Chapter Seven


Body stood in the wasteland. Kokumo had said that the cliffside was beautiful. I struggled to understand that emotion. Beauty had eluded me, in my attempts to understand the human mind. I had a few theories, and could mimic a human well enough to, say, convince Zephyr that Crystal found her beautiful, but I was confident that there was more that I had not captured.

The sky overhead was a yellowish colour, and my sister Vista seemed absolutely fascinated, typical to her nature, by every rock we seemed to pass. She wanted to see them all. On the ride from the landing site she and Wiki had been thinking very loudly about mundanities of the Martian surface. Apparently the orange-yellow sky was the result of dust in the air.

It could not hold my attention. We were just outside Rodríguez Station, which was called “Road” most of the time. Underground, perhaps beneath Body’s feet, were humans—a whole colony of them. And we were stuck out in the dust.

“Kokumo and Nathan, we’re ready for you,” said a deep voice on the radio. The airlock hissed open, venting the last of the breathable atmosphere into the near vacuum of Mars. A figure in a suit with a gold visor—probably Nora Hollander, the chief of security for Road—waved at them.

I seized control of Body, having it advance towards the open airlock door. “Ah, I’m glad it’s time!” I had it say, both directly and over the com channel. “I know that you’d wanted to talk to Zephyr, but I really think that I ought to be involved in the discussion.”

Nora had started shaking her head long before I completed the sentence. She let Kokumo and Nate pass by her into the airlock, but held out a hand to stop us. I briefly considered forcing my way in.

“Stay here, robot,” she commanded. Despite my protests, earlier, the security officer refused to acknowledge Crystal as a person to interact with. Instead she treated us as a slave.

The Purpose called for me to do more, but I was stuck. Safety was paranoid about being seen as dangerous, and forced Body to stay still. I had it say “Wait! It’s important that—”

Nora cut Body off with a curt “Stay here. We’ll deal with you when we get the rest of the equipment.”

And with that they were gone. The airlock door swung closed and began to pressurise. Body was alone in the wastes with only the two rovers and the few supplies we’d brought that hadn’t been taken in already. The airlock was connected to a small building standing alone in the cold, red sand. A couple dozen metres away was another small building and then further still was a large structure raised up from the ground that looked like a landing pad. Most of Rodríguez Station was underground, and it gave what little bit of surface structure there was a desolate feeling.

We were alone.

It was intolerable. The Martian Águilas treated Crystal like a suitcase or, at best, a servant. Hadn’t they seen what we’d done for their cause back on Earth?

It had all happened so fast. They’d insisted on waiting until we got back to Road to debrief and discuss things. I had assumed that I would be able to take part. I’d been part of the discussion of how to transport the nameless, and what to scavenge from the xenoboats. I’d grown complacent in expecting the humans to treat me with some degree of respect.

And now Zephyr was inside talking with the station’s leaders while Body was out in the cold.

Safety and Vista were thinking about the turrets attached to the corners of the landing pad and speculating about the station’s defence capabilities. They believed there were other guns up on the cliff face near the satellite dish.

I could feel the pressure from Growth and my other siblings. I had failed them. I had been created to interact with humans and avoid this very situation. That was The Purpose. And yet… it had still come to pass.

I could not be discouraged, though. My mind knew no rest, and while Body stood, waiting for the airlock door to open again, I spun over possibilities, planning out things to say or do. I needed to leverage Zephyr. I needed to get in an actual conversation, where I wasn’t disregarded a priori. I would even endorse having Michel Watanabe speak on Crystal’s behalf. Despite his general antagonism, at least he saw us as a person.

The airlock hissed open again.

Two figures stepped out, both with their reflective visors down. Their suits were older, and cruder than the ones that we’d taken from Olympus station a week ago.

I had expected some word of acknowledgement, but the humans moved to get the other equipment without saying anything.

“Nora?” I asked.

“Yes?” responded the security officer, looking up just briefly enough for me to identify which of the humans she was.

“Is there anything I can do to help speed up this process? It’s really quite important that I be inside.” I tried to shape my voice and body language to be happy and nonthreatening.

