel was still slowly seeping up through the tube, and appeared to be entering the little creature’s body.

Runt had closed its eye. Tavonda nudged its hand to try and prompt a response. It opened an eye and grabbed at her fingers. The little animal’s grip was tight. That was good. It meant there was little risk of the child falling back into coma. Probably.

The data that the android had provided said that nameless didn’t place any special value on physical contact, but Tavonda stroked the baby anyway. {What must it be like, to be trapped in some cramped tube surrounded by aliens you can’t even communicate with? Poor thing. Even if it’s not lonely, it must be frightened.}

“There, there,” she whispered, knowing full well that it couldn’t hear her, much less understand.

And for a time she simply sat there, holding the kid’s hand and listening to the Christmas music.

She’d never had a child of her own. Somehow it had just kept slipping past, less important than her work, less important than her political activism. Alexis had never wanted kids either, or at least, he’d never thought it was a good idea when they’d talked about it. He was always so preoccupied with the state of the world. He thought it was immoral to bring a child into a universe that was still so screwed up.

Tavonda’s 40th birthday had been two months ago, almost. It was still strange thinking of herself as forty. Old people were forty. She wasn’t old. It seemed like yesterday that she was one of the cool twenty somethings, marching down Wall Street protesting the protectionism from Washington, then later going to Martin’s apartment to get stoned out of her mind and fuck like rabbits.

She stopped herself from thinking about Martin before it made her sad. Some mistakes were better left in the past.

“Jingle Bells” came on as Runt let go of her. She touched it briefly and, getting a response, decided that it was simply drifting back into a normal sleeping state. She took her hands out of the tank, prying the tight gloves off, then turned to the shitty screen she was stuck with at this pathetic excuse for a hospital and began to check the nutrient formula again, comparing it with both the data she had gotten from Crystal, the data they’d beamed from the Earthnet, and her own autopsy reports on the larger children that hadn’t made it.


The ping of her com distracted her, and she only then realized that it was nearly 10pm. The Christmas music playlist she had put on had stopped a while ago. “How is the little nameless doing?” said the message. It was from an unknown source.

“Who is this?”

The response was immediate. “Oh, sorry. This is Crystal. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m the android from the ship. Would a voice call be alright?”

Tavonda typed back “sure” and saved her progress in modeling the metabolic pathways of the spongy tissue on the inside of the nameless mouth. Her com buzzed with excitement and Tavonda pushed the call to the speaker system which had previously been failing to put her in the holiday spirit.

“Hello, Dr Davis,” came a deep voice, not at all what she would have expected from Crystal. From what she had heard of the robot, it was supposed to be dressed like some kind of anime girl, and she had assumed it would have a voice to match.

“Uh, hello, Crystal.”

“You sound surprised. Is something wrong?”

“No, no. I guess I’m just surprised at how human you sound. I was expecting something more robotic.”

“It’s not that hard to sound human. I learned it long ago. It’s also easier than you might think to pick up things like surprise from tone of voice and cadence.”

Tavonda didn’t know what to say to that.

“I’m sorry. It’s rude of me to call you out of the blue like this, especially on Christmas eve. Merry Christmas, by the way.”

“Merry Christmas.”

Crystal continued. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I? The station’s power grid showed elevated use in the hospital, and I assumed you were working late again.”

Once again, Tavonda was at a bit of a loss for words. The robot was spying on her, in a sense. And it was implying that it knew her work patterns too. She’d been far too busy to attend the “tribunal” that Pedro had set up, but she was starting to think it might’ve been a good idea to have gone and voted to exile this thing.

“I’m sorry if I’m intruding. I just wanted to make sure E.T. is doing fine. He piloted the boat that took me down to Mars, and I still feel terrible that his brothers… didn’t make it.”

“The child was in a coma until just a couple hours ago, actually. It seemed responsive to stimuli, though it’s very hard to determine the extent of its health.”

“Wonderful! I’m glad he’s pulling through,” said Crystal with a jovial tone.

“Is that all you needed? I should probably be getting back to my husband.”

“Alexis, right?” probed Crystal. “He’s still at the party with most everyone else. I’m there too. My… unique physiology allows me to communicate over the network wherever I am, even when I’m talking to someone face to face.”

“Ah,” was all she could think to say.

“Would you like me to pass on a message? He’s currently talking to Cayden Washington, but I’m sure he’d enjoy hearing from you.”

