Chapter Twenty-Two


“That’s such bullshit. Do you know what’s happening in England? Or, the UK, I mean.” Zephyr’s hand brushed over the pistol she wore on her hip. Habit.

“The English basic income is working well, I thought. They have no poor, yes?”

Zephyr gave a bark of a laugh and Manish flinched, directing his gaze to the floor of the truck. Zephyr felt a pang of regret, but pushed past it as she spoke. “Sound like a corporate shill. Poverty rate is only low because the poverty line is set just below the basic income level. Sure, maybe some people can pinch pennies and survive on the government’s dime, but that’s not the point.”

“I am sorry. What is a dime?” Manish seemed like a good kid, but he was clearly not very worldly. They’d picked him up in Mukhya: an Indian volunteer for Las Águilas. Zephyr had heard that there was a major scandal involving charity money in Chennai. Perhaps Manish was the first of many.

She waved her hands dismissively. “Doesn’t matter. The point is that the basic income laws in the UK have crippled any hope of political reform or nonviolent protest. Everyone is tracked there. No exceptions. Go to the wrong websites? Talk to the wrong people? Suddenly there’s an issue with your income paperwork. Get it? The second that people hand over their means of survival to the state they give the government the power to do whatever they want. England’s poverty rate looks good on paper, which again is more of a propaganda thing than a reflection of real wealth, but inequality there is just as rampant as in Italy, or a similar sort of country!”

Politics felt good to talk about. It was one of the few things that kept Zephyr anchored to her community. They all liked to complain about las serpientes of Earth. And she needed to stay anchored. It was too easy for her to imagine people were talking behind her back… too easy to disconnect and become lost in her desire to be with Crystal. She had to relax into the moment. She’d be back at Road in a day or two.

She missed Crystal though… even more than she had thought she would. On the first trip with the caravan, she counted the hours until she’d be back home. Even now it was sometimes difficult not to sink into longing.

It was strange to think of Road as home. Strange to think of herself as a Martian. But that was the way it was. She was here to stay, and there was no going back to Earth. Anything less would be denial of the truth.

Manish was quiet for a moment, thinking things through. He was only seventeen, and looked his age. If she hadn’t heard his parents give their explicit permission for him to come with them back to Road, Zephyr would’ve assumed he was a runaway.

The truck stopped, causing a slight lurch in the section where the two of them sat. Zephyr briefly glanced at the cargo to make sure it was secure. {Must be a mechanical problem or something,} she thought to herself as her hand brushed over her pistol again.

Manish seemed to come upon an idea, and began to speak. “But why would—” The words were cut off by a loud chime from her com: emergency call from Matías. Her arm raised and she gestured the call to speaker before she knew what she was doing.

“We found Crystal,” barked the old man. “It was just sitting in the middle of the road, head blown halfway to pieces and barely able to move, but it can still speak, see, and hear.”

“On my way!”

“Zephyr! It—” Matías’ voice was cut off as it changed pitch suddenly. When it resumed it was more strained and emotional than Zephyr had ever heard from the old soldier. “It says the aliens attacked Rodríguez Station. Everyone… they’re all dead.

Her legs moved with a panicked speed that bordered on flailing. {Suit. Need your suit. Need your fucking suit!} The environment suits were thankfully close at hand, as was the airlock, but it all seemed far too slow.

“I’m coming! Where are you? Where is Crystal?”

“Where the hell do you think we are? On the road in front of the trucks. This… this better not be some fucking trick. You led them to us. And now this?” Matías sounded a bit unhinged. Zephyr was about to speak when he continued in Spanish, probably responding to Crystal. «Calm down?! You tell me that my family was just murdered, my home was destroyed, and you want me to be calm?! Son of a bitch! I don’t care if this is or isn’t a trick! It’s your fucking fault! The aliens would’ve never paid us a second glance if not for you!»

“Shitshitshitshitshit—” chanted Zephyr as she scrambled to pull on the bulky outer layer. She took the time to put her pistol in one of the pockets of the suit, rather than keeping it strapped to her waist. Better safe than sorry.

Crystal must’ve been talking to Matías, as the old man was quiet for a long time.

Matías had been sent along on the envoy to the Indian station to negotiate some deal on Velasco’s behalf. He was Chief of Martial Readiness… or at least had been before… before whatever had happened.

He was a soldier, like Zephyr, brought from Earth after having served his duty. But he had the spark. He had the violent impulse that Zephyr knew all too well. Matías was dangerous.

