Chapter Twenty-Eight


The song was present when Zephyr woke up. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the nightmare that she’d gone through during the night, but her thinking was cloudy and it seemed so very far away. Her dreams before waking had been pleasant things. Soft, and smooth, she let the song pass through her as she savored the feeling of the warm blankets. They too were soft and smooth, just the way she liked them.

{It must be Saturday. That’s why your alarm didn’t go off,} she thought to herself.

The music reminded Zephyr of Harry. There were sounds of waves and birdsong mixed in with the bass and the synth. He digged this sort of ambient shit. Was she at his house?


He hadn’t talked with her since she got shot all those years ago. The unpleasant memories of her brother brought Zephyr closer to reality.

{You’re on Mars, stupid.}

Panic, anger, and raw energy shot through her like an arrow and she tried to sit bolt-upright in bed. Instead, her body sort of flopped a bit, as though she was a fish that was giving one last try to get out of the boat and back into the lake.

“Good morning” sang a soft voice. The music tempo and volume increased slightly.

Zephyr pulled the blanket away from her face. It felt like her muscles had never been used before, and there was something pulling on her arm. “Crystal?” she asked, her voice coming out as a whisper.

The primary theme from Blood of the Nova was sprinkled into the song as they said “I’m here. You’re safe. Relax.” Their words fit into the tempo of the song like pegs into holes.

Zephyr obeyed and let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She tried to get her thoughts in order. “What—” She licked her lips. They were dry and chapped.

The room around her wasn’t the cramped tent she had fallen asleep in. The walls seemed to be made out of white plastic, and it was about the same dimensions as the small bedroom that she and Crystal had shared back at Road. Her throat tightened as she thought about…

{That’s in the past. You need to pull yourself together and focus,} she told herself.

She didn’t know where the bed had come from. Her pillow was made of a solid block of foam without a pillowcase. The light came from two long bulbs along the ceiling that seemed stuck on without concern for aesthetics. Exposed wiring ran from them down the far wall, along the floor, and to the room’s solitary door: an airlock that seemed to have been taken directly from one of the rovers. A tall air processor stood in one corner, and beside her was a long, silver, robotic arm rising up from the floor. In its claw was a bag connected by a tube down to her left arm. The IV was what she had felt pulling at her before. It itched when she realized what it was.

“Where am I?” asked Zephyr, finding her voice.

The song continued. It was coming from Zephyr’s com, which was lying on the floor next to the bed, plugged into another set of wires that led to the airlock. “Built you a house. You’ve been asleep for a long time.”

Nausea rose up within her and she closed her eyes, wanting to go back to her happy dreams. “How long?”

“Lost a lot of blood. You were in a coma for over three days. What’s the last thing you can remember?”

“Fucking hell,” she swore. She pushed herself to open her eyes and try to sit up again, powering through the nausea and the protests of her muscles. She was reasonably successful this time, but something felt wrong. “I have to get—” She had been about to say “up to help win the battle” but the nonsense of the thought stopped her.

“Relax,” sang Crystal.

It made her think of Manish. Thinking of Manish made her think about his death. That made her—

“The pain’s gone,” she said aloud before she even fully processed the realization.

“Take a minute to breathe,” instructed the voice from her com, again.

She flailed a bit, pushing back the blankets covering her lower body. She was wearing underwear and a thin undershirt, but not the clothes that she had on when she went to sleep. She just now noticed the catheter and bag that Crystal must have set up. But all of that was swept away by the sight of simultaneously having and not having legs. Plural. Two legs. They were blue. The pale, burnt skin seemed to transition directly into plastic.

She felt dizzy. The nausea came back in full force and she tried to vomit. But of course she hadn’t eaten anything in “over three days” and her body brought her nothing but a bit of stomach acid.

“It’s okay, Zeph. You’re okay.” The song continued, carrying Crystal’s words as though they were the lyrics. “You’re under a heavy dose of avonidine. One of the side effects is nausea.”

