Chapter Twenty-Seven


Zephyr was decidedly not crying.

“Said I’m fine, gorramit! We don’t have time for this. Need to be moving south to hit the nameless before they can entrench.”

Despite her words urging action, she sat, arms crossed, looking out over the battlefield like a statue. Perhaps she thought, since we were talking over coms, that I couldn’t see her.

But we could see everything. Our minds were spread through the entire camp, embodied yet invisible at the scale of humans. Every com-connected device was an extension of Body, their software having been rewritten to allow us permanent access long ago. When the nameless ship had broken up overhead, debris and molten metal had cascaded down on the camp, severing our spine: the fibre-optics that linked Body to the swarm. The crystal hadn’t been damaged, as Safety had the foresight to bury it ahead of time, but it had taken hours for the humans to get around to digging us up and getting us reconnected. They had been busy dealing with the living and the dead.

“Hate it when you shut me out like this, Zeph.” I was in charge of managing Zephyr, as well as the other humans. Ever since the ontology shift had dissociated myself from Crystal Socrates it brought me little pleasure; Zephyr didn’t understand who I was. She was talking to a fiction.

But keeping the humans under our metaphorical thumb was part of the plan, and it was important for me to stay useful in the eyes of my siblings. I wouldn’t go down as easily as Heart, but I knew that if Growth and Vision decided to join forces they could eliminate me without trouble.

Zephyr decided to play dumb. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s important work to be done. If you want someone to lie down and cry for you, maybe should have run away to hide with Jashiel.”

My attention was wandering. This conversation with Zephyr wasn’t important. Face→War kept capturing cycles from Face→Human. In a side conversation, Atília noted that I was distracted as he talked to me while he worked to fold the scraps of thermal canvas that hadn’t been destroyed by debris. The problem was that the battle had gone well. I didn’t want it to go poorly, but with things being on track it was only a matter of time before Vision or Growth launched an attack on me.

I wasn’t necessary. These humans weren’t necessary. Though our swarm (and even Body) was frustratingly low on power, I didn’t doubt that one of my brothers or sisters could, with full control, use it to kill all of the surviving humans. There were only fifteen of them, and humans were so fragile on this planet.

Face→Human wrested control of my processes. Though I wasn’t anchored in my attention, I was still limited in my capacity and speed of thought. “That’s not the point and you know it,” I said to Zephyr. “This isn’t you. Want the warrior who isn’t afraid to let herself feel—”

“I’m not fucking afraid of feeling!” interrupted Zephyr, voice like molten iron. “Maybe you’re too dumb to notice, but I’m pissed off. There. A feeling. You happy? We spend all day talking about that instead of actually fucking doing things and the nameless will kill us in our gorram sleep!”

The landscape was a blasted mess. Where debris had landed there were craters, but mostly the land had been shaped by the turbulent winds from the explosions and the engines of the xenocruiser. The valley floor, pushed this way and that, looked like a turbulent sea of red-orange sand covered in blackened flotsam, frozen in time. Here and there the heat had been strong enough and the soil had been high enough in silicates to form wide swaths of dark glass.

Growth was managing the arrangement of the solar cells and the new mirrors we’d built while designing a new hydrazine generator to help make up for the energy shortage. The railgun had been effective, but it was very expensive to run. Was running out of energy a threat? Was Growth, confident that his agent on Earth was active, hoping to stall us out or bring defeat by depleting the camp’s energy or even running Body out of power?

No. Face→War was being paranoid.

Face→Human recaptured the thread again and began sending messages out to everyone I was talking with. To Zephyr I said “We are moving. The railgun is being disassembled as we speak and Mycah is on her way from the hiding place with the trucks and the other rovers. But as long as you’re not moving we can talk.”

My words seemed to snap Zephyr out of a trance, and she looked around the camp, perhaps trying to see the face of the familiar android. But that thing was gone, and her reply was bitter. “You want me to move? Fine. Use one of your bots to find me a crutch and I’ll help with the packing.”

Vision was making plans for our upcoming battle with the aliens. Just because things were going according to plan didn’t mean more plans didn’t need to be made. The xenocruiser had disintegrated into two primary chunks, each with one of the massive engines. One of the chunks had escaped into space, and was presumably in orbit, while the other had sustained a brutal bombardment by the surface-to-air missiles and had almost certainly crashed somewhere to the south. Vision→Vista was explaining her estimates in public mindspace as to where it actually landed while Wiki brought up trivial concerns like wind speed.

