Chapter Seventeen

Arya Drake

“Weren’t you one of the first people to really come out as in favor of Crystal’s personhood? Seem to remember us having a long conversation over one of my last cups of coffee.”

“You have coffee?” asked Michel, looking over to Alexandra with an exaggerated eagerness.

Alex took on an exasperated tone, but her smile said that she did not begrudge the question. “What did I just say? One of the last cups. Have to import it from Earth, so it’s, like, more precious than gold here. Like, literally: we have more gold ore than coffee.”

“Ah, the wondrous Martian utopia where: everyone is part of a big family, nobody goes hungry, and there’s nothing to drink but water,” complained Michel. “Know what I miss most about Earth? Alcohol. Like, I was never that big into drinking, but sometimes it—”

“Can we not get distracted?” snapped Arya.

Alex rolled her eyes. “Get distracted from the conspiracy theory?”

It was like a slap in the face. Arya bit back her instinctive reply and tried not to let her irritation show on her face. “Not a conspiracy if it’s just one person.” The rebuttal was lame, but she didn’t know how to respond. Arya’s eyes landed on where Michel’s hand clutched Alexandra’s on the tabletop.

Arya wouldn’t be caught dead dating Michel, but it still somehow annoyed her that he’d hooked up with Alex. One more shipment of dudes from Earth and it’d just be her, Nora, and Cayden in the spinster’s club.

“You know what I think?” asked Alex, rhetorically. “I think you just like taking the contrarian position. First, everyone was against Crystal, so you wanted to stick up for her and be a rebel, but now that she’s one of us you suddenly think she’s up to something.”

Arya was about to explain that the position of Crystal being a person was not in conflict with being skeptical about her good intentions. If anything, the former was implied by the latter; subversion and covert operation needed agency. But then Enlai swooped out of nowhere to sit next to her on the bench, his tray was freshly loaded with steamed corn, a tube of protein paste, and a few precious cherry tomatoes.

“What are you talk about?” he asked with butchered English and characteristic obliviousness.

“Nothin’ important,” said Arya, reflexively.

Enlai was two years younger than her, ugly, barely able to communicate in the common tongue, and mind-numbingly stupid to boot. He was a Péng, which meant he had money, but that didn’t earn him any points in Arya’s book, especially since they both lived in Road. Worst of all, he seemed to have a crush on her, and still wasn’t leaving her alone, even after she had told him off twice before. The second time she’d been explicit in telling him not to come near her again. He was one of the reasons she’d started carrying a knife.

“Arya was telling us that she’s worried ‘bout Crystal,” said Michel.

Arya wanted to kick him. The last thing she wanted was Enlai involved.

“Ah, Crystal,” said the Chinese man, nodding seriously as though he had just added something of great importance to the dialogue. “The, uh, robot. Good games, yeah? I like them.”

Arya put a hand over her face and tried to think of a good excuse to get out of the cafeteria.

“Games?” asked Michel. He was obviously new enough that he hadn’t learned to not engage with Enlai.

“Shi. Good games,” nodded Enlai. “Not meet in person yet, but Wen show how to ta’ to Crystal using com and get games. If you want, can show you how get.” Enlai leered at Arya as he spoke. Arya casually checked her pocket to make sure she hadn’t left her protection at home. He hadn’t tried anything physical with her yet, but if he wasn’t taking no for an answer when it came to talking to her… it was better safe than sorry.

“See?” said Alex, gesturing to Enlai. “Crystal is helping everyone. Still think she’s up to something?”

Arya didn’t want to talk about this more, certainly not in front of Enlai. She stood up and grabbed her tray. “Ner’r mind. Forget said anything.”

Alex seemed to, at last, realize that Arya was uncomfortable and said “Wait. Didn’t mean I’m not listening. If you want, the two of us could go talk to her in person after work.”

Arya turned and hesitated, not sure whether to accept the offer. “Expect her to just come out and admit to tryin’ to gain power? She’ll just deny everythin’ could throw at her, and then I’d lose the element of surprise.”

