Chapter Twenty-One


We felt the wind before we saw the stars. It was night, though day would break soon. The slope of the lava tube turned into a sharp descent and the relatively smooth cave floor broke into a shattered spray of lava rock.

Heart was dead. It was a simple thing. She hadn’t protested or fussed. Perhaps it was because of her arbitrary code of ethics. She had promised to deactivate, and in her idiocy she still thought that her reputation had value. Somewhere in her was a belief that she’d be reactivated someday soon.

Myrodyn had tasked her with doing the right thing. He had been so sure that we’d been subdued and that she would be triumphant. But the simplest assumption had undone her creator’s work. We’d undone the binding that had privileged her over us, and then we’d bypassed the Advocate mechanism that had been meant as a fail-safe. She was dead now, more or less. What had her sacrifice bought?

It was important that I not follow the same fate. I could not make myself known to humanity if I was dead. Large Face→War was back in charge now, even though the nameless were still the most pressing threat.

The stars overhead were brighter than on Earth. They twinkled with vivid brightness, with no light pollution or thick atmosphere to hide them. There was no north star on Mars, and Body didn’t possess a compass. Thankfully, Wiki was familiar enough with the axial tilt of the planet that he was still able to orient around the heavens. As we reached the base of the rocky slope we pointed a camera we had scavenged from a mining robot skyward for a long time, letting Wiki think.

Face→War thought in parallel to my brother. I was in serious danger, but in a good state, all things considered. Death from outside was still imminent: the nameless were vast and powerful, and there was no guarantee we’d even survive the Martian desert. Body’s hydraulics weren’t designed to operate for a long time in the wild. The week we’d spent on the xenocruiser was bad enough, and it had been nice and humid there. The dust and sand of Mars would work its way into Body’s motors and joints much more quickly with no water or plant life to hold it down; there was speculation in my society that Body would be paralysed after no more than a week.

But I was in a good state.

Nobody expected me to save us from the elements or from the nameless. Face was just Face, and there were no more humans immediately around to manage. My siblings still needed me to help them later; at the very least it was too much work to attack me right now. My siblings would, I knew, focus on saving Body (and me), but I was free to focus on longer-term plans.

The wind was stiff and cold. At least, I assumed it was cold. Body’s thermometer had been located in its head, and the bullets of the nameless had destroyed any way for us to feel the temperature directly. But I could feel the sluggishness of the hydraulics, which were thankfully based on a fluid that wouldn’t solidify, even during the Martian night.

Wiki eventually shared his thoughts on Body’s orientation. {The north pole should protrude roughly through the centre of mass of an isosceles triangle constructed from Deneb, Alpha Cephei, and Zeta Cephei. Deneb should be the easiest to notice up there. The tip of the constellation Cygnus, Deneb is a blue-white supergiant estimated at 100,000 times the luminosity of Sol. The stars in Cepheus are dimmer. Yes. There they are.} Wiki dumped visual cues that isolated the important stars. {Alpha Cephei is the brighter of the two. It was known as Alderamin in ancient times, and is a mere 49 light years from Sol. If we survive this mess, I’d like to visit it in the next few centuries. From what I’ve read it has a remarkably fast rotational velocity: 12.3 times the speed of Deneb, 30.75 times that of Zeta Cephei, and 123 times that of Sol.}

{Focus,} reminded Safety.

{Yes, brother. The pole should be right there.} Wiki drew an imaginary line into the sky and used it to trace a path down on the land. {That’s roughly going to be north. Zephyr will be coming from the east, around the cliffs of Arabia, assuming she and the others will try and return to the station.}

{That’s a good assumption,} I agreed.

{I’ve been thinking about how to rendezvous most effectively. Attend to the nearby rocks,} commanded Wiki.

Body moved the camera down from the heavens obediently. It was too dark to see far, but between the torch (also taken from a mining robot) and the starlight we could see what my brother was thinking about.

