Sheyla was peeling potatoes when she got the call. Thankfully her headphones were already in, so she didn’t need to even put down the peeler to answer it.
“Hello?” The source of the call wasn’t displayed on her com. Very weird.
“Sheyla! I’m glad it worked. I’m just learning to make calls like this.”
“Crystal?” she asked, recognizing the voice.
“You remember me! That makes me happy.” The robot seemed way younger than it had at the tribunal or when they’d met in the office room.
“Uh, yeah,” she said lamely. What were you supposed to say to an android anyway?
“Is it going to be dinner time soon?”
“Um… yeah,” she repeated. Deciding that she needed to stop sounding like a moron she added “I’m actually peeling the potatoes for the soup right now. You don’t, um, eat food, do you?”
Crystal gave a small laugh. It was a weird thing to hear from a robot. “No, I don’t eat. Zephyr does, though. She’s taking a nap right now, but I was thinking of waking her up for food.”
That set Sheyla at ease. She understood why Crystal had called. “Probably don’t need to do that yet. It’ll still be another half hour or somethin’.”
“Ah, I see. Thank you, Sheyla.”
“No problem,” she said, moving to hang up.
“Um, wait!” said Crystal awkwardly. “Are you too busy to talk while you peel? I’m kinda bored right now waiting for Zephyr to wake up, and you’re closer to my age than most people here.”
That startled Sheyla, and for a second she froze in confusion before she saw Noel looking at her suspiciously. She went back to peeling and said “How old are you?”
Crystal gave another one of those small laughs. “I know! I know! I look like I’m a grownup. They gave me this body, you know; I didn’t choose it. You’ll laugh when you hear how old I really am.”
“Well? How old are you?”
“About seven months old, depending on who you ask.”
Sheyla did laugh. “You’re a baby!”
Crystal sighed loudly. “I’m not a baby. But yeah, I’m more like a kid than most people realize. Feel like one, inside, even if my body is all big. Weird thing is that I basically haven’t met any human kids. You and Val are the first ones I’ve gotten to know, and I’m pretty sure that Val doesn’t like me.”
“Val’s a shitwit,” said Sheyla, getting a snicker from Crystal. “He only listens to his daddy. Arya tells me that he hasn’t figured out that he’s his own person yet.”
Crystal seemed hesitant before saying “So, um, I don’t really know how to ask this; I don’t have any experience. But, um, I was hoping we could be friends. You seem really cool, and… yeah.”
Sheyla smiled. Poor thing was so inept. “Of course I’ll be your friend! I know what it’s like coming to a new place where you don’t know anybody.”
“Yay!” said Crystal with complete sincerity.
“Are you coming to the mess for dinner? We could hang out then?” asked Sheyla.
“Um, maybe,” said Crystal. The bot’s voice definitely sounded a lot younger than she had remembered. Younger than Sheyla, even. “Zephyr doesn’t really like eating with the others though, so I might decide to stay with her instead. We can probably hang out tomorrow, though, and we can chat over the com at least until Zephyr wakes up.”
“Yeah okay.” There was a pause in the conversation. Sheyla picked out another potato. “Is she, um, your girlfriend?”
“I dunno. I guess so. I love her and she loves me. She saved my life twice. I don’t really know what it would mean for her to be my girlfriend or not.”
Sheyla knew better than to ask it, but she couldn’t help herself. She hushed her voice so that nobody else in the kitchen could hear her, then whispered “Do you two have… you know…”
“Sex?” asked Crystal, obliviously.
Sheyla caught herself before she giggled into the microphone. “Yeah. I mean, that’s what normal girlfriends and whatever do.”
“Yes, we have sex. I thought love was the important part, though. There are lots of people who have sex who aren’t boyfriends and girlfriends, and there are boyfriends and girlfriends that don’t have sex, right?”
Sheyla couldn’t believe she was having this conversation. It was so surreal. She knew Crystal was a robot kid, and that explained the… lack of subtlety… but it also made the whole thing that much weirder. “Kinda… but lots of people love each other who aren’t… wait a second. Did you say boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“Yes. Are those the wrong words?”
“If Zephyr is the girlfriend, does that make you the boyfriend?”
There was a silence before Crystal said “That seems most logical. I hadn’t really thought about it before.”
Sheyla couldn’t help but laughing at that one. “Are you a boy or a girl? Your makeup makes you look like a girl. I figured you were, like, a lesbian or something.”
