Chapter One

Nathan Daniels

The silver wall spat him out painfully onto the hard dirt and he collapsed in a heap. Nate shook his head, trying to clear the feeling of nausea and re-orient himself.

The immense gravity startled him, despite being warned. He was one of the first humans to ever come aboard a nameless spaceship. It wasn’t anywhere close to pleasant. The nameless came from a high-gravity world that was supposed to have a bit less than three times Earth gravity. It felt like it was infinitely more than that. His whole body was being mashed into the ground.

The robot was going to get them killed. No human was meant to be here.

Nathan Daniels took a deep breath. Even that was hard, as he could feel his chest trying to imitate a pancake. His breath bounced off the faceplate of his environment suit, adding to a feeling of trapped claustrophobia.

After a moment of rest he pushed at the dirt, trying to get into a sitting position at least. The suit he was wearing wasn’t particularly easy to maneuver in, but he managed. A box of food came slamming down on the soil a meter to his left, extruded by the mysterious silver airlock. If it had been just a bit closer he could imagine it crashing down on him, breaking his body. The gravity was more than just inconvenient; it was deadly.

A black hand, unclothed by a suit, appeared before him, palm up: an offer of support. Nate grabbed it, and felt himself being pulled to his feet by an inhuman strength. The android, Crystal Socrates, stood in front of him, smiling. They seemed amused.

“You’ll get used to it. Don’t worry.” The robot’s cheery voice was indistinguishable from that of some androgynous human. It was almost child-like in some way that Nate had a hard time pinning down.

Nate shifted and wobbled a bit under the weight, trying not to lose his footing again. As he did, he re-evaluated the robot, who seemed to have no trouble at all with the gravity.

Crystal Socrates had a kind of duality to them. Most of their body was utilitarian and robotic, composed mostly of black rods, tubes, and pistons arranged in a humanlike form. Their hands had a kind of jet-black skin, and there were plates that protected important components inside their torso, but mostly their body was raw, exposed mechanism.

Their face was another matter. The scientists at the university back in Rome had been the best in their fields, creating something that was somehow close enough to a human to feel real, especially in expressive ability, while distinctly feeling robotic in form. The false skin was naturally a kind of generic pink-brown, but Crystal had powdered it to a shade much closer to light grey, and used bits of color here and there to make it more feminine. Combined with the wig they’d added of short, metallic-blue hair, there was a cartoonish quality to them. It was part of what made them seem approachable, rather than creepy.

Despite their good spirits, the android’s body was a mess. A couple hours earlier Crystal had fought to save the alien ship from a bomb, and at some point in the fighting their face had been hit along the left cheek by a chunk of shrapnel. The piece of metal was still lodged there, seemingly forgotten. The robot’s hair was dulled by dark-brown mud, as was most of their body and parts of their face.

“Where’s Kokumo?” asked Crystal, as Nate did his best to brush himself off without falling down again.

“She was right behind me. There should be another environment tent… right there,” said Nate, pointing to the pack he’d just noticed beginning to slide out of the shimmering portal. The silver pseudo-liquid barrier extruded the tent about half-way before it tumbled down to the dirt with a sudden speed. Nate had no idea how the alien tech worked, and he didn’t really want to know.

Kokumo was pushed out of the mercurial wall in much the same fashion, and slammed into the ground, hard. She swore in some African language. {Well, at least it wasn’t just me,} he thought.

Nate let Crystal go help Kokumo up and took a few hesitant steps on his own, looking around the so-called “xenocruiser”. His gut told him that it was night, but he knew better. {Alien gravity, alien darkness, and alien heat,} he remembered. Through the top of his visor he could see the “sky” above was a deep purple. Stone walls rose up on either side, making it seem almost like the three of them were in a gloomy canyon. {An artificial canyon, maybe,} he speculated. There was only one way to go, other than the glimmering portal that he had just passed through.

Nate wrestled to get his thick glove through the handle on the food crate and then began to drag it slowly over the dirt. There was no way he’d be able to lift the box all the way off the ground now, but at least he was strong enough to be able to slide it along in short bursts.

Kokumo had gotten to her feet, and was making heavy steps his way. “Let me help with thaht,” she offered in her heavily accented English, grabbing the other end of the crate and lifting it enough that it wasn’t dragging quite so badly. Crystal had picked up the tent by themselves and walked quickly to lead the way, never showing a sign of stress or struggle. Nate felt weirdly jealous.