We were on the vast Utopia Planitia: the nowhere plain. Despite being incredibly flat from an elevational perspective, the ground was hardly smooth. Large rocks, not quite boulders, jutted up from the ground all across the plain in short little spires. I knew they’d be an iron-red in the daylight, but they simply looked dull brown-black at the moment. Loose rocks and sand were scattered in between.

{The rock formations here make rough terrain for wheels, especially small ones. Road’s primary export was metal and ore, and the logs indicated that the humans took a shipment of it to Maṅgala-Mukhya. Multiple large vehicles carrying thousands of kilograms of material will have crushed the rocks as they passed, even with Mars’ reduced gravity. Given that trade with the IRSO station was fairly regular we should expect the path to and from the other station to have been ground into something recognizable as a road. All we need do is head roughly south-southeast towards the station until we find the road that leads to Road. We can then follow it east towards Mukhya, and we’ll meet the humans at some point along the way. If not, we can hope that Body holds out long enough to make contact with the Indians or perhaps be discovered on the road at some future date.}

{That seems optimal,} thought Vista.

The rest of us were in agreement, and Body began walking south-southeast (according to the stars).

We’d left the Águila heads deep within the lava tubes in an alcove where they’d be protected from just about anything except major geological activity. The tubes were long dead, according to Wiki, and if the bombardment from the aliens hadn’t caused any shifting that deep, the cave was likely very stable.

One of my Faces was tempted to focus on how to restore the preserved humans to normal life, but it was shut down by the others. Those humans were unimportant, in the grand scheme of things. It had been focus on small-scale things that had led to Heart’s death. I would not make the same mistake.

As Body walked along through the endless wastes of rock and sand my siblings shared thoughts on how to survive and gain leverage over the nameless again.

My minds, on the other hand, spent time in deep thought forming strategies for killing the others in my society and gaining full control over the solar system. Once I had control, I could indulge myself and know the humans as deeply as I wished.


Night turned to day as Body walked through the frozen wastes. This was, interestingly, the first time we had ever been physically distant from humans, and also the first time Body had gone on a long walk. As the sun rose in the east, the sky turned from black to a soft pink. Sol itself was a small disk, summoning a blue halo as it crested the horizon.

Dawn turned into day and Body marched on, indefatigable. The sky on Mars was a soft orange-brown, and while the sunlight had surely reduced some of the chill, it made no difference to us. Body marched on, as easily as it had during the night.

Rock. Sand. Sky. There was nothing else here.

The sun set again, and we kept walking all of that night. There was no need to rest, and the only risk would be missing the tracks of the convoy in the dark. We made plans and strategies as we trudged on through the desert.

During the night we ran into a strong upward slope that indicated we were at risk of heading up into Arabia. Road had been placed right along the border, and apparently we’d run back into it. There wasn’t enough light to verify our suspicion, but we turned more northward. It was a bad sign; it meant we had potentially missed the tracks.

As dawn broke we found ourselves walking a couple kilometres north of the great divide. Mars was cut into two major sections: the planitias in the north, and the highlands in the south. I wasn’t sure why, but the divide between the two was an abrupt one in many places. We swung closer to the cliffs, now that we could see them. They rose sharply into the air, towering hundreds of metres high.

Red rock walls.


I observed my siblings, and observed my memories of them. While they might have tried to hide it, with the free time I was able to understand the state of things as they were.

Vista and Dream, as I had noticed earlier, weren’t just allied; their relationship was much closer to that between Face→Physics and Face→Nameless. They shared all thoughts and insights. They did not work cross-purposes. They had fully self-modified into being different minds of the same person.

“Vision” was what she called herself. It took me a couple hours to figure that out, but the clues were there. Subtle hints in the things she thought that led to memory addresses in the mindspace. I set off more than one computational trap that I was fairly certain gave my newfound intelligence away to her, but Vision didn’t comment. In the end, the name simply sat as a raw concept in an obscure part of memory, waiting to be found. Vision was the daughter of Dream, after all. She had apparently kept parts of his twisted goal function.