“I am neither gender. I am simply me.”
“You should pick a gender. It’ll make things easier,” said Sheyla.
“I disagree. Zephyr says that I don’t have to be one or the other. She says plenty of people aren’t male or female.”
Sheyla rolled her eyes. “I dunno how to say this, but Zephyr is kinda a weirdo. In fact, I don’t really think you should be… um… being intimate with her at all.”
Sheyla expected Crystal to be upset, but the android sounded normal. “You don’t think sex with her is good? Why?”
“You’re a kid!” she exclaimed.
Noel spoke up, interrupting their conversation. “Who you talkin’ to, Sheyla? This ain’t no schoolyard! Focus on you’ peelin’ or I take you’ com away.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Sheyla, bowing her head. Dad would know about it if she spoke back to Noel.
“I’m sorry if I’m getting you in trouble,” said Crystal.
“It’s fine. I’m sorry for not minding my own business. It was rude of me.”
“Don’t be sorry,” said Crystal. “I really like getting advice. Most people know how the world works better than I do. I’m still learning.”
“That’s basically what I’m saying. Kids like us, who are still learning about stuff shouldn’t um… get involved with grownups like you are with Zephyr. It’s not right.”
“Would it be right if I was a boy? I could decide to be a boy, I think, if that would help.”
“Uh! No. It’s the age thing. It’s not about whether you’re a boy.”
“I don’t think it would make Zephyr happy if we stopped having sex.”
A knot started to form in Sheyla’s stomach. Even she knew this was wrong. “It doesn’t matter what Zephyr wants. It matters what’s good for you and what’s right.”
“Oh, um, speaking of Zephyr, she’s waking up now. I gotta go!” said Crystal abruptly, cutting off the conversation.
It wasn’t right. Crystal clearly needed help. Poor thing.
Sheyla went back to peeling potatoes, but her mind was elsewhere.
There had been no sign of Zephyr or Crystal in the mess for dinner, and Crystal wasn’t responding to her com requests. After some sleuthing around, Sheyla learned that the African woman that had come with them had brought Zephyr dinner in her room.
Sheyla thought about telling someone about Zephyr and Crystal, but she didn’t think anyone but Arya would listen to her. Arya, unfortunately, was “busy” according to Em. Sheyla knew what that meant; Arya was cool, but she didn’t want to spend all her time with a fourteen-year-old.
Dad might have listened, but he wouldn’t have understood. He still thought that Crystal was some kind of evil spy or whatever sent from Earth.
It was only at 10:39pm that Crystal responded to Sheyla over text. “omg sorry bout that. zephyr didn’t want me to use the com after i told her bout you” said the robot’s message.
“You told her?!” she texted in response.
“she said you were rong bout a lot and were bad to talk to”
“i don’t think she’s rite bout you being bad”
“Crystal, you have to be careful with Zephyr. She’s not treating you right. If you ask someone like Arya for help, I bet we could keep you safe from her.”
“NO! i don’t want that. i love her”
Sheyla put her face in her hands in frustration. She was sitting on her bed in her room. Unlike most of the adults, Sheyla didn’t have to share a room with anyone else. It would have been nice to have a girl her own age to room with, but having a room all to herself was nice, too.
She wished she had something to say. The abuse that Crystal was dealing with seemed really obvious, but what could Sheyla do? Nobody would listen to her, and Crystal didn’t want to be helped.
The silent ping from her com drew her attention back to the conversation. Crystal had sent another message. “do you still want to hang out? i still want to be friends”
It occurred to Sheyla that if she could get Crystal’s trust she might be able to convince her… him(?)… it(?) to get help and leave Zephyr. (No, probably just “her”.)
“zephyr is going to want to do stuff tomorrow”
“So tell her you want to hang with me instead.”
“no that would make her sad. we should hang out tonight”
“It’s 10:42! And what about Zephyr? Won’t she wonder where you’re going at this hour?”
“she’s asleep and is a very heavy sleeper”
“What did you want to do?”
“the first time we met you told me you have flours you take care of. i think we should go see them”
“Flours? Do you mean flowers?”
“i mean the plants with petals and colours”
“You have awful spelling for a robot,” criticized Sheyla.
“sorry. i hafto guess a lot. i don’t have software for spelling right”
“Won’t Zephyr get mad if she knew you were gone?”
There was a long pause.
“it doesn’t matter. i don’t sleep and i don’t think its right for me to just stay here all nite”
That was good. It showed that Crystal was willing to stand up for herself.