“The nameless have given us a castle to stay in during the flight. Dr Slovinsky killed the previous occupant. Or rather, he killed the occupying walker. Zephyr’s getting things set up there with the twins. It’s only about 200 metres,” explained the android.

Nate looked at Kokumo, the African woman who had also been selected to come up into orbit with the android. She was a freedom-fighter, like he was: one of Las Águilas Rojas, though he knew very little about her beyond that. Her mysterious, dark eyes gazed back at him from the shadowy depths behind her helmet’s faceplate. Was she angry, or just frustrated at the difficulty of walking?

The walls on both sides fell away to reveal a flat expanse of lifeless dirt… well, mud really. He was beginning to feel the heat of the ship, even given that the suit was trying to keep him cool. Far to one side, near the horizon, he could see a dim “sun” on what must have been the biggest wallscreen he had even seen. That’s what he assumed the sky was: a big screen. The nameless had clearly worked very hard to replicate their homeworld.

Crystal began to walk off, legs sinking deep into the mud with each step. It was dark enough that Nate had no choice but to follow the android and hope they knew the way. It was hell trying to carry the crate over the black mud, but he and Kokumo somehow managed.

The 200 meters took a subjective eternity to cross, but there wasn’t much talk between the three of them as they trudged over the expanse.

The spaceship was disturbing in its emptiness. Despite being in what must’ve been the biggest room on the ship, Nate didn’t see a single alien. There were no animals, no plants, and no people. It was a dead place. The only sign of life, other than the three of them, was a small flying robot that zipped by during their arduous trek. It was gone before he got a good look at it, not that he could’ve seen much, given how dark it was.

They had clicked on their headlamps after a short while. Kokumo had done it first, and despite being able to somewhat see in the gloom, Nathan soon did the same. The beams of their lights didn’t reveal anything other than more mud. In fact, it made it somewhat harder to see into the distance, but they kept them on anyway. For comfort, perhaps. They didn’t talk about it.

He breathed a sigh of relief as the walls of their destination came into view. The stone barriers were even taller than those around the portal: at least ten feet high, maybe fifteen. The bricks were huge and looked hand-cut, anchored in place by large quantities of mortar. Perhaps the nameless valued the ancient aesthetic.

There was a clicking noise from the top of the wall, and both he and Kokumo looked up, beams of white light following their gaze. Atop the wall was a machine—a robot, perhaps. It was silver-gray and looked more like a pile of scrap metal than anything else. The only thing that gave it away as a robot was its motion.

“Please look down, or turn your lights off,” said Crystal Socrates. “You’re scaring them.”

He looked at the android. “Scaring who? And how would you know?”

Kokumo switched off her light. Nate did the same as Crystal explained.

“I’m talking with them right now over the radio. I can give you the frequencies if you’d like to listen in, but it’s in Xenolang. Without a translation program it will just sound like static.” There was a loud clicking noise from within the stone wall and Crystal walked towards it as they continued to explain. “That robot up there is being piloted by the nameless inside. You were blinding the camera.”

Crystal dropped the tent and gripped the wall with both hands. Slowly, they pulled a secret door outward from the wall. It was sized for an alien: probably ten feet tall, and wide enough for two people to walk through simultaneously without a problem. For not the first time, Nate wondered how aliens so large could exist on a planet with such heavy gravity.

The android didn’t open the door fully, just enough for them to get through. They picked up the tent and went inside, gesturing for the humans to follow.

There were, as could be expected, no lights in the passage through the wall. It turned out not to matter so much, as it was only about five feet long, but it still sent shivers up his spine to be walking into an even deeper darkness.

The short hallway opened into something like a shadowy alleyway. Directly ahead was another wall, just as high as the others. It rose up before them in the gloom, creating paths to the left and right. The alley was about the same width as the passage and Nate wondered what would happen if two nameless ran into each other here while traveling in different directions. He could see the sky above, but not the sun. The image of meeting an alien in a place like this didn’t thrill him. {Fuck it. It’s too dark.} Nate switched his light back on.

Kokumo mirrored his action as Crystal led the two of them to the left. The ground here was paved in dirty flagstones, blessedly firm compared to the mud from before. As they walked down the path, Nate saw a couple of catwalks pass overhead. The nameless probably crawled around up there to work or something. It seemed dangerous. If a creature that size fell from that height under a gravity nearly three times that of Earth, it would almost certainly be fatal.