Zephyr’s com linked to her suit as she slipped the glove over her right hand. For a moment she thought that Matías had turned off the com link, but he eventually responded. «And who is to say that the best course of action wouldn’t be to serve you up to them? If they’re really so bloodthirsty, perhaps we should give them blood!»

She turned to Manish. “Stay here!”

The boy nodded, wide-eyed.

{The situation is too sensitive. Better if he stays out of trouble,} she thought. But somewhere in Zephyr’s mind she knew that she simply didn’t want to have to deal with anyone or anything besides Crystal.

Zephyr got into the airlock and clicked on her helmet as the cramped chamber began to decompress. «Son of a bitch!» roared the Chilean Águila over the com. Matías screamed in wordless frustration, forcing Zephyr to gesture her volume lower.

Then she was out of the truck and into the wastes. It took her a moment to adjust to the low light of sunset, but only a moment. She was off, running in the low grav with several-meter steps towards the front of the convoy. Her hand was never far from the pocket with her pistol.

«You should have protected them! You make yourself out to be some kind of superhuman, but what did that do, in the end? Nothing except save your own skin! Selfish metal whore!»

“Matías! Get a hold of yourself!” commanded Zephyr. She drew her gun. Matías would be armed, and she couldn’t risk having to draw it if he was violent. Her gloves were bulky, but she managed to get a finger under the trigger guard.

“Oh, right! Come defend the metal bitch! That’s all you care about!” His breath was audible over the com. Matías was pacing up and down the road as she came upon him. Crystal sat on the ground, face in shadow in front of the blue sunset.

“Just calm down! Go take a walk or something. I can handle… Crystal from here.” Zephyr nearly couldn’t say the name of her love. It was all too much to handle. But she was a soldier, and a more professional one than Matías, apparently. She was careful to keep her gun behind her back as the old man turned to look at her.

After what seemed like a very long pause, Matías said “Fine. Tell the others that I’m going to go… I’m going to go figure some things out. Clear my head.” He turned and walked towards the setting sun without further comment.

Zephyr bounded closer and forced herself to be calm, or at least to not cry. Crystal sat on the road, nearly motionless. It was their old shell, not the more feminine body they’d built in Road. Their head, the head the university had built, was ruined. It had caved in under the impact of a cluster of bullets on the left side, completely destroying one eye and leaving the other frozen in a dead stare straight ahead. Their jaw was in a similar state to their eye, hanging loose on their face along with all the other tiny “muscles” that Zephyr never really appreciated. The wig that had been attached to their scalp had been ripped off by the sand such that only patches of metallic blue hair remained. Their makeup was similarly scratched, revealing a dull gray plastic underneath their skin.

It made her want to vomit, but she rushed to the android anyway, tucking her gun back in her pocket and throwing her arms around Crystal’s shoulders. {In and out. Keep breathing. Stay calm.}

Their voice came softly into her helmet. “I missed you.”

“What’s going on? Where’s Matías?” asked Shao Péng, over the com channel. He’d been riding with Matías in the quad.

Zephyr wanted to respond, but no words would come. It was as though her voice had simply vanished. It made her angry. {I need to be strong. I’m supposed to be better than this.}

“Road was attacked. It was the nameless,” said Crystal, voice strangely flat.

“My wife—” Shao seemed just as shocked as Matías had been. “怡…是她好吗?你是怎么来到这里?而美风?请。”

“It’s done,” answered Crystal. “Everyone’s dead.”

“Liar!” shouted Shao in fierce denial.

Crystal moved an arm slowly to return Zephyr’s embrace. “I knew it was a risk. Never should have stayed in Road. Matías was right. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.”

The words made Zephyr stiffen, strength returning to her arms and voice. Crystal seemed emotionally dead or invincible sometimes, but Zephyr knew them better than that. {You have to be strong for Crystal. You have to be the strong one.} They were all dead, her friends: Nate, Kokumo, Tom, Sam, even Watanabe. It hurt for her to even think about. But for Crystal… with such a beautiful mind… Such a perfect mind that was so strangely young… They had been there. They might’ve even watched them die. How much worse must it have been for them?

She gestured her com to a private channel with Crystal. “None of that. Let the past go. You’re safe now.”

“I could have saved them,” said Crystal. Their voice, normally so human and rich with emotion felt more dead than Zephyr could remember it ever being since the university. Perhaps their ability to speak had been damaged in combat.

