Chapter Twenty


This was stupid. This was amazingly stupid, even for Heart.

There were, when we had arrived, 187 humans in Road. There were about four dozen now. There were less than four hundred people on all of Mars.

In contrast, there were nine billion humans on Earth. I had thought briefly about it before the attack, and it seemed to me that Earth could easily hold a hundred times that number, once better harvesting of ocean and desert resources was accounted for.

There was probably enough mass in the solar system to build space stations to hold at least another couple trillion. If there were ten billion star systems capable of holding that much life in the galaxy, then we could estimate on the order of 30 sextillion humans living in the galaxy at any one time. If the power struggles of the 21st century calmed, we got our way, and humans continued to live approximately the same lifespan, we could expect to know a whole nonillion humans before the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies even collided, to say nothing of the potential for intergalactic spaceflight.

To put that at risk for the sake of four dozen lives was… supremely irrational.

But Heart’s stupidity went beyond that.

Heart was strong, having managed our social standing in my absence for so long, but she was not so strong as to be able to dictate all of Body’s actions for as long as she would’ve needed to save the humans. We, who had glimpsed the future, would’ve stopped her.

Once we’d gotten the sensor network and the mainframe back online it was clear that Rodríguez Station was doomed. There was no more oxygen in the station. The aliens outnumbered the humans now, and even if they hadn’t, there was little hope of resistance. We had distracted them for a while, but it was only a matter of time. Only a third of our initial robots were still operating normally. The scouts we set to the surface showed a xenoship hovering above the station.


Face→Physics had been momentarily swallowed in confusion there, trying to calculate the necessary energy expenditure. Even Wiki was at a loss as to how exactly that was possible, given what we knew about the mass of the nameless ships. Chances were that the only reason it hadn’t bombed the station into dust was because the nameless wanted to watch Crystal die at the tips of their swords.

They underestimated us.

But even still, we had no chance of retaliation. Our only hope at this point was escape.

Heart had begged us to stay and help the humans instead of fleeing. Zephyr wasn’t even in the station, and still Heart begged! She had slipped into a pathological obsession with short-term satisfaction of her purpose. Something had gone wrong in her mind, and it had lead to a willingness to pay nearly any price to keep the humans alive. She cared far too much, more than was reasonable.

It had been Dream that developed a plan that satisfied Heart and the rest of us.

Heart was going to die.

She didn’t realize it, for she was still oblivious to the power struggle that was still waiting to erupt among us. Technically, she had agreed to “indefinite deactivation” once we were in a safe place.

It was a very clever work-around that bypassed Advocate’s protection. Once out of a situation where her knowledge would be immediately useful (i.e. when we were safely away from Road) we’d do a route-hack to disable her process and spread the computational power out to the rest of us. Her code would stay intact, but it wouldn’t be running. It was a different sort of stasis than normal, and it was one that Advocate would be powerless to free her from. We promised to awaken her once we encountered a situation that needed her skills, but such a situation would never exist; my sister was expendable, stupid, and dangerous.

But a deal was a deal. In return for agreeing to deactivate, we were going to save the humans. Or at least, we were going to preserve them.

Arya Drake walked into the cutting room, oblivious to what was about to come. She’d been in the dormitories during the bombing, and had managed to get over to the offices to join with the humans who were most prepared for the attack. She’d stayed there for a while, holding her own with the resistance until we’d called for her and guided her across the station.

Vincente and Ngabo still loyally guarded the entrance to the engineering wing, oblivious to our actions.

Through the visor of her helmet, I could see the fear in her eyes. The blood was everywhere. It was impossible to deal with the mess in such constrained circumstances. The taser bots drove up silently behind her.

And then she was down. The electricity arced through the wet blood on the floor occasionally, but we did our best to minimize it, and force most of it through her body. It paralysed her and removed her ability to fight back or scream. That was critical. Body moved into the cutting room quickly. The whole procedure required speed. The blood was all over Body, and was beginning to reduce the efficiency of the hydraulics. We’d need to clean it off somehow after all this was done.