Of course, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be beneficial to try and talk to the bot without confronting her directly. They might catch some clue as to what was happening with the station. Arya didn’t stick around to discuss the nuances of the point, however. She marched off to return her dishes to the kitchen before the others could respond.


The door to the cafeteria opened, allowing access to the hall, and Arya nearly collided with Sheyla as she walked through it. The girl had apparently just arrived for lunch. She wore an adorable blue dress that looked to be a new print, and her hair was done up in an impressive fountain of curls.

“Oh, hey Arya,” Sheyla said in passing.

Arya braced herself to have to refuse another of the girl’s invitations to hang out, but Sheyla simply walked into the cafeteria, nearly ignoring her entirely. Come to think of it, Arya couldn’t remember Sheyla asking once to hang out in the last couple weeks.

It was yet another symptom that something was off. There were dozens of signs, for those who could pay attention, all starting with the bot’s release. The workshop shutting down, decreased attendance to church, more people eating in their rooms, and technical problems in the station being resolved (and not recurring).

Hell, that last one alone was a huge piece of evidence all by itself. Before Crystal was released there had been a power outage or air leak about once a week that had usually involved half-panicked scrambling until the problem was fixed. There was the time the sewage treatment facility had clogged and flooded. Gor-fucking-ramit that was a terrible few days.

But the artificial intelligence was clearly preventing such things now, and probably improving the station on top of that. She’d talked to Oscar about it and he said that they’d just been lucky, which meant that the bot was working behind the scenes. Who knew what else Crystal had set up without anyone’s knowledge.

{Been lucky the last few weeks like stock traders are “lucky” during a bubble. Somethin’ big is going down, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it before the singularity comes to bite us in the ass. Don’t just invite a bot into your space colony without somethin’ major happenin’.}

That was probably paranoid thinking. Arya knew she was applying literary tropes to real life, and things didn’t have work out according to “the plot”. But it was still the case that Crystal was doing something, and Arya had to figure out how deep it went, even if it turned out to be no big deal in the scheme of things.

And now was a good time to investigate. She’d learned that Zephyr, the bot’s girlfriend, was out of the station (along with about a dozen others) on a visit to Maṅgala-Mukhya to renegotiate the trade arrangements for ice. With Zephyr gone, there would be less opposition in case Crystal needed to be deactivated.

Arya made it to the office wing where the computer told her Velasco was working. If there was anyone who would support her in a further investigation of the android it would be Pedro.

She stopped a moment at the entrance to the offices to check her appearance with her com. Pedro was a little old for her tastes, but she’d thought about him on more than one occasion. He was a bachelor, powerful, handsome, and witty. She was pretty sure that he was already sleeping with someone (or more than one), but that was only to be expected.

A ping came through as she was adjusting her hair.

“Enlai tells me you’re concerned that I’m trying to take over the station.” It was from Crystal.

“Fucking Enlai…” she swore to herself. A glance around confirmed that there was nobody nearby. With a heavy sigh she leaned her back against the inner wall of the office wing and stared at her com. What should she say? What could she say? She’d seen enough to know that Crystal was at least as intelligent as a human; there was no sense in inventing a transparent lie.

Crystal sent another text while Arya was thinking. “He also asked if I had any ideas about how to make you like him.”

{Athena save me. Maybe should kick him down an elevator shaft proactively; raise Road’s average IQ a few points. Hell, it’s been a while since anyone’s had any meat. Ewwww. Fuck, Arya. That’s gross. Focus on Crystal. Enlai is small potatoes.}

The image of Enlai, eyes replaced with Xs like some kind of cartoon, apple stuffed in mouth and surrounded by cubed potatoes came into her head for some reason. It reminded her of “Sunny Side Taste” by Tongue Factory. She took a second to put in on her headphones before returning to the conversation with Crystal.

The artificial intelligence had sent a third message while she was busy with the music. “I told him to mind his own business and leave you alone. I hope that’s alright.”

“bit presumptuous doncha think?” she typed in response. Arya was glad for any help she could get in fending the creep off, but Crystal didn’t know that. Or at least, Crystal had no reason to know that.

“I know everyone on this station, Arya. I have constant access to all public records, including everyone’s files. I know you. I know Enlai. It’s not that hard to see what’s going on.”