“Let’s get you inside,” Zephyr decided, feeling stronger by the second. She switched her com back to talk to Shao. “Help me carry Crystal back to the truck!”

“If I had just stayed on the xenocruiser and explained things… Couldn’t have stopped the war, but I could’ve kept Mars out of it. Too selfish. Too shortsighted.”

Zephyr felt a flicker of anger at Crystal. “And what about me? You’d have left me here and sacrificed yourself?”

“You’d have survived. You’re strong. You’d live without me.”

“No.” Zephyr was a soldier again, voice like iron, but the words betrayed the truth. “I can’t.”


They’d sent the quad and the octo ahead to scout the wreckage. Crystal had thought that was a really bad idea, as the nameless might be scanning the area, or even follow the vehicles back to the trucks, but it had to be done. Not everyone trusted Crystal like Zephyr did, and they needed to see it with their own eyes.

Half of the ice they’d bought had been dumped into the desert, already evaporating away, even before the sun rose. It was nearly useless now, anyway. The crops in the farm were all dead, just as much as the people who tended to them.

With the ice in the truck gone, there was enough space in Truck One to fit everyone who had remained behind. Crystal was there, too, of course. Their body had taken such a beating from the battle and the trek across the desert that they could barely move, and was only able to see thanks to a small camera they had wired into their neck.

Manish, Liam, Christophe, Jarvis, Atília, Jacob, Omi, and Jashiel stood around in a circle, completed by her and Crystal. The room was cold enough for their breath to be plainly visible, and (minus their helmets) the humans wore suits to keep warm.

Shao, Matías, Jian, and Mycah had gone to scout and look for other survivors. That was good. It meant more could be done here; Zephyr would have more authority. It was strange for Zephyr, finding herself in leadership positions despite being by far the youngest one remaining (with the exception of Manish). Perhaps it was a skill she’d picked up in the army. Perhaps she was just naturally good at taking initiative and command.

The station was another day’s travel out from their position. Even if Matías’ team drove without sleeping they’d not be back until next morning. The meeting was to decide what to do in the short term. They couldn’t exactly make long-term plans without Matías and the others, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to just sit on the road for a couple days.

The mood in the truck was dark and solemn, exacerbated by the shitty lighting. The initial shock of the massacre had been processed by each of them in the last hour, mostly in private. Tears had been shed. Crystal had replayed audio clips for the skeptical.

Zephyr had gone through it all with a familiar calm. It was a calm she ran to when things became hard. Perhaps that was what made her a good leader. Where the others mourned, she focused on next steps. She’d come too close to falling into her feelings, seeing Crystal’s battered shell, but she needed to be strong now, and would not falter again.

Besides her, Cristophe and Manish were fairly lucid as well. Manish, the youth from the Indian station, didn’t really know anyone from Road of course. He was afraid, and rightly so; if the nameless hit Road without warning, they could easily do the same to Mukhya. Cristophe, on the other hand, was the eldest. Zephyr wondered if his calm was because he’d, over the years, learned to deal with death, or if it was simply his personality.

“We clearly don’t know enough about ze combat capabilities of ze nameless to judge zat,” said Cristophe in his deep French bass, responding to a question of whether there was even enough firepower on all of Mars to take down a xenoship.

Jarvis, one of the truck drivers that had been part of the caravan team since before Zephyr joined, spoke up. “That just means we gotta try, doesn’t it?”

“It means we have to be careful,” warned Zephyr.

Jashiel randomly started crying, and Omi tried to awkwardly hug her friend. Both of them had lost husbands in the attack, and Jashiel had lost a baby boy. “What’s the point of being careful?” she sobbed. “Everyone’s already dead!”

It was a mistake to try and talk about this so soon. They weren’t ready.

We aren’t,” snapped one of the men. “And I’m not about to throw my life away! Let Earth deal with the murderous bastards!”

Crystal’s voice came to them suddenly, causing more than one startled reaction, especially because their mouth didn’t move. Crystal’s tone was cold and imposing. Shivers shot down Zephyr’s back. “Regardless of our other actions, our top priority needs to be getting the message to Earth. When Earth hears about what… about what happened here…” The crippled android didn’t finish their thought.

Zephyr felt the fear. It seemed to be all around her, but her mental armor held it at bay. When she spoke, her voice was calm and even. “Good call. If the attack was limited to Road we need to warn Mukhya and Eden, as well as telling Earth.”

