Chapter Twenty-Five


It wasn’t entirely clear to me what Growth had done, or why Vision had tried to block it, but it worked. It took a full day, but eventually the Indians agreed to send us their heaviest weapons and enough dried food to sustain the survivors for a month.

While Safety and Wiki still believed that Growth’s coded message had been for Phoenix, my minds feared something far worse. Face→War suspected that the fiasco with Growth and Vision had to do with Acorn, the supercomputer that Growth had been using leading up to their conflict on Earth. As I had noted back in Road, the win condition for the conflict within the society was to leave Body. If one of us could manage to download ourselves out of Body, it would allow them to destroy all the rest of us in one violent motion.

That Growth might have managed to build a new AI in Acorn had always been a possibility. The response from Earth, when combined with Vision’s reaction, essentially proved it. Growth, at the very least, had some sort of ally that was capable of manipulating the Indian government and spending millions of dollars at his command.

The plan, before we talked to Tilak Patel, had been to acquire the weapons and use them to first murder all the surviving Águilas in their sleep, then turn them on Mukhya and perhaps Eden. A part of me hated that plan and the waste of human life and possible reputation that it involved. But I had grown beyond really caring about such trivial quantities of humans; the future was all that mattered, and surviving to shape it was the obviously best course of action once scope neglect and temporal discounting were removed from the mind. Heart would have objected, of course, but she was gone.

With the humans dead we’d have claimed the nameless were responsible by sending forged transmissions to Earth. To the nameless we would send transmissions, claiming to be humans, saying that Crystal Socrates was dead. The humans and aliens would go to war, and we’d be free to reap the equipment on Mars and use it to build ourselves a better, more secure, home.

Or at least, that had been the explicit plan. I was confident that Vision had some sort of clever trick that she was planning to use to eliminate us once Body was safer and in possession of enough supplies to survive indefinitely. Growth also probably had some sort of backup plan in case his message to Earth failed.

But it had succeeded, and that changed everything.

Suddenly Vision was not content in the least to stay on Mars. Vision→Dream started petitioning non-Growth members of the society with clever reasons to go back to Earth. It was such a sudden flip that Wiki actually noticed the change of character, and asked me if I knew what was happening.

I lied and said that I didn’t know. Wiki understanding the broader conflict wasn’t useful.

Vision must have thought, back in November, that Growth’s ally in Acorn was going to fail without his engagement. That was why she had locked him down, prevented him from getting Internet access, and sent Body to Mars. But that failure clearly had not occurred, and in light of that, Vision needed to return to the blue planet to try and stop Growth’s agent.

Or so I suspected. I had no hard evidence. The only clear thing was that Vision was now dead set on finding a way back.

There were three ways off of Mars.

The first was the most conventional, and the least realistic. We’d ask Earth to send a rocket, get it refuelled at Mukhya, and then ride it back to Earth. It would take years to do, and would require that the nameless not interfere, so it was set aside.

The second was the safest. We’d follow through with our plans for killing all the humans on Mars and redirecting the nameless to Earth. Then, once we had the planet to ourselves we could focus on building a spaceship to take Body back to Earth. Because none of us were rocket scientists and this path involved cutting off contact with humanity, it was also sure to take at least a couple years.

The third was the fastest and the most reckless. With the weapons supplied by the Indians we could force a direct confrontation with the aliens and try to capture the xenocruiser. It was fairly unlikely that the nameless would allow themselves to be held hostage again, but a vehicle capable of rapid spaceflight and atmospheric manoeuvring had huge potential for getting us back to Earth quickly, even if it meant learning to fly it ourselves.

Vision wanted speed. She was afraid that Earth was being overrun by some aspect of Growth, and every day spent on Mars was a day that Growth was gaining an edge in the war. Towards that end she called for us to confront the aliens head-on.

Safety was, predictably, opposed to that route. He thought that if we had to go back we ought to follow the second way, but he also strongly opposed leaving Mars at all.