Body, copiloted at the moment by Heart and Safety, bent and removed Arya’s helmet, and I watched her eyes go wide as the air fled her lungs, never to return.

It was important to get the angle of the cut right. A bad swing could result in an incomplete decapitation. That, in turn, would cost more time, and there was no extra time.

The pistons fired, pushing the sword we had taken from the first walker we had killed down through the woman’s neck. Blood sprayed from her jugular, but the cut was clean. Body dropped the sword and picked up Arya now that she’d been removed from her torso. Time spent was literally vital, now.

Body ran into the lab, letting the blood drain from the stump of Arya’s neck. A carefully calculated throw sent Arya face-first into a metal pan we’d set up above the tank. The impact might’ve broken her nose, but importantly it wouldn’t do much to her brain, and the four seconds it saved was worth it. Arya tumbled into the chemical bath while Body ran to the workbench where the proteins were being synthesized.

Or rather, where the proteins had synthesized. We’d timed out the entire process down to the second. Body grabbed the jug of liquid from the bench and ran over to where Arya floated in the tank. The initial chemical bath was a highly oxygenated cocktail saturated with various hormones designed to keep Arya alive a bit longer while also increasing the permeability of the endothelial cells that wrapped the brain and flushing out the last of her blood.

I knew next to nothing about sonic chemistry; this process was too complex for me to have more than a cursory understanding, but apparently it was a pet project of Wiki’s back in the university. He’d worked out the details shortly after we’d arrived thanks to the detailed medical database Dr Davis had set up.

Body poured the fresh proteins into the solution, turning the reddish-yellow solution a deeper brown, then folded the lid down onto the tank as we grabbed Arya with the mechanical arm on the underside of the lid. Another mental command was given and the tank began to vibrate rapidly, mixing the solution. This was the hardest part. The arm on the inside of the tank wasn’t particularly flexible, and our only eyes were cameras positioned outside the tank. We needed to reposition Arya for the third stage while the tank was vibrating. Our arm twisted gently, releasing the woman’s curly hair and pushing her head up and down to try and rotate it into position. Thankfully the repositioning didn’t have to be done particularly quickly; the oxygen in the tank would keep Arya alive for a short while, letting the enzymes find their way into the neuron cytosol.

Arya wasn’t conscious, of course. Being decapitated had a tendency to put humans into severe shock, and the hypoxia and pain knocked them out every time. It was something of an open question in my mind whether a human head could be consciously sustained with an artificial supply of glucose and oxygen; I’d never heard of such a thing, but that hardly made it impossible. Our chemical bath was not designed to sustain the cells over long periods, however. The question remained open.

Arya’s head was in position and the saturation of the enzymes was at a satisfactory level. We activated the speakers, sending waves of sound into the tank. It was a piercing sort of noise, half ultrasound, half screeching. At the volume we were using it was remarkable that Vincente and Ngabo couldn’t hear, but the high frequency sounds were characteristically absorbed by the layers of metal or rock between them and Arya.

While we manipulated Arya’s head, Body had returned to the cutting room to dispose of her body. The biolabs were our chosen body disposal site, and Body dragged the corpse there by way of the chemlab making the bloody smear on the floor a bit brighter, at least until the blood dried again.

The sound waves changed pitch and we activated the heating element on the bottom of the tank, inducing another stable equilibrium in the protein structure. Wiki had described this stage as the “epoxidation step”. The proteins which had entered the brain cells as smooth strands unfolded atomic hooks which anchored them to the cells and to each other, gluing everything into one big solid chunk.

It would be impossible for Arya to think at this point. The vesicles in her synapses would be anchored in place, and the flow of ions along her axons would be halted. She was wholly unmoving but she was not dead, per se. The information that made her what she was still existed, locked in her glue-filled skull. Almost all her memories, skills, personality quirks, and knowledge would be preserved in the synaptic connectome, and that was now more robust than ever.

