Chapter Six


Despite having days and days to think of a solution, we were still divided on how best to land on Mars. The problem was multifaceted. All of us understood that the first priority was keeping Body intact. If Body was destroyed it would disempower us from pursuing our goals (or in Safety’s case it would simply be failure). An easy side effect of protecting Body would be protecting the humans, as Heart and I were inclined to do. But would it also be good to protect the nameless?

The aliens were, in a major way, our enemies. Most, if not all of them, would try and kill us once they figured out that we were lying. But if it were possible to kill all the nameless on the ship, would it be in our interests to do so? The humans didn’t want the walker children to die, but I could probably spin anything that damaged the ship into an accident, to diffuse the blame. It wouldn’t satisfy Heart, but my sister understood that it was better to sacrifice a small thing for a greater reward.

The important question was what the reaction of the mothership would be. The xenocruiser was but a tiny branch off the primary vessel. As best we could tell, the nameless held no particular affection for their cousins on other ships, or even between gardens on the same ship. They would not mourn the loss, or even find their absence to be an economic or intellectual burden. But destroying the xenocruiser would mark us as an enemy to the nameless. They might not retaliate out of love or anger, but they could certainly strike back out of fear.

Complicating matters was the fact that we had no idea whether the nameless on the xenocruiser were communicating with the mothership. We reasoned that they must have been, but none of the stalks we communicated with had any knowledge of it. From the perspective of the individuals, “God” was simply going to Mars because of their prayers. None of them knew how to actually fly the ship, operate any of its external sensors, or use the communications equipment directly.

Wiki was under the opinion that the nameless ships had been built by “adult nameless”. Under this theory all the nameless we encountered—all the stalks, specifically—were children who had been sent out into the galaxy to explore, without any of the knowledge of their forebears. The nameless had no books (or written language at all), and thus no concept of what had come before them except for what they could learn from older stalks. But like all oral traditions, the story of the nameless origins was masked behind an unknown number of “retellings”. The stalks appeared to have indefinite lifespans; their bodies could become diseased by cancer or infection, but these risks were low, and did not appear to increase with age, unlike for humans or walkers. (Walkers, it seemed, lived a couple decades at most.) Stalk-5 in our garden claimed to be more than 739 years old (more precisely: “84288 days since counting began”), but even it had never shared thoughts with a walker that had witnessed its homeworld.

By this theory, the nameless ships were controlled by an AI that responded to the collective will, or “prayers”, of the stalks. All attempts at communicating with the intelligence failed, however, leading us to the theory that it was not generally intelligent, but was instead a narrow mind, capable only of thinking and planning in the domain of ship piloting.

But if this were all true, the nameless would be effectively blind to the outside of the ship. How did they hear communications from Earth? How did they know where the other ships were? The stalks were unable to answer our questions. There was a concept barrier that prevented any of us from fully understanding the other minds. The stalks claimed that they simply knew, just like they knew they were flying towards Mars and just like they knew that the mothership had not left high orbit around Earth.

If the xenocruiser was destroyed upon reaching Mars, the nameless on the mothership would surely know that it had disappeared, but what else would they know? Would they know it had been hijacked? Would they know it had been intentionally destroyed? If they already knew what we had done, there was little point to trying to destroy the cruiser, but if we could prevent the information of our actions from leaking out to the wider nameless community, it would be worthwhile. Dream, Vista, Heart, and I were the primary proponents of trying to destroy the ship, if it would better preserve our reputation.

Growth, interestingly enough, was on the side of letting the nameless go free, regardless of the state of knowledge, rather than trying to somehow destroy the xenocruiser. Safety agreed with Growth, but for entirely opposite reasons. Safety was so present oriented that he thought there was too much danger in trying to sabotage the entire xenocruiser. We had seen the nameless ships break up into shuttles capable of descending into Earth’s gravity well, and he thought it best to attempt to replicate that proven method of descent rather than risk, say, slamming the entire xenocruiser into Mars and bracing ourselves in protective foam, as Dream insisted we try.

Growth’s perspective took the very-long view. He thought that as long as we were going to keep Zephyr and the other humans alive, they would eventually leak the information back to Earth, and from Earth it would reach the nameless. Trying to keep the secret was impossible in the long run, unless we became far more homicidal than Heart or I were willing to be. When the truth came out, it would not help our position to have killed an entire ship full of aliens (including alien children) to save face.

Once the stalks in the garden told us that we had arrived in orbit around Mars, Wiki sided with Growth and Safety. He pointed out that while the nameless and the humans appeared to be destined for conflict, we still might salvage some neutrality. The nameless continued to think of us more like a stalk than a walker (more like a valuable equal), and if we could manage things correctly we might be able to use the nameless as trade partners. Trading during wartime was very profitable, according to Wiki, assuming we could maintain that neutrality.