The words stung her more than she wanted to admit, even to herself. “No, it’s fine,” she grumbled. {It’s fine. Cayden is a friend. We’re all friends. If we were on Earth I could buy a skin regeneration. Alexis knows that. Appearances are stupid things to care about.} She ran a hand over her face, as though to wipe away the thought.

Crystal continued. “The primary reason I called was because I had an idea for a way to communicate with the nameless without having to replicate their computer technology.”

Tavonda relished the distraction. A part of her flinched away from the thought that all of her late nights had been distractions. “Please. I’m all ears.”

Crystal proceeded to describe a system of buttons that would produce changes in Runt’s environment. One button for making it hotter in the tube, another for making it colder. One button to raise the lights, another to dim them. One button for summoning a human, another for being alone. The idea was that even though the nameless had a hard time with symbols, they could easily manage cause and effect, and this might serve as a bridge to a more robust method of interaction.

Tavonda thought it was worth trying, and she spent the next few hours talking with Crystal while hacking together a prototype. She filled the quiet moments with further thoughts about Runt and the nameless, talking about her autopsy data and the hydrocarbon isomers she’d isolated from their blood work.

Crystal was brilliant, and Tavonda found herself surprised to realize that she felt, for the first time in at least a decade, that she was talking to someone about as smart as herself. That was a bad sign, she knew, but she pushed that thought out of her mind. There were times when Crystal was laughably dense, but for the most part he was knowledgeable and clever.

At around one thirty in the morning, Tavonda closed up the hospital and said goodnight to Crystal. She felt good, bolstered by the progress she’d made. She had a holiday to celebrate and a husband to reconnect with.


Tavonda adjusted the hem of the dress. The pattern on the left was maddeningly difficult to emulate in polygons. She almost would have thought it would be easier to start with threads rather than cloth-mesh and work it out from there. But no, that’d just be more work.

A LUHI notification buzzed briefly at her periphery. She gestured to save the work and flew upwards, out of the design space into the hub. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the world flew down, for she felt no pressures of acceleration. Another flick of her hand opened the notification. Another holospace generated by Crys. That man was unstoppable.

Multitasking, Tavonda opened a line to Crys and delved into the holo. “You know, you could just tell me directly when you finish a project. I keep getting LUHIs and it seems a bit roundabout.”

Crys descended adjacent to her in the holospace. She’d given him open access to join her holos at whim, and it was nice to see him in the flesh, so to speak. He’d changed a lot in the last few days. It was hard to believe they’d only known each other for less than a week.

She knew he looked different in meatspace; in the holo he was alabaster skinned and smooth, like a living statue. His features were broad and masculine, though he wore no facial hair. His eyebrows were the same metallic blue as the hair on his head, which was rendered thick and soft. His silver eyes betrayed vast amounts of warm emotion, and by now Tavonda had learned that the android was not only more empathetic than most men, it had a grasp on emotion that led her to wonder if it could somehow feel more genuinely than she ever could.

Underneath his period clothing he was dressed in a black bodysuit that showed off his muscled form, but all she could see of that right now were his smooth, jet-black hands.

“Now that hardly seems fair,” he said with a playful smirk. “All I’m doing is publishing content to a database. The LUHIs are part of your notification settings. Also, your terrible fashion sense is ruining the scene. Where’d you learn to dress? Mars?”

“I was just working on the dress! It’s not my fault that you’re faster than me at this sort of thing. Did you forget I have a hospital to run, too?”

“Oh? Did Runt break out of his room and terrorize the other patients when I wasn’t looking?”

Crys was teasing her. He was probably playing with Runt as they spoke, and they both knew that nobody had been in the medical wing for a couple days. “Okay, fine! The truth is I got stalled on the lacework. Really gives you an understanding of the level of skill that seamstresses had back then.”

“I figured it was something like that. You want to finish your outfit or use one of your earlier designs? I think the blue dress from the other day makes you look especially nice.”

Tavonda knew Crys was just being polite, but she blushed anyway. “It’s from 18th century Venice. It’d seem out of place here.”

Crys raised a metallic-blue eyebrow in mock surprise. “More out of place than the prints you’ve got on right now? I’m not saying it’d be perfect, but if you’re going to tour my space you might as well look a bit more the part.”

She conceded the point and pulled up the file menu that let her change her avatar. She selected the carnival dress and watched it shimmer into existence. She could still feel her prints in meatspace, of course, no amount of virtual reality would make your clothes feel different.