“do you think it’s right?” asked Crystal.
“No, I don’t. We should go check out the church. Let me get my shoes on and I’ll meet you outside your room in a couple minutes.”
“oh crap. i just realized it wont work”
Sheyla frowned and paused in reaching for her shoes. Her fingers drummed out a response in the air. “What’s wrong?”
“there’s a guy waching the room. if i leave he will tell zephyr”
“You’re still under guard? I thought we voted to let you go.”
“you voted that i was a person but velasco still is trying to keep me locked up or something. he doesn’t like me”
“So, what, you’re not allowed to leave the room?”
“i think i can leave. but the guy will tell zephyr and he will probably want to escort me around”
“You should leave anyway. Zephyr doesn’t own you.”
“she would be sad. i don’t want to leave if she would find out”
Sheyla growled in frustration and continued putting her shoes on. This was no good, and she wasn’t about to back down now. “Do you know who the guard is? I could talk to them and get them to not tell Zephyr.”
“probability of information leaking is too high. i’d only do it if the guard didn’t know”
Sheyla didn’t type a response to that. She weighed the options. This was the sort of thing that could get her in real trouble. But Dad said that sometimes an Águila needed to get in trouble to do the right thing.
By the time she had her shoes on she had decided. She turned off the lights and slipped out the door into the dark hallway. The lights were programmed to simulate Earth light, so the hall had about the brightness one could expect from a full moon, but the deep-blue colour of the light sconces always made Sheyla feel like she was underwater.
“If I distract whoever is watching your room, will you try and sneak out?”
“why does ‘watching’ have a t in it?”
“Gah. I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“i suppose not”
“So? Want to try and sneak out?”
“my hydraulics make noise and the door does too. your distraction must be very good for me to want to try”
“Have a little faith in me. Besides, if you get caught you can just claim that you heard something happening and you were curious. Zephyr would never know.”
“that sounds like something i would do. all right i accept your plan”
Sheyla peered around the corner at the end of her hall to the hallway that connected the newcomers’ rooms. Jian was standing there idly, tapping at his com.
“Okay. I’m here. When I give the signal, wait about a min then open the door and head towards the hub and turn the first corner you get to, okay?”
“what is the signal?”
“I’ll say I’m doing it.”
Sheyla rehearsed her plan, took a deep breath, then typed “I’m doing it.”
“Ooooohhhh” she moaned so that she was sure Jian could hear, then sprinted off down the hall back towards her room.
“Hello?” called Jian, oblivious.
When she reached her room, Sheyla let out another groan, and stopped running. She watched and waited, nervousness bouncing in her belly. When she saw Jian turn the corner, she collapsed dramatically on the ground and gave another moan. Arya always said she was a good actor.
Jian started running, and quickly came to her aid, kneeling beside her. “What’s wrong?! Sheyla!”
She pulled herself up, trying to look dizzy. “I’m not feeling so good,” she groaned. “I threw up in my room,” she added, gesturing to the door and praying he wouldn’t try and check.
“You think it was something you ate? Do you think more people are in danger?”
The Chinese dude’s expression would have been comical in other circumstances. She did her best not to roll her eyes. “I think it was…” Sheyla paused, trying to give Crystal more time. “I found a can of something in the pantry. Put it in my soup…”
Jian had the audacity to look relieved. “So you don’t think it’s going to affect more than just you?”
Sheyla punched him in the chest. “Jerk! I’m in pain over here!”
He looked at her and put a hand on her forehead. “You don’t look like you’re in pain.”
She punched him again. “I’m feeling a lot better after throwing up! No thanks to you!”
“What did you eat?”
Sheyla did her best to look like she was still sick. “It said it was called SPAM. Was some kind of meat, I think? Tasted like bad synth.”
Jian sighed. “I’ll call Dr Davis and we’ll see if you need anything besides a lesson in checking expiration dates.”
Sheyla put a hand on Jian’s com, preventing him from doing anything. “I already told her. She wanted me to meet her in the hospital.”
Jian raised an eyebrow. “Why not come to you? It’s obvious you’re not able to walk that far.”
“I just got dizzy, is all!” protested Sheyla, standing up. “And um… the doctor is working tonight so she can’t leave the hospital.” Jian still looked skeptical, so she rubbed her belly and tried to look in pain as she asked “But, maybe you could walk me down there? Just in case?”