The three of them, after walking down the claustrophobic alley for quite a while, came to another passage, this time in the inner-wall. As they walked through it they came upon the garden.

“Zephyr!” called the android as soon as they saw the others. “You need to be careful not to step on the leaves! I told you to move the vines out of the areas where you’d be working!”

The garden was nearly identical to the one that had been set up at the failed embassy on Earth. Black vines covered with broad leaves were spread out on the ground absolutely everywhere. Unlike the embassy, the vines also clung to the stone walls, but that was it. There were no plants other than the vines. No sense of diversity or topography. Just a big, flat surface of leaves in a giant circle.

“We did move the vines! See?” responded Captain Zephyr, clearly not in the best of moods. She, like all of them except Crystal, was in a spacesuit. At this distance it was impossible to tell anyone apart, but he knew it was the captain because she gestured as her voice came over the com.

It was true. The vines and leaves had been moved away from the area where his companions had set up the gear.

Kokumo and Nate began to carry the food crate towards the makeshift camp.

Crystal spun around to look at the two of them. It was impressively fast, especially considering the mass of the tent in the robot’s arms. “Stop! Don’t move.”

Nate obeyed. “What? Why?”

Crystal, face set with an impressive replica of human frustration, set the tent down, carefully clearing a space for it among the foliage. “You’re not following my instructions, any of you. Remember what I said about not stepping on the plants?” The android’s voice reminded him eerily of his mother.

“You said thaht the plahnts were more impo’tant thahn tha ahnimals. Thahn tha nameless.” said Kokumo.

“There’s leaves everywhere!” objected Nate. “How are we not supposed to step on the leaves?!” The weight of the food was immense. He wanted so badly to put it down, but that would involve setting it on one of the apparently precious plants.

Crystal was making their way over to the two of them. Nate noticed that their feet brushed the leaves aside with every step, so that their foot always came down on dirt. “I’m sorry. I should’ve given you all better instructions. Here, let me make a path.”

Crystal did their best to pull vines away and give Kokumo and Nate a place to walk. Nate noticed, now that he was paying more attention, that the vines converged at central points. At those points were stones, or something like stones, pinning the vines down. It was strange seeing plants that were jet-black, rather than green. Even the soil was black. This planet—or rather, this spaceship—was maddeningly dark.

After quite a hassle of moving vines and leaves, stepping carefully, and struggling with the gear, Nate and Kokumo made it to the campsite without crushing any (or at least many) more leaves.

“You were good about not damaging the vines when setting up, but they say you’ve been stepping on them as you explore,” explained Crystal, talking to Captain Zephyr and the others.

“Who says?” asked Zephyr, her voice like cold stone, as it often was. Like Nate, she was a defector from the American army. Thanks to her leadership Nate and a handful of others had managed to strike a decisive blow against the empire by stealing Crystal away. Zephyr was clearly watching the android as she spoke, but her face was cloaked in the shadow of her helmet, which (unlike in all the shows) didn’t have any internal lights.

Nate was sitting on the crate of food now. Kokumo knelt on the dirt beside him. They were both absolutely exhausted from the journey. As physically fit as they were, they’d each been carrying hundreds of pounds more bodyweight than they were used to.

Crystal, meanwhile, had no fatigue. They were setting up the tent they had brought over. The faster they could get the environment tents set up, the faster they could approximate an airlock and everyone could get food and refill water packs. Nate took a sip from the straw in his suit as he thought about it.

“I’m sorry. I haven’t been as clear as I should have. I was trying to prioritize getting on our way before I explained things fully,” said Crystal. “That was a mistake.”

“Sólo tienes que decirnos lo que está pasando. Por favor,” said one of the twins from Cuba.

“Yes. Okay. I’ll explain.” Crystal cleared their throat, or at least made the same sort of sound. It was just one of the strangely human mannerisms that the robot had. “Basically, these plants are the real nameless—the real aliens in charge of the ship.” Crystal gestured out to the garden. “The animals which have been meeting with humans on Olympus Station are just messengers. Think of it like this: The nameless have a caste system, and the plants around us are the ruling class. The animals, the walkers, are idiot-servants of these guys.”

Nate felt like he should’ve been more surprised. Or relieved. Or something. He mostly just felt tired. Last he checked it was around 2:00am in Houston; he’d woken up over 18 hours ago. The whole situation seemed like a dream.

“So… we’re surrounded by…” started Zephyr, hesitantly.