“And if Mukhya was also attacked?” asked Manish, voice barely audible over Jashiel’s crying.

“Then we need to know, and salvage what we can to build an antenna and warn Earth before the aliens can catch them unaware as well,” said Zephyr.

Nobody spoke for a while, as each Águila waited for the others to speak.

The old Frenchman, Cristophe, asked “Do we ‘ave enough supplies to make it back to Mukhya?”

“It’s a mistake bringing that thing anywhere close to another settlement,” said a man named Atília, staring daggers at Crystal.

Zephyr lost her grip for a second. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Jashiel flinched back as though Zephyr had hit someone, and began to cry harder.

Atília crossed his arms. “It means that that thing is what the nameless are after, and every second it’s near a human means that human is in danger.”

The goon was over six feet tall and probably twice her weight, but Zephyr pulled herself up, walked towards Atília and pressed a single finger against his chest. “That thing is a person. A person that saved me and my team from imprisonment and death. Crystal es una Águilas Roja through and through, and I’m sick of having people like you ready to—”

“Ready to what?” challenged Atília. He knocked her hand from his chest and walked forward, forcing her to back up. “Give up a machine to save lives? Don’t talk down to me, girl. You may have been some big shot on Earth, but I’m sick of you pretending that means anything out here.”

“Please! Sere is no need for zis! Save your anger for ze aliens,” commanded Cristophe, pushing the two of them apart.

“He’s right.”

Everyone turned to look at the crippled robot that had been placed on a shipping crate because it couldn’t even stand.

Crystal continued. “It’s too dangerous to take me to Mukhya. The risk of bringing the nameless in behind us is too high.”

Atília nodded his approval and stepped away from Zephyr to lean back up against the wall of the truck. The man was at least a few years older than her, but he reminded Zephyr of a high school bully.

One of the other men, Liam, who had been quiet before, looked Crystal in the dead eye and asked “Do the nameless even know you’re alive?”

“They’re probably uncertain. They saw me escape into the mines, but then they bombed the station again. In their position, I would suspect that I was either dead or trapped underground.”

“But you still think it’s too dangerous to go to Mukhya?” asked Omi, still holding onto Jashiel, who had thankfully calmed down some.

Crystal continued. “Yes. It’s not likely that they know, or that knowing would make a difference, but there are some outcomes that are too risky, even if they’re not very likely. It’s possible, for example, that the nameless have blanketed the planet in satellites that made a record of my heat signature out in the desert. By the time the nameless check the video and find where I went I… I never should have even come here. I’m sorry. By that same logic, I’ve put you all in mortal danger.”

“Oh! Good job! You’ve just now figured out that this is all your fault!” yelled Jarvis the truck driver, looking briefly to Atília for support.

Jashiel hid her face, but at least she didn’t start crying again.

“Jesus! You’re quite the asshole, you know that, right?” Zephyr yelled at Jarvis just as Crystal said “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” in the most heart-wrenching tone and Cristophe raised his hands begging “Can everyone just please calm down!”

It didn’t help. The whole room exploded with noise as Zephyr, Crystal, Jarvis, Atília and others kept talking over each other. Zephyr felt like she was fighting back all the men in the room at once, while Crystal moaned over and over again about how sorry they were. Perhaps it would’ve been better, after all, to have Matías and Shao there. At least they would’ve kept the other men in line.

“ENOUGH OF ZIS!” yelled Cristophe. The old French man had climbed onto the storage crate Crystal sat on and waved his arms.

The room fell silent.

“What is done is done! Sere is nothing good coming from more discussion. We can talk in ze morning once we’ve all ‘ad a nice sleep. Okay?”

Zephyr worked to unclench her fists. She didn’t dare speak.

Cristophe seemed to take the silence as assent. “Good! Now leave each other alone. We ‘ave friends and family to mourn. No good will come from zis fighting.”

Everyone seemed to silently agree to the old man’s proposal. Bitter looks were exchanged in silence. Crystal, face still frozen and expressionless, let out a final “I am sorry” as the others snapped on helmets and shuffled off to the airlocks.


It was annoying not having any privacy, really. The trucks were built to allow people to sleep in them, but they weren’t luxurious by any definition of the word.