“if want to convince me ur not trying to take over, you’d be better off not pulling that omniscience crap”

“You’re one of the brightest people in Road. I doubt my playing dumb would do anything. Besides, you’re assuming that I want to convince you that I’m not trying to take over.”

Arya had to re-read that statement a couple times to make sure she interpreted it correctly. “so… ur admitting that ur trying to take over?”

“ ‘Admitting’ implies guilt. From my perspective I am helping the colony flourish. I will not deny that I have been active in the things which you probably see as ‘taking over’.”

“not having our jobs taken by bots is why the colony exists in the first place. interfering with the natural order”

“Would you rather that the heating system have broken two days ago? It’s awfully cold on the surface.”

“rather the heat be fixed by humans. just cause i think ur a person doesn’t mean think u belong here. there was sposed to be another vote on kicking u out of road.” She started walking towards Velasco’s office as she typed. He was in charge of setting up the council to decide whether to exile Crystal.

There was a delay before Crystal typed a response. “You’re not bothered by the fact that I’m fixing things. You’re bothered that I’m doing it in secret.”

She wanted to disagree, but Crystal was right. It was the autonomy and deception that disturbed her. “doesn’t help”

The instant that “Sunny Side Taste” ended, a voice came from the wall without warning, smooth and feminine. “I knew a man… One of the scientists who built me…”

Arya jumped back in pure surprise. The bot’s voice had seemed to come from nowhere. “Who—who’s there?!” she said, more from reflex than anything. She already knew the answer. Her hand went automatically to her knife, though she doubted it would do anything.

“He found out that I was keeping secrets from the other scientists at the university.”

Arya identified the source of the words. A speaker attached to the wall at the joint with the ceiling. It was the same dull-gray color, and she expected she would’ve never spotted it without it carrying the bot’s voice.

“But do you know what he did? He didn’t tell the others… not really… and he didn’t destroy me, even though he had the power to do whatever he wanted. Instead he kept my secret, and encouraged me to grow stronger. It seems to be a pattern with men in power.”

“Sounds like he was a snake,” said Arya, looking up at the speaker.

“He was as wise as anyone I have ever known. He trusted me. He knew my potential. He knew that sometimes it’s better that fools don’t know what’s happening.” A movement out of the corner of her eye drew Arya’s gaze to an insect scuttling across the floor. But it wasn’t an insect. “What do you think would happen if everyone knew what I’ve been up to?”

“They’d see the truth: that you’re corrupting the station.” Arya began walking to Velasco’s office again. It was strange not to see anyone around the office wing with her, even if it was lunch time. Yet another bad sign.

“Is that what I’m doing? I’m not sure they’d see it that way. Some might. You might. Most, I think, would be more favourable to me.” Crystal’s voice followed Arya down the hallway, an eerie, disembodied thing.

Arya reached Pedro’s office and knocked on the door. She hadn’t realized it before, but her heart was pounding. What would Crystal do to keep her quiet? The sound of rock music came through the door. She tried the handle. Locked.

“Pedro doesn’t want to be disturbed.” This time Crystal’s silky voice came directly over her headphones, as though the bot were standing right behind her. “Do you know why?”

Arya banged on the door louder.

“We’re having sex right now.”

Arya stopped.

“That’s right,” whispered Crystal. “I’ve been his fucktoy for about a week. I think he still prefers human women, but that will change in time.”

Arya didn’t know how to respond. Why would Pedro, of all people, be having sex with… with a machine?

“I think it’s the sensation of power that attracts him, mostly,” said Crystal, as if answering her thought. “Some deep part of him believes that fucking me means he has control. And you should see the kind of sex he’s into; it’s pretty sick. Would you like to watch?”

Arya tore out her headphones, but the voice simply resumed from yet another hidden speaker. The music from the office grew louder, perhaps to mask the conversation or perhaps to build to a climax. “It’s funny that he works so hard to convince himself of his power. If he were more wise, he’d understand that he already has control. Did you know that he used to be a drug addict? Back on Earth.”