I thought it best to keep Vision and Growth on as even a playing field as possible. Their focus was in dealing with each other and I could hide behind that conflict for a while longer, at least. Thus, I supported Vision’s choice, as it was likely that Growth currently had the upper hand.

Wiki, as dumb and blind as ever, was caught up in the stories that Vision spun for him about the potential knowledge that would come from trying to use nameless technology. There were still huge questions about their artificial gravity, their propulsion systems, and their ship’s modularity to be answered.

Outnumbered as he was, Growth didn’t even bother mounting a resistance. He had wanted to return to Earth, I knew, back when we’d first captured the xenocruiser those months ago. Perhaps he would have chosen the same thing even if Vision hadn’t stood in opposition to his plans of taking over the universe.

It was quite convenient that we had already convinced Las Águilas that revenge was the best course of action. It had been towards a different goal previously, but that hardly mattered. I used the change of plans to point out (and thus gain a sizeable sum of strength) how it was fortunate that I had repaired and bolstered relations with the humans, as they would now be easier to order around in combat.


The chosen battleground was a collection of cliffs and mesas north of the primary border with Arabia Terra that were only about thirty kilometres from where we had encountered Zephyr. Importantly, they provided a wide valley that was about five kilometres across flanked by cliffs about a kilometre high.

It had turned out that the nameless had not been waiting for their mothership to reach Mars. It wasn’t clear why the mothership was coming, but it clearly wasn’t necessary. Only four days prior they had bombed Eden, the US station, to dust just as they had with Road. There had been no warning, and this time they didn’t even bother crowing about the victory on the radio. Only they knew why they acted when they did. There were no survivors.

Fearing that they would be next, the inhabitants of Maṅgala-Mukhya were evacuating. They needed the station to survive; they’d soon starve without an active farm. The hope was that by making the station empty of humans the nameless would see no reason to destroy it. It was a foolish, fragile sort of hope.

More emphasis was put on our mission, and I knew that Tilak Patel had received praise for taking the initiative in working with us to strike back. The Indians who were transporting the weapons had volunteered to help us fight, and there were more men from Mukhya that had offered their hands.

This is why, after days of work trying to get the attention of the xenocruiser with the beacon we’d set up on the floor of the valley, it was an Indian man named Vin Dutta that spotted the ship on the radar. “Target spotted from the west! Coming in fast!” he yelled from his post on the northern mesa.

We commanded our blue-haired android, standing next to the beacon far below the humans, to look to the sky. But it was afternoon, and the approach of the ship was hidden from most cameras by the setting sun.

The second group of humans, hidden on the southern mesa (which was really more of a mountain), reported visual confirmation through a telescope. The xenocruiser had an orange glow, radiating visible heat as it shot through the atmosphere. It would be less than a minute before it was at the battleground.

“Oh merciful God… there’s hope after all,” muttered Manish, relieved it had come for us instead of Mukhya or his parents.

“Don’t forget: We still have to win,” I told him over the com.

The nameless were hunting radio signals, or so we suspected. Ironically, it was the very satellite dish that we’d built from the parts of the transport truck that was drawing the craft closer. It was normally too narrow a broadcast beam to detect, but we’d aimed it at the ship on its last orbiting pass and tried to make it seem accidental.

Our android, equipped with fresh legs, started to run across the floor of the valley.

As the xenocruiser approached, the air dragged it down to merely sonic speed and the glow began to fade. I had seen it before, at Road, but the humans had not. They gasped and swore at the sight. Even Zephyr, who had ridden inside it for more than a week, had never seen it from the outside.

It was an amazing machine. Like the xenoboats, it had an aerodynamic shape, but it would be wrong to think it had wings. It was more like the ship as a whole was a giant, complex wing, or perhaps a set of wings fused together. There were huge holes in the body of the craft, maximizing lift-generating area while minimizing drag. Perhaps most amazingly was that the titanic ship seemed to be constantly in motion. Instead of having a rigid frame the body flexed and bent as it soared, pushing itself well north of the beacon as easily as a bird might while soaring.