Each truck had four primary sections: a cab, two long boxes that served as the primary storage areas, and a joining segment between the storage areas. The cabs of each truck had two reclining seats that worked as makeshift beds, but Zephyr preferred staying in the back of the trucks, as there was more room there.

The joint section was partitioned from the main cargo trailers by soft plastic barriers. Magicstrips kept the plastic sealed and formed something of a bubble of relatively warm air in the middle of the long, dark space. There were a couple chairs in the bubble, as well as two heated pods for sleeping in, each only 6.5 feet by 3.5 feet. The truck and the joint segment were insulated, but it was still really fucking cold.

Everything was really fucking cold on Mars.

Zephyr was cold.

Crystal’s body sat in one of the chairs. Zephyr had taken off her work clothes and was currently curled up in a smelly blanket inside one of the “pods”. The bed was really just a padded, heated box.

And she was still cold.

She had pushed the pillows up against the end and lay, watching Crystal, wishing they could join her and cuddle. But the android’s joints and hydraulics were apparently supremely fucked. A few good engineers like Sam and Tom might’ve known what to do, but that wasn’t Zephyr’s thing.

It hurt to think about them.

It hurt to think.

This was supposed to be a good thing—going to Mars. But it was always one thing after another. She was going to settle down. She’d wanted a home. She’d found one. She’d wanted a friend. Crystal had been there for her. She wanted to be making a difference. And she’d done great things. She had been happy. Right? Or had she imagined it? Had those few days spent with Crystal been an illusion—a temporary respite from a life that promised nothing but ongoing hardship?

The tears wouldn’t come to her eyes. The other parts of her, the parts that demanded that she be strong pushed them away. She wasn’t weak. She wasn’t Jashiel.

Omi and Jashiel were in the other truck’s lounge. Christophe and Liam were in the cab of Zephyr’s truck. Atília and Jarvis were in the other cab, having apparently bonded over their distrust of Crystal. Jacob was probably still out walking around. He’d be bunking with Cristophe and Liam tonight.

And that left the Indian boy, Manish, who was currently at the back end of the truck getting stoned and trying to give Crystal and Zephyr some time to themselves. Zephyr could still feel his presence. If she yelled he’d hear. It wasn’t the same as privacy.

“Wish I could hold you,” said Crystal coldly.

Zephyr didn’t know what to say to that. She looked at Crystal’s dead face, then away just as quickly. It hurt to remember what the alien bastards had done to them.

“Do you want to talk?” they asked.

“Do you?” countered Zephyr, sounding more irritated than she’d meant to.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I feel younger… less certain… than I have in a long time.” Crystal paused, as if inviting Zephyr to say something, but then continued on, after it became clear that she wouldn’t. “For a lot of things, I can just read books, and it makes me feel competent. Even for things like dating and sex, there were instructions. If I needed to give a speech, I could study it. But all the books on dealing with death were written for humans. None of them feel right.”

“What do they say?” asked Zephyr. {You don’t want to know. You need to forget about the whole thing. Thinking about it makes you weak.}

“Quote: It’s normal to feel sad, numb, or angry following a loss. But as time passes, these emotions should become less intense as you accept the loss and start to move forward. If you aren’t feeling better over time, or your grief is getting worse, it may be a sign that your grief has developed into a more serious problem, such as complicated grief or major depression.”

Zephyr let out a long breath. “And? How do you feel?”

“I don’t know. I feel like a part of me died back in Road. My emotions have always been… different. I can’t stop thinking about all the other things I should have done.”

“You’ve been speaking differently. Since the attack, I mean.”

“I… I think that was a part of her. The part that died.”

Zephyr sat up. This was interesting. “What do you mean? A part of you?”

“Yes. She couldn’t… It was too much. I watched them die. One after another. Most died from suffocation. Others died at the end of a sword, or from a bullet. The books tell me I might still be in shock, if I were a human. But ‘shock’ isn’t a real thing. It’s a cluster of symptoms with a common trigger that are completely different from person to person. There’s no treatment or even consistent diagnosis. I guess I just wish that I had more experience dealing with this sort of thing. Even after everything that happened on Earth and in space…”

“It’s different. Watching loved ones die.” Zephyr was surprised at her calmness. “I’d suggest trying to cry, but that’s a human thing, I think. I’m not sure you could.”

Crystal’s cold voice asked “You haven’t cried yet.”

“Don’t change the subject. We’re talking about you.”

Crystal didn’t say anything.