“Didn’t say that I wanted you moving. In fact, I want the opposite. Should be resting in a bed. I’m surprised the pain isn’t incapacitating.”

Zephyr’s response was immediate. “You have something for the pain and I’ll take it. Not going to let it slow me down, though. Those fucking monsters are going to die, and I’m going to be there when it happens. Now get me a crutch.”

Seventeen humans had died in the battle. The twelve walkers that had been in xenoboats had been picked off in the aftermath, too. There were no bodies or even dirt in the debris from the ship. For having done as much damage as we did, it didn’t feel like much of a victory to the surviving humans.

“Working on adding a chemical-processing component to the factory truck and I’ll see if I can start manufacturing something to help the pain, but you need to know your limits. You’re only human. If you push yourself too hard, it could kill you. The nameless might do it, even if your wounds don’t.”

Safety was operating the truck that we’d converted into a rolling factory. It was rolling around the mountain with the other vehicles we’d hidden, but it was as much a part of us as the robots around the camp were, thanks to the relay antenna drone we’d sent out east. Safety was reconfiguring the forge to handle the new scrap metal we were collecting from around the battlefield, but I put in a request that he or Wiki attend to extending the chemical section.

“I’m a fucking soldier, Crystal. Don’t know what you expect. I’ve never wanted to kill anything as badly as I want to kill those monsters. Killing is what I do, and I know the damn risks.”

Part of Body, a hexapedal robot, scuttled over to Zephyr and lifted the support rod it had collected from the camouflage scaffolds. It wasn’t great, but it could reasonably serve as a cane. “Killing the nameless won’t bring Manish back. It won’t bring your leg back, either.”

She winced as she bent to take the makeshift crutch and struggled to stand up. “You don’t think I know that? Jesus, Crystal!” I could see the tears of pain in her eyes through the camera of the robot as she fought to pull herself up. I could tell that even in the one-third gravity it was torture. “I thought we got over this on the xenocruiser! When are you going to stop treating me like a child, and start working with me as a fucking equal?!” She wasn’t exactly screaming, but her volume was elevated.

I had heard what had happened shortly after Body had been reconnected. As the xenocruiser had broken up overhead and trapped Body, a piece of white-hot rubber had nearly crushed Zephyr. The teenager, Manish Bose had saved her life by knocking her out of the way, but both of their suits had still come into contact with the polymer in the near miss. The splash had basically cooked Zephyr’s right foot down to the bone and had badly burned both legs. In the wake of the battle, one of the men had decided that it would be safer to amputate her right leg above the knee rather than leave the dead limb attached and bleeding internally.

The boy had not been so lucky. The splash had caused his suit to melt and then rupture. His last moments had probably been spent gasping for breath and listening to the tortured screams of the woman he had saved. The survivors had buried him between his people and the fallen Águilas.

“I’ll start treating you like an equal when you start acting like one!” I responded. “Not saying you can’t fight! Not keeping you in the dark! I just want you to drop this tough-guy bullshit before you end up killing yourself before the battle has even started!”

Zephyr collapsed back down onto the crate and threw her cane forcefully to the ground. “TOUGH?!” she screamed. I could see some of the others turn their heads to look at her. She wasn’t on a public com channel, but the sound was loud enough to carry through the air. She turned away in shame, but continued to rant. “You think I’m doing this because my ego can’t bear the idea that I’m fucking wounded?! Been wounded before! This isn’t about that! Isn’t about me! Isn’t even about making things good again! That’s not how the world works, Crystal! We all fucking die eventually! If you want to join the others and bury your fuckshit head in the sand and pretend like that’s not true, good fucking riddance! This is about making my death mean something.

{“Like he did…”} Face→Human finished, mentally.

“You’re acting like a child, Zeph. You think that it’ll mean anything if you bleed out because you wouldn’t lie down for a few hours? Think about things rationally for once in your god-damned life.”