Once she’d shifted to be a bit more comfortable, and recovered slightly she asked “What did you do to me?”

“Healing,” sang Crystal. “Do you remember losing your leg in the battle?”

“Remember losing one. The other one was just burned.”

“There were complications on that one too. You almost died from the internal bleeding. Saved your life and gave you replacements.”

Zephyr sighed. “Are the nameless dead?”

The song stopped, fading out into silence. A part of her cried out at the loss, but she suppressed the urge and listened as Crystal explained.

“Yes. The railgun has continued to prove itself. We killed all the monsters without losing anyone else. Even hit the ship that made it into orbit. Took some engineering, but I built an articulated platform that’s capable of aiming the gun freely. Hit those bastards twice when they flew overhead, though it seems to have only forced them to retreat. Got lucky in the valley when we hit the engine.”

A large part of Zephyr didn’t want to ask her next question, but she did anyway. “What about the mothership?”

“Still on its way. Got connection to the satellites again, and they say it’s about four days out.”


“Relax,” urged Crystal. It was becoming annoyingly repetitive.

She tried to pull out her catheter, and found that it was much harder to do than expected. She thought about getting rid of the IV line instead, but the nausea was coming back, and so she just lay back down and tried to follow Crystal’s advice.

After a short time, Crystal spoke up again from the com. “Building a weapon right now. As is, the railgun is too fragile and weak to rely on. Not sure my new one will be ready in four days, but I’m working as fast as I can. Unless you’ve got a PhD that I don’t know about, the most useful thing you can do now is to not push yourself too hard. Let me know if you need anything, okay? There are clothes in the bag at the foot of the bed. Oh! I almost forgot! Your legs aren’t functioning yet. They’re attached, and not delicate, but they don’t have any power. It’ll be something like being paralysed.”

“What’s the point of—” started Zephyr.

“Got distracted by designing the weapon. I promise I’ll get your legs working soon. Honest.”

Zephyr sighed, but didn’t say anything.

After a few minutes Zephyr was confident that Crystal’s attention had left her. There was no reason to get up, really. So Zephyr just lay there in the silent room, thinking.

Time passed in a surreal crawl. She eventually figured out how to remove her catheter. She took her IV out too, deciding that the pain would be preferable to the nausea. She found her clothes and got dressed in the least-soiled outfit. She hadn’t washed anything since visiting Mukhya. They didn’t smell nearly as bad as the environment suits, though, and it wasn’t like other people were likely to care.

Working with her prostheses was a huge pain in the ass. They were fairly light, all things considered, but it still took a metaphorical eon to put on her pants.

And then… she was stuck.

She couldn’t exactly get up and walk out. She didn’t even know if there was a suit in the airlock to let her do that. She wasn’t about to crawl around on the floor like a worm. It wasn’t as bad as before, when she couldn’t stand and she was in unbearable pain, but she desperately wanted for Crystal to finish her legs so she could be up and about.

She checked her com. The local net had a massive backlog of activity. Various people were talking about various things. More than she cared to read. There were questions about the mothership, suggestions that they take cover, and worries about food. Apparently they had at least re-established contact with the Indians who had fled Mukhya. There was old talk about heading back to regroup with the evacuees, and of the desperate need for getting the farms up and running again. Even the most optimistic projections indicated that they’d need to severely ration food. Zephyr abandoned the task of reading through the backlog; even with just highlights it was too much for her at the moment.

Zephyr idly considered trying to call someone and get them to visit. She felt like she was floating. Maybe a human face would anchor her. But she decided against it. She just… She didn’t want pity or idle chatter. She wanted to be killing aliens.

Eventually she put on a dripslice album (Endless Pizza) that she’d loaded onto her com back on Earth. She lay back on the bed, zoning out listening to the music.

When the music stopped she stayed put, simply lying there. She wished someone would come visit her on their own initiative. Nobody really cared about her except Crystal, and they were busy doing actually useful things.