“Very good. I’ll change to match you,” said Crys, just as his previously drab brown and white livery changed to an elegant suit of the same sharp blue as his typical hair. It was the carnival outfit he had worn a couple days ago with the chroma shifted. Much more surprising was the change to his skin and hair. Instead of the chalk-white skin and blue hair, Crys now wore a dark skinned avatar with short, curly black hair. He seemed almost human now, except for his silver irises. “How is this?”

“You’re black!” exclaimed Tavonda, before she knew what she was saying.

“So are you,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, but I’m always… I mean… you’re not normally…”

“My dear, normally I am a naked robot. I thought that since we’re dressing up for the setting I might as well make a bit more of an attempt to blend in. And because I know you were thinking it, I’m not naturally any more Caucasian than I am African.”

“So we’re blending in as Venetian time travelers?” asked Tavonda, trying to steer the conversation away from the topic of race.

Crys grinned. “Exactly! Now you’re getting it! C’mon, I think I’m going to short circuit if I have to wait any longer in showing you around the castle.”

The virtual environment was a replica of Culzean castle, in Scotland. Tavonda was fascinated by historical fashions. It was one of her hobbies to re-create outfits from various times and places, and recently she’d been on a European kick. Alexis had managed to find a recently identified dress from some unknown lady who must’ve lived in the Scottish castle around the 16th century and had given her a scan of it for Christmas. She’d been working on creating it in Holoworks in her free time. Crys was apparently into building holographic simulations of historical locations, and the two of them had spent a good deal of time together in recent days playing with the holo software together.

As the two of them toured the massive structure it occurred to Tavonda that much of this must be publicly available information, and there were probably already existing holos, but she didn’t want to ruin Crys’ fun by telling him he was just reinventing the wheel. That wasn’t the point, anyway. Going through the craft, even in virtual reality, gave one a sense of the object that no simple exposure could ever yield.

A HUHI ping froze the simulation and sparked a note of frustration in Tavonda. It seemed like every time she started having fun there was some distraction or another.

She looked at it, saw that it was a visitor to the hospital, and tore off her haptics as quickly as she could. Her motions were automatic. This was what she was supposed to do, so this was what she was doing. Mere seconds later she was free of the headset as well, and moving towards the entrance.

As she left her office she could see the source of the alert. There was a man she didn’t recognize holding his right arm tightly, dirty cloth wrapped around it, soaked with blood. It was strange not knowing someone’s name. She’d gotten so used to knowing everyone on the station. He must have come with Crys and Runt.

“Come in! Come in! Keep pressure on the wound! Stand over there while I get my gloves on!” she commanded, gesturing to a large sink by the northeastern wall.

The man nodded and did as he was told. He was young and somewhere in his mid-twenties, Tavonda thought, with a clean-shaven face, close cut hair, and bushy eyebrows. He wore a bulky set of headphones that seemed custom built.

«Do you speak Spanish?» he asked, clearly biting back pain. His Spanish was accented, but she couldn’t place the origin.

«Yes. My English is better, but I can speak Spanish pretty well. My name is Dr Davis. I don’t think we’ve met.» Gloves in place she grabbed her first-aid kit and moved to help the man.

«I’m Samot Ramírez,» he said, grimacing in pain.

The next few minutes went fairly typically. Sam was a mechanical engineer and had slipped while managing a power saw, cutting a deep gash down his arm. Tavonda helped wash it out, working extra hard to get it clean because she knew the cloth he had used to wrap it was just something that had been lying around the workshop. It must have been very painful, but Sam got through without much more than some wincing.

After applying a local anesthetic, Tavonda sutured the wound. Only after the stitches were in, and she started wrapping the bandages did Sam start to make much conversation.

«Crystal has told me about you.» Sam had a curious manner of not looking her in the eyes, she noticed. His words always used the informal style, and this was no exception. It implied a lack of respect.

«Oh? And what does he say?»

«He says many things. He says you took care of the surviving alien child.»

«Yes. The nameless is playing in the room over there, actually.» Tavonda gestured with her head.

Sam kept his eyes on the floor as she continued to wrap the dressings. His words were cold and disrespectful. «You were foolish to have helped it. You should have let it die. Crystal also should have let it die. Those things are evil.»

{Who does this asshole think he is!?} thought Tavonda, doing her best to stay polite. «You wouldn’t say that if you’d spent time around the child,» she said, adopting the informal style. She’d be damned if she let him continue to speak to her like she was an inferior. At least this way they were on equal ground.

Sam gave a cold laugh as he watched her hands finish wrapping the bandage. «I spent more time around those things than any human should. And yes, I’ve seen the children. More than just the survivor. I flew down to Mars in the care of one. They have a toothless innocence to them, when they are small. But only a fool would say that just because the baby crocodile is cute that we ought to nurture it and let it live with us.»