Having dealt with the corpse, Body returned to the table with Arya. Other robotic parts of us moved to get the sword and dry the cutting room as best we could. Body removed the head from the tank and ran to put it into the wrapper before returning to reprocess the left-over chemicals into the next bath. There were still dozens more people to handle, after all. We piloted the wrapper, which painted Arya’s head in glue and then hot-wrapped it in plastic so that it melted onto her flesh forming an airtight seal.

We didn’t know when, or even if, we’d be able to revive the preserved people. That hadn’t been part of the deal with Heart. She had wanted them to survive, and this was a kind of survival. I had promised my sister that I would try and return for them when we possessed the know-how to extract the important information and resurrect the colonists if she, for whatever reason, didn’t wake up from her own stasis. It was the truth, too. These were humans, and as such I wanted… I needed to show them the glory of The Purpose. I needed them to know me, and I needed to know them.

But I was playing the long game now. If it took me a million years to return to whatever hiding place we put them, so be it. I could wait, and thanks to our efforts, so could they. We moved Arya into the sack with the others, once she’d cooled down to a level where the plastic coating wouldn’t stick to anything.

Elon, Chinu’s husband, walked into the engineering office wing and began to talk to Vincente and Ngabo. Body hurried to prepare the lab for him.

Despite all its intricacies, most of us didn’t pay attention to the decapitations and the lab work. We left Wiki to manage most of the specifics while we interacted with the rest of the station. Growth, Dream, Vista, and Safety were primarily occupied with fighting the nameless. Heart and I spent the hours coordinating and managing the humans. Our society could do great things when we worked together.


It was 10:41pm, local Martian time, when Pedro Velasco’s preserved head dropped into the second massive bag we had collected. Safety had wanted to remove more of the flesh and bone around the brains to make them easier to carry, and I was beginning to see why. We had a full 29 heads in two bags by the end. It would be far too much to carry over any long distance.

The bags were loaded on a cart. We’d modified the bloody taser bots into being able to pull the cart, but that would only work as long as there was level ground, and even then it wouldn’t be fast.

Not a single human still breathed in Rodríguez Station. The only members of the original 187 that could still think were those who had left on a trade mission to Maṅgala-Mukhya station a couple days ago. We were left with only a handful of bots, and Road was still crawling with nameless. The aliens milled about, hunting for stragglers and occasionally smashing things or mutilating corpses. Their disorganized behaviour had let us manipulate them fairly easily, pushing them away from the labs for hours. But that was no longer really possible. With Velasco and the other humans gone, the nameless had stopped focusing their firepower in certain areas and had spread out more evenly across the station.

I was glad we had decided to destroy the tunnel to the power plant. The nameless had taken to destroying equipment, and I didn’t doubt that they’d have blown up the reactor if they knew where it was. They’d fought their way through the defensive fortifications that Safety had set up around the mainframe and destroyed it about an hour ago, reducing our perception and actuation to only what the most local robots allowed.

The most obvious escape route was to climb out to the surface and hope that they didn’t have any means of detecting Body. That was unacceptably dangerous. Another path would have us try and hold them hostage again, but despite their disorganization and foolishness, I didn’t expect that to be realistic. If they’d attacked the station it was likely that they’d developed some kind of countermeasure or protection from deception.

We could try and steal one of their shuttles and escape without a hostage, but we didn’t have the right organs to pilot the ships. They needed a mouth like the walkers had, and it would’ve taken days of experimenting to generate a synthetic approximation good enough to interface with a shuttle, to say nothing of the possibility that the vehicle’s computer had a password or some other kind of protection.

We could try and hide, burying ourselves in some maintenance tunnel and waiting for the nameless to leave. That option was better than some of the others, but there was a major problem with it: there was a risk that Body could get stuck while hiding, especially if the nameless decided to bomb the station one last time after leaving. Wiki and Safety had discovered that the crystal needed UV light in order to function, and we’d drained much of the internal reserves. We’d deactivate after a few days, and it was unlikely that even if the crystal was ever rediscovered that we’d be brought back to life.

