Chapter Three


“You need to use your implicit authority to keep the others in line. Sam, Tom, and Nate will obey you. The others won’t act without a majority.”

“Obey?” She echoed Crystal’s word, her voice tight. The word was the last straw for Zephyr.

Shed been fighting herself for hours. She was a leader. The others, back at the campsite looked to her for guidance. She’d already led three men to their deaths on Olympus. She had to think of what was best for her team, and best for Las Águilas Rojas. She had to be strong enough to make hard choices.

But she was also Crystal’s guardian… and more. The android represented so much. New life. Better life. They were the key to saving the world, she knew, and Zephyr had to protect that at all costs.

There should have been such harmony between Crystal and Las Águilas. She had thought there was. Crystal was working with them. Crystal was showing them a path forward that wasn’t just violence. They were going to build a beautiful new world together on Mars… a world where they could be together, and they could forget about the fighting…

But Crystal had lied to them. The nameless ship was not actually a safe refuge, and there was no guarantee that the aliens would actually take them to the colony. Worse, Crystal wouldn’t say why they had lied, or how they’d forced the nameless to obey.

Zephyr had been holding herself together for the sake of the others, but now that she was alone with Crystal, she felt justified in giving them a piece of her mind. “Why the fuck are you acting like this!? S’like ever since… ever since we fucking got here you’ve turned into a different person. One second you’re all friendly, then the next you’re bossing us around and making threats, then you start apologizing and trying to be gorram friends again!”

Crystal put a hand to their face, and pinched the bridge of their nose, closing their eyes in frustration.

That just pissed Zephyr off more. “Stop. Don’t pretend like you’re going to get a fucking headache. Just drop the bullshit facade and be real with me!”

Crystal’s face when flat and expressionless. Their beautiful silver eyes looked at Zephyr with an inhuman calm. “Is this better, Zeph?” they asked.

Zephyr would have thrown up her hands in protest if her arms hadn’t felt like they were strapped to bowling balls. She rolled her eyes instead, hoping the robot would understand how pissed she was. “Ugh! Just stop! Don’t call me ‘Zeph’ and don’t lie to me. Just treat me with some gorram respect for once! The others are looking to me for guidance. What am I supposed to say to them? How am I supposed to look them in the eye and tell them to trust you when…”

Zephyr trailed off. She suddenly felt very alone.

{Stupid!} she berated herself. {They’ve lied before. Why would they stop? You just wanted to trust them. Stupid girl.}

“I’m sorry. Don’t know what you want from me. Your survival really does depend on secrecy.” Crystal’s voice was infuriatingly neutral.

Zephyr pushed past the tightness in her throat. “Does it really? You can’t even trust me? After… everything? How do I know that this isn’t just one more lie?”

“Zephyr, please…” Crystal leaned towards her, perhaps moving to touch her. The two of them were sitting in the space between the two circular walls of the nameless castle.

“Please what?” she said, leaning back. Her words tasted like acid. She wanted so badly to collapse into Crystal’s arms and feel their embrace. But the mission was too important. The future was too important. It demanded she know. “Where do the lies stop? Why is Watanabe wrong? Why should we trust you?”

“Wouldn’t lie without a good reason. Have to believe that. The secrecy was hard for me. It is hard for me. I love—”

Zephyr cut them off. “No. Don’t even fucking start. Jesus Christ. Just… just leave me alone for the rest of the trip, okay?! If you’re going to be like this, we might as well be strangers.” Zephyr would have spat if the saliva wouldn’t have just pooled on the inside of her helmet. Instead she settled for turning away from Crystal and forcing her aching legs to push her up to her feet and back towards the camp.

She’d been a fool. The manipulation never stopped. She could see that now. She felt like she’d been awake for days without rest.

The “sun” didn’t reach down between the castle walls, so Zephyr had to navigate solely by the light on her suit. Crystal could, apparently, see in the dark.

Despite the intense heat, Zephyr felt strangely cold, as she walked away.

They had come to the place together to find a power source to charge the old batteries for the suits. Even with the food and water and shelter, everyone would soon be dead if they didn’t have a power source. The cooling systems would stop, their coms would shut off, the airlock would stop functioning, their lights would darken, and most importantly: their air systems (and the humans dependent on that air) would die.