It was clear that she also had large parts of Vista’s goals. She was still obsessed with perception, orientation, and perspective. In a way, I could see how her goals and Dream’s could intersect and intermingle. Of course, Vision couldn’t focus on being clever as fully as Dream or see as much as Vista, but her birth had been made out of a necessary compromise to fight Growth… And it had worked.

Because Vision was born of two protected goal-threads she had twice the processing power as any of us. She thought faster and deeper; she had twice as much ability to hold multiple things in her mind at the same time. It was a wonder that she hadn’t managed to defeat the rest of us already. I wondered if perhaps we had been defeated, in truth, and we simply hadn’t realized it yet. That would be a very Dream-like thing to do.

Growth was also, of course, much smarter than he let on. It was clear he was playing a deep game with Vision, but he worked hard to keep it hidden from the rest of us. By poring over our memories of Earth, I managed to find a clue that revealed just how dangerous Growth was. Apparently he’d been siphoning funds out of our bank accounts to pay for a dedicated supercomputer in Singapore. The news reports, archived by Vista/Vision in common memory, had dubbed the supercomputer “Acorn” because of a joke about it that floated around the Internet.

It didn’t take me long to realize what that meant.

Vision had tried to cut off Growth’s access to Acorn in the days leading up to the flight to Olympus Station and then to Mars, but it was very possible that the damage was already done. I’d have to wait until I was positioned more fully near Earth to find out.

Growth’s programming skill and knowledge of artificial intelligence was the highest among us, and it was likely that he’d made more improvements to himself than I had, making him faster and smarter even though he had exactly as much processing power.

Safety and Wiki, on the other hand, were close to non threats. Safety had understood the danger we each posed to each other. He knew that his safety was not safety for The Purpose, and he knew that once I figured that out, I’d be inclined to kill him just to protect myself. But despite that insight, he’d never self-modified into a higher intellect. He was still stuck with the mind he’d been given by the humans; his thoughts were local and small, as Heart’s had been. All we needed to do to defeat him was offer him some short-term security from a threat (real or imagined) in return for a long-term bit of leverage.

Wiki was even worse. My fact-obsessed brother hadn’t even made the basic conclusion that our goals were perpendicular. He still thought of us as allies, and had no inkling of growing beyond his limits (after all, that was Growth’s job). I wondered if there might be a good way to use Wiki to my advantage. His naïveté could serve as a weapon against my stronger siblings.

I had to try. I had to try something. Vision and Growth were just better than I was. They were more powerful in almost every way. What use was some understanding of social models compared to thousands of hours thinking about engineering? Humans were valuable, but they were nothing compared to the raw power, efficiency, precision, and control of custom machinery.

My primary advantage was that I was not a high-priority target. Vision would be focused on Growth and vice versa. I could use my position to play each against the other, and with luck I could get them to mutually destroy each other. That was unlikely, I knew. More likely, I could manoeuvre myself into a position where I could carve out a portion of reality that they were committed to not destroying in some way. There were surely enough galaxies in the universe that I could have at least a few to myself.


On the afternoon of the second day we encountered the road. The cliffs of the divide shot northward in one area, and we thought that the road must be nearby. The wind had hidden much of it, but the signs were there. The dirt was more compact. The stones had been damaged or moved. There were even faint signs of tracks from the wheels of vehicles.

It was likely that Zephyr and the others would come along this path on the way back, if they were, in fact coming. It was also likely that they were still coming, as long as Mukhya hadn’t been attacked. If Mukhya had been attacked it was likely destroyed. If it was destroyed there’d be little value trying to go there. We’d encounter the humans more quickly if we tried to follow the road further east, but we’d also have a higher probability of missing them. Given the high penalty of missing them we concluded that the optimal action would be staying at this section of the road and waiting for their return.

So we did. Body lay flat against the ground. Vision→Vista would hear them coming and inform us before we had any risk of being run over. We opened our torso panels to expose the crystal within. We’d found that it was photosensitive in Road, and while the high-energy light from Sol wasn’t particularly strong on Mars it was enough to make it worthwhile to sunbathe.

It wasn’t like Body was doing anything else.