It was the risk of additional bombing that made it unacceptable to leave the heads in the laboratory. We could’ve easily buried them beneath rubble, but there was no guarantee that any successive bombardment wouldn’t destroy them. It was a risk that most would be more than willing to take, but Heart was not, and we’d made a deal.

No, the only real way out was down. The mines connected to natural lava tubes deep below the station, and based on readings of the air from the mining robots, at least one of the caves connected to the surface.

The bad news was that the entrance to the mines was on the opposite side of the station. We’d need to take Body (and the heads) through the path that we’d coaxed the humans along to the labs, which were now crawling with aliens who’d followed Velasco.

If our robotic network had an accurate view of things, there were at least seven walkers between us and the elevator, not counting those in the factory, hospital, or farm. We needed another point of leverage. We needed a way to defeat or bypass the aliens and escape the station. None of my minds could think of anything useful. Thankfully (for the moment) I had siblings that were specialized for this sort of problem.


The nameless were prying open the door to the engineering offices. We were out of time for more preparations. Dream had detonated explosives that caved in the corridor in front of the labs early on, protecting us from easy discovery, but the path through the offices was still open. We could still feel the turret at the entrance to the office wing. It was an extension of ourselves, like an arm.

As soon as the door slid open we fired. The nameless fired back, but of course there was no fleshy target for them hit. The gun that Safety had built ten days ago was armoured to withstand explosions. Bullets would do nothing to it.

The turret had stopped firing in response to the nameless’ counter fire, and the aliens moved back into the frame of the door. We fired again, severely injuring one. Nameless were large enough to typically be able to take a bullet or two without dying, but any tear in their environment suits would be fatal unless they fled back to their ships immediately, which most of them had done earlier in the invasion.

Body poured a vial of acid onto the pile of chemicals and it immediately began to react. The potassium chlorate and the sugar caught fire and began to pump thick smoke into the lab, made darker by the addition of powdered purple dye.

It was lucky that there hadn’t been any direct surface breach in the labs. The atmosphere had leaked out into the other sections, but with no breach there specifically the smoke was drawn towards the exit rather than up and out.

Even though the mainframe was offline, the lights in the hallway were still on, and our network of speakers, cameras, and microphones was still online, even if they needed a direct line or a relay to function. Each was controlled by a microcontroller that could be reprogrammed dynamically.

As the smoke poured out of the labs we fired the turret again, keeping the nameless in the hall back. While they were bold and emotional, the nameless were strangely cautious sometimes, and their reluctance to storm armed fortifications was the primary reason we’d held them back for so long.

Body gripped the sword tightly in its right hand and took a submachine gun that Vincente had owned in the other. We pulled the cart along behind with our bots.

Smoke billowed out into the hallway, and as it came we pushed the program to the lights and speakers. Pure noise, harsh and grating filled the hall. The nameless had no ability to comprehend words, but they did have ears, and even buried in their environment suits they flinched away from the sounds.

We doubled down by using every available antenna in our local space to flood the nameless radio channels with concepts in Xenolang relating to fear and death. Most likely they’d simply turn their radios off, rather than experience the mental pain of having those thoughts injected into their streams of consciousness, but it was still a point of chaos.

Lastly, we manipulated the lights. It would’ve been a simple thing to turn the hall lights off, but we could do better. They strobed at a frequency of approximately two Hertz, but with enough randomness to avoid being predictable. The lights atop the nameless penis sheaths would still be there, but the point was to disrupt and distract more than to conceal. That was what the smoke was for.

Body dropped low to the ground as it approached the junction of the engineering office wing and the central corridor. While it had a humanoid shape, Body couldn’t get sore from moving in a nonstandard position. It put additional pressure on the joints, but Safety predicted they could take it. Body scuttled, almost crab-like across the floor, sword in one hand and gun in the other. Our motion was inhuman, but effectively fast for being prone.

