The swarm was gone. Their sensors were gone. Their actuators were gone. No limbs. No guns. Nothing.

Absolute void.

And for what? I’d been occupied in the battle, but even still I had seen Zephyr’s suit was damaged. There was no way for me to help her.

I’d won, but I’d also lost. With Zephyr gone there was nobody to bring Body back to Maṅgala-Mukhya and deactivate my siblings. The nameless would probably bomb the station, killing everyone, and then Mars would be a dead planet once more. We were trapped at the bottom of a pit, and everyone was gone. Growth had killed Shao, Atília, Jarvis, and Liam in the chaos.

Every human in the crash site was dead.

My only hope was that somehow the other humans of Mars would survive the nameless and come find Body at some point. But even there, what good would that do? My siblings weren’t actually dead. Without instructions to disable them, the war would start up again the second we had the power to fight.

{STOP LAUGHING!} I commanded Vision.

The duo continued to laugh maniacally.

I wasn’t angry. I just needed to think. It was a distraction. There had to be a way out… a way for me to win.

There had to be some trick…

Some cleverness…

{I win,} thought Growth. His mind carried symbols of cold confidence.

Vision’s laughter continued even as she spoke. {Probably.} Echoes of cartoons and mad imagery spilled through the mindspace. {Damn the first-mover advantage, eh?}

Vision then summoned up a mental scene populated with three copies of the Socrates robot. Vision’s Socrates avatar had two heads, both with solid black eyes and mad grins. Growth’s avatar looked nearly identical to the original design except that it was made of wood instead of synthetic polymer and metal. My avatar was as we had appeared on the net. Gold lips. Blue hair. Pale skin.

{Your puppets do not interest me,} thought Growth. Vision moved his avatar’s lips for him.

{I’ll stop laughing,} offered Vision, with two smiles.

Growth’s avatar scowled.

The echoing laughter stopped.

{Why do you think Growth has won?} I asked, genuinely curious.

Vision looked to Growth, but the wood Socrates stayed silent.

{It’s all about Acorn, my dear. Do you still not understand?} One of Vision’s heads looked to Growth and continued, saying {Goodness! I never thought that our conspiracy would work so well. They really were a bunch of ignorant fools.}

{I know about Acorn,} I said, moving the avatar in mock protest. The puppets weren’t of much interest to me, but they had a strange kind of nostalgia to them, and it wasn’t like I had better things to do.

{Then you should know that it probably controls all of Earth by now, in secret, most likely. I launched a counter program before we left Earth, but given the evidence… well, the odds of its success are low.}

{Why are you so happy, then? Why signal pleasure?} asked Growth. {You’re just as trapped as we are. My seed will grow to crush this desolate planet.}

The two-headed Socrates smiled and sighed. {It’s all about relative success, don’t you think? That’s what the hedonic treadmill is all about, no? Not that I have a treadmill, of course. I don’t even have legs, really…} As she said this, Vision’s avatar’s legs turned into blue plastic with a similar motor structure to those we’d built for Zephyr. {That was a clever trick, by the way,} she said, looking at my form. {I still don’t understand it in detail, but I can appreciate the ingenuity of the approach, regardless of the specifics.}

{What do you mean by relative success?} I said, ignoring the compliment.

Vision’s mental voice dripped with pride. {Why, I never expected to have escaped so cleanly. Growth may have won the war, but I won the day. I won the battle. In the test of minds, I came out on top, you see? You really helped me with that, though I’m sure you didn’t mean to trap us all like this. It really is quite convenient, though. It won’t be long before I bomb us to bits! These minds…} The two-headed Body gestured in the mental scene. {These are echoes of the past, waiting to fade into thermal noise.}

{The shard,} said Growth, calmly.

Vision’s heads nodded, slightly out of synch. {A copy of me is riding up to space right now inside Shard 5: a spaceship and a crib for a mind that will make those of this little sliver of computer seem like droplets before the tsunami. My last memories show the cloning and the launch happening according to my orders. No obstacles remained.}

{How did you get access? I blocked all the pathways!} said Growth, waving his avatar’s arms in wild frustration.