“Nameless stalks, yes,” answered the android. “They’re capable of communicating with me over the radio.” They pointed out over the garden, gesturing to what Nate had thought were stones. “Those are computers. The stalks interface with the computers to control the robots and talk with me.”

“What are they saying right now?” asked Michel Watanabe, a Japanese-Brazilian man whom Nate had only just met on the flight up from Earth. He too, like all of them, was part of Las Águilas Rojas.

The android started putting the tent together again. “Generally they’ve been complaining about our presence. We’ve been constantly hurting them and messing up their home. But they’re not saying anything right now, which is pretty typical. They hate talking with me, or with anyone, really. They never evolved an innate capacity for language, so it’s something of a struggle for them to communicate at all. Imagine if you had to do quadratic factoring in order to say hello.”

“¿Cómo sabes todo esto? ¿Te han dicho?” asked a twin.

“No, they didn’t tell me,” answered Crystal. “I mostly have reasoned it out by re-investigating the signals they sent during their flight to Earth. There’s a lot in there that was missed.”

“Can you hook us up so that I can say ‘thank you’ for their hospitality? I still can’t believe they’re giving us a ride to Mars,” said Captain Zephyr.

It was truly something of a life-saver. There was no telling what the United States would have done to the seven of them if they hadn’t escaped Olympus Station.

Crystal shook their head. “Like I said, they really hate talking. It goes against their nature. I also doubt that they’d be able to appreciate gratitude. If you haven’t noticed, they’re not particularly social.”

“Hrm,” said the captain, not sounding very convinced. “Well, I trust you know what you’re doing. You’ve gotten us this far. But please let us know if an opportunity comes up to return the favor.”

Nate wasn’t so sure.

The android had indeed talked the nameless into saving them, but they were also the reason that they were in trouble and needing to flee Earth in the first place. It felt wrong leaving all of their lives in its cold, mechanical hands.

But… the captain was the captain. Despite turning his back on the army, Nate still felt loyalty to the iron hero. She’d shown him the evils of the American empire and the need to build a new society, like the one on Mars. And better, she’d led him to victory against overwhelming odds.

If Captain Zephyr trusted the robot named Crystal Socrates, then he did as well.


They were still docked at Olympus Station, and they needed many things for their flight to Mars, so Crystal went back to get another load of supplies with Captain Zephyr and Mike Watanabe. That left Nate alone with Kokumo and the Cuban twins.

And the “stalks”, of course. The garden was totally silent except for the four of them. It was unnerving to think that the plants were watching him all the while.

He tried to set his mind on the work, pushing forward despite his body’s protests to the insane gravity. There was much to be done.

He didn’t really have anyone to talk to, either. Yes, they were all Águilas, and in theory they shared a worldview, but that didn’t mean they had anything to talk about. The Cuban twins didn’t even speak English.

He thought about saying something to Kokumo once or twice, but she always seemed unfriendly and cold—displaying even more of the amazon-warrior vibe than the captain.

So Nate sat on the dirt and took inventory of the food, trying not to let the fatigue or the gravity get to him.

It was strange working only with the local computer on his com. He was used to coordinating over a central server. Once he was done he’d have to send the list to everyone locally.

The food crate was the second one they had brought. The space station didn’t have any portable autocooks, so they’d simply taken the emergency rations and left the raw materials behind. {Let’s see… Protein bars, granola bars, more protein bars… Ugh,} he thought to himself. {This is going to be a long flight.}

He’d completed the food inventory and was checking the water barrel when the other three came back. The relief of seeing them startled Nate. It seemed like it was only a matter of time before one of the aliens—one of the animal aliens, rather—wandered into the castle. If that happened there’d be no way to talk to it. Their body language wouldn’t even be the same. There were stories about people who were physically attacked by the nameless without provocation, and seeing the things he had, he didn’t doubt their capacity for violence.

Captain Zephyr, the android, and Mike were talking among themselves as they approached. Their coms were set to automatically scale volume based on proximity, so he only heard the tail end of the conversation as they reached the camp.

“…wouldn’t bother us during the flight. And given how antisocial they are, I believe them,” said Crystal.

“I’d still rather hear it directly from them. Call it irrational,” replied Captain Zephyr.

“I understand. Non-logical part of you wants them to behave like humans and feels uncomfortable with this situation.”

Nate could hear the captain laugh. “Logical part of me wants them to behave like humans, too. But I suppose you’re kinda right.” She seemed remarkably happy, given the circumstances.