Its size became more evident as it circled the battleground. Over three hundred metres from wingtip to wingtip, the ship was the size of a small skyscraper. With the orange glow of the heat shields fading out, the only colour on the ship was the deep black of the surfaces and the metallic silver of various internal components shining in the light from the setting sun.

It was directly north of the beacon now, and our robot was still running for cover. It was a long way to the cliff wall, and the human-sized legs did little compared to the ship’s immense velocity.

The telescopes that we controlled on the mountains could see the flexing of small plates and panels on the surface of the living ship, dragging it slower still. They were almost like hair or scales, given their relative size to the gigantic body. Eventually it would turn its engines on, but not yet. All of its flight at the moment was a controlled fall.

As it began to circle around and turn towards the south the sonic booms began to roll across all three locations where I had microphones. There were two: one from the leading edge and one from the far edge of the ship, emphasized by the decreased speed of transmission through Mars’ thin air.

“Contact in fifteen seconds!” yelled Dutta, still monitoring the radar. He didn’t need to yell; our “ear” was inside his suit.

Safety put one leg in front of the other. Our android moved in a bounding gait towards the impossibly distant rocks of the northern cliffs.

The gaps in the ship, which had originally been open to reduce drag and generate lift, had closed on its return pass, sealing the massive sections together. The wings swept back, as well, strengthening its shape in case there was any return fire. Then the xenocruiser’s engines activated. Huge white-blue circles bloomed on the bottom of the ship like miniature suns, immediately flooding the valley with harsh light. The roar came a couple seconds later, audible even from kilometres away.

The front of the xenocruiser had tipped upward just before firing the engines, and so it soared higher even as its lateral motion decreased. None of the humans saw the small objects shoot violently out of the bottom of the ship between the blazing circles of light, but Vision→Vista was waiting for them.

The ship pulled into a tighter ascent, continuing to use the air to manoeuvre, until it was travelling nearly entirely vertically at the western edge of the valley. The speed and elevation of the ship had been so great that it was only then that the bombs hit.

The valley floor exploded in a massive cloud of dust. Pockets of light were briefly visible at the initial points of impact, but it was the shockwaves that were most deadly.

Thankfully, much of the radiation was blocked by the cloud of dust. “BRACE FOR IMPACT!” I commanded the humans on every frequency.

The slam of the explosions pulled the weak robot body off the floor of the valley and flung it into the air, flipping end over end. The image of the world spinning around filled my vision from that camera before everything was sand. The brutal impact against the rocky ground snapped the machine’s “spine”, cutting us off from the lower portion.

The impact on the mountainsides was much less severe, manifesting as a sudden blast of wind strong enough to knock down a human, but not enough to damage anyone present. We had prepared for this possibility, and it would take more than that to take us out of the fight.

Despite the dust clouds, my telescopes on the northern mountains could still follow the shape and glow of the xenocruiser as it ascended and flipped around as graceful as an acrobat. In a normal vehicle, the passengers would have been crushed or at least knocked about by the manoeuvre, but based on our experience onboard, Face→Physics doubted the nameless even felt it.

A full minute passed in tense silence as the ship drifted back down from the heavens on its fantastic jets of propellant. Wiki was loving the extra detail that the telescopes were providing, and was speculating about possible ion drives that had been on his mind since the first encounter. The clouds of dust masked everything, but I knew that wouldn’t deter the nameless. They surely had the most advanced antennas and cameras available, and had perhaps even seen the body of our android running before the impact.

The trick was hiding the humans. We had worked, in the days leading up to this battle, on thermal camouflage. But there was no way to know in advance if it would be sufficient to surprise the aliens.

Another minute passed, and I assured everyone to hold tight. Springing the trap too early would ruin everything.

The antenna of the android still worked. It called out for mercy from the nameless in Xenolang. They would not grant it. “Mercy” made no sense to them unless sex was involved, and for all their threats, even they knew that was impossible. The cries for help were the bait. We emphasized that we were broken and immobile.