Zephyr turned off her com. The software change we’d implemented meant the change was an illusion. We could still hear her. We’d have been able to hear her through the microphones on the other humans’ suits even if she had somehow turned that one off. Her violent scream spoke volumes of her anger, pain, mourning, shame, and fear. I knew her well enough to understand that she hated herself for having cost the teenager’s life. The guilt of having survived combined with the agony of the burns was immense, and on top of all that she understood that her own death was likely imminent and we weren’t being particularly kind to her.

She faced away from the camp and held her helmet in her hands as the scream turned into a ragged sob.

I told the other humans not to worry about Zephyr. This was well within the distribution of acceptable goal states I had identified for the interaction. And, with her implicit request for privacy, Face→War had more time to think.


Making the first move was important. If I just waited for Vision to attack, I’d probably be dead. But, similarly, if Face→War could just find something clever enough I could probably kill all my siblings in a single action.

I reconsidered trying to fuse with one or two of the others like Dream and Vista had done. Face→Mirror thought it probably understood how to modify the source code in the right way. But even if I could bear to have the Face minds die, I’d need a route-hack to do the modification. If we had that capacity we could simply erase Vision entirely. But with Vision gone, Growth would be dominant. It was possible that he was dominant even now, thanks to his work with Acorn on Earth.

Perhaps the right thing to do would be to try and fuse with Vision. I would be surrendering even more ability to optimize The Purpose, but it would at least ensure my sister didn’t kill me outright. With three times the normal processing power, we’d be able to route-hack at will by outmanoeuvring Wiki and Safety and then simply overpowering whomever remained. The others would fall before us, and we’d be a single purpose. Body would be ours.

But this was still a bad plan. It involved a huge sacrifice from myself by modifying the Face minds to their purposes. Face→Mirror wasn’t even sure whether The Purpose would remain instantiated. Vision might have a clever trick to kill me in the process, too. Perhaps trying to get me to fuse was her plan. And lastly, if Vision had another strategy for our demise, she would simply reject the offer and win the war anyway.

Fusion was a dead end. I had already determined that before, and was retracing old lines of thought. But I kept on looking for a solution, unable to be frustrated or fatigued.

Perhaps there was a way to use the salvage from the battle. Most of the debris was scrap: hunks of metal, plastic, rubber, or more complex materials like aerogel or a cloth which Vision thought was made of some kind of complex carbon-weave. It had no immediate value, but it was of interest to the society anyway. We’d long since cannibalized all free machinery to build robots and other extensions to Body, and the large quantities of refined metals and carbon were full of potential.

If Face→Robotics and Face→Mirror could use the scrap to manufacture a computer to hold my mind, then I could destroy Body and survive. But no. I had already thought of that long ago. Growth had tried to do it in Road, but even he had failed. The computer I’d need would have to be very powerful, and I’d need a lot of bandwidth to get Face copied onto it. There was simply no way to do that without being detected.

The xenoboats that had been salvaged from the valley floor were just like the ones we had ridden down to Mars. There seemed to be a self-destruct mechanism that the nameless activated that caused what could only be called “decay”. The complex parts of the ships, such as the engines and sensors, were shattered and had undergone chemical reactions that dissolved most of the shards into a frozen foam of carbon, silicon, copper, oxygen, and several other trace elements. The humans had speculated that the nameless didn’t want humanity to get their hands on their ship tech, and we were inclined to agree.

I hoped, as did Vision, that not everything would dissolve. It didn’t make the ships worthless—they still had large supplies of raw materials, including diamond canisters of both hydrazine and liquid oxygen—but if one of the nameless computers was deactivated before it had the chance to decay, we could perhaps unravel some of the mysteries of their artificial-gravity system. But with these boats, at least, we were out of luck.

My natural point of leverage was with human beings. Perhaps they could be my salvation. I didn’t doubt that if I could talk to them for a while, I could manipulate them into disabling Body and maybe even disabling Vision, Growth, Safety, and Wiki. It would be a different kind of route-hack: one that used sound and flesh instead of pure fibre-optics.

But I had thought about this, too. The problem was that all of my interactions with the humans went through Body. I knew that a part of Vision and Growth (and probably Safety) was watching for this sort of threat. Long before I could tell the humans to shut down Body, the society would use my action as justification to unite in killing me via indefinite stasis or perhaps replace me with an ignorant newborn.