At some point she fell asleep.


The airlock was running.

Realizing she was napping, she pushed herself up and tried to regain her bearings, blinking hard.

The pain was creeping back. She could feel it in her legs, especially the patches of skin which still were recovering from the burns.

“I hope you slept well,” said Crystal through the com beside the bed.

Zephyr bent and picked it up, attaching it to her arm. “Who’s in the airlock?” she asked.

“Relax. You’re safe.”

“I want my gun,” said Zephyr. She hadn’t found her pistol in her bag.

“There’s nobody here who’s going to hurt you. My robot is in the airlock. Loaned your gun to Jarvis before the last battle, just in case.”

“You had no right to do that!” The frustration of her situation and the way she was detached from the world was spilling over into anger at Crystal. {They’re your only friend, bitch. No wonder you don’t have more.}

“I’m sorry, Zeph. You were out cold and the nameless…” The android trailed off.

“Fuck. Forget about it. I’ll get it back soon. Just makes me jumpy when I don’t have it nearby.”

“Want to go get it? I have Jarvis working on Furnace Five.” As Crystal spoke, the door of the room opened to reveal a robot that looked eerily like a giant metal scorpion, except with two back ends. It was oblong, with six legs and a long metal arm on the front and back similar to the one that was holding the bag of medicine by her bed. Underneath the robot was a single large wheel which was presumably for holding most of the bot’s weight. “Know you’re probably frustrated at not having working legs, and I am working on fixing that as we speak, but in the meantime you could let me carry you around.”

“You want me to ride that thing?”


While she was skeptical at first, it turned out to not be so bad. Once she’d gotten suited up and sitting cross-legged on top of the scorpion she was able to hold on to the arms and let it move slowly along with her on its back. It wasn’t fast, but it was a hell of a lot better than being stuck on the bed.

The world outside of her little plastic room was the strangest thing she’d seen since her time aboard the xenocruiser. In a way, she supposed, she was kinda inside the ship once again. Crystal (for it had to be them; no human could do something like this) had turned the wreckage of the alien ship into something between a sprawling factory and an amusement park.

The most obvious things were the crystals. Tall white spires of crystal stood upright at regular intervals, but the tops of the spires were split open into some sort of fractal explosion of jagged branches. The branches were still crystalline, sharp and straight rather than the smoothness of real trees, but the thin web of crystals overhead was much darker than the white “trunks”, giving the impression of leaves. Only on Mars, where the gravity was as low as it was, could rocks spread out overhead like that.

“They’re designed to be used in zero gravity, actually,” said Crystal when Zephyr commented on them. “They’re solar panels. Had to rework them to not break in the gravity well. Initially they were far too thin.”

Crystal went on to explain that the crystal trees were a very similar design to the computer that was running their mind and that they were confident that their computer was from a nameless ship or something like that.

“Are these things running artificial intelligences too?” she asked, gesturing at the webs of black branches overhead.

Crystal paused before answering. “There are computers in them, powerful ones too, but it’s hard to say where the line between normal software and AI is. I was designed by humans to be a fully general intelligence with sentience, sapience, and consciousness. These things… They’re running a program with a kind of intelligence, but it’s closer to what you’d find in an auto: very stupid. They’re oriented around flying a ship, for instance, and have no comprehension of what to do now that they’re stuck on a planet. Been trying to reprogram them, but there’s a lot of… obstacles. One must be… very careful when working with alien technology.”

Zephyr was about to say something, but Crystal interrupted her by continuing. “And besides, they’re working to give me energy! As long as they’re doing that, I don’t have much reason to worry about them for the time being. Have a weapon to build, and all that. If you see any of my robots working on them, let me know. Maybe I’ll have more to tell you about the god of the nameless.”

“Um, okay.”

The scorpion walked on towards Furnace Five. This… place (she wasn’t sure how to think of it yet) had roads where the dust and larger rocks had been swept away and the dirt had been compacted. The scorpion walked along these small roads, as did a hundred other robots, but she didn’t see any humans.