«That’s not the same—»

«Of course not! It’s far worse than that!» snapped Sam. His eyes finally moved to meet hers. She flinched away from his gaze. That reflex made her angry. She had no reason to fear this man whom she had just probably saved from a gruesome infection. «You know the child, but you do not know the adults. You have not seen the evil plant-brains that rule them. Their culture is one of slavery, rape, and murder. I’ve been talking to Crystal, and he says that the nameless child would almost certainly be murdered if returned to its own kind. You’re doing nobody a favour.»

Tavonda took a breath and began putting away the equipment, or placing the dirty materials in a bin to be cleaned later. It wouldn’t serve any purpose to yell at this man whom she barely knew. «It’s doing Runt a favor, and it’s helping humanity understand them. You speak out of ignorance—»

Sam gave a sharp laugh at some unseen joke.

There was an awkward silence. Tavonda waited for Sam to explain what was so funny, but he never did. The conversation slowly died in that silence, as both refused to continue it.

Eventually Tavonda spoke up and gave him instructions for taking care of his arm. She gave him some of their dwindling stock of painkillers and instructed him to come back in to see her tomorrow to get the bandage changed and to check for complications.

Sam left without incident. As soon as he did, Crys’ voice came from her office. He must have figured out how to hook himself into the speakers. “I’m sorry about that, Tav. Sam can be an asshole sometimes.”

Tavonda laughed. “Got that right. I stitch up his arm and he has the balls to call me una tonta.”

“Yeah, I’ll have a talk with him about that later. I assume he’s in a bad mood because of his arm, but that doesn’t give him the right to spit in your face like that.”

Tavonda walked into the office and was momentarily surprised not to see Crys standing there. Not that he should be. She’d never seen him in meatspace. But talking with him in the air made it feel natural that he should be here, and it made her wonder how he was able to hear her. Her com wasn’t on. Was there a microphone in the primary room? “He mentioned that you said the nameless would kill Runt if we returned him to his ship. Is that true?”

The sound of a sigh came through the speakers. “I’m afraid so. The nameless don’t value life like we do. They’d probably see him as corrupted by his time with us. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Sam was right that he should die! Runt needs a home, and there’s still a lot to learn from each other.”

Tavonda plopped down in her chair to rest a moment. There was still blood on the floor of the main room that needed cleaning and additional work to be done, but for the moment it was just nice to relax. “Do you… do you think we’ll go to war with the nameless? It seems like everyone’s been talking about it for a long time and things have just been getting more tense the more time goes by.”

“Don’t worry about the mess in the other room. I’ll get Toybot to clean it up,” said Crys, not answering her question.

Tavonda could see the little wheeled robot roll past the doorway to her office. Robots were supposed to be illegal in Road, but Toybot wasn’t really a robot. It had no AI. Crys piloted it directly, and it had already been established that Crys was a person, and so not subject to the ban. “Okay, three questions. One: Does Toybot have a microphone? I didn’t think you could hear me when my com isn’t on. Two: Since when can Toybot do janitorial work? Three: Don’t change the subject. It’s a bad sign when one asks about war and doesn’t get a straight answer.”

“To answer your first two questions: Yes and since I made it. The arms are nearly as capable as real ones if you know how to use them right.”

Toybot had been Crys’ idea. He figured that Runt would need companionship if the little nameless was going to be up and about for an indefinite period of time. They had sealed off his room and pressurized it with gas that was breathable for the alien, but that had meant making the door unusable. A small airlock was built to bring nutrient paste and other things in and out of the room, and the robotic companion was small enough to fit through the gap.

After a short pause, Crys answered the more important question. “As for war… I guess it depends on who you mean when you ask if ‘we’ll’ go to war. I’ve spent enough time with the nameless to believe that some conflict is inevitable. Our values are too different from theirs. They’ll either decide that we’re too perverted to live, or some group of humans will try and teach them to be civilized. It’s a senseless conflict, but it doesn’t seem to be going away. I just hope that Mars can stay out of it.”

{Hijacking their ship and coming here didn’t help that,} Tavonda thought. She didn’t say anything. Instead, she slipped on her holo gear and decided that she deserved a break from thinking about all the bullshit.


Sam didn’t come back the following day to get his bandage replaced. Normally, Tavonda would’ve checked up on him, but she was distracted by a breakthrough with Runt.