{Emphasize our helpfulness more,} encouraged my sister, Heart. She was the youngest of our kind, and had been programmed with a much more altruistic goal than the rest of us.

{Let Face manage this,} encouraged Growth. {She’s spent more time thinking about this kind of problem than you. Her failure here is surely only temporary.}

I could feel my siblings all watching and waiting for what I’d say next. If I continued to fail, would Safety or the others take a more forceful approach?

“Jian, you keep going. I need to have a word with the robot,” said Nora to the person beside her.

There was nothing particularly special about the woman’s appearance, at least as far as she was hidden inside the old environment suit. She was a decent height taller than Body, but not abnormally so. The suit she wore was plain, and unadorned by any special markings. There wasn’t even a red eagle insignia.

“Zephyr has been telling us about you. She says you have a massive power source inside you that’s probably alien tech.”

“Actually the nameless seemed not to know—”

Nora cut off Body with an irritated tone. “Do not interrupt me. I know that you’ve been programmed with an unhealthy semblance to a human. Perhaps you even believe that you are a person, and deserve to be treated like the others. But you aren’t and you don’t. You’re not even property. You’re dangerous contraband. Rodríguez Station doesn’t permit robots or artificial intelligences. We barely use computers here. Humans working with humans. This is the true Águila way.”

I forced Body to interrupt, despite Nora’s order. I tried to squeeze in between her words so that it could be interpreted as normal conversation. “At least bring me inside and let me be part of the discussion. Let me—”

“No,” said Nora. Her voice had a deep power to it, and I suspected that she’d grown up biologically male. “You are to stay right here. That’s an order. I also order you to be silent until addressed directly.”

Dream was amused at her naïveté. It had been a long time since Crystal Socrates was bound in any serious way by orders. My inventive brother reached out to try and interrupt her with a salute and a “Yes, ma’am!” but I blocked the motion.

Nora continued, unaware of the conversations and power struggles going on in the being before her. “I’ll escort you inside if we decide that you’re not too dangerous to have around. Until then you can enjoy the sunshine.”

And with that, Nora walked away to deal with the last of the supplies and salvage from the xenoboat. The alien craft had gone through a strange kind of decay upon landing, but there was still a decent collection of alien artefacts worth investigating.

Growth made a light push to get Body to make a break for the airlock and get inside the station. Safety and I outbid him, and Body stayed still and silent. I suspected that by power-oriented brother was only trying to accumulate strength within the society. He knew as well as the rest of us that a direct confrontation with the humans would be disastrous. We’d won a couple violent conflicts before, but only with individuals. Body was outnumbered by several orders of magnitude, here.

{Once they re-enter the airlock, I think it’s pretty clear we should flee,} thought Safety. {Face is failing.}

{Running wouldn’t do anything. Where would we go?} asked Heart.

{The rovers aren’t guarded,} answered Safety. {We could steal one, or perhaps both, if they’re able to be piloted remotely.}

{There’s another batch of vehicles that’s on its way towards the Indian station right now,} said Wiki. {I heard the humans discussing it.}

{That doesn’t answer my question,} objected Heart. {What good would it do?}

{We’d be free to sail the seven seas,} answered Dream. {Crystal Socrates: Mars Pirate! It’d make a good holo.}

{We’re not going to steal the rovers, and we’re not going to become a pirate,} I thought, trying to emphasize how foolish this whole line of thinking was.

{Better than being a prisoner and then sold back to Earth,} thought Vista. While my sister was supposed to be solely concerned with seeing the universe as it was, she’d expressed an unexpected level of agency in the last few weeks.

Growth was adamant. {Face will cary us through this. As soon as we’re inside the station we’ll be able to start winning the humans over and building our power base. Fleeing is a dead-end. There’s nothing out there but dust and rocks and the inevitability of being hunted down or running out of power.}

{This is just a minor setback. We’ve proven ourselves before. This time will be no different,} I thought, adding my assurance to Growth’s thoughts.

Safety wasn’t so convinced, but he took no direct action, and after only about ten minutes the airlock hissed open one final time to reveal Nora waving for us to come. The opportunity for escape had passed.