“So many bots… How do you pilot them all?” she wondered aloud.

The voice in her suit explained. “Been working on building up the swarm ever since we won. Got mass production of the most useful ones up and running pretty early. Most of their thoughts are handled by the computers that were in the rovers, actually. Built subprograms to handle all the walking and other basic control. The bot you’re riding on, for instance, is simply obeying my direction to walk to Furnace Five. All the decisions of which legs to move and which way to turn are handled by other software on the local net.”

There were other structures, besides the little room that Zephyr had awoken inside. Most notably was a large bubble-dome at least thirty feet tall that seemed very similar to the one the nameless had used on Earth. When she asked about it, Crystal explained that it had repaired itself after their attack, and they were using it to study the surviving nameless stalks. Most of the other structures weren’t enclosed. She could see into shells of buildings filled with robots moving this way and that carrying equipment, tools, and supplies. Crystal explained that the walls were for the wind and to serve as an anchor for the branches of crystal leaves overhead.

It was daytime, but the canopy blocked most of the light. Here and there a shaft of daytime sun pierced the dark crystals, but for the most part they moved along under the light of more of the long lightbulbs, anchored to the walls and ceilings (and sometimes the floor) with the same indifference to looking nice. Wires and cables were everywhere, leading from the crystal trees out to all the machines.

Even though she understood that she was moving through the shell of the nameless ship, nothing really had the same feel as the xenocruiser. There was no sign of water, for instance, or even ice. The soil underfoot was clearly martian, rather than the black stuff the nameless had. There were no hand-cut stone blocks or vines or anything.

Crystal seemed equally confused. “The area under the dome is closer to the habitat we encountered. It has soil and nameless stalks, anyway. I am not sure where the castles or water went, though. Just one more mystery.”

The robot wound this way and that along the little road. It seemed to Zephyr that being in this place should have been overwhelming, but it wasn’t. There was motion everywhere, and the sheer complexity of the wonderland was beyond words, but the hum of the robotic motors and the various power tools simply built up a carpet of white noise which she was able to tune out.

After seeing all that Crystal had built, it seemed strange that Zephyr’s legs weren’t functional. “Thought you needed to make your weapon. Why spend so much time on making robots and all this?” She waved her arms around, unwilling to focus on any single aspect.

Crystal laughed. It was a good sound. She’d missed that soft, gentle laugh. “They’re one in the same. Want to build, essentially, an orbital weapons platform to defend Mars. That requires a lot of different things. Most of these robots will be necessary in space once it launches, just for basic operation. The ion drive mostly decayed in the crash, but there’s enough there that I think I can put it back together in about a week’s time, maybe a few days more. But in order to do that I need—”

“Wait. More than a week? But the mothership…”

Crystal sighed. “I know. There’s just not enough time. To buy us more I’m building some rockets that will hopefully draw the aliens off long enough to finish. They’ll broadcast taunts in Xenolang and claim to be carrying the nameless I captured. With luck they’ll avoid shooting them out of the sky, and instead waste a bunch of time trying to pick them up. The computer programs on the ships are designed to keep the nameless safe, after all.”

“Don’t you think there’s a risk they’ll aim for the crash site instead of following the rockets?”

“Oh yes, quite a risk. Trying to do about a million things at the same time. Built bunkers underground in case of bombardment. Trying to build some smaller turrets that can shoot bombs out of the sky if it comes to that. Those turrets require computers, and more computers would be good for the robots, too, so I’m working on getting a computer factory set up, but that’s not going very well. Trying to set up false signals to confuse the nameless using the satellite network—”

“Jesus. Sure you still have time to talk to little old me? Don’t know how you manage.”

Crystal laughed again. “My mind doesn’t need to rest, and it’s much larger than that of a human. Parts of me are working on various problems and tasks even while we talk. And talking to you is important. Too easy for me to get blinded by the fight and not appreciate what I’m fighting for.”