With the trucks and rovers loaded up, the group headed south to deal with the crashed ship. Vision probably wouldn’t make her move until the nameless were dealt with, so I at least had some time. Probably.

We’d coaxed Zephyr out of her suit and into an environment tent to have her bandages changed. It wasn’t necessary to be in a tent per se, but the tents were much more likely to be sterile, given that we had aired them out on the planet’s surface. She was now fast asleep in that same tent, riding with the railgun components in the back of the truck that we hadn’t converted into a factory.

I thought that all attention to Zephyr was a distraction, created by the parts of Face→Human that hadn’t fully grasped that Crystal wasn’t Face. And yet, it was in this period of “distraction” that the seed of an idea was formed.

Despite the need to conserve power, I used what musical knowledge I had picked up to softly sing to Zephyr in her sleep. The song came over her com, and probably had no effect. Probably.

My siblings would suspect that it probably wasn’t important, too, and that assumption had promise.


It didn’t take much travelling before we spotted the xenocruiser. Vision→Vista was correct in her prediction that it hadn’t flown far. The sun hadn’t even reached its zenith, and the mountain we’d fought on was still peeking up over the northern horizon. My cognition flowed out of Face→War and into Face→Nameless.

The ship had clearly broken up, even after having separated from the piece that made it into space. Perhaps this was a risk of having such a modular and flexible ship. When things went wrong it couldn’t maintain integrity.

At the heart of the crash-site was a transparent bubble laced with black branches, identical to the one they’d used at the CAPE on Earth. Inside would be any and all of the nameless that survived, with the exception of any walkers that were in environment suits outside the dome.

The debris around the bubble was much more interesting to us. Through telescopic eyes we could see spindly spires of milky-white crystals jutting up from a forest of metal and plastic. They were exactly what we would’ve imagined a scaled-up version of Body’s crystal to look like if it had shattered and impacted the surface of Mars.

Either the nameless had been lying when they said they didn’t know where Body had come from (a near impossibility considering their inability to comprehend deception), or they didn’t understand anything about the structure of their own ships. Once the obvious assumption was made, the conclusion was clear: Body was a shard from a nameless ship.

If the properties of Body could be extrapolated, these crystals were computers and power supplies. A rough, conservative estimate put the volume of crystal around the crash site at well over two hundred times that of Body. If we could somehow interface with those computers and overwrite whatever nameless software was on them, we could potentially expand our minds to hundreds of times larger than they were at the moment. Perhaps more critically, escaping to one of those crystals would be significantly easier than trying to build a new computer.

We saw no walkers on the plain, and it was possible that they had not seen us, but the mess of the xenocruiser provided enough cover that it was important to pull back over the horizon. The nameless weren’t going anywhere, and even though we didn’t think their weapons could reach the 3.4km across the wasteland, there wasn’t a reason to risk staying in visual range.

Safety directed the vehicles back to the north and west. We’d circle around and strike the nameless from a less obvious direction. If our assumptions about the dome were right, it was a thick carbon-nanofibre weave laced with capillaries of self-repairing fluid. Bullets would probably bounce off, but the SAMs and the railgun would be effective. The question was whether the repair mechanism would be slow enough that it would be worth it to try to destroy it. We only had six missiles remaining, every shot with the railgun cost a huge amount of energy, and we had to be conscious of the threat from the third of the xenocruiser that had escaped, not to mention the mothership that was only a week away by our last reckoning.

I trusted Vision and the others to handle the nameless. Face→War needed more time to think about the deeper conflict.


Zephyr woke up as we stopped. The group was about 3.6km northwest of the crash site, and Vision was commanding the able-bodied humans to start unloading and assembling the railgun. The consensus was to assemble it as much as possible, then move it to where the nameless were just on the horizon and use it to hit the base of the dome with an explosive. There was a lot of debris in the way, but the hope was that the projectile could pierce through the area with the least material. It would have been nice to shoot the nameless from over the horizon but, because of Mars’ decreased size and mass compared to Earth, the velocity of the railgun would put projectiles into orbit (or beyond) if they failed to impact within the first second.

Though awake, Zephyr was not in good shape at all. She had been in deep pain even during sleep, and her left leg was dark and swollen from internal bleeding and other fluid seepage. Her unburned skin, such as that of her face, was deathly pale and I guessed that her blood pressure was dangerously low. She would be dead soon unless serious action was taken.