“Is thaht the lahst of it?” asked Kokumo as they approached. Crystal was somehow holding a second, blue, 100-liter barrel of water by themselves. It must have weighed over six hundred pounds. Nate could see Crystal’s legs sink into the soft earth, even though it wasn’t mud here.

“Yes. We’re ready to depart,” said Mike.

“How long are we going to be here?” asked Nate. “I thought one barrel would be enough. If we ration it, we could last for weeks.”

Crystal’s synthetic voice was light and friendly, as usual. “Not weeks, but you’re right that we might not normally have needed the extra. I expect that, just counting drinking, we’d get to Mars without needing to open this one. However, you’re not thinking about our oxygen supply, or the extra water that will be needed for refilling the suit coolant systems and washing soiled garments. We might be able to use the local water, but the water purifiers on Olympus aren’t portable, and I don’t want any of you to risk contamination. We’re stuck with what we bring, and I don’t want everyone to die just because a barrel gets knocked over or springs a leak.”

The cheerful voice was a strange combination with the morbid topic. The thought of slowly dying of dehydration or from some alien germ… Nate was too tired to deal with all of it. The psychological weight seemed magnified in the ship in the same way the physical weight was.

The android continued. “To answer your question, I expect the flight to take between six and ten days. We have some, limited data on how fast these ships fly, but a xenocruiser has never been tracked when traveling this far. A lot depends on how quickly it can accelerate.”

“¿Tenemos que preparar las cosas para la aceleración? ¿El cinturón de seguridad o algo así?” asked a twin.

Crystal dropped the barrel of water on a clear spot of ground. Even from a couple inches up it created something of a crater in the dirt. The robot’s face showed a mixture of puzzlement and frustration. “I’m talking to them about it right now. The nameless say we’re already in flight, actually. Don’t know why it doesn’t feel like we’re accelerating. Maybe part of the same technology that makes the gravity. I’m negotiating with them to give me access to external camera data.”

It was weird to think that Crystal was communicating with the nameless, even as they stood there motionless.

A long moment passed in silence as Zephyr and Mike put their loads down.

“What are they saying?” asked Zephyr.

“I’ll broadcast some of it for you. Keep in mind that they’re pretty alien,” said Crystal.

A deep, harsh sound came over the com. It took Nate a moment to realize that it was the voice of a nameless. Or at least, it was the voice that Crystal had given it. “God is going to Mars. Cousins are restless. The children will tell of GOOD DEEDS. They will whisper of REPAIRS. Reputation repairs are GOOD. We aim to serve. Can you see the stars?”

Crystal nodded in response to the question even though they surely couldn’t be seen by the aliens. Or could they? Nate looked around the creepy garden looking for cameras. He just hoped the leaves didn’t secretly have eyes or something.

“I’m getting some kind of data from God, but I can’t understand it. Is there documentation on how to interpret the data?” Unlike when Crystal talked to Nate and the other humans, they didn’t move their mouth. Instead, their voice came over the com as if piped from the robot’s head by magic. It seemed plain that they were talking to the nameless.

“God?” asked Zephyr.

Crystal’s face became more frustrated. “I’m sorry. All of this communication takes a good deal of focus. I’m going to go back to talking to them directly rather than having to also translate it into English and Spanish.” They closed their eyes in concentration.

“Su ‘Dios’ es el barco,” said a twin.

Zephyr laughed. “They meant the xenocruiser! Gracias, Sam. Lo tengo,” she said in response.


They were on their way to Mars with all their future spread out before them.

Nate tried not to think about it too much.

He tried not to think about everyone he was leaving behind. He could feel the fatigue getting to him. It became frustratingly hot, as well. He knew he wasn’t in a good mood, and there was no sense in thinking about the big picture when there was work to do.

But setting up camp did not go well. There were a million little problems to resolve in the alien garden, and the gravity seemed to make them each a million times harder to do.

Crystal worked tirelessly, but the humans could only do so much. Eventually it was decided that everyone should try and get sleep, while the android kept going and stood watch.

As Nathan lay on the hard dirt, pressed down with a weight that made it hard to breathe, baking inside his own suit, even with the cooling units on full, he tried to sleep.

It did not go well.

His mind kept rolling through his decisions again and again. Had it been right to leave Earth? Perhaps he should have stayed behind and let himself be captured. No prison could be as bad as the alien xenocruiser.

Sweat covered his body.