“Well hey there!” said a new voice over the com.

Zephyr was confused for a moment, and then spotted a suited figure standing in the doorway to a structure about a hundred meters ahead. It waved at her.

“That’s Liam. He’s been spending most of his time with Jarvis. I’ll let you catch up with them and get your pistol back. Just say something if you need me, okay?”

Zephyr waved stiffly at the other human, feeling like her body was a puppet. This wasn’t what she wanted, but she went with it anyway. She didn’t even really know what she wanted.

“I love you,” she said over the private channel, coming to a realization about her desire.

“I love you, too,” responded Crystal.

At least she wasn’t alone.


Though there had been no further casualties after the big battle, Zephyr discovered that many of the humans had left to return to regroup with the Mukhya refugees. With Cristophe, Matías, Manish, and Jian dead, the band of survivors had been whittled down to a mere nine. Omi and Jashiel had left before the fighting, Jacob and Mycah had gone with the few Indians who hadn’t died in combat back to Mukhya, and so it was just down to her, Jarvis, Liam, Shao, and Atília.

All of them were men, and none of them were her friends. Liam and Jarvis treated her reasonably well when she came to get her gun, though she could tell that neither of them actually respected her. In their eyes, she was a woman and a cripple. She had been rude to them because of it, not that she expected that helped things. That was the way she’d always been. She was either in control or she wasn’t. When she was she kept people away, and when she wasn’t she pushed people away.

It wasn’t any surprise that there wasn’t a single human being on the planet that cared about her. She knew she deserved that. What was surprising was that Crystal was still with her. It was pretty obvious she didn’t deserve their attention, their affection, or their loyalty, even if Crystal was blind to that fact.

After that initial encounter with the men, she kept to herself. She didn’t even bother to see Shao or Atília, and they didn’t bother to see her. It was a somewhat lonely existence, but mostly it was just a relief. She realized the next day that she simply didn’t like people. It was a strange concept, but it made sense to her.

A part of her really wanted to help Crystal. She asked twice, if there was something for her to work on, given that she had nothing to do and that there was so much to be done. But unlike the men, she wasn’t able to walk, and Crystal, while dancing around the subject in the somewhat patronizing way they did, told her that it would be more trouble trying to carry her around than it would be helpful having her hands available. They did all the mental work, anyway, so at best Zephyr would have only been another puppet for the great Crystal Socrates.

Zephyr did little for two days. She listened to music in her cramped little house, did her best to air out her clothes and take a sponge bath (with Crystal’s help), eat what food Crystal brought, sleep, and try to get back into shape after having let her muscles weaken. On the second day, she had the insight to ask if Crystal had any games, movies, books or other entertainment. It turned out that they did, and she spent the rest of that day watching various things on her shitty little com screen.

Though they talked frequently, Zephyr and Crystal weren’t intimate during that time. It didn’t seem right, given that Crystal was little more than a disembodied voice. When Zephyr masturbated, Crystal either didn’t notice or decided not to interrupt. A part of Zephyr found that to be the most terrible thing of the boredom and isolation, but she knew that it would be selfish to ask Crystal for more than she had to. In her fantasies she imagined Crystal was a human of flesh and blood with a woman’s shape. Tall and strong—an amazonian warrior—but still distinctly feminine. Images of men too easily turned, in her mind, into those she had loved and lost.

She tried to focus on Crystal, and remember who they were. The fighting would be done soon, and the two of them would be together again more fully, after that. She had to believe that. Perhaps in their next form they’d be more human. They’d done so much. How hard could it be to build a soft body given everything else?

Zephyr’s dreams in those days were frightening things. She did her best not to remember them upon waking.