The silence stretched on, and Zephyr turned away to look at the wall. She didn’t feel like sleeping, but it was too much to keep looking at Crystal’s battered form.

Finally, they spoke. “I can’t cry, but I think I’d like to try singing.”

Zephyr bit her lip and prayed that Crystal would change their mind.

But the android did not, and while their head may have been in bad shape, their speakers were not. The first notes of a soft acoustic guitar filled the small space. It was simulated, of course; “singing” wasn’t entirely accurate.

The quiet notes drifted through the room, simple, yet beautiful. Soon a voice joined the guitar. “Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord… that David played and it pleased the Lord. But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

The lyrics were familiar, but she didn’t remember where they were from. More importantly, the voice was soft and sweet; it was the voice that Crystal had before the attack.

Zephyr choked out a breath, not realizing that she’d been holding it. Thankfully she was still facing the wall. {Stop! You’re stronger than this!} The tears in her eyes didn’t listen. The music rolled over her, on and on, like waves of the ocean.

The song didn’t stop at the obvious place, either. It bled into another song, as though they were one continuous piece of music. This one with a piano in addition to guitar. Another cover she didn’t really recognize. She cried quietly, hoping Crystal wouldn’t notice. It was stupid. How many times had Crystal been there for her? What was one more? Would it really hurt to let go? The possibility of Manish seeing her like this kept her curled up such that she could pretend to be sleeping. The tears didn’t stop.

And then the song got worse. Much worse. Crystal started innovating. They started a chorus of voices, and somehow, deep in her heart, Zephyr knew that each of those voices was taken from one of the dead. Crystal had known them. While Zephyr had hidden herself away in her room most days she was there, and spent the rest of her time away from the station, Crystal talked with everyone. They knew them all, and knew what they sounded like. They had watched them all die.

There was a duet in Spanish, lamenting the setting of the sun. The voices were those of Sam and Tom, talented beyond their true ability. She remembered one time, back in Cuba, when Sam had brought an old-fashioned jukebox into the cafeteria and wired it up to a karaoke game. Tom had covered his face the whole time in embarrassment, but he’d been grinning underneath his hands.

When the children started to sing… Zephyr couldn’t hold it in any longer. The voices of the dead were too much. Her soft crying became a sobbing which threatened to overwhelm her. It wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair.

“And through it all, the angels sing, a voice as pure as any thing…” Zephyr could hear it now, the voice. It pierced the chorus, quiet and high: a dirge to the fallen.

A hand touched her shoulder. She reached to grab it and hold on before it faded. She needed the touch. She needed to hold on to Crystal. The hand was warm, and soft. Not Crystal. Manish. She almost let go.


The angel’s voice was Crystal. Their sound was wordless, but somehow carried more emotion than any mortal words could. They were accompanied by an orchestra. Violins. Flutes. Synths. And as the song climaxed and sent another wave of sobs through Zephyr it faded, not to silence, but back to that first acoustic guitar that carried a lonely, gentle tune in the darkness.

Manish must’ve turned the lights out. His hand was still on her shoulder. Her hand was still on his.

She turned from staring into the wall of her box and saw the young man sitting on the side of the bed container. His eyes shimmered with moisture in the faint red light that came from above the airlock door. He smiled.

Knowing full well that it was a mistake, Zephyr sat up and wrapped her arms around Manish, drawing him into a hug. The movement was more than a little awkward, but it worked out in the end. She felt raw, and real, not tied up in herself. His mere presence was everything.

Crystal’s voice had begun again, a bit lower this time, and speaking Spanish, but still distinctly their own.

“El día se hace. La oscuridad viene.

Relájese. Relájese. Relájese.

Paz en un toque. Ella sane.

Relájese. Relájese. Relájese.

La noche es fría, pero somos cálidos.

Un abrazo… un beso… todo es bueno.

Estamos todos buenos.”

It was a message. It was their permission.

Zephyr moved her arms, her hands. She kissed him softly, him sitting on the edge of the box, her kneeling inside. His face was rough with stubble, but his breath was intoxicating. He was here. No matter what else had happened or would happen, she could fall entirely into this moment when she was not alone.

Manish didn’t fight it, or ask if this was what she really wanted. She loved him for that, right then: for the simple act of being there, fully. She kissed him again, tasting the hint of onion from his dinner ration as she sucked ever so gently on his lip. It wasn’t a bad taste. It was part of him being human, she had missed the little things, being with Crystal. The softness of his lips. The warmth. The small movements.