His leg itched, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

The hum of his suit’s motors and systems whined in his ears.

He kept thinking about the aliens that were all around him, watching him.

He thought about the possibility that the robot was secretly evil, and would turn on him as soon as he fell unconscious.

Despite his fatigue, he wasn’t even sure he slept at all, rather than simply spending six hours in a half-awake nightmare.

When he opened his eyes and decided really and truly that he was going to get up, the screen (or screens) overhead that showed a sky that was a lighter shade of purple than it had been when he’d first lain down. It was bright enough to see for a distance, but not any lighter than early twilight. The walls around the garden appeared to have lights mounted at the tops of them, shining down on the nameless plants. After a short while, Nate figured out that they were, in fact, mirrors reflecting the tiny, white sun.

{Ah yes. The 77-hour day. Wonderful.}

He wanted nothing more, right then, than to be able to do his daily stretches. The suits they had taken from Olympus Station were designed to give the wearer good mobility, but they were still far too bulky and inflexible to stretch in. His muscles ached from the gravity. Simply standing up was something of an ordeal, especially since he had to lift the massive pack that held his air, water, and batteries.

Nate checked his suit’s levels. The air system was still working at maximum efficiency. Without the ability to filter dirty air or generate breathable oxygen he’d have asphyxiated during the night. He shivered at the thought, despite the damned heat. He’d left the cooling system on all night, and according to the suit’s computer it had burned almost 40% of the suit’s power by itself. He was down to only 19% of the battery. His hands twitched inside the suit’s haptics, turning off the climate control. If he was going to be hot anyway he might as well go full hog and not waste precious battery life.

Nate’s constant sweating meant incredibly thirsty. He was starving, too. And his suit chafed. He’d peed in it about an hour before he got up, and while the absorbent material that lined the suit was probably as comfortable as he could hope for, it was still awful.

He did some calculations on his com. Given the rate at which the air system burned battery, he could expect maybe another 5 hours of air. The supplementary oxygen tank was close to empty, and the water splitter would have to run much harder when it was gone.

Without bothering to stand up, he turned his attention toward Crystal; they were, as he expected, still working. “Wh—” he tried to speak, but his throat was dry and the word came out as a whisper. Nate coughed and bit back a complaint. {“A complaint never solves anything,”} he remembered his dad saying. A wave of regret washed over him as he fell back on the black ground that was not black earth. {Why didn’t I stay? Why didn’t I stay? A prison cell would be heaven compared to this,} he mused for the billionth time.

After a minute he sat back up again and tried to collect himself. “What are you working on? Is the tent functioning?” he managed to rasp, despite his throat.

Crystal didn’t even look at him as they kept working. “No, Mr Daniels. I’m sorry that it’s not finished yet. There were additional complications. I know you must be very hungry and thirsty. I was expecting to be done hours ago. You should conserve your strength. Get some more sleep if you can. I should have the airlock functioning within the hour.”

He shook his head, then realized Crystal couldn’t see the gesture. “No. Can’t sleep.” He got to his feet. More resting would just make his mood worse. “If you can’t use my help then I’ll just walk around the castle a bit. Need to move my muscles.”

“My studies on survival situations indicates that you really don’t. You’re better off staying in one place than burning more calories walking in this gravity,” said the robot. Nate was about to growl something obscene when Crystal continued with “But I know you well enough to know that you’re not going to listen to that. Take your walk. Just don’t leave the outer wall and don’t try to climb anywhere. Given your state of fatigue you could very easily fall and hurt yourself.”

He wandered off, annoyed at how, given all the robots they could have had, they got stuck with a bitchy one.

As he left the garden he made sure to avoid stepping on any more leaves. He still couldn’t bring himself to think of the plants as the nameless. The four-legged alien crab-aliens would always be “the nameless” to him.

He passed through the inner wall and found himself in the pathway between it and the outer wall again. Both directions led around the inner wall so he picked one at random. The sun was hidden behind the walls as he walked. The experience reminded him of walking through Baltimore’s alleys at night when he was a teenager. Except hot. Hot as mid-summer day. Worse than that, actually, as he was effectively trapped in a thick coat. His muscles burned as he pulled himself along. He wasn’t sweating any more. That was a bad sign.