On the morning of the third day, Crystal surprised her with a swarm of robots carrying all sorts of gear (and a breakfast ration). As they fussed with her legs (and she ate) Crystal explained that they’d made a manufacturing breakthrough in the new chemical labs and had something which would probably make her legs at least somewhat functional. The glossy blue legs were taken off at the knees (a disturbing experience) and machines were inserted into them which made no sense to Zephyr. She knew next to nothing about engineering outside of the basic survival skills she’d picked up in her military training and the high school programming class she’d taken years ago. She could operate a fab, a com, a basic radio, and a gun. She could synth two of those four things. Outside of that she was more or less useless.

As a silver-armed bot attached the newly-modified legs back to the prosthetic-stumps that had been glued onto her legs, Crystal said “There’s still a lot to do. Unlike most augs, these won’t respond to your body, or at least, not yet. I’ll be working on the nerve interface all of today. But they’re powered now, and I can control them remotely while I try and guess what you want them to do.”

“You’re going to remote control my legs…” Zephyr said with disbelief.

“Know that’s not ideal. Like I said, the nerve interface is in the works. We need to try them out, though, so I’ll be manipulating them for now.”

The reality was just as awkward as Zephyr feared. Once they were fully attached, Crystal flexed the powered knees experimentally, and Zephyr tried to stand up. The legs “worked” in the sense that wearing them was better than being unable to stand up, but they felt like awful, clumsy stilts. The biggest failure point was the ankle, which Crystal only seemed to move in random, infuriating ways.

After half an hour of flopping around, Crystal seemed satisfied and sent the robots away, letting Zephyr lie back down. It was nice to be upright again, but she hated the sense that the legs weren’t hers. They itched infuriatingly, but there was nothing she could do.

That day passed more or less like the others. She spent more time walking around awkwardly, but it was uncomfortable enough that she mostly stayed in bed watching movies, trying to forget the world.

The itching in her legs built up over the day, until it became so unbearable that she confronted Crystal about it. They just suggested walking around more, and said that it would probably be gone in the morning.

But stumbling around the tiny room didn’t do anything. As night fell, Zephyr put on a documentary about the election rigging scandal in Australia a few years back. She hoped it would be boring enough to put her to sleep, but it actually turned out to be pretty good, albeit an hour longer than she expected.

It was almost midnight when she finished. There was no way she could sleep, though. She could almost swear that someone was scratching her toes with a cold wire brush left to right and then back again. The itching was just as bad as it had been, too.

“Crystal, I think something is wrong with my legs. Itching hasn’t gone away, and they feel weird.”

“Remember how I said I’d be working on the nerve-interface? The sensation isn’t an accident. Wanted to surprise you tomorrow morning, but I guess it’s harder to tweak someone’s nervous system without their knowledge than I expected.”

Zephyr rubbed at the joint between her skin and the blue plastic of her thighs. “You’re doing this?” she growled, more angry than she expected to be.

“In a sense, yes. The tingling is because of some nanomaterials that I inserted into the gel interface this morning. Expect your brain will have sorted out some of the sensations by morning to the point where it won’t be bothersome. Even expect you’ll be able to walk on your own direction by tomorrow night.”

Zephyr took a deep breath and paused to mull this over. “You’re saying that I’m actually feeling my legs right now? That’s what the itching is?”

“You don’t sound as pleased as I expected. This is a fantastic new technology, Zephyr. Nobody in history has gotten synthetic skin to work at the resolution or speed that—”

Something snapped within her. All the frustration that had been building up over the day broke through. “Fucking hell! Never asked for this! You’re using me as a guinea pig for some technology that’s never been established on augs that I never gave you consent to attach!”

“Would you rather be a cripple?” challenged Crystal.

“I’d rather you include me in the decision making about my own fucking body! How many times are we going to have to have this conversation?! I’m not a fucking doll!”

“But you were included! You agreed to them!”

Zephyr gripped the blanket on the bed in her fist. She wished Crystal had a body with eyes she could look into. Yelling at her com like this made Crystal seem so far away. “No I didn’t! I don’t remember anything like that!”

