The descent down the ladder was brutal.
Michel’s arms had grown more and more fatigued with each day on the ship, even given how much rest they’d all been getting. He and his companions were breaking, slowly. Their bodies were, day by day, being torn apart by the gravity.
Well, all of them except Crystal, anyway.
And now he climbed down into the depths of the castle that they’d been using as a campsite. He hadn’t even known there was a basement. Crystal had probably known the whole time. They seemed to know everything and share nothing.
Somehow, he reached the bottom without his arms popping out of their sockets. The heat and darkness were even worse than they had been on the surface. He took a few hesitant steps, grateful once again for the torch on his helmet and found that the dirt near the ladder quickly gave way to stone floors.
He could see by the light of his helmet that the floors were hand-carved, just as the blocks of stone on the surface had been, though much more attention had been spent smoothing the stone down here. It seemed likely that the blocks that made up the castle walls had somehow been brought up from this space.
He turned to look at Crystal, who had descended before him, and was now scanning the underground chamber with eyes that could penetrate the darkness. The machine was cold and calculating as ever.
Above the smooth floor were arches, walls, and tunnels of carved, grey rock. The architecture was clearly designed with the gravity in mind. Even with only the ground floor above, Michel found it remarkable that the structure didn’t collapse in on itself.
There was a wall before them, which was doubtless supporting the inner garden wall, above. Arches gave way to tunnels in both directions, with a small sub-chamber in an alcove near the ladder. Michel could see various tools and junk in the sub-chamber, including something like a broom, and the toy swords he’d seen the young nameless using in the garden.
“Thought you said this place was for the children,” remarked Zephyr, as she reached the base of the ladder. “Why is the ceiling so tall?”
The ceiling of the underground space was indeed about two and a half metres up. Zephyr’s helmet torch joined Michel’s in scanning the space, followed shortly by Nate’s. Kokumo and the twins, Sam and Tom, were back in the garden, above, having opted to rest after the day’s excitement and simply get a report on the basement, later. At least, despite all the danger and peril they’d been through, they hadn’t lost anyone.
With the four of them present, Crystal moved off down the left tunnel. “Made for children, but probably mostly made by an adult walker, at least at first. Probably also useful to have enough space for an adult to be able to come down from time to time.”
Each garden, according to Crystal, was supposed to have exactly one adult walker. They’d explained earlier that the adult nameless that had been in charge of the garden they were staying in had been killed in the conflict on Olympus. Michel was skeptical about all of it. Crystal was, at heart, a self-centred liar.
Archway after archway passed as they moved through the hot tunnel. Michel Watanabe saw cables attached to the ceiling by heavy, metal clips. They even passed a light fixture that cast a very weak, purple glow.
After the third archway they came into a bigger chamber, probably located underneath the garden. This place, too, had archways, walls, and pillars to support the great weight overhead, but they were designed to allow free movement and provide as much space as possible.
There were noises in this chamber, low and grinding. Michel could hear them through his suit’s helmet. He could see their source, as well: a great many machines of various sizes and types were scattered about.
It was a factory.
“Where are they getting all the power for these machines?” asked Nate Daniels, as they spread out.
Michel found his way to what was surely a lathe, though it was structured a bit differently than the one he was familiar with back on Earth. Thinking about the machine made him strangely nostalgic and desperate to go back to Látego and the others in Brazil. It hadn’t even been a week since he’d left. Or at least, he didn’t think it had. Time seemed to move strangely on the alien craft.
“The nameless just say they get it from their ship, and aren’t very helpful beyond that,” said Crystal.
Michel’s fist tightened. Probably another lie.
Michel remarked to himself that it was odd how the nameless went through so much trouble to keep the power cables for the machines up and bolted to the walls and ceiling. After all, they had to naturally step lightly around the vines, above. Surely they were good at watching their feet.
The explanation became clear a moment later when through one archway rolled an awkward robot that looked a bit like a large toy truck mashed up with a metal crate. It had an almost cartoony look to it, like it was taken from Star Wars or Fleets. It was helping to cary a large cracked mirror, and Michel guessed that while a walker could step over the thick power cables without problem, if the factory was staffed by wheeled robots, there was a good reason to keep the floors clear.
But robots weren’t the only workers in the factory. Holding the other end of the mirror was one of the mid-sized nameless children.