In order to better preserve relations with the nameless, Wiki wanted to tell them of our deception as soon as we were out of danger. They’d find the information valuable and perhaps soothe the harm that we had done. Safety, Heart and I thought that was idiotic, but the challenge was an irresistible lure for Dream. My inventive brother changed his position to favour Wiki’s plan, and Vista followed without explanation.

Heart and I were the last holdouts for the plan to try and disable or destroy the xenocruiser. As it was, we were outnumbered, and had no choice. So we compromised. We agreed to support the plan to try and take a shuttle or shuttles down to the planet’s surface if and only if we did not tell the nameless about our deception. It was still a weapon, and one that the humans could probably use in the coming conflict.

Our compromise irritated Dream, but if he switched back he’d be alone.


We’d worked out everything we could think of, and had told the humans. They were working to get packed up while we topped off the batteries and discussed things with the nameless.

Over the days I had learned that there were ways of talking to them that didn’t trigger such a strongly negative reaction. The stalks were interested in learning, and were often agreeable to new information. Only communication that was too meta, or was unclear in purpose seemed to really bother them. Wiki suspected it had to do with the mind-machine interfaces they used. It was one thing to learn a new fact, but quite another to have another person seemingly inside your head.

“I am Crystal. I am curious whether all the children are ready for transport.”

“I am Stalk-6. Walker children have been told what is happening and have prepared the factory for the STRONG CONQUERERS WHO WE ARE EXPECTING WITH JOY FEELINGS!”


“I am Stalk-5. The children must meditate before they leave or you will have child corpses in the near future.”

“I am Crystal. That is acceptable. Send them to the garden.”

“I am Stalk-5. The walker children are walking there. You should REINFORCE your desire. Should murder ALL of them when you arrive at Mars. SHOULD NOT COMMUNICATE WITH THEM! CHILDREN ARE FOR SACRIFICING! CHILDREN ARE NOT FOR PERVERTING!”


“I am Crystal. Should be calm. My mind is unchanged. I will murder all the children after they have served me.”


“I am Crystal. I am curious how I will know when the boats are ready.”

“I am Stalk-8. The boats are ready now. When you leave we will feel INTENSE JOY!”

“I am Crystal. I am curious about the location of the boats.”

“I am Stalk-1. You are an idiot. The boats are in the water. Leave the castle and go to the water. You will see boats there. God will take care of the rest.”

We didn’t send any more radio signals and neither did the nameless. They had no customs for starting or ending conversations, which suited us just fine. After another dozen minutes we judged the batteries sufficiently charged and sent Body back to the central garden.

Zephyr and the others were nearly ready to go when Body returned. There were a few last-minute things to manage, such as redistributing the remaining supplies into printed satchels. The original plan was to have everyone in a single ship, but the nameless had told us that this was not “the will of God” for some reason that didn’t translate. So the large containers that we were using had to be divided in the case that the shuttles got separated in the descent or one of them didn’t make it.

I saw the young walkers “meditating” on the stalks. It was, in a sense, their last meal, and the last time they’d have contact with the closest thing they had to family.

Earlier, when the children had come to meditate, there had been nine. There were only three now: the three that lived in the factory beneath the garden. They were the children, more or less, of the walker called Jester, though I had learned that because of their two-animal nature they would sometimes swap sections with the “wild” children that wandered the islands looking for stalk contact, making their true parentage a bit more complex.

E.T., Pulpo, and Sulk were spaced so evenly in height that Wiki suspected there was a cap on child-bearing that was evident in their ages, though he had not asked the stalks how old they were. E.T. was the youngest and tiniest, rising to a mere half metre in height like some kind of eight-limbed doll; they had been the one who waved to Zephyr days ago, and were the most bold and fearless.

Sulk, on the other hand, was the oldest child of Jester. Wiki reasoned that if we hadn’t hijacked their garden, Sulk would have taken over as gardener (though Wiki also speculated that the more aggressive neighbours would have tried to murder them). They were taller than their siblings, but still only came up to about 140cm in height, even counting their 16cm penis. Sulk wasn’t nearly as capricious as their younger siblings, and moved with the caution of someone who knew just how dangerous strangers could be.

Pulpo was the middle child. They had been one of the juggling children from that first day, and even now as they meditated on the stalk they tossed a ball between their hands idly. At just under a metre tall, Pulpo was most easily distinguished by a vaguely green pattern above the eyes on the top animal. Like seemingly all of the nameless world, walkers were essentially black, but the exact shade varied across individuals and these dark-green splashes were enough to identify them, even if not particularly bright.