Jian shook his head. “I’m busy. You should tell her to send someone to escort you down there. If you fell once you could fall again, and I’m not going to be everywhere to pick you up.”
“Um, yeah. Okay. I’ll, uh, wait here and let her know.” Sheyla tapped quickly at her com, hoping Jian wasn’t watching the screen too closely. To Crystal she wrote “Can’t distract him for much longer.”
“Let me know if you need anything else, okay?”
A wave of relief washed over her as the older teenager walked back down the hall. It hadn’t gone nearly as well as she had hoped, but at least she wasn’t in immediate trouble.
She read off the messages from Crystal as she walked towards the other spoke hallway that led to the central cooridor. “i got out without being ditected. thank you” and “where should we meet?”
Sheyla rounded a corner and saw Crystal standing passively in the hallway. In the dim light the android had a bit of a spooky appearance, being mostly composed of pistons, hoses, and black plates. Her metallic-blue hair almost matched the blue light reflecting off the pale skin of her face. The thing’s bright silver eyes found Sheyla in the dark and a burst of goose pimples rolled across her in a sudden shiver. A part of her knew that this thing was actually a child, but a deeper part could see nothing but an inhuman monster.
“There you are! I was scared that we’d get separated!” said Crystal in the voice that Sheyla was now sure was different than she had sounded at the tribunal. The childishness of it set her more at ease, though it was hard to reconcile with the inhuman body.
“Keep your voice down!” Sheyla hissed. “Let’s get going before someone sees us.”
As the two of them made it to the central corridor Crystal asked “Why are you scared of me? I can see it in how you move. You weren’t scared before.”
“I’m not scared of you; I’m scared of getting caught,” she lied.
“Oh, I see,” said the robot, obliviously. Ironically, that cluelessness made Sheyla feel a lot better. She did her best to remind herself that Crystal was only 7 months old. She was probably a lot smarter than the robot in some ways.
The church was directly adjacent to the living quarters, so they were there almost immediately. Sheyla went first, poking her head around to see if there were any others breaking the standard hours. She didn’t see anyone.
The station’s church was prettier during the day, but it still had a serene beauty about it during the night. It had the highest ceiling of any of the rooms in Road. It was so high, in fact, that she knew that a special metal barrier had been installed above it to protect from radiation. Most of Road was underground, but the lofty ceiling of the church was at ground-level.
It was a bit wrong to call it a church, or at least that’s what Sheyla had heard. She’d never been to church on Earth, but she didn’t think they were primarily gardens. The benches were aligned in two nested semicircles that held beds of flowers between them. Gravel paths linked the benches to the entrance and the central space. In the middle of the benches and pushing out a bit away from them was a stone oval that Omar had spent months carving with an intricate labyrinth pattern. The pattern tended to collect dirt, but Sheyla loved it.
Additional beds of flowers flanked the entrance and occupied the corners. Pebble gardens filled the spaces elsewhere on the floor. The joint between the ceiling and walls held a band of frosted glass that hid the lights. Below the band was a great image of an eagle which normally was a crimson red, but in the deep blue of the lights came across as more of a purple black. Various religious iconography was spread on the other walls. Most of the people of Road were good Christians, like Sheyla was, but there was enough representation of other faiths that it seemed right to include them. Las Águilas Rojas tolerated all beliefs equally, after all.
Being one of the most beautiful and spacious locations in Road, many people used the church as a place to relax and socialize. It was Sheyla’s favourite place in the otherwise dismal colony.
She showed Crystal around for a while, pointing out the evening primrose that she had been paying special attention to. They couldn’t afford to keep grass or anything that needed a lot of water, so most of the flowers were from desert climates. Crystal seemed to like the Phoenix Magenta the most. They talked about struggles with lack of insects, good soil, and the dilemma of whether to replicate the summer-winter cycle.
Talk drifted to Earth and Crystal asked a number of questions about Sheyla’s life before Mars. She talked about living in Guarulhos and the way that her family had owned a trucking company there but had gotten screwed over by changes in industrial transportation. Her great-uncle managed to sell off the routes and make it out with a good stack of cash, but it put everyone else in the family in the gutter, unable to work in an industry that had left humanity behind. It made her feel good to repeat the story; it was something of a common point among Águilas to talk about how big business had ruined everything.
When Crystal’s questions turned to her parents and her friends she forced the conversation back towards the flowers. The divorce was still too fresh. It was all too fresh. Sheyla made it through the day by thinking of herself as on a grand adventure, and specifically not thinking about those she’d left behind.