Michel didn’t know whether the child was one of those that had come to the garden before. Probably. It didn’t really matter.
The difference in the way the child moved was dramatic and heart-breaking. In the garden the children played and moved with a happy freedom. Here in the factory, the young alien shuffled along with a tired, sad gait.
As in the garden, the child showed no fear of the intruders, though Michel could see one of its eyes watching him, and whenever one of them hit it with the direct beam from a helmet light it flinched in pain.
He took a step forward before he even realized what he was doing. He wanted to help the kid cary the mirror. It was probably very heavy. Couldn’t they have gotten another robot to cary the other end?
He stopped himself. This wasn’t his place to act.
He looked at the others. Crystal was watching him, cold and calculating. Zephyr and Nate’s faces were hidden in the darkness of their helmets.
Bright blue and yellow sparks shot up in a loud, unexpected spray further in the factory. This time it was Zephyr who took a step forward. She was stopped by Crystal’s hand on her shoulder.
“Just welding,” said the android.
Indeed, Michel could see the silhouette of another child, deeper in the factory, as the sparks shot past its many arms and legs.
The four of them watched as the children went about their work. In another sub-chamber they spotted the smallest of the children—the one they called E.T. up in the garden. It seemed not to recognize them, or if it did, it gave no sign. No waving or pointing, nor getting up to investigate them. Perhaps it wasn’t allowed to by the stalks.
The sentient plants (assuming Crystal wasn’t also lying about that) were surely forcing these children to work. He could see it in the way they moved. This was no willing labour. The aliens that had seemed so carefree above now seemed to be exhausted and bored. E.T. was working on the insides one of the computer pods that sat on the stalks.
“Their entire culture rests on slave labour from children,” said Michel, when he realized it. He hadn’t even meant to say it out loud, but it was so shocking that it slipped out.
“They’re aliens. It’s not our place to judge,” said Crystal.
Michel turned and walked back to where Crystal and Zephyr were standing. He noticed they were holding hands. It disgusted him. All of it was…
He chuckled. It was perverted and sinful.
“Like hell it’s not,” he said. He gestured at the smallest alien in the other chamber, whose arms and legs were sprawled out on the ground, as it plucked away at the computer with a detached resignation. “These children aren’t working down here by choice. Don’t tell me that if they had the freedom to decide they’d want to come down here.”
Zephyr looked at Crystal. Nathan Daniels came in from where he was exploring to listen.
“It’s not our place to judge,” insisted Crystal, with a firm, sad expression. They raised their hands, letting go of Zephyr. “The aliens all live this way, and probably have for thousands of years.”
“What about the other children? Where are they? Are they slaves, too?”
“Mike, please calm down,” said Zephyr, using the more American version of his name.
“Watanabe has a point,” said Nate, backing him up for once. “Where are the other kids?”
Something seemed to wash over Crystal, then. Where before they’d been socially aware and remarkably human, they seemed to go blank and their voice took on a much more lifeless cadence. “As far as I can tell, there are indeed free children on the ship. Most gardens have more stalks than are needed to support the walkers that live there, and so the free children are brought in to feed at the same time as the resident children. These wanderers serve to bring news from far away gardens, and are the primary way the nameless share knowledge as a species.”
“And if given the chance, do you think these children would rather work down here or be free like the others?” Michel asked.
Crystal’s face snapped back to something between careful determination and sympathy. “I honestly don’t know. I only know that we’re guests here, and we’ve already disrupted them enough.”
“Yeah, by holding them hostage…” he muttered to himself.
“Come on, let’s get back to camp. It’s been a long day,” encouraged Zephyr.
Watanabe turned and looked one more time at the sad child, sitting on the cold stone floor, picking at the machine. Yes, it was an alien, and this was its life, but Michel Watanabe couldn’t help feel sorry for it. It made his blood boil.
But what was he supposed to do? He didn’t know.
But he knew he had to do something.
Michel waited until Zephyr and Nathan had gone into the tents to rest. Zephyr was blindly loyal to the machine, and Nathan was still loyal to Zephyr.
Kokumo, Sam, and Tom were up and about with him, now. His body ached, but it wasn’t going to get any better. He wasn’t sure he could count on any of the others, but they were the ones least likely to defend the robot.
He looked at Crystal Socrates. He watched them move about, doing odd jobs with a dispassionate expression. Of course the nameless children had meant nothing to the machine. This was the same machine that had threatened the nameless in order to buy passage to Mars. They were fundamentally selfish.