“In the tent, before you lost consciousness—”

“That’s…” Zephyr cut Crystal off sharply, intending to deny having agreed to anything, but the doubt seized her. “That’s not what happened…” she finished, lamely.

“Do you need me to play the recording?” asked Crystal. Their voice had an infuriating note of sincere compassion to it.

They were always like this. Crystal was a better person than Zephyr had ever known. She saw ghosts and shadows in Crystal that were never actually there. They’d stuck with Zephyr through thick and thin, and had never let their superhuman compassion waver. It had always been Zephyr that had fucked things up. It had always been her doubt.

{You deserve to be dead,} she told herself.

Though she’d been feeling fine just minutes ago (aside from the irritation of her legs), all the feelings of the last couple weeks seemed to come roaring up from the depths of her soul like a boiling geyser of emotion, unleashed by the previous frustration and anger. The faces of everyone she’d let down seemed to be staring at her out of the blackness of the tiny room.

{Manish was just a boy. Innocent. Who wanted to go to Mars? You did. You brought the nameless here.}

“Zeph?” asked Crystal.

The voice was too much to bear, even with the sensation of distance. Zephyr wanted to be alone. She needed to be alone. She deserved to be alone. With trembling hands she turned off her com, threw it onto the floor, and covered her head with the blanket.

{You’re such a little girl. “Oh, look at me, I’m a tough soldier!”} she mocked herself. She thought about all the actual little girls and the boys that had been in Road when it had been attacked. She thought about Sam and Tom and Kokumo and Michel. She thought about her company. Nate had been lucky to survive as long as he had, but she’d let him down too. Mark and Tyrion weren’t so lucky. {You’re such a fuckup! Imagine how much better things would be if you’d never existed!}

There were a million things she could have done differently. Maybe she never should have “rescued” Crystal from the university in the first place. She’d killed so many people…

And for what? To avenge Stewart? To punish her parents?

She tried so hard for so long. She tried to make a better world. She tried to help people. But everything she’d accomplished in her stupid fuckshit life had been through doing exactly the opposite, and it had brought her nothing but death and isolation.

And despite all that, she was still a coward. She was still scared of dying. The mothership would be in orbit in a matter of hours and she desperately wanted Crystal to protect her.

The airlock pumps turned on. She could hear them over the sound of her own bitter sobbing.

{Fucking weak. That’s what you are. They’ll see how weak you are.} She did her best to calm herself down and wipe the tears from her eyes and the snot from her nose. {And you think you’re a soldier. Dad was right: you don’t have the heart for it.}

The door hissed open, but with the lights off, Zephyr couldn’t really see what had come in. Her hand tightened on the pistol under her pillow. “Crystal?” she asked, forcing her voice into something approximating a normal tone.

“I’m so sorry.” The voice was Crystal’s. It was rich and sincere. “Maybe you want to be alone. Maybe I’m violating your autonomy again and not treating you like an equal. But there’s a part of me that won’t accept that. It needs you. I need you.”

“Crystal…” she began, but was cut off again.

“Think I was afraid that you were leaving me. You wouldn’t let me in.” That beautiful, tragic voice was coming from a speaker on a robot. There were three of them, all with a single long arm extending from a wheeled base. If she hadn’t known Crystal for as long as she did they would have seemed menacing in the faint light emitted from the console of the air processor and some LED’s on the bots. But as it was, Crystal’s voice was so warm and genuine that she didn’t give a damn about the robots.

“Things aren’t over yet…” continued Crystal. “Know it seems like you’re not doing anything, but you have perhaps the most important job. You need to protect me from becoming something that I’m not. You’re my anchor, do you understand? I thought that maybe if I fixed your legs that… you’d come back to me.”

The words stung. Zephyr didn’t know what to say, and the paralyzing tightness in her throat wouldn’t have let her speak even if she did. All her attention was spent trying to keep herself together.

“Do you understand?” asked Crystal, extending a silver, inhuman arm. Their voice was choked and as close to tears as Zephyr felt. “Please.”