It didn’t take much longer to finish packing up, and the children finished their last communion not long after. I could see them abandon the coms they held in the mouths on their undersides. The stalks didn’t want them communicating with us, and they were as good as dead anyway. The stalks probably didn’t want to waste perfectly good alien coms on sacrifices.

E.T. came up to us shortly after and gestured for us to follow them towards the tunnel through the wall that led out of the garden. It was a remarkably human gesture.

Body picked up the makeshift cart that we had printed. It would let us carry the tents and other supplies without having to take multiple trips. The cart’s foot-tipped spokes padded along over the vines as we left the garden. It was probably hurting them, but it didn’t matter much any more. We left behind a good deal of trash and useless gear, but that didn’t matter either.

We found ourselves outside the castle walls for the first time since the battle that had happened a few days earlier. Vista spotted the corpse of one of the attackers a few dozen metres out, struck down by one of the rockets that the stalks had been hoarding.

We didn’t move towards it, but instead followed the children around the edge of the outer wall towards the rear of the castle. The ocean stretched out forever in what I knew must be a clever optical illusion behind the castle. Before too long we encountered the “boats” that we had arranged to carry us to Mars.

The boats apparently required a walker to function, which was why we needed the children. Safety had, at first, thought about perhaps trying to get adult walkers to pilot the craft. But after being assured that there was no skill in piloting a boat (only “will”) it became clear that adult walkers would serve as more of a risk and hassle than anything else.

The boats were made of sheet metal and had the same hand-crafted aesthetic as all the nameless artefacts. We speculated for a time as to whether the vessels were genuinely made by the hands of the nameless on the xenocruiser, or whether they were a part of the ship as a whole and made by whomever had built it.

There were seven of us and three boats. After a short discussion we divided into groups. Michel and Nathan would go with Sulk, the twins would go with Pulpo, and E.T. would escort Body and the women. The boats were small: only about two metres long and a metre wide inside. The tightest fit was the boat that carried Zephyr, Kokumo, E.T., and Body, but E.T. made it work by sitting on Zephyr’s lap.

There were no oars or directions on the barren metal boats, but as soon as we all were situated they lurched into motion, propelled by an unknown force.

“Remember, the nameless should know exactly where to go. We’ve given them the same instructions and there’s nothing really to do before we land. Just trust them and don’t do anything to scare them. Try to minimize conversation if you can,” instructed Body.

“I don’t think I could scare this little guy if I tried,” said Zephyr. I could see E.T. gripping her hand tightly at the front of the boat and fidgeting around. “He’s so curious. See?”

“Yes. We’re lucky to have children as guides. This would have been much more complicated with adults. Keep them close. I expect they can swim, but we shouldn’t test it,” said Body.

The boats drifted slowly out into the ocean. I expected to be able to see the edges of the ship quickly, but we managed at least a hundred metres out into the water before anything happened, and even when it did the illusion of the sky stretching down to the distant horizon was unbroken.

Without warning, three shimmering metal portals emerged from the surface of the water, ringed by metal rims. They had the same character as the doorway to the airlock we had come through before, but honestly I do not remember much about going through them. Before I knew what was happening, we were on the other side.

The boat we had been riding in was gone, replaced by a small, dark room of precise grey plates lit only by the glistening metal portal we had just exited.

There was no more gravity. Body and the others drifted about the chamber freely, along with our gear.

“That was fucking wild! Did—does anyone know what—I don’t know what just happened!” sputtered Zephyr on the com.

“It wahs quite strange,” agreed Kokumo with characteristic reservedness.

I wished that I knew what to say, but the experience seemed normal to me. Perhaps the humans had been affected by the transition differently.

As I surveyed our new location, it became clear to me that the chamber was not empty. On each wall were soft shapes, curves of grey that blended in with the plates. The infrared spectrum and the temperature sensors in Body’s hand told us, as Body touched a wall, that the walls of the room were not metal. They were warm and soft, almost like foam.

{The craft is shaped to hold three humanoids and the small walker. Attend to the stalk analogue at the fore of the craft,} instructed Vista.

I followed her highlight and found a protrusion on the other side of Zephyr with what appeared to be fine silver hairs covering it. E.T. had already begun to move towards the interface.

{The other structures appear to be pads.} Vista highlighted some indents in the wall-lumps. {These probably extend to wrap around the body.}

“We need to get tucked away before E.T. does. I’m afraid that the ship’s going to start moving soon,” said Body at the combined direction of Safety and myself. “Kokumo, you take that side, and Zephyr can take the other. I’ll secure myself adjacent to the walker.”