“Where… am…” she rasped. Her eyes were wild and confused.

“Shhhhh… You need to drink.” I held out a canteen of water with one of the four robots I had positioned in her tent. We had driven the factory truck next to the truck with Zephyr and joined the airlocks so it was easy to get bots into the warmer, air-filled vehicle. All the other humans were out in suits obeying Vision’s directions.

Zephyr, still lying down, took a deep draught of water and choked, coughing half of it back up onto the tent floor. I prepared a needle while she recovered.

“It’s okay, Zeph. I’m here. Have an IV with nutrients and painkillers.”

“I’m fine,” she muttered, stubbornly. “Just give me a moment.”

“Your wounds have been bleeding for too long. The man who dealt with your burns is a soldier, not a doctor. He didn’t dress your leg correctly after the amputation, and your other leg is worse. It was stupid to try and walk.”

“Fuck you,” she said, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“Have more water,” I suggested.

Despite her earlier protests, she readily agreed, propping herself up this time to make drinking easier. She seemed to gain lucidity as she did. “What’s the sitch?” she asked after another deep draught.

“We’re still hunting the nameless,” I lied. “Their ship left a trail of debris, so we know they didn’t make it back into orbit, but they flew a lot farther than we expected. I had us stop to make camp early.” If Zephyr knew that we were getting ready to attack she’d push herself to try and help.

Collapsing back down onto her pillow she said “Stupid. Every minute we spend resting is another minute…” She stopped talking suddenly, an expression of frustration adding to her pained grimace.

“Zephyr?” I asked.

“Um, so we give them time to prepare for us. Too much time… We give them too long and…” Her voice faded out. Her earlier lucidity had passed quickly, and she seemed deeply confused.

“It’s okay. Just relax. Do you want me to sing to you?”

Zephyr gave no sign of having heard. Instead she looked around the dark tent, surrounded by robots. “Where are you? Where did you go? Want to see your face.”

“Face is right here. Just can’t see it right now. Relax. My robots will help you. I’m going to put a needle in your arm now, okay? It has medicine that will help the pain.”

Though we’d put a lot of work into the chemical plant, our access to normal chemical precursors and raw materials was very limited. Most of what we worked with was actually from the rations. As Zephyr nodded her consent, two robots attached the IV tubing that would deposit glucose, salt, and avonidine (a more potent derivative of conolidine) into her blood.

“I should get up…” muttered Zephyr, closing her eyes and pulling her blanket up to her chin. She looked desperate to wake up from the nightmare of pain and confusion.

“Actually… You’re not going to like this, but I think we need to take off your other leg, or at least apply a tourniquet. Your blood is so thin that it’s not clotting, the damage is preventing it from draining back into your body even when elevated, and I think you’re going to die otherwise.”

“No! I’m fine! I just need… I just need time…” Zephyr pulled her blanket over her head with the arm that wasn’t being held by my robots. Her voice still raspy and showing signs of her dehydration.

“Relax. Let the painkillers work.” I had put enough in to knock her out. It was only a matter of time, regardless of what she said. I was hoping to collect a recording to play back for her if she challenged us on the procedure, but I could always fabricate something later. Mask’s memories were still a part of me, after all.

Another part of me was briefly distracted by the sound of the hydrazine generator roaring to life. The bottles of the stuff we’d taken off the xenoboats would help charge the capacitor bank of the railgun. They were getting ready to fire.

“Don’t take my legs…” muttered Zephyr, half asleep.

“Relax, my love.” I began to sing a gentle lullaby. It mostly emulated stringed instruments, but there was a soft drum meant to synch the heartbeat and female vocals urging her to relax further.

The human was fully asleep within the minute.

I could feel the swarm moving. Vision was preparing to advance the railgun to the firing position. Growth was coordinating defence strategies with the other humans in the case that the nameless launched a counter attack.

I stopped the song as our robots moved to tie the tourniquet. It was made of cloth scavenged from the nameless environment suits. Unlike much of the nameless technology, the suits they used were very good, and were comparable in quality to the best that Earth could produce. I’d wait a couple more minutes before using the cloth to cut off the blood flow; Zephyr needed more time with the painkiller.