They’d long since used up the last of their bottled air, and were now entirely relying on the electrolysis of their suits to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen. They breathed the oxygen, but simply vented the H2. Even though they could have burned the hydrogen in the alien air (according to Crystal) to recover some of the energy, they apparently didn’t have anything to efficiently harness the flame.

Instead, they were recharging their batteries with the help of the nameless. Crystal had managed to open a hidden chamber in the passage, where the face of one of the great stone blocks swung out on a secret hinge. Apparently the nameless had told them where to find it, and how to disable the trap on the hatch. Unless disabled very carefully it would have shot out a jet of flaming oil. The nameless were strange, but they were also very mechanically clever, and apparently more than willing to booby-trap their own homes.

Crystal sat on the black soil next to where the batteries joined to the two thick copper cables that emerged from the secret compartment in the wall. Zephyr didn’t know where the power on the cables was coming from, and she didn’t much care. She’d had enough alien bullshit for one lifetime.

“Trying my best. Really am,” said Crystal in a pathetic tone. Even though Zephyr was facing the other direction, and had managed to put some space between the two of them, Crystal had sent their response at full-volume, as though the two of them were standing only a few feet apart.

Zephyr didn’t doubt that they were trying. While she spoke into her com she continued to walk down the path towards the gap in the wall that led back to the garden. “That’s the problem. You’re trying to do everything. First you go off and deal with the shit on Olympus by your gorram self, and suddenly you’re in charge of every fucking thing. ‘Ooooh can’t talk to the aliens or else they’ll kill everyone.’ So you have to set up the tents and charge the batteries and filter the air and negotiate with the vegetables—”

“They really will kill everyone if I don’t maintain control.”

Zephyr’s blood surged up in a hot rush. Her thoughts and feelings were blurred by the anger. She didn’t understand. She just felt betrayed.

Her fist clenched, and Zephyr spun around, ready to hit Crystal. Unfortunately, spinning in thrice-heavy gravity in a bulky suit turned out to be an idiotic thing to do, and Zephyr only managed to trip. Before she knew what was happening she slammed into the packed dirt as though she’d fallen off a roof. Crystal wasn’t even directly behind her; she had been momentarily fooled by the speakers in her helmet. “FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!!” she screamed into her helmet as she punched the dirt twice and then pushed herself off the ground, muscles burning.

“Are you alright Z—”


She switched off her com in a move that even she recognized as petulant. She didn’t really give a damn anymore. She needed to be away from Crystal. If she’d been on Earth she would’ve gotten in a cab and told it to drive to the other side of the planet. She’d done that once, in Rome, when she’d felt particularly alone and depressed. The cab’s AI had refused to map a land route to Hong Kong, but after some careful coaxing she had gotten a path to Bangladesh. The robot had priced the trip at about thirty-thousand US dollars. {If I could pay thirty grand to get to Bangladesh right now I’d take that in an instant,} she mused.

She found the passage to the central garden and punched the wall in frustration as she went through the passage. The heavy stone didn’t budge, of course, but the throbbing pain that followed helped keep her mind off the anger, loneliness, and fear. The beautiful vision of a future with Crystal on Mars seemed to turn to ashes in her mind.

The tears that welled in her eyes could have easily been from the pain. Maybe she’d broken something. She could only hope. {It would serve you right for being so fucking stupid,} she told herself. This whole thing was stupid. Her whole life was stupid. A brief thought of her family flickered in her mind before she pushed it away. Even her inner critic had limits.

{What are you doing here?} she asked herself. {Make one bad choice after another, but do you ever stop to think about the pattern? Flying into space with dreams of saving the world? You should have stayed home.} Memories of lying naked in bed with Crystal on the space station came to her. {And that. That was the most foolish choice of all. Did you really expect to not regret it. You should never have trusted them. You should have been stronger. There are people counting on you. Real people. People with lives better than your pathetic fumbling. You should have given Crystal up to the scientists when you had the chance.}

Zephyr shook her head as though she were actually talking to someone. Her thoughts were wrong. She knew the hollowness of them. They were just angry thoughts. She had to be better than that. She had to keep in control.