{“Just keep moving!”} screamed Jimmy, his leg split in two by the trap. Nathan shook his head violently, snapping himself back to the present moment. {No more thoughts of the dead. I promised myself that. “Daniels, stop! They’ll be here any second! Leave Private Mecklenburg! That’s an order!”}

Nate swore loudly to himself as he stumbled down the shadowy path. A walkway passed overhead, connecting the inner and outer walls. There was a ladder made of thick iron bars set into the side of the inner wall next to it. He ignored the ladder and kept walking.

{Don’t think about it.} he commanded himself. He’d managed, through force of will, to avoid thinking about Africa all night. No good reason he should start now. He just had to focus. Focus on the heavy stone walls. Focus on the black dirt. The purple sky. The sound of the machine gun spitting hot metal. The feel of it shaking in his arms. The vibration had burrowed into his core. {No. Focus.} It was too quiet here. {That’s my problem. Too quiet. Need some music.}

The display in his helmet indicated he only had a couple songs on his com. That was fine. He just needed noise. He picked the noisier of the two songs. He had played it during the rocket flight up from Earth.

He stopped to rest, falling to the ground. He didn’t bother to sit. There was no one to watch him, so he simply collapsed. The familiar notes of “Sonic Hellfire” by The Grael soothed him as he lay, panting, on the dirt. It felt like he couldn’t breathe. {This is how I’ll die.} he thought. {Suffocating alone in the dark.} The image of Jimmy’s head getting hit by the Muzzie’s bullet came back to him despite all his will. Nate wanted to cry, but no tears came. He lay there, waiting to die instead.

But he didn’t. The heat and pressure didn’t subside. His body kept breathing, somehow. Minutes passed. The last notes of “Sonic Hellfire” faded, leaving a ringing in his ears. He shifted, trying to get in a position where he could gesture for it to play on repeat. {A good song.}

He heard a word. Too faint for him to pick out.

“Crystal? Captain?” he whispered into his com, not thinking straight. Thinking was hard. Fuzzy.

He heard it more clearly the second time.


Strength came back to him, somehow. Nate pushed himself to his knees and looked around. “Hello?”


The word wasn’t coming over his com. He heard it from outside his suit. There was nobody there. He was alone in the passage.

“Human pervert.”

{Nameless,} he realized, feeling thick-headed. He stood up. “Where are you?” he asked softly. His voice was in no shape to yell.

There was no answer.

Nate began to walk back to the camp. Crystal was right. This was stupid. He had been stupid.

“Should human pervert murder human pervert. Should it’s murder. Should it’s murder,” said the voice, dispassionately.

He looked up. There was a robot on the outer wall. A clumsy looking thing with treads and a single stubby arm. The end of the arm featured four metallic fingers, equally spaced in a square, like those on a nameless hand. A couple blinking white lights on the patchwork machine indicated it was functioning. He hesitated, then waved.

“Should human pervert goes Earth,” it said. It must’ve been pretty loud for him to hear through his suit from that distance.

Nate stared up at it trying to figure out how to say that he didn’t really understand. The thing was creepy as hell. He wanted a gun.

“Should human pervert goes,” it said, rolling away down the wall. “Should human pervert goes.”

Nate followed it, but it was just a bit too fast. As he reached the intersection that included the passage to the central garden it was already out of sight.

He gave up the chase and turned into the side-passage back to the camp.

As he entered the garden Crystal’s voice came to him over the com, weirdly loud compared to the alien robot. “Daniels! Are you okay? Your body is overheating!”

“Fine,” he managed to say. His voice didn’t sound right. Sore throat. {One foot in front of the other. A complaint never solves anything.}

“What happened to your coolant system?” He could see the android quickly threading their way through the vines to meet him. Their voice was panicked.

“Turned it off.”

“Turn it back on! Radiant head temperature is in the high nineties, goodness knows what your brain temperature is! If I had known your coolant system was off I never would’ve let you explore!” bitched the robot.

Nate turned the coolant system of his suit back on. He could feel the water flow through the lining of the suit, but it wasn’t doing much good yet.

Crystal reached Nate and offered a hand. “Here, lean on me. I finished setting up the tents. We’ll get you inside them so you can get some food and water.” They sounded just like his mother.

“Fuck you,” he grumbled, walking past Crystal.

“Please, Nate.” It was one of the rare times the robot used his first name.

“You’re the reason we’re in this hell. I can walk by myself.”

To their credit, Crystal Socrates didn’t bother him further. And, just as he knew he would, he made it back to the campsite by himself. He made sure to step on more than a few leaves on his way.