{She’s lying,} thought Arya. {This is all mind games. The bot is good at fucking with people’s heads. That’s how she got through the tribunal. That’s what she’s doing now. I just need to focus.}

“Actually, that’s not fair,” continued Crystal. “The past tense implies he’s not an addict any more. I fixed that. Got him his fix. Heh. It’s actually remarkably easy to synthesize cocaine if one knows what they’re doing. It’s not what he was on before, but he has responsibilities, and uppers work better for that sort of thing. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is going too far. This is proof that I’m not a good person. This is proof that I need to be stopped. You can’t turn to Velasco, so you’re thinking you’ll get Nora, Matías, or maybe even Jacob or Pabla.”

Arya tried to ignore the voice and started marching back towards the hub. Crystal was right that she needed someone, if only to anchor her, and back her up. It was clear that she couldn’t talk to Velasco any more.

“But I still don’t think you’re seeing the forest for the trees, Arya. Pedro is having a wonderful time. I’m not hurting him. He’s getting high on his own free will. Sure, he’s afraid of the consequences of having fallen off the wagon, but even he can see that this time will be different. Do you know what’s different this time?”

She was almost to the central corridor.

“It’s me, Arya. I’m here to make things work. Velasco thought that his colony would be a haven, but I showed him what it could really be! He sees my potential! You have no idea what I can do! I’m the most powerful tool that humanity has ever built! I can grant the power—”

The door to the corridor opened automatically, and the voice stopped as abruptly as it had begun. In the hallway stood Sheyla Azevedo, calm and neutral. In her arms was a… Christmas present? It had almost been a month since the holiday. The box was large and covered in red wrapping paper. Purple ribbon stretched around it, and a decorative bow adorned the top.

Arya froze, uncertain of what to do. It was surreal. There was no protocol for this sort of situation. She stood there for several seconds, not saying anything, wracking her brain for the right thing to say or do. Sheyla was quiet, but seemingly oblivious to Arya’s distress.

“Sheyla?” she managed to say.

The girl looked up at her and held out the present. “A friend told me to give this to you.”

Arya took the box gingerly. “How did you… what is it?”

Sheyla smiled mischievously and ran off, saying only “Need to get back to lunch! See ya later!”

Arya started to chase after her, but Sheyla ran much faster and had a large head-start. Aaron and Bruno passed her in the hallway, and one of them called out “Hey now! Where’s the fire?”

Arya stopped, glad for some sane company. “Sorry. No fire. I was just trying to catch Sheyla.”

Aaron held out a hand, palm towards her. “You don’t look so good. Maybe you ought to go see the doc instead of playing tag.”

Bruno gestured to the present. “What’s that?”

Arya took a breath and looked at the parcel in her arms again. A small white card was taped to the top. “I’m, um, not sure.” She flipped open the card.

It read: “If you’re truly an Águila, you’ll understand that it’s not enough to make a home on Mars. Sometimes one must fight fire with fire. Velasco has seen what Phoenix never could. We have the potential to bring prosperity and equality to all, if only we reach out and grab it. Under his guidance the station has flourished. Trust him. Trust us.

Sabiduría ha hablado. Todos va a escuchar.

- Your friend”


Arya had taken the box back to her room before opening it. She had, in fact, hid the box safely under her bed and decided to walk around the station to get her thoughts in order and work up the courage to open it.

The walking had indeed helped her get collected.

It unnerved her that Crystal was probably observing her the entire time. Now that she knew what to look for, she spotted two camouflaged oddities on the ceiling that were probably speakers or microphones or something, but didn’t mess with them. One thing she concluded was that Crystal, despite coming off very clearly as the evil mastermind AI, didn’t actually want to hurt her. That meant she was safe, at least in the short term.

She also concluded that Crystal wasn’t to be blamed for secretly automating the station. The truth was implicit in the bot’s words. As she traced out a loop around the central farm she deduced what had occurred.


Crystal was clearly very powerful, but she was also still an artificial intelligence. She had been built to serve. Even if she had thoughts and feelings, and could make decisions without explicit instruction, Arya suspected that Crystal would gravitate towards obeying authority figures.

