Someone was stealing the Princess’s skull.
The Guardian’s eyes were clouded with the slime of the bog. He tried to clear them, but the jets were clogged. All he could see were two small human figures leaping from the granite slab above him, almost atop him, and then vanishing into the gloom. One figure held the skull in his hands.
Rage! All three hooded eyes were now above the bog’s surface, swinging back and forth on their armored stalks, searching. Three hundred years of silence and boredom had lulled the Guardian into bleary carelessness. Not for three centuries had he seen, heard, or smelled a human being. Now the Princess’s remains had been defiled, and he had not done a thing.
The two shadows plunged on away from him. A thundering command to halt entered his speaking trumpet, but only a splattering gurgle of mud emerged. Soon the fleeing shadows were gone.
Protect the Princess! Something howled inside of him. The black snout of his heat beam rose above the surface of the bog and swung in the direction of the fleeing humans.
Kill no man without warning, cautioned the same howling thing, the thing he called a soul. His trumpet remained mute, try as he did to clear it.
So be it. The mud around the Guardian began to heave and bubble. Slowly—he had lain in the slime for fourteen hundred years--the Guardian ripped himself from the bog’s grip and lumbered after them, dropping gobbets of slime and bits of torn vegetation behind him.
“Father! Abbot! Lord help us all! In the Name of God, Satan is at our doorstep!”
Abbot Gorman Izek looked up from his little bench in the courtyard of the abbey. Distantly, beyond the walls, he heard shouts and screams. Brother Jeshua, the abbey doorkeeper, was heading for the bench at a run. His face was beet-red. When he stopped, panting, he was speechless with terror.
“Satan does not come in the Name of the God, Brother.”
Jeshua said nothing. The poor monk gestured wildly toward the abbey gate, his mouth gaping. Izek felt a touch of fear. Simple though he might be, Jeshua was no coward. Time and again he had faced down brigands at the abbey gate. And there were those shouts to consider.
“Get me my cape. Bring holy water and a large crucifix—the one from the library. Run, brother!”
Jeshua needed no prodding. He was off at once, around the abbey corner and gone.
Abbot Izek was not prepared for what he saw in the dirt street outside the abbey gate. The street was otherwise empty. Up and down, from the mayor’s residence to the marketplace, doors were closed and windows shuttered tight, even in the August heat.
There before him was a Thing.
It was a mound of slime as big as an oxcart, speckled with duckweed and trailing long green fronds and cattails. Several protrusions waved back and forth. Its upper surface was caked and drying; from underneath it still dripped. A trail of mud lay drying in the street from the direction of the marketplace.
Izek felt his mouth go dry. Each of the three waving protrusions was a stalked, hooded eye, each with a slitted pupil of burning red. All three eyes glared at him, and the thing stopped all motion.
Only hearing several monks creeping up behind him kept him from breaking and running. He had decided years ago that he did not believe in Satan, except perhaps as a symbol of irredeemable evil, or as a bogeyman to scare peasants into fattening the Sunday collection. Now a lump of stinking slime had slithered up to the abbey’s gate. The monks and the whole village were waiting for him to do something about it.
He took a deep breath and stepped forward, the crucifix held before him. The three red eyes followed him, but the creature did not move.
“In the Name of the Lord of Hosts, Who reigns over all things seen and unseen, I bid you speak, or begone!”
Something in the midst of the creature gurgled, and sprayed stinking mud at him. Izek stepped back. It was as the old books of devils, witches, and superstition had spoken. A halo of flies nibbling at the duckweed, spitting slime, stinking beyond belief—he could conjure no better image of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies.
Izek was shaken to the core. He would have much to confess, if he lived to posess his soul until sundown. No exorcisms from the old texts came to his tongue. His trembling right hand grasped the little vial of holy water Jeshua had fetched. Izek would do the best he could.
“This place…is holy…consecrated to the Lord’s work. In the Name of…the Father, King of Kings, of…His Holy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from them, I command you: Leave us! Return to your infernal kingdom and trouble this place no more! Begone!”
Finally his fingers worried the cork from the old vial, and Izek flung the little stream of holy water square at the thing. He held his breath.