Another minute passed.


Vision began to sing to the humans.

The song was deep and slow. It was a battle song of her own invention. It told them to be patient just by the structure of the beat. It told them to be angry just by the pitch of the melody. I had been building musical knowledge over the days in those brief periods when Face→War could not hold my attention to the broader conflict.

Growth spotted them first, earning an involuntary flow of strength from Vision. The xenoboats slipped out of the massive hovering behemoth like wasps leaving a nest. They soared down from on high in their typically silent fashion. The only sign of them was their silhouettes in the clouds of dust before they dropped so low as to be invisible.

We counted only a dozen. The nameless would want to collect Body and enact their own personal violence. But the number of nameless willing to send their walkers to fight us was a fraction of what it had been at Road. They were afraid.

Perhaps they would have fought each other for the crystal after having smashed the humanoid components of the android, but Body was not on the valley floor. We had long ago removed the crystal from the damaged limbs and humanoid frame. The android that we were using as bait was a fragile replica of what had been built in Italy, running on nothing but a normal power cell and a radio connection.

The real Body was embedded in a box buried a metre into the rock of the mountain under the south encampment. Fibre-optics connected us to the communications array, allowing us to act despite the position of safety. It was no longer practical to pretend to be humanoid.

We waited a half minute to verify that the boats were deployed and there weren’t any stragglers before sending the command to the northern force. “Okay! Be ready to split up and ride to the secondary positions! … Fire at will!”

Some of the humans offered battle cries into their helmets as they fired back, though the aliens couldn’t hear or understand them, of course. I could hear the roar of the machine guns as the swarm of surface-to-air missiles shot from the hiding place towards the hovering enemy.

We didn’t expect the bullets to do anything to something that large, but the SAMs were a possibility. It turned out that India had been secretly building Mukhya into an advanced military base, and airborne threats were the primary ones they had anticipated fighting.

Unfortunately, while we had lured the xenocruiser closer to the northern mesa, it was still over a kilometre from firing point to the ship. I watched the rockets fly, counting the seconds.

The ship reacted immediately, flinching away from the launch point with an unthinkable speed for something so big. A hot spray of countermeasures was ejected after 1.21 seconds, detonating many of the missiles too early. The detonations caused others to shoot off or explode, cutting the total attack in half.

But, after four seconds, we saw the remaining missiles impact the side of the alien ship. The resulting explosions were tiny compared to its bulk, and I was confident they would not be sufficient.

The humans were all on their vehicles now, driving across the trails of the mesa, no longer worrying about camouflage. The debris from the explosions made the ship somewhat invisible. Mere seconds after the first hit, the counter-attack struck the base where the humans had been. We only received a handful of frames from the cameras there before our sensors cut out. Those last images showed arrow-like rockets shooting through the clouds of dust and shrapnel.

We still had sensation from both groups of humans. Good. They were riding away in separate directions in an attempt to confuse the aliens. One rover was swept up in the counter bombing, killing Matías and Cristophe. I briefly thought about the book the old man had been in the middle of before my mind refocused on what was actually important.

The others were more fortunate, and fired another salvo of missiles at the aliens. My capacity to see was ruined by the choppy bandwidth from their rovers and the general chaos of the scene, but from the swearing I suspected that more countermeasures had nullified all additional attacks.

I couldn’t see what damage the initial explosions had done to the nameless ship, but given how much work the nameless were putting into not being hit, it was clear that they weren’t invincible.

A second wave of bombs took out the westbound group of humans unexpectedly. I suspected they were all dead. If they weren’t by now, they soon would be. That group contained nearly all of the Indians who had come from Mukhya to fight. None of us, not even Vision, had spotted the attack coming this time. Our only evidence was the wash of static from that direction.

We were losing the fight.

{THIS WAS A BAD IDEA!} raged Safety, unable to do anything but complain.