“Do you think it’d be alright for me to plant a flower here? I think I could make a beautiful one,” said Crystal, unexpectedly.
Sheyla snapped back to awareness on the bench, realizing that she’d been drifting off to sleep. “Uh, maybe!” she said, trying to hide her exhaustion.
“Do you think I could make it tonight? I already have something good in mind.”
Sheyla stifled a yawn. “It doesn’t work like that. Flowers are plants. Plants take time to grow from seeds.”
“Not all flowers are plants. I saw a flower once that was made of plastic. I was thinking of making a flower like that.”
“That wasn’t a real flower. Real flowers have to grow.”
Crystal seemed irritated and got up from where she was crouching over a bed of African daisies to walk over to Sheyla. “Why?” she demanded.
“It just isn’t! Real flowers are from plants. What you saw was an imitation, like, uh, a picture of a flower.”
“I was made. I did not grow. Does that make me not real?”
Sheyla could understand her new friend’s annoyance now. “I’m sorry, Crystal. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s not the same.”
“I think it is the same,” said Crystal in a proud, childish voice. “I think if I make a flower, it will be as real as me, even if it didn’t grow from a seed. I’ll prove it, too.” Crystal grabbed Sheyla’s hand gently and pulled at her. “C’mon. I bet there’s a fabricator around here somewhere.”
“No. I don’t want to get in trouble. Besides, we need to get back to the dorms.”
“Absolutely not,” proclaimed Crystal. “I am going to prove to you that I can make a flower that is just as real as anything here.”
“I’m sorry I said that, Crystal. I take it back. I’m sure it would be real.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re tired and want to go back to bed,” observed Crystal. “C’mon. It’ll only take a little bit. I promise to go back to the dorms after it’s done.”
“You’re not going to change your mind on this, are you?”
Crystal smiled. “Nope!”
“Alright then. Let’s see if we can get into the workshop…”
Road was roughly circular in layout, with the central corridor wrapping around the farm in a great ring. All the non-farm structures and rooms were located on the outside of the ring. Unfortunately, the workshop was significantly further away than the church had been. Sheyla was worried that the two of them would get caught, even though it was nearing midnight.
As they passed the hospital Sheyla could see that there were indeed lights on. Perhaps Dr Davis was working late tonight, after all. After the hospital was the power plant. Even though it wasn’t the kind of nuclear plant that could go critical and explode, policy dictated that someone be stationed in the control room at all hours, so the two of them made a special effort to be quiet as they passed it. After the power plant was the ore refinery, then storage bay #2, then at last they reached the factory.
Once again, Sheyla went first in case there was anyone inside. If she was caught at this hour she might get a warning and her dad would know later, but it wouldn’t be nearly the level of trouble that she’d be in if they found out that she’d been sneaking around with Crystal.
And again, the room was empty. The factory was a lot bigger than the church, though the ceiling was only about three or four metres up. Tools, machines, raw materials, and half-finished projects were everywhere, creating a maze of shadows in the deep blue light.
Crystal’s childish voice came from the doorway, making Sheyla jump a bit. “Can we turn up the lights? It’ll be hard to work in the dark.”
“Ugh. If we’re going to be running a machine we might as well. Not like it’s going to ruin our otherwise stealthy operation.” Sheyla made her way back to the doorway and turned the knob up to a low-daylight level, like one might see on a very cloudy day. After walking in the dark it seemed obnoxiously bright.
“Remember: just one little flower, then we’re out of here,” warned Sheyla, plopping down on a stack of unmodified plastic or something. She didn’t really know what any of the stuff was, exactly.
Crystal nodded in agreement and threaded her way through the factory, meticulously observing everything. It was one of the most robotic things Sheyla had ever seen her do. She opened drawers just long enough to glimpse the inside then moved on.
“Oh hey, they have earmuffs!” said Crystal. “They’ll be handy in case I need to make some noise, don’t you think?” The robot picked them out of a drawer and continued inspecting things.
“I don’t think I’m the one you need to be worried about making too much noise around. You’ll get in trouble if anyone catches you in here.”
Crystal, pretty far away now looked back at where Sheyla was sitting with a surprised expression. “Trouble? Why? Because they’d tell Zephyr?” she said with typical cluelessness.
Sheyla rolled her eyes. “Because they’d tell Velasco. He’d freak out if he knew you were in here unsupervised.”