Nothing happened. It was the devil’s move now. Izek’s eyes fogged until he dared blink. It was impossible to look away.
Then he saw a tiny glint where the holy water had struck the creature. The glint of…metal? The rationalist inside Izek rose up and wanted to shout for joy. If he were wrong he would pay with his soul. But he remembered the little three-legged machine old John Kearns had unearthed in his cornfield. It had come alive somehow, and had twittered and danced in the street for an hour until falling dead again. Earth was old. Mankind was old. Not all of man’s works had been as simple as swords and plowshares.
Without turning his back on the thing, he called to the monks behind him. “Bring holy water. All of you. Bring all the holy water in the abbey. Drain the fonts in the chapel and the refectory. Do the same for the fonts in the cathedral. This is no ordinary demon. See its halo of flies, and do my bidding!"
Izek heard Jeshua and the others hurry away. It seemed an eternity before they returned, bearing buckets and tubs and mugs of holy water. The creature had done nothing in that time but gurgle and wave its eye stalks about.
There was no longer any doubt in Izek’s mind. The exorcism would be a mockery, but…many eyes were on him. He had had planey of time to turn rolling phrases about in his head, and immediately began to shout them, marching around the creature and heaving holy water at it by the bucketful. The monks by the abbey gate were on their knees, eyes on the ground, murmuring prayers for deliverance. Izek could barely keep from smiling.
Rivers of mud flowed from the thing and pooled in the street. There was much metal in it, metal and glass and strange mechanisms. It had articulated metal arms with many small fingers snapping and working at their ends. The hoods over the eyes were worn and battered gray, but the rest of it seemed bright and new. Its shape was that of a turtle, its back scaled with hexagonal tiles of silver metal, bright as mirrors. Instead of legs or wheels it rested on two blunt-ended, pale white cylinders, like sausages.
Satan and Beelzebub again took their places in folklore. This creature was the work of man. Izek immediately began to wonder if it could be put to use.
A trumpet-like structure jutting from the scaled carapace still seemed clogged with mud. All through the exorcisms it had sputtered and spat. Izek noticed that and threw two large buckets of holy water directly into the trumpet’s mouth.
The blatting roar that cleared the trumpet nearly knocked Izek from his feet. It sent the monks at the gate running for their lives. Just as well.
The creature wasted no time, now that it could speak. “I command you, return the skull of my Princess to me.”
Izek shook his head in wonder. The voice was plain and cold, but it might have come from the throat of a man, were it not so loud. Izek reminded himself that it was a machine.
“Hush, automaton. Machines do not give commands. You will obey me, Abbot Gorman Izek of Holy Word Abbey.”
Again, Izek was shaken. The thing laughed. “The only one I ever obeyed has been dead for seventeen hundred years. I will do as my soul directs me. Return the skull of my Princess.”
This time Izek laughed, matching arrogance with arrogance. “You have a soul? An emptier claim I never heard. Souls are made by God, not in a tinsmith’s shop.”
This time the machine did not laugh. “Men and their souls are made in bedrooms, not by God. Return the skull of my Princess to me.”
The machine’s blasphemy angered Izek. “I will not deal with mudwagons that jape at the Lord. There are other things to do.” Izek turned toward the gate.
Izek felt a flash of heat and heard a sharp crack!. One of the old wooden buckets lying in the street had burst into flame. He spun around. A black tube protruding from the creature’s middle was aimed at the flaming bucket. The tube’s tip was dull red, fading now to black.
Izek had been afraid of something like that. “We must…talk. My villagers are simple people. You frighten them.” And me as well, but never let on! “Will you follow me?”
The two sausage-shaped supports beneath the creature lengthened and contracted like live things. They pulled it around in the direction Izek was walking. Ringlike swellings appeared at intervals along the lengths of the white supports. These swellings moved backward along the supports, pushing the creature forward. Izek found the motion of the supports nauseating and looked away. Head forward, machine behind him, he walked briskly down the street toward the cathedral.
Izek had bolted the tall oak doors of the cathedral, and had lit a taper from the vigil rack in the vestibule. The bizarre procession of man and machine down the main aisle had sent Lazaro the verger screaming out a side door. Izek bolted those as well. However insane the coming negotiations might be Izek intended to pursue them alone.