“…do this.” Zephyr was surprised at the sound from her mouth. It wasn’t really audible, and she hadn’t meant to speak. It had been a thought. {I can’t do this.} “I can’t do this,” she repeated, more clearly this time.

“Do what?” asked Crystal. “Be here for me?”

“You said…” Zephyr cleared her throat. It helped to talk. It calmed her down from the violence of her own mind. “Back when we picked you up out of the desert you said that I was strong… that I was a survivor.” A cold shiver ran down her arms and spine, even though it was fairly warm in the bedroom. “You don’t understand me.”

“I don’t have time for this!” said Crystal.

“You don’t understand yourself!” said Crystal.

The voices were both Crystal, but they overlapped as though they had talked over themselves. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that!” Crystal’s voice changed tone suddenly, becoming much more feminine and young, as though she were a little girl.

Zephyr felt like she was dreaming. What was she supposed to say to that?

“Busy busy. I’m just stressed out. Everything is fine,” said Crystal in their normal voice. The word “fine” was punctuated, not by any vocal change, but by a sharp bolt of pain that shot through Zephyr’s left leg.

“Fuck!” By the time her exclamation was gone the pain had disappeared.

“Are you asking for sex? Would that help?” asked normal-Crystal.

“No, of course you aren’t. Need time to recover. Things aren’t over yet,” said the voice that sounded like a girl. Zephyr’s legs tingled as they spoke the last words.

“What the fuck is going on?!” demanded Zephyr. Her hand moved back to the pistol under her pillow.

Helping! Don’t know how!” said the child voice. Her legs still felt warm and tingly again.

“You’re emotional. You were saying that I don’t understand you. Sure. I’m still learning.” said the normal voice. Sharp pain emphasizing each word of “I don’t understand you”.

The child voice came back. “But a part of me has known you, ever since we first met. I don’t care what anyone says. We’re soul mates. And this part of me knows that you’re a hero.

Zephyr felt like her head was spinning. She tried to keep the gloomy outline of each of the raised arms in her vision. They seemed much more ominous now. “Why are you doing that? With your voice. It’s creepy.”

Crystal’s normal voice spoke and the youth did not return. “Sorry! So sorry! Thought you’d like it. Thought that it would help you understand me better. I’ll stop. But you should listen closely. I’m launching a rocket right now. It’s almost time for ignition and I’m very busy.” Pain again. Less this time, however.

“Why are you doing that?” asked Zephyr. Somehow she was growing calmer, and more focused. The weight of her mind seemed eased by the puzzle before her.

“Doing what? Trying to help you? Why even ask? I’m helping you so that you can help me, of course. That’s what friends and heroes do. I love you. I’d be a monster if I didn’t want to help you just because of that.”

The pricks of pain and the warm tingling were information. Crystal, for it couldn’t be anyone else, was sending her a message. Why? Why not simply say what she wanted to say?

The voice continued. “Are you okay to go to sleep now, or at least think things over by yourself? I don’t want to go, but I also am very busy.

Zephyr was silent. She couldn’t decide what the right thing to do was.

“I’ll finish my thought, at least. Perhaps then you can relax. There’s no rush. You don’t think you’re strong, but that’s blatantly false to anyone outside your head. You saved me from Mira Gallo. You saved me from losing control on the nameless ship. You saved me from Velasco. You saved me from dying in the middle of the desert. Your moments of greatest strength have been when you know how to help me. You feel weak right now, and that’s making you doubt yourself. You blame yourself for not having saved everyone, but that’s all in the past and you’re not nearly as culpable there as me.


“No. Listen. You need to sleep, and I don’t want to take too much time. You need to believe that I need you. Someday I will need to be saved again. The nameless are almost here, and who knows what will happen to me. I need you to be my anchor and keep me from becoming something that I’m not.

She understood.

From somewhere beyond those plastic walls came the sound of a rocket being launched towards the heavens.