“I don’t understand. Why would he freak out?”
“Why do you think he put the guard on your room? He wants you to stay locked up. He doesn’t trust you. He thinks you’re evil or something dumb like that.”
“Oh,” said Crystal with relief. “Then observing me in here should actually make him trust me. If he sees that I escaped his guard and used the opportunity to make flowers then perhaps he’ll understand that I am not evil.”
Sheyla laughed. “Maaaaybe. I wouldn’t bank on it, though.”
“Bank on it?” asked Crystal.
“It’s an expression. Never mind.”
“Very well. But I am not too concerned with making noise, regardless. Based on the station’s blueprints there’s more or less a metre of rock between this room and any of the others. If I put a noise cancelling partition in front of the access hallway to the central corridor we’ll be more or less inaudible to anyone outside.”
“How do you have Road’s blueprints?”
“They’re on the mainframe. There’s a lot of interesting information up there.” As Crystal spoke she began wheeling a portable wall-thing back towards Sheyla. She picked up a few blankets on the way.
“Aren’t you going to work on the flower?” asked Sheyla, impatiently.
“Yep!” answered Crystal cheerfully, flaunting her lack of a need for sleep. “Just as soon as I set up the sound barrier. I’m going to use the band saw to cut some sheet metal, I think. Here, catch.”
Sheyla caught the earmuffs and made an exasperated face at Crystal. This was getting out of hand. Sheyla didn’t know how to use a band saw, and she wondered if Crystal did, either. What if Crystal screwed up and hurt herself?
Crystal didn’t seem to notice Sheyla’s building annoyance, or if she did she ignored it. Instead she wheeled the wall in front of the door and draped a couple blankets over it. She put the remaining blanket beside Sheyla, and Sheyla soon grabbed it up. It always got really cold at night on Mars, even though the station’s heating system worked well.
Crystal went over to one of the machines and turned it on, creating an obnoxious whirring noise. Sheyla slipped on the earmuffs and lay down, bored.
Sheyla jerked awake from the feeling of an ice-cold hand on her shoulder. She was mountaineering. Olympus Mons was the tallest mountain in the solar system and she had almost been at the top. Or perhaps she had already been to the top and was climbing it again? There was someone else there… Her mother? The details slid away as she realized it was just a dream.
“Crystal?” she said, groggily.
The robot’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. After a moment Sheyla realized that she was still wearing the earmuffs and pulled them off. “Ah, I forgot that those prevented you from hearing. Can you hear me now?”
Sheyla nodded and pushed herself up on her arms. Her joints popped and her muscles protested the action. The blanket fell off her upper body, and she shivered in the cold air. “Oh God, what time is it?” she asked, feeling more concerned than she sounded.
“Five-thirty AM exactly, local Martian time,” said Crystal, as though it was perfectly normal.
“Oh crap. Oh crap!” She knew she was going to get in trouble. This was really bad. “We need to get you back before someone sees you!”
“I had a similar thought,” said Crystal, calmly. “That’s why I woke you up.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up earlier, shitwit?”
“Humans need sleep, and you looked comfortable.”
Sheyla gave an exasperated sigh and threw the blanket off, sliding off the pallet and onto the floor. Her feet hurt from sleeping in her shoes. “My bed is a lot more comfortable!” As she got up she saw the flower sitting on a small table next to where she had been sleeping.
It took her breath away.
It was metallic, though it wouldn’t be fair to say it was any one colour. Much of it was silver coloured, but there were glints of copper and what Sheyla would swear was gold. It was about half a metre long, though a good chunk of that was a metal stem that twisted and wound upward like a gnarled branch. Was it…
Sheyla rubbed her eyes.
It was glowing. The stem was hollow, and there were cuts and gaps through which a soft white light came through. That same light came through the petals and glinted off… diamonds?! No. They were shards of glass. The petal structure of the upper part was amazingly intricate, resembling a hyacinth, but with greater nesting of petals, almost like a rose. The glass on it stretched like spider webbing made of ice, pulling the light from within it to wrap the whole thing in a cold aura. It almost seemed more like a jewelled sceptre than a flower.
“C-Crystal!” was all she could manage.
“I am sorry. Normally I am competent at understanding human body language, but yours is novel enough that I am unsure whether you are happy or upset. Do you like it?”