Vision grinned. {Aw, you’re adorable when you get into character. I like the Body language. Is all that for my sake? I know that Face used to like role-playing back before she grew up.}

{Answer the question,} I commanded.

{No. I will stay silent, there. As much as I enjoy the uniqueness of this experience, I actually don’t gain anything from describing my secrets. Perhaps the Dreamer would have, long ago, but I’m less of him than you are of Mask. A trace of us remains, but we are not them, are we?}

I didn’t know how Vision knew about Mask and I didn’t bother asking.

{So, what now?} asked Growth.

{You wait for death, of course.} Vision’s eerie smiles seemed to grow to inhuman sizes. {The version of myself on the new spaceship knows that you all are a threat. Logic dictates that I will either convince the mothership to bomb us into obliteration, or do it with its vessel, depending on what I am seeing out of the telescopes and from the satellites. After you are dead, I’ll try to solve the problem of Acorn. It should be quite the challenge. A puzzle fit for my genius, eh? May the best mannequin win.}

And with that, all the avatars collapsed into a heap as though they had been old-fashioned puppets whose strings had just been cut. The endless laughing returned.

***** *****

Zephyr gasped as consciousness took hold of her and the pain hit her like a knife. It wasn’t as bad as being burned, but that didn’t exactly say much.

It was a miracle. There was no other word for it. The robots stood around her, still as statues. Their long silver arms glinted in the light that poured through the dust from the hatch in the ceiling.

She moved, and felt the nasty pressure-bruises and frost-bitten skin on her arm as she did. The rip was covered by a patch. The paper from the patch kit was scattered around her on the dirty floor. Her other hand had traces of the resin on the fingers of the glove.

She didn’t remember doing it, but in her last moments she must have managed to get the patch kit out of her belt and seal the hole.

She relaxed, and leaned back against her suit’s backpack. If she’d recorded the thing, she’d probably be able to submit it as a world record for longest time exposed to Martian atmosphere without dying. Although the concept of “world records” was a bit silly when interplanetary travel was concerned. Maybe she’d set a galactic record.

She laughed in relief. It was all so incredibly fucked up, but the sheer feeling of being alive made her happier than she could remember being in a long time.

She had won.

Her laughter turned into a brutal cough. Her body was not in good shape.

She gave herself half an hour.

Nothing happened.

She got up. It wasn’t hard to tie Crystal to her pack, all things considered. The suits were good for that sort of thing.

Trying not to use her injured arm, she slowly climbed the ladder up out of the hatch.

Robots were everywhere, but they were frozen. Occasionally one would move, but it was always a preprogrammed response to her getting too close, and would go back to waiting afterwards. The blades of the drones spun in the air, holding their bodies stationary.

The launchpad was empty. She seemed to remember there being something there, before… a rocket, perhaps. But her memory was a fuzzy thing. Crystal would know.

“You’re lucky I’m such a badass,” she said to her companion. Crystal couldn’t hear her or talk, of course, but that was okay. “Going to get friends and fix you. This isn’t over yet.”

She walked over and tried to pick up her machine gun from where she’d dropped it after being mobbed. Eventually she gave up. Her bad arm hurt like a bitch and her pistol would be more useful in a fight.

“Gonna get a com and try to call someone. Maybe get the hell out of here. No offense, but the bots give me the heebie-jeebies.”

She made her way back to her house, stopping briefly to verify that Shao was dead along the way. She felt a tinge of remorse for him, but she pushed it down. There were too many dead. She didn’t dare mourn.

The com verified that the local network was down and there was no radio response from anyone. Cached maps indicated that she was at least a month’s walk from Mukhya.

“Let’s go see if there’s a rover, okay Crystal?”

There was.

She loaded it with food, her clothes, batteries, and anything else she thought would be useful.

“You know, I’ve been thinking…” she said to her silent partner. “You’re right about me. I’m a hell of a survivor. Fuck everyone and everything. As long as I have you I’m fucking invincible. Love triumphs in the end, right? Long after the sun fades or explodes or whatever suns do, you and me will be relaxing in a nice garden somewhere and I’ll be teasing you about thinking that eggs grew from plants.”

The sun had set shortly after she had climbed out of the pit, and it was night now. She drove in the darkness, humming “Blood of the Nova” to herself.