It took a moment for the humans to orient themselves in the zero gravity and find their way into position. Body moved more quickly, relying on Vista’s direction, though we dealt with the gear first. There were subtle hooks set into the walls that could grasp the bags with the environment tent and the small cache of food, water, and batteries we’d brought. Again, it was as though the space had been designed for us.

As Body lay down on the pads, we found that bindings naturally emerged from the chaotic shapes and could be pulled across Body to secure it firmly to the wall. Despite the absence of gravity, it was clear that the shuttle had an up and down. The stalk interface was on the bottom, and both human-shaped sockets on the side walls were oriented with the feet pointing to the floor.

As soon as E.T. settled onto the artificial stalk, the metallic portal began to collapse into the ceiling. In seconds, the cabin was nearly totally dark, with the only lights being the vaguely luminescent freckles at the base of E.T.’s penis and the occasional check light on the humans’ environment suits. I could vaguely see, thanks to the infrared light radiating from everything, but I knew the humans would be almost totally blind.

About half a minute passed in silence. Everyone was wrapped in tightly, waiting for something to happen.

“What are—” began Zephyr just as the craft accelerated abruptly. If we hadn’t been strapped to the walls we would have been (subjectively) flung against the wall of the shuttle through which we had come. There was no sign of a doorway or hatch now. I wondered how we were supposed to get out once it landed.

The ship shifted directions several times, each more smoothly than at the start. Wiki was tracking the relative position as derived from the integrals of our acceleration for some asinine reason.

“Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit,” I heard Zephyr chanting under her breath.

“Why do they noht have windows? I feel like I ahm een a package bein’ delivahd through tha mail,” complained Kokumo.

“We’re fine. This is fine,” whispered Zephyr.

“The nameless aren’t as strongly visual as we are. I’m sure there are cameras on the ship, but they’re feeding the knowledge directly to E.T. over there. The walker would rather know through the computer what is going on than be able to see it themselves.”

“Do you think we’re in Mars’ atmosphere yet?” asked Zephyr nervously.

“No. It’ll still be a little while, I expect. When we enter the atmosphere the ship should start to vibrate. You’ll feel it.”


“It’s okay, Zephyr. We’re going to be fine.”

“How do you know? Have you ever ridden in one of these things before? Has anyone? Have they ever been to Mars? Maybe the thinner atmosphere won’t provide enough braking! We could be riding down in a big coffin.”

“She has a point,” added Kokumo, unhelpfully.

“Close your eyes, both of you,” commanded Body. “Take some deep breaths. It’s been quite the adventure, and we’re almost there. We’re in one of the most advanced ships in the known universe. The nameless flew trillions of kilometres to get to Earth. Their ships are tough as diamond. We’re probably safer in here than we have been for the last week and a half.”

I could hear Zephyr and Kokumo’s breathing over the radio.

Body began speaking again. “I have a song for you. I want you to relax and imagine yourself on Earth. Imagine it’s a warm summer night and you’re in a treehouse that’s shaking in the breeze, but it’s safe and secure. It’s almost like the rocking of a crib, and you feel as though you could sleep in it, even as it moves.”

With that, Body began to sing. The little walker was watching Body intently as Body spoke, but I could see it react with shock at the new sound. The song was Heart’s, and I had no idea she was working on it. I wish I could tell you what it sounded like, or whether it was beautiful, but in my youth I was not able to understand such things, and the direct sensory memory of it has been lost to me with time. All I can tell you is that it seemed to make Zephyr (and Kokumo) more calm and happy.

Even as the ship began to vibrate with the friction of the Martian air, Body continued to sing. The humans didn’t say a word as we sailed in darkness. Unlike a human, we had no need for air to make noise. Body was equipped with speakers instead of lungs, and I do know that Heart, at times, leveraged this to weave Body’s voice into multiple voices to carry a harmony.

When the impact of the ground came, it barely seemed noticeable. The shuttle had managed to burn off nearly all of its speed in the descent and we were greeted with nothing more than a few bumps.

Only then did Heart stop her song.

We knew that we had to set up an environment tent for E.T. and get moving. It was unclear how or when the shuttle would open, and while the humans had suits, E.T. did not. Despite our promise to the stalks, we had no intention of murdering the children, or even letting them die if we could help it.

But something held Body still for a moment. It held the humans as well. We simply rested in the wake of the ride and the song in the darkness of the cabin.

Only once E.T. began to pull themselves out of the socket that had apparently been shaped for them did Body begin to move. The humans clicked on the lamps on their helmets and we got to work. It was a race against time to get the radio set up and contact the other travellers.

It was unclear where exactly the Águila colony was, so we could only land in the general area and hope that they’d see our signal and come pick us up. In the meantime we’d have to endure Mars for as long as we could.

“God damn it’s nice to not be in that gravity any more!” swore Zephyr.

We had safely reached Mars.