Michel could see it. He could hear it in the robot’s words. The only reason that Michel had been brought up to the space station was to serve as fodder or a bargaining chip for the robot, and the only reason he had been brought onto the nameless ship was as a gesture of good will towards Las Águilas on Mars.
It made him sick. Crystal didn’t care about him or any of the others—probably not even Zephyr. If they did, they would’ve told them that they were walking into a death-trap before it was too late. Thank God they found out about that early on.
First they lied to them about the safety of the ship, then they threatened their lives to keep them quiet, and finally they let the alien bastards keep their child slaves.
He could have forgiven the first two offences. It was an asshole thing to do to lie and threaten, but just because they were a selfish asshole didn’t mean they couldn’t be useful to work with. But to see the sin of the aliens so plainly and so clearly… and then to refuse to help things? That was the moment that it was clear that Crystal couldn’t be allowed to lead them any longer. The robot was evil, and if they kept getting their way… Well, he’d seen more than one movie with that premise. If only he could be sure the good guys would win in the end.
He remembered the movements of the children, both in the garden and in the factory. They were so alien, and yet their body language said so much. In the garden they skipped, waved, played, and showed real emotion. In the factory they slouched as they worked, and looked at the humans with pleading eyes. Even without being able to speak they conveyed more intelligence than any dog ever could.
The thoughts built him up. They had to build him up. Michel needed to know he was acting on the side of good just this once. Clear cases of good and evil came along so rarely…
He took a deep breath. Crystal turned and looked at him, as if anticipating his challenge. The robot’s face was passive, but Michel didn’t believe for one second that meant a damn.
“I don’t care what you’ve said. I’m going to set the children free!” he said, heart beating quickly now.
Crystal pinched the bridge of their nose and sighed. “We went over this before, Michel. We’re not here to change all of nameless society. The less trouble we make, the safer we’ll be.”
“So you say. You also say we still aren’t allowed to talk to the nameless ourselves! You’ve threatened our lives and you talk about ‘safety’! You put the entire human species in danger with your actions. Will we be going to war? And if we’re going to war, why shouldn’t we at least rescue some children while we’re at it?”
“Calm down. This is a much more complex situation than you seem to think it is.”
It felt good. He could feel his muscles coming to life. “You know what? I don’t really think it is! I think it’s pretty simple! I think everything that has happened—everything that you’ve done—has been for one purpose: to save your own skin. Or whatever you have instead of skin.”
Crystal shifted away from appearing frustrated to being more neutral. Michel had done more than enough martial arts in his time to notice the subtle change in posture in the android. They were readying for a fight.
Since they seemed to be at a loss for words, Michel continued. “This whole thing was probably planned by your programmers. They probably sent you to infiltrate Las Águilas and get to Mars so you could destroy us from the inside! The only reason you’re keeping us around is to earn the trust of the Martians!”
“Now you’re just being paranoid,” said Crystal. They looked at Kokumo and asked “What do you think? Do you think I’ve been deceiving you all in some sort of grand conspiracy? Nimefanya wamekuwa wakijaribu kuharibu Las Águilas tangu mwanzo? Kwa nini mimi yamesaidia Phoenix badala ya risasi yake?”
“Speak English!” yelled Michel, drawing the android’s attention back to him. They didn’t appear at all concerned.
“I was asking why I would have helped Las Águilas if I was a traitor. Your theory is blatantly false. Occam’s razor cuts it to shreds. My only purpose has been trying to help you. The nameless children are pitiable, but rushing down there and breaking them out will do nothing for the millions of children in other castles on this ship and their mothership. It’s a foolish, short-sighted notion.”
Crystal’s voice had gained an edge, and their face was now locked onto Michel with an intensity that made him take a step back reflexively. Crystal took a step forward in response, still in a martial pose.
What was he doing? Why was he challenging this machine? He’d seen them move. Without a weapon he had no chance. They spoke in lies, but there was a thread of truth in there. He had to outsmart them.
“Help us?! I don’t feel particularly grateful for having you around! You treat us like dogs and spin careful lies to keep us in line!” Out of the corner of his eye, Michel could see activity in the tents. He’d only have a bit more time before he was clearly outnumbered. “If you’re really so set on helping me get to Mars, you better stop me from killing myself. I’m going to remove my helmet and suffocate in this nice, safe environment you’ve led us into!”