And she did care about Crystal. Things would have been worse if they had been captured. She believed that. She had to believe that. The cyborg scientist would still have attacked the nameless and started a war…

{And Crystal hasn’t started a war? How do you know?} asked the dissenting part of her. {How do you know that Crystal isn’t the real enemy? They haven’t told you anything…}

Her fists clenched, and she ignored the throb of pain. She could force herself to trust Crystal in abstract, but the growing sense of powerlessness was unbearable.

She stopped walking when she reached the first of the big, black leaves of the garden. A part of her wanted to start ripping them to pieces, but that would be even stupider. As much as she hated herself right then, she still wanted to live. Instead, she fell to the ground next to the plant. Her legs turned to jello as soon as she was sitting. It felt wonderful to be off her feet.

“Can you hear me?” she asked the alien, though she knew it couldn’t. Even if the nameless leaves or vines could hear sound, her voice would be muted by the speaker, and there was no way it spoke English. Probably. “Crystal says if I talk to you, we’ll all die. Is that true? Are you going to kill me?” Zephyr’s voice sounded strange in her own ears.

She reached out her undamaged hand to stroke the plant. It was remarkably similar in shape to a plant from Earth, though she noticed, as she touched it, that there was a sparse lining of transparent hairs along the surface of the leaf that retracted and curled when she touched them. If these things were as intelligent as Crystal said, then it could almost certainly feel her attention.

The thought of ripping the leaf up suddenly seemed abhorrent. What had this alien done to them? Nothing. Sure, perhaps it was an enemy in some vague sense. But she was invading its home and causing trouble. Without Crystal around maybe it would’ve killed her, but wasn’t that exactly what she would have done to an invader of her home back on Earth? She could hardly blame it for that.

The thought of Earth and home left a bitter taste in her mouth. She had no home, now. Not in Italy, or Wisconsin, or New York, or Cuba. Mars was the only place left for her, but she didn’t know anyone there. It wasn’t her home. She didn’t have any friends. She barely had allies. She was being hunted by who knows how many different countries. And now… now she didn’t even have Crystal. That final thought was the worst. She knew she had to be strong for everyone’s sake, but she didn’t know if she could do it alone.

She could see one of the other members of the group approaching her, waving a hand.

{I’m sorry I led you into this,} she thought, bitterly. Once upon a time she had idolized Las Águilas Rojas; she had seen them as fighting for justice and fairness. Over the years their flaws had become more glaring, but that didn’t mean the people were bad people. They trusted her and needed her to be strong.

{You’re part of the problem, aren’t you?} she thought to herself. {You’re the worst sort of traitor. How many parents have you killed? How many husbands?} She thought about the scientist she had shot on Olympus. {How many wives or mothers? You don’t even remember her name.}

Zephyr climbed to her feet, against the protests of her limbs. A leader needed to be strong. Zephyr realized, a bit too late, that her com was still off.

She cleared her throat and let familiar mannerisms wash over her so that nobody would know she had been crying. “Hey, uh, my com is malfunctioning. Can you hear me now?”

«Yes!» answered one of the twins, in Spanish. «I was worried, there. Are you okay?» It was Tom. She had spent enough time around the two engineers to know the differences in their voices.

She responded in Spanish. Even though the twins had translation software in their coms, she knew it would be easiest to just speak the lingo. «Yeah, I’m fine. Crystal found the power and is charging the batteries. I decided to come back, um, because of my com.» She pushed herself off the ground, and winced in pain as she put weight on her injured hand.

«Are you okay to walk? Why were you laying down out here?» he asked.

«I said I’m fine,» she snapped, more forcefully than she had intended. «I just needed to rest.»

«Okay! Okay!» Tom said, raising his hands defensively. «I believe you.»

Zephyr wanted to apologize. Tom was a friend, as well as an ally. The Afro-Cuban man and his brother had been nothing but kind to her in the time they’d known each other. But she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have the strength to say anything kind.

An uncomfortable silence descended as the two of them carefully threaded their way through the sea of black leaves towards the tents.