“What took so long?” he asked with more than a hint of irritation, gesturing at the tents. They had discussed the plan in depth. They’d hook the tents up in sequence, using the first one as an airlock to allow people to come and go without burning too much air.

Crystal explained in nauseating detail. “There were defects in two of them, even with the first modifications we made. A hole in one, and a problem with the door joint in the other. I had to modify the tent used as the airlock to incorporate the pump, but I didn’t spot the defects until I had done the modification. It was most efficient to use the tent with the defective door joint as the airlock tent, which meant I had to do the modification again as well as detach the pumps from the first tent and patch the hole.”

One person was outside the tents. The other four humans had to be inside. The tents were small things, only about five feet wide by seven feet long by three feet tall. The roofs were curved on the side making them look like loaves of bread that had been lined up end-to-end.

“Are you okay, Nate?” asked Zephyr. He could see, now, that she was the lone figure standing outside.

{No, I’m not fucking okay!} At that moment he realized that his head ached with a sharp pain, and had been aching for God knows how long. It scared him that he hadn’t noticed. “Yeah. Fine. Just need something to drink,” he grumbled.

Crystal and Zephyr continued to pester him as he crawled into the first tent. Crystal deposited a water bottle and a few granola bars before sealing the door.

“Filter on,” said Crystal as a loud machine started to whine outside. “You’ll be able to remove your helmet in about two hundred seconds. Just relax.”

{Can’t they just say “three minutes” like a normal person?} Nate grumbled to himself mentally as he obeyed. He lay flat on the floor, giving in to the gravity, and let his suit cool his skin. As he did, he thought about the robot on the wall.

“I met a nameless robot while I was out exploring. It said something about perverts and murder. Maybe wanted me—”

Crystal cut Nate off. “It spoke to you? In English?” they asked. There was something strange in the android’s voice.

“Yeah. Not over the com. Just using a speaker or whatever.”

“I need to think about this,” said the android in a strangely mechanical tone.

“Do you remember exactly what it said?” asked Captain Zephyr, still outside. She was only visible to him as a vague outline given the darkness and the semi-opacity of the tent.

“No, sir. I wasn’t… I’m not in the best shape right now. Need water and food. I just remember getting the impression that it wanted me to follow it. It talked about going somewhere.” The stabbing pain in his head was getting worse.

There was silence for a bit. “Okay, Daniels, you can remove your helmet now. The atmosphere in the tent is breathable. I suggest you drink as soon as possible. It’s clear you’re severely dehydrated,” said Crystal.

As the helmet came off, Nate was surprised not to smell anything strong. A touch of ozone, mostly. He knew there had to still be some alien air in the tent. It must have been odorless. He was gulping down water from the bottle when he heard Crystal speak.

“Can everyone hear me? Daniels? Kokumo? Watanabe?”

There were murmurs of affirmation from the adjacent tent. Nate stopped drinking long enough to give his own.

The android’s voice was stiff and strangely inhuman as it came over the radio. “I want you all to know that my actions, both now and before, have been for your own good.”

A cold shiver ran through Nate. He took another drink of water.

“What are you talking about?” asked Mike from the other tent. There was a minor echo as he heard the voice over the com and through the air directly.

“Furthermore, I continue to be your friend. I care about each of you,” said the robot, ignoring Watanabe. “If I wanted to, I could reach Mars by myself. It would be easier in many ways. I could claim that there was an accident, like the tent suddenly tearing.”

Muscles burning, Nate scrambled for his nearby helmet. His head pulsed with pain and his heart pounded with fear. The robot was going to kill them. He could hear it in their tone of voice.

In his delirium he laughed.

It was incredibly cliché.

The machine’s voice continued. “I was not honest with you all. I thought I could hide the truth and make things easier and simpler, but the nameless have forced my hand. If they have translators then you’ll find out sooner or later.”

The brief moment of silence in the midst of Crystal’s speech was eerie.

“The nameless want to kill us all. War is probably inevitable. I was brought to Olympus Station to ease tensions with the aliens, but because of the actions of a cyborg collective I was forced to coerce the aliens on this ship into obeying me. My grip on them is fragile. If I fail, we are all dead. In order to keep you all safe, I must insist that no one besides me is to speak or otherwise try and communicate with them. I am, as I mentioned, more than capable of managing things on my own.”

The implicit threat hung in the air.

Lying on the hard floor of the broiling tent, crushed by his own body weight and suffering heat-stroke, Nate laughed again.