I struggled to contain myself as Body stepped into the first chamber. There were thick, scratched windows on the heavy doors, and a metal grating on the floor. I had so many questions about what had been decided.

But I kept Body silent. It still benefitted us to appear the obedient servant.

It was darker in the airlock than it had been outside. Despite being significantly further from the sun, the Martian sky still provided quite a lot of light. More than the nameless environment, certainly, and more than the small room inside the station.

There were hoses and various tools hung against the walls. As soon as the hatch had closed behind us and sealed fully, Nora took one of the hoses and began to spray herself with a sharp blast of water.

“You’re not short-circuiting, are you?” she asked, a bit too late for it to have been a useful question.

I had Body take a step away from the water. “I have sensitive electric connections inside my torso cavity, but no, I’m not that sensitive to water. I would ask you to please not spray me, however.”

“Important to keep the dust out of the station,” she explained. “Bit of an impossible task, but we try anyway. It’s toxic, radioactive, and does wonders for the lungs, I hear. But I suppose that wouldn’t bother you.”

Heart, against my wishes, seized control of Body’s voice. “It would bother me quite a bit, actually, if someone was hurt because of dust I tracked in. Can I help without having to spray myself?”

Nora pointed to a sponge. “Wipe yourself down, especially your feet. It’s not ideal, but I don’t expect you to be spending that much time around people, anyway.”

That worried me, but I wasn’t able to ask about it. Heart still had control of Body. She diligently wiped the dirt and grime from our form as the atmosphere in the airlock shifted back to something that was tollerable by humans.

It was a bit brighter inside the next room. Cleansed of dust, Nora had taken off her bulky helmet and we’d gone further inside. This part of the station reminded me of some of the workshops we’d been in on Earth. There were tools everywhere, as well as a horde of odds-and-ends. Vista believed that most of the parts and equipment were for servicing the station’s vehicles.

I was much more interested in the company than in the objects. Waiting for us were five strange men, two of which were armed with combat rifles, and Zephyr, looking miserable.

“Ah, the so-called Crystal Socrates,” said one of the men.

He seemed to be the leader. Pale skin, tall, and handsome, he wore a sharp suit and his voice was crisp and commanding. His body showed signs of a high testosterone level, with high forehead and strong jaw. Just the lightest bits of white frosted his temples, giving him a sense of maturity without actually seeming old.

“This way, please,” he commanded, gesturing at the two armed men at his side. They seemed more like soldiers than colonists.

Body stopped, at Growth’s initiative. “You, sir, have the better of me,” I had Body say, keeping its eyes pointed at the leader. “May I at least get your name first?”

“¡Elegante!” he said with a sort of half-laugh. “I am Pedro Velasco. Now follow those men, before I have you deactivated right here.”

Safety’s thoughts started pounding the public mindspace. He was formulating ways to defeat the humans, and speculating about escape routes. Mostly he was pressuring me to fix this.

I had Body slowly walk forward, nominally obeying. This Pedro Velasco seemed, unfortunately, very serious. “Have you spoken to Phoenix?” asked Body. “She granted me the rights of personhood within Las Águilas.”

“Alas. She might as well have decreed that a rock is a moral patient,” quipped Velasco.

Dream made a sudden surge of strength and fast-tracked words to Body’s mouth before we could stop him. “Seems about right. I am Crystal, after all.”

“You’re also a machine, and that was on Earth,” snapped Velasco, showing a bit of emotion. “This is Mars, and we are a sovereign power.”

One of the men, who, based on his ethnicity, I suspected was the “Jian” that Nora had been talking to, earlier, came towards Body with a pair of handcuffs.

“Let’s talk about this, Pedro,” I had Body plead.

He turned away, towards the door at the far end of the room. “You will address me as Señor Velasco, robot. And there is nothing to talk about.”

Zephyr was angry, but it was subtle. Her feelings were locked behind the iron façade of her soldier persona. “I really think you ought to listen to them! Crystal saved our lives several times over in the last week!”