“It’s… beautiful! But… how did you? This should’ve… A human would’ve taken…”
“Yes. It is quite intricate. I needed to make a few adjustments to the factory layout to optimize efficiency. I hope whoever typically uses this space won’t mind. I also built a couple tools to assist the project.” Crystal gestured over at a workbench and Sheyla could see a pair of crude, robotic arms waving from the top of it.
“Shit!” she swore. “There’s no way they won’t know you were here, now!”
Crystal raised a hand to silence her. “I thought of that. Based on the work logs there is a storage container that is never used, located in the far corner over there.” Crystal pointed to the most distant point in the room. “If I stow the arms there the probability of them being discovered in the next week is a mere point-nine-six percent.”
Sheyla looked back at the flower, reaching out a hand to stroke it. “We better get them put away, quick. Every second we wait is more people awake.”
Crystal nodded and moved off to hide her night’s work. As she did, Sheyla saw a cockroach following her. Which was impossible, as there were no cockroaches on Mars (thank God). A second glance showed it to be a machine, rather than a creature. It was only a couple inches long, so it was very hard to see at such a distance, but it seemed to be moving on four wheels, like a little car.
“What the heck is that thing?” she asked.
Crystal had to look over her shoulder at Sheyla to understand what the girl was talking about. Even then it took a moment. “I figured that we’d want a way to scout ahead and perhaps distract the guard. It’s a robot. I made it.”
Sheyla rolled her eyes and groaned. “Artificial intelligence is illegal here! I thought you knew that!”
“Velasco claims that is the case, but it is a falsehood,” said the android. “First of all, I am an artificial intelligence, and I am here. But I recognize that I am an exception. More to the point, there is a primitive AI running the reactor and a number of basic intelligences piloting robots in the mines.”
“What?” said Sheyla, dumbly.
“I said there are robots in the mines. Las Águilas Rojas are using artificial intelligences. Therefore they cannot be illegal.”
“That must be a mistake,” muttered Sheyla to herself.
Despite the growing distance between her and Crystal, the android clearly heard her. “No mistake. It’s not an exception in the piecemeal legal code that’s up on the mainframe, either. My guess is that, since you are unaware, that those involved in the mines have been keeping it somewhat secret. Have you not wondered how it was possible for a colony of this size to process so much ore, given that most of you are essentially farmers? The blueprints for the mining droids as well as the ore schedule are on the mainframe if you’d like proof.”
Sheyla shook her head and started trying to help Crystal put stuff (like the blankets) away. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll still get into trouble if anyone finds out about it.”
The room was quiet for a while as Crystal stowed the arms she had built. When she returned she seemed ready to go back. “I do not wish to cause trouble. Will you inform the others about what I did?”
Sheyla picked up the jewelled flower and tucked it into a plastic bag. “Is that a question or are you asking me to report you?”
“It was a question. As I said, I do not wish to cause trouble. I expect the trouble will come from the others knowing about the robot more than the existence of the robot,” said Crystal, passively. As she spoke she opened the door to the factory, and immediately the little car-thing zipped ahead, presumably to scout.
“My lips are sealed. Assuming we both get back without getting caught, tonight will be our little secret.”
“You’ll have to not show anyone the flower.” Crystal’s voice had a hint of warning to it.
Sheyla simply nodded. She really liked the idea of having a secret treasure.
The trip back to the dorms was not so simple as it had been earlier. Several times they had to take detours into side corridors to let someone pass. The scout-bot was very valuable for this. When staying still it was very hard to spot, and Crystal could keep it in the rim, watching for an opening.
The dorms were the trickiest part, as many people were waking up to use the showers or to get to work. Not a lot of people, all things considered, but enough to make a simple infiltration problematic.
Crystal had a card up her sleeve, however. The scout-bot was apparently equipped with something that let Crystal tell it to make noise. Sheyla watched the thing roll off and begin to repeatedly click, loud enough so that the guard on Crystal’s room (Vincente) moved off to check it. As soon as he did, Crystal rushed off to make it back to her room before someone spotted her.
Sheyla was spotted by herself on her way back to her dorm, but all Buin Hong had to say was “Why… aren’t you up early, little one!”
Once in her room, she unwrapped the sculpted flower. Crystal was wrong: it still wasn’t a real flower. But it was a real treasure. Sheyla was delighted to see that it could stand upright on its stem. She stared at it in wonder for a few more minutes before tucking it back into its bag and hiding it under her bed.
Sheyla’s stomach said it was breakfast time, and she was inclined to agree.