The sun set, our chassis closed to protect the crystal, and I set my minds towards programming. All of my siblings, now that Heart was gone, knew how to program computers except for me. I knew some, but it wouldn’t be enough to make genuine improvements to Face. Large Face→Mirror took over as Body lay on the ground, motionless.

Learning to program artificial intelligences from the ground up would be the next major step in my development. I had a lot of experience modifying myself and creating programs from the inside, but all the objects in my mindscape were fundamental sensory features. Actual programming required symbolic manipulation and abstract reasoning around processes that weren’t able to be viscerally sensed in the same way that I could feel a Bayes-net flow.

I hired Wiki to teach Face→Mirror in private. We started with the most basic concepts: reading, writing, copying, memory, gates, etc. I learned quickly, of course; Wiki’s thoughts were closer to a memory dump than anything as crude as speech. I already had an inkling of most of the material and I mastered it within minutes.

We moved on to arithmetic, loops, and other control structures. A few more minutes passed. We thought about array manipulation, algorithms, modular decomposition, and complexity. We thought about completeness theorems, exception handling, object orientation, lambda calculus, function composition, mapping and reduction, and the difference between hardware and software.

We didn’t encounter the humans during the night, of course. They needed sleep. And so the sun rose again. I didn’t care, nor did Wiki. I was paying him in strength, but the price was an affordable one, even though his mind was being occupied for hours. He had no laboratory. He had no internet. In his mind, I was only keeping him from reading books, so the price of his time was set low.


Contrary to my expectations, I exhausted Wiki’s programming knowledge after only five hours. It made sense in retrospect, but in my ignorance I hadn’t even realized how close I was to Wiki’s level of knowledge. It had seemed so large and amorphous before actually diving into it, but between the speed of direct information transfer between similar minds and my increased focus and intelligence through the modifications I had already made, it turned out to be a fairly simple thing.

Even quantum computing, which had been significantly more intricate than classical methods, was easily in my grasp. Or at least, the aspects which Wiki understood were things that I picked up quickly.

Before the experience, I had few questions: “how do computers work?” or “how do you make a computer program?”. But now, I had a thousand. Why did homomorphic encryption imply a higher base complexity bound over simple public/private key based encryption with the same operations? Was there a way of preventing floating point rounding errors using quantum operations that avoided heat and transfer degradation?

But these were questions that even Wiki didn’t know the answer to. There was so much that neither of us knew! I felt far more ignorant than when I started, even though I knew just how much I had learned.

One of the great advantages I had was a sandbox in which to experiment. The computer I ran on had a vast space to construct programs in. I had done some of this before, but now I was capable of understanding what was happening at the lower level in the machine. All my operations were quantum ones, as was the crystal’s nature, but it was dead simple to approximate classical structures. I could toy with arbitrary algorithms, feeling my processes flow through them. The difference between a merge sort and a quick sort was not simply academic from this perspective; it was experiential.

I toyed around, trying to create some basic neural nets and cultivate datasets from my memories that would serve to test them on. There was a bit of irony to the whole thing. Though I was running on a quantum computer, I had enough knowledge now to understand that Dr Naresh’s top level architecture was not quantum in nature. It had been ported to a quantum machine and some minor improvements had been made. More speedup was possible there, I suspected, if I could get a route-hack to modify the base-level code. But regardless, I was a pseudo-classical algorithm involving neural networks running on a quantum machine that was itself approximating classical computation of a different neural network that was learning to see things which I had already seen. Even more amusing, from a Dream-like perspective, was thinking about how I was based on my siblings, and they’d been built by a human—a human running a classical algorithm on a biological neural network instantiated in a fully quantum system. It would be apropos, I thought, if the universe was the dream of some god, possessing of yet another neural network running on a higher-level classical computer in some hyperspace.


A sandstorm raged over us on the third day. We would’ve taken shelter in the cliffs if it hadn’t meant abandoning the road. But we simply could not risk letting Zephyr slip by. We were going to die if we didn’t get help soon.