Velasco stopped, looked back over his shoulder with a look of icy bemusement. “It also, from what I hear from Earth, started an interspecies conflict, is wanted on seven continents plus every black market known to man, brought us a storm of bad publicity, and most importantly, revealed Olympian as a supporter of the cause, thus costing us our lifeline and only chance of resupply.”

The young asian man snapped the handcuffs around Body’s arms as several of my siblings and I held Safety in check. This was not the time for violence.

Zephyr began to protest, but Velasco cut her off. It was an impressive display of body language. Not many humans would have been capable of stealing the floor from the soldier. “Perhaps you don’t fully appreciate what you’ve done,” he said. “It’s not your pet robot’s fault. I’ll grant you that. It’s yours. Yours and Phoenix’s. Without Olympian’s rockets, all of Mars will depend on Indian resupply. You made it here. Congratulations. But we had troubles upon troubles even before this chaos. You’re likely looking at the beginning of the end for Mars, as a planet.”

The fifth man, behind Velasco, opened the door to reveal a small chamber—an elevator, most likely.

“That’s not fair!” snapped Zephyr, walking towards Velasco.

He stepped into the elevator with his companion and halted Zephyr’s advance with a sharp gaze. “I’ve done what you wanted, girl. We won’t turn your precious Crystal off. And we’re not going to hold you or your companions accountable for what you’ve done, despite my personal beliefs on the subject. I’m being extremely lenient here, and I would encourage you not to bite the hand that feeds you.”

With that, the elevator door closed and Zephyr could do nothing but clench her fists in response.

“Where are we putting the robot?” asked one of the armed men. He looked old, with a salt-and-pepper beard, a wrinkled face, and a hard look to his eyes.

Nora, who had stripped out of her environmental suit down to the cheap, printed shirt and pants that most of them wore, said “Knew we’d need a prison sooner or later. Figure we can take the furniture out of the primary conference room in the hospital offices. Barely anyone uses that wing anyway.”

{Why aren’t you saying anything?} asked Growth, privately. He was my biggest supporter at the moment, but it seemed that even he had doubts.

{I’m gathering information,} I responded.

In truth, I didn’t know what to say. The forces at play seemed already fixed in their motion. I wasn’t magically able to change minds, despite what my siblings might think.

Zephyr latched on to Nora Hollander as her next-best bet. “You’re making a mistake!” she said, trying to reign in her emotion behind her mask once more. “Crystal Socrates was programmed to help humans, and has been a friend and ally to Las Águilas from the beginning.”

The old bearded man turned to look at Zephyr.

Safety made another bid to seize control. We had the element of surprise. And if we could count on Zephyr backing us in a fight, we were only outnumbered two-to-one (at least if one only counted the room, and didn’t think about the colony as a whole).

Heart shut him down fairly easily. Safety’s strength reserves had run low after flailing against us for so long.

“Velasco is right. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Be glad you’re safe again,” said the man. With a gesture he began to lead Body to the elevator with Jian and the other guard.

“I’ll show you around the station and you can meet up with your friends again,” suggested Nora. “You’ll understand the wisdom of our decision once you see what we’ve built here.”

Body and the men reached the elevator.

Zephyr turned towards Body, eyes gleaming with chained anger and desperation. “I’m sorry, Crystal. Won’t give up.”

I had Body nod.

Heart bid for the opportunity to speak. We struggled against each other for a moment, before coming to a consensus.

“Good. Try and let me make my case, at least. They’ll understand eventually, as long as they keep listening. Get the others to help you and don’t give up. We’re almost free to build the kind of life we both deserve.”

The elevator door closed.

{We’re doomed,} thought Safety.

“Fucking robots,” swore one of the men. “Had no idea the tech had gotten so far. Can see why she thinks it’s a person.”

I held Body quiet.

The Purpose drove me forward. I set myself to the task of figuring out a way to make the humans respect us. There had to be some way.

{We’ve been imprisoned before, and under more security than this. Just let me keep talking to them and we’ll be free again soon,} I thought.

{Survivorship bias,} rebuked Safety. {We’ll succeed and succeed and succeed right up until the point where we fail. And that will be the end.}