The machine froze, not moving a centimetre.
Michel raised his hands to his neck, to give the impression he was about to break the seal on his suit.
Crystal fell for the bait, rushing forward to stop Michel.
As the robot lumbered forth on its carbon and steel legs Michel threw himself into a spin. It was his only chance. He had to catch the android off-guard and off-balance. He dropped low, an easy thing to do under the intense gravity, and used the force to push the spin faster, swinging out a leg to catch Crystal Socrates behind the knee mid-stride.
The motion pulled the leg out from Crystal and the robot slammed into the black dirt, knocking up soil in something of a crater.
Michel tried to keep as much of his momentum as he could as he swung himself up and into the air, a leg extending to crash onto his foe. Or at least, that was his plan. Crystal, however, was not stunned by the impact on the ground. They felt no pain and didn’t need to catch their breath. By the time Michel’s foot landed where the android had fallen, Crystal had rolled to the side.
Michel reoriented himself. The gravity played tricks on his inner-ear and made him want to throw up. As he turned to look at Crystal, the robot’s hand slammed down on the back of his neck.
When Michel hit the ground he stayed there.
Fire burned in him, but a stronger emotion swallowed up the anger.
He had felt it since the beginning. Lying there, dazed on the dirt, he wondered just how much of his actions had ever been about anything except the fear. It flooded him now and told him to run, but he knew there was nowhere to run to.
He had tried his trick, and he had failed. No amount of physical strength or martial arts skill would let him bring down a machine, and none of the others had come to back him up.
“That was foolish,” whispered Crystal into his ear. He had forgotten the robot was speaking over the com. Their voice was icy and unforgiving.
“Better to be a righteous fool than a successful tyrant,” spat Michel into his microphone, forcing his arms to move and push himself up.
He felt himself grow lighter and then realized what was happening as the robot flipped him onto his back. They stared down at him with cold, silver eyes and a doll-like face. “Spoken like a true fool. I am no tyrant. I was programmed, first and foremost, to serve and protect humans. I understand you feel sympathy for the nameless children, but the truth is that I do not. They are not humans, and so my programming rejects their well-being as inferior. I am here to protect you, but unfortunately the circumstances have proven that your greatest threat is yourself.”
A black foot of carbon plating descended onto Michel’s chest and began to press down on him. “If I were a true tyrant I would kill you right now to establish my strength and serve as an example.”
The foot moved, and the robot extended a helping hand instead. “But I am not, despite your fears. I will work, with every fibre of my being, to see you safely brought to Mars. Once there, if you so choose, I will help you on your quest to liberate the nameless children from captivity. But when we do so we will be wise about it.”
Michel hesitated, then took the hand. Socrates pulled him up with ease and continued to monologue. “A war is coming between humanity and the nameless; your values are too alien to each other to coexist in peace. I am your ally. I am your friend. Everything that I have done that you have warped into some sort of conspiracy theory, will be clear enough in time. All I ask for is your trust.”
Michel lay awake that night, unable to sleep, despite the ever-mounting fatigue. The tight walls of the tent pressed in around him and he longed for a better air conditioning system.
But it was his feelings and thoughts that kept him awake, not the physical discomfort. He kept playing the day’s events over and over, feeling shame and fear and anger and confusion.
Crystal had, the previous day, set up a couple speakers just outside the tent to play the sound of rain. It was a wonderful sound. It made him homesick.
The nameless were evil. Enslaving children was a sin, no matter what culture you were from. And Las Águilas Rojas was good. He had to believe that. But Crystal Socrates was…
Crystal was cold.
They moved strategically, lied, and kept secrets. Perhaps that made them a better Águila than he was. It scared him. The idea of more androids like Crystal scared him.
But he had to admit that for all the lies and threats and everything, Crystal really did seem to be on his side.
Mars was supposed to be a new start. Earth was changing and collapsing. It was a place of sin. Michel knew that better than most. What would happen when Crystal got there? What would happen to the nameless? He didn’t know. He didn’t know how they’d get to Mars or what to do after that. How would they land on the planet? How would they locate the other Águilas?
There was so much that could go wrong, and Michel was powerless to do anything except trust in the machine. A part of him was still furious about that powerlessness. But mostly he was just afraid.