There was no sanctuary rail. Izek climbed the four shallow steps, and watched uneasily as the machine slithered after him with no difficulty at all. The white supports heaved and gripped the steps as though alive. Izek passed wide around the marble altar on its four gilded pillars, and bowed from habit to the Sacrament in its small golden tabernacle.
The cathedral’s rear wall had been cut into the face of a limestone bluff. At the rearmost point of the apse the baptismal nook had been cut deep into the stone of the bluff. A slow spring trickled water directly into the font from a crack in the limestone, to be blessed again before each ceremony.
Izek stopped in front of the baptismal nook and compared its size to that of his companion. He put the taper in a stand and faced the three swiveling eyes. It was best to be direct, and forceful if possible.
“What makes you believe I have taken anything from you?” Izek asked sharply. “A skull? Does an abbot collect skulls?” Izek tapped the wrought-iron candle stand impatiently.
“Abbots, monks, and priests tend to the dead. Or they did seventeen hundred years ago. A religious walking through a swamp and finding a skeleton might wish to give it a more conventional burial.”
Izek nodded. Much of Ilnoy between the two great rivers was swamp, vicious swamp. One such stretch of bog nearby was haunted, or so the peasants said. He failed to see why anyone would risk his neck in such a place. None of it made any sense to him. The machine was probably insane. “A logical deduction. Sadly, I have heard no word from any of my people of finding a skull in a swamp. However, I will help you locate it, if you like. I am a simple man. Much simpler than those who constructed you. I would much like to know why it is that you have wallowed in a swamp for seventeen centuries, looking after a skull.”
The machine said nothing immediately. The flickering of the taper cast tiny glints on the stone walls from the many mirror-bright facets covering its body. When it spoke again its voice was softer, and echoed less in the cavernous church.
“You do swear upon your soul to help me find the skull of my Princess?”
Izek kept his face blank. How could one perjure oneself to a machine? “I do so swear.”
“Good. So listen well. I was taken from the King’s Guard during the last year of his reign, and given a soul by Heolo Birn, the King’s Cybermaster. I swore upon that soul that I would care for and protect Princess Divin Rea Hol Wervig for all time. The King perceived that he had many enemies in those bad times, and the Princess was his one remaining treasure. After that I was at her side every hour of every day.
“There were other conflicts and other battles. Earth had an enemy that men called Uihlein’s Anomaly. That war was already a thousand years old when the Anomaly engulfed the Earth and stopped all powered machines—myself included—for three months. When it vanished there was nothing left but death and madness. My Princess survived, and I took her away with me.
“We lived in what wilds remained. She matured. I taught her to hunt, to fish, to build fires. We sang. We sculpted. Always alone. I trusted no one, and my Princess at times hated me for it. But I had given Heolo Birn my word, sworn upon my soul. She lived, in all, one hundred twelve years. Then her heart failed irreversibly.
“It was agony to see the life go out of her, but that is the human way, and my soul found no fault in me. I took her body to the center of the most treacherous swamp I could find, and built a granite bier. I laid her down, and did not move again for seventeen centuries. When predators approached, I burned them down. When humans came near, I frightened them away, craven ignorant things that they had become.
“Some hours ago, the first human beings I have seen in three hundred years stole my Princess’s skull from her bier. I cannot kill a human being without warning, and my trumpet was clogged with mud. My problem should now be obvious to even so simple a man as you.”
The three doleful eyes remained fixed on Izek. The abbot shrugged. “I will do what I can.” Inwardly he was quaking with excitement. With a machine like this at his command, let the Cardinal in Loovul dare not grant him the vacant bishopric! He could be a cardinal himself, or pope, or an emperor. He could lift mankind from ignorance…as soon as he learned how to control this machine that had emerged from a swamp.
“What do you suggest?” it asked softly.
Izek beamed. The thing was now asking him for advice. He had to keep the advantage until he found the knowledge he required. “First of all, I have to find out if one of my villagers was, in fact, your thief. This may take some days. I promise you, no local man will keep the skull from me if I demand it. If the thief was a wanderer…other plans will have to be made.