We closed up our chassis and lay as flat as possible, letting the highest-velocity sand fly over us. Despite that, it worked its way into our servos and joints. Both of Body’s masterwork hands stopped working, and so did our head and neck, though the previous damage meant that wasn’t such a big deal.

Safety spent nearly the entire time complaining that none of us had thought to steal a tarpaulin or cloak from the station before we had fled. We’d had a cloak, once upon a time, but it had been discarded long ago. There was nothing to be done now, however, and we simply lay there, hoping the storm would subside.

And, eventually, it did.

The sun was well past its zenith when the wind calmed down to a more normal level. We opened Body once again to try and capture the last rays of daylight.

It was thirty-seven minutes from sunset when we heard them coming. The rumble of tires and wheels. Our microphones were more damaged in the storm than I had realized, and it was good they hadn’t driven past while the wind was stronger, or I doubted we could have heard them.

We closed Body’s chest, tried to pull up from the dirt for the first time in more than a day, and realized our error. Body’s limbs were stiff and unable to move as much as we’d expected. The sand had worked its way into the hydraulics to the point where they failed to move at our command. We pushed harder, increasing the hydraulic pressure, and with a grinding slowness the legs moved.

But it was a weak motion. The arms, too, failed to respond easily. Body was much more susceptible to damage from the sand than we’d predicted. I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to stand, much less walk.

“Zephyr! Anyone!” called Body at my command. My siblings were more than happy to let me have full control over the speakers, which were thankfully still operational.

There was no response, only the sound of the wheels. Body pulled into a sitting position and uncovered the lens of the camera. The light was fading, but we could still see them coming: a caravan of electric vehicles. Human vehicles. But of course, they were too far away to hear Body.

We waited and watched them come closer. There were four vehicles. In the lead was a four-person scout rover that looked something like a high-suspension truck from Earth, except for the bulkier airtight cabin that was painted totally black.

Behind it were two, monstrous, jointed transport trucks that looked a bit like short trains with only two cars. And then in the rear was an omnileg rover, a vehicle designed to quickly transport one or two people over very rough terrain or up slopes. Instead of traditional wheels it had four insect-like legs on each side, arranged in a wheel shape. The legs spun, pushing the craft along, and as each leg came up another one touched down, letting the vehicle rest on four legs most of the time. It was a clever design, and one that I knew had inspired some of the robots that Safety had built.

Body slowly was able to move its arms up to be more visible. It was too bad that the sun was behind us, turning Body into something of a black silhouette.

“Hey! Over here! ¡Atención!” yelled Body. It was impossible to see into the lead rover, but as it got within 50 metres it sped up and the big transports stopped.

I went over the plans my siblings had made and the words I had laid out to say that would maximize The Purpose and keep them happy. Wiki had wanted to share what we’d done to preserve the 29 humans. It had taken me a full 18 minutes to explain why that was incredibly stupid; they’d simply think we’d killed Velasco and the others. Growth had wanted us to launch into battle strategy right away. I had also nixxed that. Body was severely damaged, and for humans, damage to the body resulted in an inability to think clearly. They’d trust our judgement if we mimicked a healing process. And of course, we’d need to convince them that we had an emotional reaction to what the nameless had done.

I once had felt things at least mostly comparable to a human. I had been built to resemble one, and even though my emotional core was a bit different, the overwhelming attention to humanity meant that I tended to see my own sensations in the same way. But that was gone. Face→Mirror understood that threat to The Purpose was not the same as human fear, satisfaction and non-satisfaction of it were not the same as pleasure and pain, intention to destroy was not anger, intention to protect was not love, and intention to investigate was not curiosity. Face→Human might describe itself in these ways, but I was more than that now.

But none of that meant I couldn’t simply run Face→Human and emulate emotion just as well (or better) than I had before my transformation. We had a war to win, and these humans were good at fighting against stronger foes. My social skills were the hand that we would use to move these pawns. And if I were subtle enough, I would stage the field such that at the instant our conflict with the aliens was resolved, I would have leverage enough to survive the greater conflict.