Eventually Tom spoke up. «Would you like me to take a look at your com? I might be able to figure out what malfunctioned.» Tom and Sam were both engineers. He’d know in an instant that she was lying.

{Just like Crystal,} she thought briefly.

«No. It’s fine. I think I was just using it wrong,» she said.

Tom grunted acknowledgment, but didn’t say anything else for a while. They were almost back at the tents when Tom spoke again. One of the others was at the fab, making something. It was probably Sam. The twins always seemed to be making things together.

Tom’s deep voice had an awkward forced-casualness as he said «Miss Adhiambo says you kissed Socrates back on Olympus.» He must’ve been talking about Kokumo.

«None of your fucking business,» she said without thinking. She was slipping. This was bad. She was supposed to be stronger than that. It really wasn’t any of his business, but she could’ve been more diplomatic about it. Everything she had accomplished in life had been the result of either being diplomatic and putting up with bullshit, or being violent and hurting people. She always regretted when things turned violent. She didn’t need that right now.

«Relax, Zephyra. I normally wouldn’t pry, but it actually is important, here and now.»

«I don’t see how it would be,» she managed to say, keeping her emotion in check. She found the calmness of her voice reassuring.

Tom sighed. «You’re a decent person, and Phoenix trusts you, so I’ll be honest with you. Mr Watanabe and Miss Adhiambo are talking about capturing and forcing the whole story out of Socrates. I think we Red Eagles should stand together, but Miss Adhiambo thinks that your judgment is compromised because of your… romantic feelings.»

Zephyr wasn’t sure what to say to that. She wanted to defend herself, but she wasn’t even sure what she needed to defend from. She felt vulnerable. Ashamed. Still frustrated and angry. She should have been leading them, but instead her team was conspiring behind her back. She could hardly blame them.

Instead of commenting directly on it, she turned towards the person working with the mirco-fab. Just as she suspected, it was Sam, Tom’s brother. «What are you working on?» she asked, voice strained.

«Weapons. We need to defend ourselves if things go bad,» said Sam. He stopped his work and looked up at her expectantly.

«Ah, good thinking. Thank you for your hard work.» Falling back into familiar patterns was soothing. She needed to be strong for their sakes.

«No problem.» Sam looked back to his work. Now that she was closer, Zephyr could see he was printing a set of hollow cylinders out of metal. «Did you ask her about the thing?» Sam asked his brother.

«We were just talking about it,» answered Tom.

It occurred to Zephyr that she didn’t know whether Sam meant “if things go bad with the nameless” or “if things go bad with Crystal”. She didn’t trust herself to ask. Instead she said «It was a mistake. Yes, we… had a thing going. I wasn’t thinking straight. Now I am.» Her stomach tightened.

«Good. The others are waiting in the tents. You should tell them that,» said Tom. «I’ll run the airlock for you.»

A minute later she was undoing the clasps on her helmet as she lay on the floor of the first of the three environment tents they had set up. The only light in the first tent was from her helmet, which she set down beside her as she took off the outer layers of the suit. Irritating sweat rolled down the sides of her face, but she ignored it. The top of the suit was connected to the coolant layer by a hose, which she was careful to detach properly. The water in the shirt would warm up soon, but for now it was a blissfully cool armor against the heat of the tent.

Other suit layers lay in piles on the ground, but they weren’t intact. The helmets and the brick-like backpacks had been taken further in. They had to keep the packs running or else they’d suffocate in the tents, and the helmets were their only sources of light.

She could hear the others talking in the next tent over.

“I mean, I’ll bow to your greater experience with the thing. I feel like something of the odd man out here,” said Michel Watanabe. His voice had the barest hints of a Brazilian accent.

“You do not know how little I have spent with it. My experience is only a bit lahger thahn you own.” That was Kokumo, the African from Taro’s cell in Italy. Zephyr didn’t know much about her except that she was a little younger than Zephyr, followed orders well, and seemed fairly competent.

Nathan Daniels, who had served with her in the army before they’d turned to Las Águilas Rojas, spoke. “Zephyr knows Crystal better than any of us. We should ask her. Can you hear us yet, Cap’n?”