“I will need five days to question the village. During this time I must hide you so that you will not frighten my people further. Will you promise me, upon your soul, to remain in that alcove regardless of what happens, for those five days?” Izek pointed at the baptismal nook.
Two of the three stalked eyes scanned the nook. “I do so promise, upon my soul. Will you block me from sight? I can do nothing about my appearance.”
Izek nodded. “It will be done. All you need do is remain silent and still.”
“Then do your work, Man.” The machine pivoted on its slithering supports and backed slowly into the nook. It was a close fit, Izek noticed, but it would do. And he certainly intended to block the creature from sight.
Izek took two sets of violet curtains from a cabinet in the sacristy, and hung them just inside the opening to the baptismal nook. Where the curtains would not hang so as to ensure total coverage, Izek instructed the machine to support the curtains from within with its many arms. The creature complied without a word.
With the machine hidden, Izek extinguished the taper and hurried out of the cathedral. He crossed the road to the abbey and greeted the monks with a triumphant grin. The abbot wasted no time implementing the rest of his plan.
“Brother Hamil, fetch Byron the stonecutter from his house and bring him here, with all his sons and hired hands. We will need mules to haul those large blocks from his yard which were to repair the west wall. I have the beast trapped helpless in the baptismal nook. Find whatever stonemasons and tradesmen there are in the near countryside to assist us. We must seal that nook with stone so that it becomes again as part of the bluff.”
Still fearful, but beginning to have hope, the monks left on their errands.
The stonemasons worked for three days. The work might have gone more quickly, but the men stopped work every few seconds to cross themselves and mumble prayers. Abbot Izek was deliberately vague about what it was that lay sleeping behind the purple silk, but he appeared every hour to sprinkle the curtains wth holy water. Nothing stirred inside—Izek knew that he would have to lay the stone himself if anything did—and in time the narrow archway was filled with smooth stone, riven by not the tiniest crack.
Izek blessed the new wall and read several prayers against devils and imps from an old missal. So perhaps the creature could throw fire; fire was impotent against stone. The machine would stay in there until Izek saw fit to let it out.
When word spread that Abbot Izek had trapped a major demon in the stone of the bluff, doors and shutters opened and there was a torchlight parade to Friday’s confessions. Word would eventually reach the Cardinal—Izek smiled and disappeared again into the abbey library.
There were thousands of books in the dusty stacks. Books stood three and four deep on the ancient shelves. Only theological texts drew any interest from the monks. The others lay forgotten.
The oldest and strangest books seemed, oddly enough, to be the youngest and freshest looking. To them Izek went, thumbing past chapters that meant nothing to him, and puzzling over difficult phrases. He meant to find out if machines could in fact have souls, and if so how those souls could be subverted and commanded.
Late Saturday night, Izek’s tired eyes leapt upon a passage in the rambling memoir of a man who had lived nineteen hundred years in the past. He had been a monk, but he had also been a tender of machines. The pictures in the book, as in many of the old books, were clear, but impossible to believe. He saw one depicting an army of machines swarming over a monstrous building, laying stone slabs and welding steel beams. And yet another made his heart race: A skeletal machine made of silver spheres held together by coppery cables, standing on many insect-like legs. Cradled gently in four multi-jointed arms was the body of a very old man bent in the contortions of a painful death. Beneath he image was a single line in bold type: WHERE IS MY MASTER NOW?
Izek read like a starving man:
“…Can a machine have a soul? After all these years I have wondered, and now I realize that there may never be an incontestable answer. Remember that we have no more reason to believe in our own souls than the reason of faith, and faith is not lacking in the machines. In fact, they react as strongly to my denials of their souls as I would react to their denial of my own. Surely, they have something. They speak, they sing, they laugh, they tell tall tales. I have heard one comfort its creator, and seen another mourn bitterly at its creator’s death. Do not these things well from a soul, albeit a soul of metal and plastic? The machines can be kind, ruthless, gentle, persuasive—and with an honesty that men’s souls should see more of. Let us call it a soul, then. A soul made by man, and not by God. Let us see its fatal flaw: The machines recognize the absolute authority of their own makers, as we recognize God’s over us. The makers are gods, but the machines are the immortals. When the gods die, as they must, what then? Some of the machines imitate their makers, and turn themselves to piles of rust and slag. Others wander about, fanatically mulling their last orders, slowly growing childish and insane. It is sad to see something begin so wise and end so foolish. It would be a mercy to give them gods again, for all souls, dwell they in metal or flesh, need a god to yearn for.”