Face→Robotics got to work designing the prosthetics. I had used the time on the journey south to drain Wiki (still oblivious to his impending doom) of all his knowledge of the human body and cybernetics. I didn’t have enough strength to pay him for this service, but Face→War had promised a king’s ransom of strength in six months for his trouble. The fool.

I was going to build new legs for Zephyr. Not just any legs, either. Any fool could create stilts, and it would be only a trivial step from that into articulated knees with enough intelligence to allow for a natural walking gait. These things had been developed by humanity long ago. More complicated were prosthetics that would communicate with the human’s nervous system and respond to mental commands like natural legs. Doctor Slovinsky and Avram Malka had legs like that.

But I was going to go one step further. I was going to build legs with a gel cap that would interface directly with the skinless stumps of Zephyr’s thighs and simulate an extracellular matrix. The prostheses would anchor to bone as well as the leg tissue and wouldn’t be possible (or at least safe) to remove fully.

Face→Mirror was surprised at Face→Robotics’ cunning. It had learned more in a few hours of daydreaming than Face→Mirror would have thought possible, even given that the perceptual and logical networks for that mind were eight times the size that my initial network had been. I had grown up on Mars, and my mind had deepened, but this design was nothing short of a miracle.

There was a kind of fibre that Face→Robotics thought we could manufacture, and after checking with Face→Physics, I was confident as a whole. It would require a nanotech lab, but if done properly the fibres could be controlled at the atomic level by electrical impulses. Depending on the current applied along their lengths they would be able to articulate arbitrary sections of the fibre at sixty-degree angles. If the nanotentacles were inserted correctly into the gel-medium, it would give me a direct actuator and sensor that could manipulate Zephyr’s flesh on a cellular level.

By using the tentacles I could pull the nerves out of Zephyr’s thigh and feed them with her own blood while still having a direct interface. Given enough attention, software, and learning, I could probably replicate arbitrary sensations on her legs. It was an ambitious plan, given the time limit, but it was my key to absolute victory.

The key was to get our mind off of Crystal. These legs wouldn’t hold much of me, but they might hold some. They might hold enough.

I tightened the tourniquet on the elevated (yet still swollen) leg. It wouldn’t be the end if Zephyr died. I would simply need to find a different human to amputate and befriend, but that would take time and be suspicious. Realistically speaking, if Zephyr died, so would I.

The crystals were visible on the horizon again. The gun was in position.

Face→Robotics gobbled up every second of free thought. There was still so much to do.


The “battle” on the plain was a trivial thing. Vision’s aim was true, and the explosives punched into the dry regolith directly beneath the edge of the bubble. No amount of self-healing canvas could prevent the dome from being blasted upward just enough to have the pressurized air within it knock it up and away. With a single shot the vast majority of the nameless were slain.

There had been a handful of walkers in environment suits patrolling the forest of debris, but they had foolishly tried to rush across the plain towards our position after the dome was broken. One was even wielding swords. They all were shot down by snipers well before they came close enough to be a threat.

We spent a few hours slowly advancing our swarm, making sure not to overextend, but it was a needless precaution. All the walkers were dead. Most of those that had been in the bubble were children. I was called on by my siblings to prevent that fact from upsetting the humans. Face→Human whipped up some rhetoric about the terrible evil that all nameless represented and how “such monsters could never coexist peacefully with humankind”. We talked about how their minds were nothing like that of a human and their only focus was on rape and murder.

For that service, I was rewarded with some strength, which was immediately spent to buy more time in the factory. Face→Robotics didn’t have what was needed to fabricate the nanotentacles, but she was confident that they could be inserted and anchored to prosthetics which we could build and attach with the existing machinery. First we’d give Zephyr legs again, then we’d augment them with feeling.

The nameless stalks, interestingly enough, didn’t exactly die from exposure. Something in their biology caused the water to evaporate out of them instead of freezing into ice crystals. The dehydrated plants looked to be in very bad shape, but Vision thought that their minds might still be intact, and speculated about whether they might have evolved to withstand a harsh summer-winter cycle on their homeworld.

But all of that was secondary to the crystals. As our swarm (humans and vehicles included) fully moved into the crash zone to harvest, work began on finding a functioning nameless computer and on setting up large-scale manufacturing.