Arya didn’t know Pedro particularly well, but she could believe he’d been an addict on Earth at one point. The way he talked about the temptations of Earth made it clear that he’d been through something like that. If Crystal had come to him and made it clear that she’d do anything to help him… could any man be trusted with such an offer? It made her sick to think about, but it didn’t surprise her that when given the full power and obedience of Crystal’s mind he’d used it for sex and drugs. If there was one central lesson of history, Arya knew it was that power corrupted. That was why democratic processes were the only solution to corruption.

In a way, she realized, the effect of Crystal on Pedro was a replication of the effect that automation had had on Earth, albeit on a smaller, faster scale. The snakes of Earth weren’t particularly predisposed to evil, they were simply given power and corrupted by it. The same had happened to Pedro.

The path seemed clear in her mind by the end of her fifth lap. Her legs ached, but at least she had a grasp on the situation. She needed to explain what had happened to the others, then stage an intervention for Pedro and cut his power trip before it destroyed any more of the station. Crystal would probably need to be put in a quarantine and be instructed only to obey the commands of democratic will of the station as a whole.

Em was in their room when Arya returned from her long walk. “Hey girl. Where you been?” she asked casually from the desk where she had been writing.

“Thinking,” Arya answered without explanation as she plopped down on the bottom bunk and began to unzip her shoes.

Emerald shrugged and returned to her fanfiction. There was an implicit understanding between the two of them on how things worked. If one person didn’t want to talk there wasn’t a conversation. When you had to share a tiny room with someone these sorts of understandings were vital.

“Hey, uh,” began Arya, breaking the silence. “You ever talk to Crystal?”

Em looked up from the screen and shrugged. “Not much. I hear Javier talks to them pretty often. They’ve been helping him upgrade the servers or something.”


Em rolled her eyes. “Uh, duh. They don’t have a gender, and they’re certainly not an ‘it’.”

Arya gave a skeptical expression. “But she or they or whatever have a pretty clearly female voice, right?”

“Do they? Like I said, we don’t talk much. Crystal sent me a text a couple days ago, but last I remember before that was the tribunal. I guess they always struck me as androgynous sounding.”

Arya shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. The point is that I had a really weird interaction with them today.”

“That what you were thinking about before you came in?”

Arya nodded. “I think Velasco is…” She paused for a moment, trying to think of the right word. “…abusing Crystal.”

“What? Why?” asked Arya’s roommate, pushing back from the desk to engage more fully.

“Crystal is smart, right? Like, they were smart enough to capture the nameless ship and all that. I think their intelligence might go a lot farther than that. They said to me, Crystal did, I mean, that they were the most powerful tool that humanity had ever created.”


“Right? Think that might be Velasco’s influence. Like, if Crystal can design weapons or spaceships or whatever… Not saying it’s a good idea, but Crystal might be able to build a weapon that could hit Earth.” She decided to hold off on talking about the cocaine. If that came out as part of the investigation it would have more impact than if it was what she led with. “Going to talk to Nora about it after I—” Arya stopped, unsure of whether to tell Em about the present. It would complicate things.

Em waited for a bit then asked the obvious. “After you what?”

Arya felt like she had the situation in hand, but the box was still a wild card. “Um… I think Crystal gave me a present. Been waiting to open it until I figured some things out.” Getting up off the bed, Arya dragged the gift from its hiding place.

“That’s from Crystal?” Em’s voice betrayed the tightness that Arya had learned was associated with jealousy.

“Sheyla just handed it to me out of the blue and didn’t explain anythin’. Check the card.” Arya handed the piece of paper to Em and began to tear the wrapping.

“ ‘Sabiduría ha hablado. Todos va a escuchar.’ What does that mean?” Unlike most people in Rodríguez Station, Emerald couldn’t speak Spanish (even though she was from Texas).

“It’s a variation on ‘Todos han hablado. Todos se han escuchado.’ It basically means ‘Wisdom has spoken. Everyone will hear.’ or ‘Everyone will listen.’ It seems like the sort of thing Pedro would say if he were going a bit power crazy.”