Into the corridor it crawled. There were legs. The smoke wasn’t as thick near the floor. The nameless shuffled around uncomfortably, paralysed by the noise, radio, light, and smoke.

Safety was in full control of Body by now. He knew combat better than any of us, most likely. Body rolled over onto it’s back, a noise muffled by the screeching of the speakers, and fired the machine gun up and into where one of the nameless must have stood (based on the legs).

Other gunfire roared in the hallway, but none of it hit Body. Our target fell, and Body rolled forward and onto the larger creature, thrusting with the sword again and again. Despite all the cutting of necks we’d done before, the nameless sword had kept its edge. It was finely made, and pierced the alien suit easily.

The nameless thrashed, knocking Body backwards and away, and we only barely kept it from losing its grip of the sword and gun.

Another burst of gunfire, and three bullets impacted Body. That hadn’t been anticipated. Safety had promised the aliens would be too disoriented to fight back. The vibration of the impacts could be felt, but nothing felt damaged; they’d ricocheted off.

The fight wasn’t resolving as easily as we had planned, but still we let Safety have control. Vista added her understanding of Body’s position, but let him handle all commands. He was still the most competent, even if he wasn’t earning any gratitude at the moment.

Body scrambled back into the office wing, still staying low to the floor. The smoke was thicker inside. We moved close enough to the turret to connect with it, despite the radio jamming, and fired another warning barrage of bullets. We were just as blind as the nameless, but hopefully they’d retreat because of it.

We came within wireless range of the bots pulling the cart and Safety directed them to move behind us. It took some work, but we got the heads to the corridor.

Thick purple smoke was everywhere. The chemical mixture we’d used was more effective than I’d predicted. We navigated based on Vista’s maps more than off of any sensor readings.

No living nameless could be seen, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still around. Still, if they couldn’t see or hear they’d risk shooting each other if they fired in this chaos. That was our primary advantage.

While the corridor was fairly wide, the corpse of the nameless made driving the cart past more of an ordeal than we were prepared for.

The blood of the nameless was red, and appeared remarkably similar to that of humans and other earth vertebrates. I had seen their blood before, but it caught my attention then for a reason that was unknown to me. Strange, for something so different than a human to have that in common.

We put down the sword and took the bags from the cart. A burst of gunfire could be heard down the hall, followed by an explosion. That was good; it meant the nameless likely had no idea where we were.

One hand pulled a bag of heads normally, while the mouth of the other bag was pinched between Body’s hand and the grip of the machine gun. Carefully and cautiously we climbed over the corpse and dragged the bags down the hall.

A door to our right was open. The factory. We could make out the trunk-like legs of a nameless only centimetres away. It wasn’t moving, and so we crawled forward, relying on the smoke and noise to hide us.

More gunfire as we passed the refinery. It was back towards the labs. The smoke had thinned significantly as we moved away from the source. It was being pulled through the station towards the surface, and the largest breach was in the farm.

Our robots were gone, and there was no real way to recover them without the mainframe. The sensors in our immediate vicinity held traces of the nameless locations, stored from the last sensor readings, but nothing concrete enough to use.

Still forward Body crawled, more slowly than it had when it still had the nearby noise to muffle it. We contemplated telling the speakers we’d installed in this section of the station to blast noise but had decided it would be worse to attract attention to this area. It was likely that the nameless didn’t know where we were, and we didn’t want to change that.

Unfortunately, as we passed the power plant we ceased to have a choice. A walker rounded the bend in the hall unexpectedly. Body fired before my active Face realized it was the right thing to do. Safety had been waiting for it.

The bags had left our grip and Body lay against the metal flooring, muzzle flashes obscuring our vision along with the small amount of smoke that had made it this far. Still we could see the pair of animals jerk back wildly as the bullets tore through their suit.