Zephyr unpeeled the air lining on the seal between the tents. It was a thick thing, not quite sticky but certainly not smooth, that always made her feel like she was peeling a banana or something when she used it. The smell of three sweaty people in an enclosed space blasted out of the tent as she worked.

“Yeah, I’m here. You talking about forcing Crystal to give us the whole truth?” She did her best to control her voice. {Diplomacy. Tolerance. Patience. I’m a leader. Act like it.}

“So much for keeping a secret. Should’ve known those two would tell her,” remarked Watanabe. He was a veteran of the organization, about the same age, with an angry sort of face that had clearly seen too much violence and death. He reminded Zephyr of herself.

“If they hadn’t told her, I would’ve,” said Nate. “Las Águilas Rojas work together. Hell, we humans need to work together. If the Cap’n isn’t okay with it, then I’m not okay with it.”

“You don’t need to keep calling me Captain,” said Zephyr as she pinned the tent flap up to increase the air volume and crawled through the joint into the other tent. It was an ongoing thing with the members of her old unit that had turned coat with her. They had made it something of a game to keep calling her by her rank in the army. She knew it was supposed to be in good fun, but it stung every time she heard it: a reminder of the price she had paid for her ideals.

Watanabe spoke. He seemed to be leading the little conspiracy. “Kokumo told us about your… involvement with the android. Are we going to have a problem?”

The three of them were lying down, understandable, given the intense gravity and the small size of the enclosure. Two helmets had their harsh lights on, positioned in the corners of the tent, giving everything two shadows that became blackness when they intersected. Their personal items weren’t here, except for a smattering of clothing that was used to form makeshift pillows. Next to the joint that led to the last tent sat their three suit packs, no doubt filtering the air. Two of the packs were connected to coolant suits that lay underneath Nate and Kokumo. Michel was still wearing his, much like Zephyr was, though his was connected to the pack.

The coolant suits wouldn’t do much, and might make the whole heat problem worse, actually. Every bit of cooling the packs did to the water resulted in more heat from the packs themselves. Sure, they could try to put their bodies near the cool water, and put the packs far away, so as to minimize their heat, but the tent was barely big enough for them and the tubes weren’t very long.

Nate was distractingly naked except for normal boxer underwear and his dog-tags. He must have found a way to deal with his suit’s diaper. Maybe that was why the joint to the last tent was sealed, rather than open. His pale skin glistened with sweat, and Zephyr couldn’t help ogling his muscled body.

Kokumo was in a similar state of undress, wearing only a bra on her upper body, and a t-shirt worn as a kind of skirt over her legs. Because of how she was positioned in the tent relative to Zephyr her face was covered in inky shadow.

“It doesn’t mean anything. Just a mistake,” grumbled Zephyr as she tried to make herself comfortable. Eventually she gave up and just collapsed, unwilling to fight gravity any more.

“You fo’give me if I do not believe thaht,” said Kokumo. “You had feelings foh it.”

Zephyr’s injured hand clenched and unclenched rhythmically, worsening the pain. She kept her face neutral, however. “Had. Emphasis on the past tense. It was a mistake. You’ve seen how convincing… they can be.”

Nate managed to nod, despite being on his back. “We were thinking about threatening to talk to the nameless directly if Crystal doesn’t tell us the whole truth.”

“What if what they’ve said was true? What if that gets us all killed?” asked Zephyr.

Watanabe spoke up. “Emphasis on the ‘threaten’. I wouldn’t want to actually talk to the ugly crabs.”

“You mean tha plahnts,” corrected Kokumo.

“Only if you believe the android.” Watanabe ran a hand over his face, wiping the sweat away. “I personally don’t see how those vines out there could be their leaders. We’ve been talking to giant crabs for years now, and this whole business with the plants is something the AI just pulled out of the blue.”

“The point is,” interjected Nate, “that we need to know how responsive Crystal Socrates is to threats. Since you have the most experience with them, I figure you’re the best judge of that.”