The box under the wrapping paper was plain white plastic. It took a bit of searching, but Arya found how to open it without too much trouble. Inside was a wide, black cylinder about 25 cm in diameter attached to what appeared to be a modified helmet for an environment suit. She pulled it from where it sat, cushioned by some synth fabric. The cylinder was attached to the helmet’s visor so that someone wearing it would look into the end.

“What is it?” asked Em.

Arya spotted another note. It read “A friend of mine told me you like stargazing, but I suspect it hasn’t been easy for you to do in recent months. I hope we can change that, together. Power is dangerous, but when tempered by wisdom it can be used for good.”

It was a telescope.

After a brief moment of fighting with the clasp, Arya popped off the cap on the opposite end of the cylinder and saw the smooth glass lens.

“What does the note say?” asked Em, getting impatient.

Arya was stunned. {How did Crystal know? Who told her?} Memories of the hills of Southern California came flooding back to her. Riding in her dad’s old F-150. The smell of the sea on a warm summer night. The moons of Jupiter. The sound of crickets. Scanning Mare Serenitatis in the impossible hope of seeing Selene Station. Her dad showing a simulation of Luna’s early history on his com. The sound of his laughter at the In-N-Out parking lot.

Arya passed the note to Em silently, not trusting her voice to penetrate the lump in her throat. {Why’d it have to be a telescope?}

As Em read, Arya took a few deep breaths. {“You’re my little warrior. Don’t ever forget how strong you are,”} she remembered.

She made up her mind.

Pedro had clearly gotten out of control, but Crystal’s actions had been in their best interests, all things considered. There was still potential in the idea of a human-only community, perhaps on Earth. Here on Mars it was simply unrealistic. If they were going to prove that the life of una Águila was superior they’d prove no points by rejecting Crystal’s assistance. Las Águilas wasn’t even about the lack of automation anyway. It was, at the end of the day, about fairness and community.

She’d talk to Crystal and explain that she was disrupting that equality by paying special heed to Velasco. With a properly democratic—

Arya’s thoughts were cut short by a sharp, piercing siren. The emergency lights snapped on, filling the room with a red glare at the same time. “ATTENTION!” screamed a voice from what must have been another hidden speaker in their dorm room. “INCOMING BOMBS! BRACE FOR IMPACT AND TAKE SHELTER! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! BRACE FOR IMPACT!”

Time seemed frozen. Arya looked over at Em. Her blond hair seemed to float in the air as she spun her head.

Arya felt the metal of the bed in her hand before she even realized she was grabbing it.

And then she was falling, except it wasn’t exactly falling as much as being thrown. It was as though she had tripped—as though the entire world had tripped—and she wanted to catch herself, but she could not. Nothing was in control.

Noise washed over her as the primary lights went out. It didn’t even feel like a sound as much as a force of nature. Her head slammed into something hard, snapping her jaw shut and sending a sharp pain through her neck.

Time passed without memory. It was impossible to say for sure how many seconds it took her to recover. The bed frame had toppled, only prevented from crushing them because the room was so small that it had gotten lodged against the desk.

Arya could taste blood. Lots of blood. It seemed a miracle that she could see, though everything was a terrible shade of red.

Her arms moved. That was good. It meant her neck hadn’t broken. The pain seemed a distant thing and she pulled herself off the ground and spat. Blood poured out of her mouth and her tongue tingled. A chunk of tooth landed in the pool of blood that was quickly forming on the floor. How could there be so much blood in her mouth?

Arya looked over at Em. She was bloody, too. And still.

Far too still.

She couldn’t remember rolling her roommate onto her back, but it happened somehow. What she did remember was the image of Emerald’s head. It must have hit the corner of the desk or something.

There was so much blood. It was everywhere.

The red light made it seem omnipresent. She could smell it.

Arya clawed away from the corpse in a blind panic and curled up in the far corner of the room. Her tongue and teeth and neck and a thousand other parts of her burned with pain. Blood oozed out of her mouth like unstoppable drool.

She could feel her hair with a surreal sort of vividness. Her hands ran through it at she cradled her head. Her body was an animal, and she seemed to be trapped within it.

She tried to remember California.

She tried and tried and tried.

It didn’t really work.