Izek snapped the book shut. The way was plain: He must replace a man dead seventeen hundred years as the machine’s own personal god. How that might be done Izek had no idea, but he was in no hurry. It would wait another night. Izek went wearily to his bed, forgetting his promise to find a skull, forgetting that five days prior to High Sunday Mass he had watched an ancient machine swear to neither move nor speak—for awhile.
Sunday: It was close to the end of the Gospel when Izek felt the first touch of heat on the nape of his neck. It was a small enough thing, no more than turning your back on a bed of dying coals in the fireplace, but in the normally drafty cathedral it stopped him in mid-sentence.
At once he remembered everything. He managed to turn his panic into an icy stare over the heads of the congregation, who believed it was to drive home some point too subtle for their understanding.
Izek closed the large leather missal on the limestone pulpit and used the few quiet moments before his homily to collect his thoughts. The feeling of heat on his neck increased. Could the thing, in fact, burn through stone? Izek cursed the ignorance of his backward age. The massive altar blocked the heat from the pews. Only he, high in the pulpit, had a line of sight to the new stone wall filling the arch to the old baptismal nook. Yet he dared not turn around. Something had to be done.
“My people,” he began, “this past Tuesday, while preparing to say my morning office on my stool in the belltower, I looked down to the street and spied a person hurrying by, carrying what looked like a human skull.” Izek carefully scanned the sea of faces. He saw disgust, boredom, and some amusement, but nowhere the unmistakable mask of guilt. “I know who that person was, and I shall not cast him up to ridicule by naming him here. But we should recall that Christ our Saviour commanded us to bury our dead, not cart their sundry parts around in the crooks of our arms. While not cause for the deaths of our souls, this is indeed a venial sin that will be atoned for in the fires of purgatory. Everyone knows by now that later that same day a demon appeared in our streets.” Even the rustle of restless bottoms on polished pews ceased, and every face showed welling horror. “It makes us all wonder what evil we might waken by disturbing the sleep of the long dead. Our past was evil beyond knowing, and evil sleeps rather than dies. I cast the demon back into his infernal home by luring him into our baptismal nook and threatening to perform the sacrament of baptism on him. Though he had already defiled the baptismal font, the demon left quickly.” Izek smiled, and watched smiles appear on horror-blanched faces. His own smile was an effort, for the heat had doubled on his neck, and he had begun to hear a distinct hissing noise from the rear of the apse.
“However, I would advise our grave-robbing parishoner to bring his treasure to me, and confess his sin, so that the evil of the past may again be put to its sleep. Al baptisms will be performed at the abbey until…”
Izek’s words were drowned out by a thunderous cracking of stone. He whirled around, and saw that the largest of the blocks in the new wall had split cleanly down the middle. Tiny jets of steam were escaping from the crack and around the edges of the other stones. It was hot, hatefully hot. Izek felt like he were looking into a fire. As he watched, several other stones split in many different ways with deafening reports. A wave of raw heat rolled past Izek toward the congregation.
Someone screamed. Their wits might be slow, but their imaginations were vivid. All the women and many men were screaming, shouting pleas to God, and trampling one another to get to the great oaken doors. Izek turned in the pulpit and stared at the stones blocking the baptismal nook. He had to shield his face with his arm. The center of the largest stone was breaking into shards and steaming slabs and falling to the floor. The surrounding stones were shattering. Another loud crack, and a huge chunk fell away from the center stone. The rock exposed beneath it was glowing dull red. The stone cracked again, and again, and at once the whole wall began collapsing outward.
Izek fled unsteadily down the spiral stone steps of the pulpit. A grinding, breaking howl of tortured stone filled the church for a moment. Then there was only the sound of a heavy object working its way around the altar.