She and Crys had been working on re-creating a nameless com. Crys said that the nameless were able to communicate using an artificial analogue to their stalks, which they held in their lower mouths. Their brains were deeply connected to their mouth tissues, and the exchange of fluids to and from the stalk was the basis of their knowledge sharing. The trick was creating a machine that could secrete and absorb the same range of molecules.

The first pass was a very crude version that contained only a handful of the hormones which Tavonda had hypothesized were used as messengers. From what she had heard of the alien society, and the lack of interpersonal trade, it amazed her that they were able to create so many computers. Crys explained that the stalks were capable of remembering vastly more information than a human, and so while their tools were necessarily crude, their knowledge could be deep and rich. According to her friend, a single stalk could probably hold all the information to design and construct an automobile from scrap metal, and more.

In contrast, the walkers, like Runt, had virtually no long-term memory. Runt could remember Tavonda and Toybot, but their attempts to teach Runt things fell flat. The early button interface barely worked at all. Runt would figure out that the white button at the top of the panel increased the light in the room, but then would seemingly forget about it after only a couple hours. When it slept (once every few days) it would wake up with no memory of how to interact with the panel or solve any of the puzzles that it had the day before (unless the puzzles were solvable with raw motor skills, which the little alien did seem capable of learning).

The replica nameless com system was a big next step, and one that they had been working on together for a while. While she still hadn’t seen Crys in meatspace, he was her constant virtual companion in the lab. She told Harmony, who sometimes came in to help, that she didn’t need assistance anymore. It helped that things were quieter now than they ever had been. Just a month before there had been a regular stream of people in need of medical care, but it seemed like even Road’s elders were experiencing unprecedented health.

To augment his presence she added explicit microphones that weren’t attached to Toybot, as well as cameras and hooked the speakers up to be more present. She also ordered some computers to be made in the workshop and hooked up in the lab. She hadn’t thought that computers could be manufactured here on Mars (or at least any computers worth a damn) but apparently she was wrong.

The experiment with Runt went okay. They got some sign that he was interacting with the chemicals, but the interface was still far too crude to get any valuable information.

“I know it can be frustrating, sometimes,” said Crys at the end of the day. His face showed on one of the screens she’d moved into the main room. “But we did good work today, mostly thanks to you.”

Tavonda waved her hand dismissively. “Pssshhh… I may have done most of the biology work, but I didn’t do the engineering. This is a joint project, and you know it.”

Crys smiled at her. She hated when he gave her that look. It made her think about Alexis and Zephyr and what might be possible until she shut the thought out of her mind. “Okay, fine,” he admitted. “I guess I just want to express my gratitude for your help and effort. This is complicated work, and while I’m good with machines, I’m still a shadow compared to you when it comes to living things. If we can learn to communicate with Runt we may be significantly closer to averting war. We can figure out their psychology and… and I guess I’m just really excited to have you working on it. I’ve talked to everyone in the station and you are by far the smartest, most insightful, brilliant person—”

“Stop! Stop!” she begged in mock seriousness.

“It’s true, though! Name one other person who rivals you! Do we need to break out the IQ tests?”

Tavonda leaned back on one of the patient beds. “Dajuan. Arya. Sergio. Estrella. Javier.” She counted them off on her fingers.

Crys shook his head. “All very clever. Don’t get me wrong, you’re in good company. I’m just pretty sure you’re at least a standard deviation above any of them.”

Tavonda frowned suddenly. “You need to stop this, Crys. Don’t flatter me. I know you better than to think you’re trying to… win me over, but someone could get the wrong impression.”

Crys looked confused. His silver eyes seemed to zone out in thought. “What do you mean?”

“I was basically raised on AI stories. If this was a story you’d be buttering me up to get me to do a favor for you or something. Have you read any fiction? Fleets of Saturn? I understand this isn’t a story, and that some tropes don’t translate into real life, but you need to understand that it sounds like you’re trying just a bit too hard to worm your way into my life.”

Crys’ face crumpled into an expression of pain and shock. “If you know better, then you know better. I thought I could trust you to see through all the cultural superstition.”

Tavonda straightened from where she was leaning without realizing it and tried to backpedal. “I can! I was just trying to let you know—”

“Let me know that I sounded like an evil manipulator? That I was trying to worm my way into your life? I was just trying to tell you… Ah, god dammit. Never mind. I need some time to myself.”

The monitor flicked off. Tavonda tried to swallow the lump in her throat, and failing, began to close up the hospital. The realization of her own feelings was too much to deal with. She needed to be with Alexis, or at least find a distraction.