The group looked at Zephyr, expectantly. Memories of Crystal came to her, unbidden, and largely unwanted. Feeling surprised at the warmth of Crystal’s body as she lay in their arms on Olympus, before they had sex. The feeling of exhilaration at being blind, bound, and under Crystal’s power. The inhuman strength and speed as Crystal’s hand squeezed at her neck and the genuine fear she had felt. The tenderness of Crystal’s, admittedly awkward, kisses. Laughing at one of their jokes in Havana. The look of pride on their face as she admitted to loving Zephyr in front of Phoenix, basically at the mercy of a firing squad.

Not even the pain in her hand could keep her anchored. Zephyr shivered, despite the heat. She wanted to speak up, but her throat and jaw wouldn’t let her. {You can’t even control your own body. Pathetic.}

“What if they’re right?” she managed to croak, eyes locked on a piece of black dirt that had gotten tracked into the floor of the tent. Strange, how even the dirt could be alien.

“What?” asked Nate.

Zephyr cleared her throat and tried to keep hold of her emotions. “What if Crystal is right?” she asked, more loudly. Her eyes couldn’t move from the floor of the tent. “What if learning the truth just puts us in danger?”

“And you’d just take its word on that? Even after it lied to us?” asked Watanabe.

“I don’t know…” was all she could manage. {Why can’t things ever be simple?}

“Well, I’m going to threaten to talk to the nameless. You can trust it if you want, but I’m not some pawn to be manipulated by a machine,” declared Watanabe.

“Socrates regresada,” said one of the twins over Watanabe’s com. Zephyr flicked the transcript away on her arm.

“Already? Did something happen? The batteries were supposed to take an hour to fully charge.” Watanabe’s question seemed directed at her, but Zephyr could only shrug as she lay on the tent floor. The older man started to sit up and collect his things.

“I hope everyone can hear me,” came Crystal’s calm voice over both Watanabe and Kokumo’s coms. “I’ve learned something new from the nameless. There are a collection of young walkers that need to essentially drink from the stalks here. It’s vitally important that we do not interfere with the process, but the nameless have told me that as long as we do not communicate with the children or interfere with their activity, we may stay in the garden during the event.”

Watanabe had an annoyed look on his face as he did his best to slide his pack past Zephyr in the cramped tent. “I thought you said you had the nameless under your control? What do you mean ‘we may stay’? Sounds like they’re the ones calling the shots,” he said into his com.

Crystal’s tone was harsh. “I do have control. I could force the children to starve, if I so chose. Is that what you want, Michel? Should I refuse them sustenance in their own home?”

Zephyr sighed and began to follow Michel Watanabe back into the airlock. Kokumo and Nate made gestures to indicate that they weren’t coming. She’d been enjoying being out of the suit, even half-way. But she wasn’t about to stay inside the tent while this was going on, despite her aching body.

“Okay, fine, so you’re still king of the hill. Good for you. That still doesn’t explain why you’re telling us their demands,” said Watanabe.

“The nameless don’t want you to interact with the children any more than I want you to. It’s one thing to break into someone’s house and hold them at gunpoint. It’s quite another to kick their dog while you’re there. When possible we want to de-escalate the conflict by catering to their desires, understand?”

Zephyr was confused. “If the nameless don’t want us interacting with their children, why are we staying in the garden? We could easily move out of the castle for an hour or so.”

“Speak for yourself, Cap’n. I’m leaving this tent when you carry me out,” said Nate. She could hear his voice over the com and through the wall of the now-sealed junction between the airlock-tent and the tent where he was relaxing with Kokumo.

“Honestly, I’m not sure. The nameless have been emphasizing that we can stay. I think it may be that they want the children to see us, but I really don’t know.”

As Zephyr and Watanabe clicked their helmets into place, the man looked back to get confirmation from Zephyr. She raised a hand, thumb-up. He peeled back the lining of outermost tent joint, letting in a flood of alien air.

“When are the children going to arrive?” asked Watanabe.

As the flap of the tent was pulled away, Zephyr saw Crystal Socrates standing before them, tall and dark. They extended a hand to her, not meeting her gaze. Their shimmering silver eyes were looking at Michel Watanabe instead. “They’re here now. As soon as I give the signal they’ll enter the garden.”