{What the fuck! You think Crystal wanted to be a bad kisser? They’ve done more for you than you deserve, and this is how you repay them?} The thoughts made her flinch back, away from Manish. {He’s a boy, for god’s sakes. You could get charged with statutory rape in the states!} His youthful face had a dumb look of obliviousness. She looked at Crystal, but couldn’t really see the android in the darkness. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway; Crystal wouldn’t move unless it was necessary.

“Relájese. Relájese. Relájese,” they sang. «Relax. Relax. Relax.»

Zephyr allowed herself to trust in Crystal. They always seemed to know what was best. And it was what she wanted, aside from the part of her that clung to her doubts and refused to let go.

She bent down and picked up the blanket. The air in the truck was way too cold.

“Zephyr, I am sorry if I did something wrong.” He didn’t seem deeply upset, but he was also being sincere. It was adorable.

She stepped up and out of the bed box, then threw the blanket over the two of them, sitting next to him on the edge and pulling him closer to her. “It’s fine. Let’s just listen to the music.”

His hand joined with hers under the blanket and they held each other and listened. The song had no joints. It had no seams. It bled from this into that. An eternal tapestry of feeling. The two of them rocked back and forth to the rhythm.

Manish was high right now. That sounded fantastic. “Do you have any pot left?” she asked during a lull in the music which never stopped.

He did. It was fairly accessible, too, as he hadn’t packed it away after coming back. It only took a moment to get, but in that moment when he cast off the blanket the cold shot back and she drowned in the absence of his touch. It was in that moment that she decided that she needed more.

Manish returned with the vape and weed. He wasn’t the most handsome person she’d ever met, but he had a boyish charm to him. She kissed him again, still gently. The music was a soft, acoustic cover of “Moonset On Monday”, one of the better tracks off the first Heartshards album.

As Zephyr prepared the bowl while trying to stay warm, she said “This is beautiful, Crystal. It really is.”

Manish flinched at the mentioning of Crystal, as though he was just now remembering that the music wasn’t coming from some dumb speaker system. Zephyr giggled briefly with the pure honesty of someone too emotionally drained to resist.

She closed her eyes and took a long drag from the vape, holding the fire in her lungs. She blew a cloud and coughed. It’d been months since she’d smoked. {You look like an idiot right now. He probably thinks this is your first time getting high.}

Crystal interrupted her thoughts. “Thank you, my love. I needed it.” Their words blended into the music as perfectly as any lyrics, no longer flat and emotionless. “I needed it more badly than I can describe. I needed the song, the words, the melody… I needed you to listen, to be there… for me.”

Manish was about to stand up. She could feel it in his body. She gripped his hand tighter and pulled him towards her. She loved Crystal, but Crystal was not enough. She needed the soft embrace. She looked towards the android, no longer unable to bear the pain of their broken body. “You once told me… that physical intimacy was not important to you. You made love to me all those times because it was—”

“—was the look on your face. The joy. The serenity. The love. Yes. All I want is to be with you and make you happy.”

Zephyr took another drag. She didn’t feel it yet, but that was normal for her. It usually took a minute or two. The beat of the drums filled her heart. “I love you. I’m glad you’re here.”

“I love you too, Zephyr.”

Manish squirmed in her embrace, probably feeling awkward. Zephyr, still looking towards where she knew Crystal sat in darkness, said “please turn up the tempo,” and set the pipe down on a nearby chair.

Crystal obliged. The soft melody built into a pulsing rhythm.

Zephyr let go of Manish and pulled her tank top off in a smooth motion. She pulled him and the blanket towards the floor of the truck.

His nervousness started to grow. “I… I’ve never—”

She felt the pot kicking in. The music filled her up and made the whole world fall away. Such a beautiful melody. She raised her finger to her lips as she let go of his hand, falling back softly onto the blanket. “Shhhhh…” Her other hand undid the clasp on her bra, exposing her breasts to the icy air. Somehow it didn’t bother her. The cold was a curious sensation. A caress. But she still needed the warmth. The touch. “We’ll go slow.”

The song continued. It always continued. She wondered if there was ever a time before it or after it. Even when she couldn’t hear it, surely it was there, somewhere in space and time waiting to be heard.

Wasn’t love the same way? Eternal? People fell out of feeling the love, but love wasn’t an animal. Love couldn’t die. It was still there… always still there… waiting to be felt.