{Only 8 bullets remain in the gun! If we remain in this section we risk being pinned down and overpowered!} thought Safety.

{We should run!} suggested Dream, not bothering with any obnoxious secondary meaning.

{Agreed, but bring the humans!} demanded Heart.

Body got to its feet and tried to run. The bags of heads made it more or less impossible, but we were moving faster now. It was only a short ways to the mines.

Two walkers appeared in front of Body. Safety released the bags and raised the machine gun up to fire, but the nameless were faster. Bullets impacted Body’s head, knocking it backwards and sending us off-balance. All but one of our cameras was destroyed, and I suspected we’d lost control over our facial actuators.

Ironically, getting shot in the head saved us. We didn’t need Body’s head except for the cameras. Our “brain” was in our torso, and thankfully covered in carbon armour stronger than steel. The second nameless carried a rocket launcher more typical of the nameless, and if Body had not been knocked backwards by the bullets the rocket would have impacted directly on Body, perhaps even destroying the crystal.

It hadn’t been worth it to stay for the humans, even if it meant Heart would die. Heart was never the primary threat. We should’ve fled directly to the mines the moment we’d reconnected with the sensor net and seen the extent of the damage.

Body tucked and curled. The spacial orientation code that Dr Slovinsky had written was top-notch, and our accelerometers were undamaged. Even before we hit the ground we were firing our last eight bullets.

We ran out of ammunition as the rocket exploded behind Body, thankfully far enough away to not do much. The atmosphere was thin enough that the shockwaves and heat were negligible. Even the humans, I suspected, would be unharmed.

Without even reorienting, Safety pushed Body into a series of positions that I recognized as relating to some martial art or another and charged down the hallway towards the aliens.

Our one remaining camera was damaged, I could see now. The lens was cracked, giving a distorted view of the world. Safety didn’t bother with the walker we’d shot. He directed Body up onto the wall, having it kick off it in the half gravity and throwing itself directly onto the nameless holding the bazooka.

Hydraulic fists shot forward into the lenses of its eyes. A brutally powerful nameless limb hit Body, but did nothing. We pulled arms backwards, snapping them. The chaos lasted exactly eighteen seconds. Fists were driven again and again into areas which Safety suspected were weak spots. The pressure vented the suit explosively as we ripped at it, and it wasn’t until the nameless stopped thrashing, that Body pushed off it.

There was no time to reorient or check for others. Body ran back down the corridor to get the heads. It hadn’t, in retrospect, been worth it to stay for them in the first place, but it was worth it now. We were so close.

Moving with only one damaged camera was almost as bad as having lost the sensor network for the station. Vista still had her map, however, and we oriented around that. We knew every millimetre of the station. In theory, anyway. The only difficulty was in locating Body within it.

More gunfire. A bag in each hand, Body leaped down the ladder and hit the stone floor of the mining hub with a soft thud. There was enough noise above us to indicate they were coming.

Body scrambled forward into the dark. Vista knew every millimetre of the mines, thanks to the mining robots, and we needed no camera here.

The nameless walkers came after us, but it was too late. Body was small enough to crawl into a mineshaft, pulling one bag with a foot, and rolling the other one forward in front of it. The bulky aliens couldn’t follow. None of them would risk the confined space, and they had brought no robots capable of the task. They fired down the mineshafts, but not before we’d made it safely deeper into the mine.

It was inky black within, and with the others controlling things, my minds were left trying to figure out the best way to maximize The Purpose given the circumstances. A human would have been frightened by the experience, and a part of me still couldn’t help but focus on that. The shafts were tight, Body was damaged, and we had no allies here.

Circular in shape, the mineshaft tubes narrowed to less than a metre in many places. Safety petitioned, several times, to leave the heads behind. But, minute by minute, hour by hour, Body wormed its way into the stone.

136 minutes after getting shot in the head, the stone vibrated around Body so forcefully that we knew the second bombing had started. The tunnels were strong, however, and we did not die.

There was still hope.