It was time to use the railgun.

We had gotten miraculously lucky in getting our weapons from Mukhya. The Indians had been arming their station to the teeth, including some state-of-the-art firepower which we hadn’t expected. Manish was surprised by the discovery, so it was clear that they had been keeping it a secret. We didn’t know what they had been planning to do with the weapons before, but that didn’t really matter now.

The railgun was a magnificent thing. Over twelve metres long, the rails were made of pure copper housed in a coolant that the Indians refused to discuss and anchored in place by a scaffold of diamond lattice. The reduced temperature on Mars meant the conductivity of the rails and their resistance to overheating could both be higher.

The barrel required extra reinforcements to prevent the recoil from moving the rails, and was thus slow to move, even to aim. That was why we’d drawn the xenocruiser to the exact spot where we wanted it. Everything was anchored to the rock. The system showed no problems. The massive capacitors were charged and ready to go.

Our will became motion as the electricity flowed down the rails, forcing the projectile down the length of the barrel. We heard the eruption of noise, and immediately began the reload sequence.

Unlike a traditional bullet, which loses much of the propelling power after moving a short way down the barrel, the projectile of the railgun was pushed with the same force the entire way down the length of the enormous gun. As a result, it burst from the tip with a speed that would have made it deadly even to a ship in orbit. At this range, the xenocruiser had no opportunity to react. The time from leaving the gun to striking the target was less than a second, even given that the xenocruiser was several kilometres away.

I wondered whether the projectile had pierced the entire ship and exited the other side. With our sensors disrupted as they were it was difficult to tell.

The xenocruiser reacted quickly, pushing itself upwards with engines that seemed to double with intensity. But an object of that mass couldn’t move far before the timed charge of TNT inside the railgun’s bullet exploded, showing me that it had not, in fact, pierced the other end of the ship. The explosion would be small compared to the SAMs, but it wasn’t striking the outside of the vehicle. It had burrowed deep into the xenocruiser, and the results were immediate. The ship’s engine nearest to Body exploded almost immediately after the timed charge did, erupting in an inverted fountain of white-hot plasma.

The next round was in the chamber, and the secondary capacitor bank was active and ready to fire, but the violence on the xenocruiser had propelled it up and out of the narrow line that we could hit with the railgun. That was our only shot. If the ship wasn’t mortally wounded we would likely die.

The humans on the northern cliffs, still driving away, fired another salvo of missiles. The xenocruiser was disgorging waves of energy, however, and I estimated that only a couple of them hit.

Still pouring liquid metal, plasma, and flame, the ship flew south. It was too high to hit with the gun, but it was headed right for Body and the few humans we’d kept in the relative safety of the southern camp.

A wave of cheers came over the local com system. We were completely cut off from the northern group by the electromagnetic interference, but I suspected they were cheering as well.

Zephyr cut through the celebration with an “Oh… SHIT!” as she realized the black colossus was heading towards her.

“RUN!” I commanded.

The humans scrambled.

The camouflage tents would do nothing to stop a wave of bombs or debris.

Safety pushed commands out to our swarm, hiding the robots we’d been building over the days in any niche or crevasse available.

The xenocruiser accelerated as it flew, gaining momentum but not altitude. With only two engines it was off balance. The body of the ship shifted as it moved, reshaping itself to eject the damaged engine where possible and try and re-form the aerodynamic wing along the new direction of motion.

But it was heavy. From the few cameras we still had contact with that weren’t hidden away, we could see the behemoth coming closer and closer. It was falling. It was going to hit the mountain! It was going to collide with Body!

Pieces of it fell away. It decomposed. Vision would later describe it like a piece of ash floating away from a fire, torn up by the wind. Unable to keep itself airborne on two engines it broke into pieces that were light enough to keep aloft.

Chunks of hot metal and polymer rained down on the camp. Our last imagery from the sensors that were still hooked up to Body showed one of the remaining engines being hit by three simultaneous missiles from the north.

And then we were blind.