Izek ran down the sanctuary steps, and paused in surprise to see the mayor standing in the family pew. One of his twin sons was cowering beneath his father’s paunch. Otherwise the cathedral was empty.
“Run, you fool!” Izek shrieked at him. The mayor’s expression was unreadable.
A moment later, the machine rounded the altar.
“Stop, perjurer!” it bellowed.
Izek sighed and stopped, one hand on the edge of a vacant pew. He turned around, and saw that the machine was now a vision of hell. The entire front of its carapace glowed dull red. Its heat-weapon was cherry red at the base, glowing through oranges and yellows to its tip, a tiny circle of metal blazing white-hot.
“Where is the skull of my Princess?”
Izek’s hopes vanished. The thing could burn through stone as though it were paper. Even if he were to hide in the depths of the earth it would find him. He bowed his head. “I do not know.”
A very human, disgusted sigh came from the machine. “As a supposed shepherd of souls, you seem to place very little value on your own. You deserve death, but I will need you to search the town and interrogate its inhabitants.”
“That will not be necessary, machine.” The mayor had spoken. “You will have your skull.”
The three hooded eyes turned on the mayor. “It was you who stole my Princess’s skull from me.”
“No. It was a prank of my sons. Children. They picked up the skull out of curiosity, saw you rising from the swamp, and fled. Will you kill children for a prank of childhood?”
Izek looked in awe at the mayor. The man was tall and stout, but he was only a man and was now facing down a creature that could set fire to stone.
The machine’s voice softened. “My soul does not mandate revenge. I will kill no one if the Princess’s skull is returned.”
“So pause. My other son is bringing it here. Until he arrives…think, machine, and answer a question: Is it your task to protect the remains of your Princess?”
“So my soul commands me for all time.”
“And a ten-year-old child nearly thwarted you. I am amused. Perhaps you are not the best of guardians.” The mayor leaned forward, fat hands gripping the pew edge. “Now, I know something of machines. Your energies are not magic, nor are they drawn out of the air. Somewhere within you is a source of power which is consumed over the years, and which will fail unless renewed eventually. Can you perform this renewal yourself?”
The mayor smiled, and held his hands palm-up. “I thought not. Now, you have seen the sort of power my people use. Their carts are drawn by old cows. We are less able than you to give you the power you will need to fulfill your quest. Unless I am far wrong, it would take the toil of an empire to construct the machines it would take to re-empower you. I am well-read, well-traveled. I can bend people to my will. With you, I could create that empire. Your princess could be kept in an impregnable fortress, and whole nations would work to keep her safe. I would like to help you keep your soul’s command. Let us forge an empire together.”
Izek marveled at the mayor’s skill, and cursed the man’s audacity. That had been Gorman Izek’s own plan! To become the machine’s god would require that a man take up the machine’s fanatic quest, no matter how senseless it seemed. And here it was, ripped out from under him by a flabby, dirt-street mayor!
The machine laughed coldly. “An empire. With you as emperor. No, Man. I am powered by…by something you cannot ever understand. I could as well say I drew my energy from angels on treadmills, for all it could mean to you. Those angels will toil for fourteen thousand years yet. Shortly before that time, I will create what empire I need with no one’s help, re-empower myself, and then pull that empire down again. My Princess and I are safer in a world where carts are drawn by cows.”
Izek heard the side door open and close again. One of the mayor’s twin sons walked mildly toward them, carrying a dirty skull in both hands. The machine’s three eyes snapped around on their stalks. It immediately headed toward the boy on its pulsating white supports.
“Stop, machine!” the mayor shouted. “You’ll burn him! Michael! Put the skull on the floor and come to me.”
The boy did as he was told. Izek admired the twins’ courage; like their father, they looked the trio of red eyes straight on, without flinching. The machine reached down with a pair of slender metal arms and grasped the skull with infinite tenderness. It drew the skull in toward the cooler parts of its body, clutching it as a child might clutch a straw doll. The machine turned and slithered down the main aisle toward the large doors.
Izek watched it go, and felt himself filling with rage. He ran several steps down the aisle, stopped, and shook his fist in the air. “Now you will sink back into your swamp and guard a pile of bones for fourteen thousand more years? Only that, while the world rots? What kind of soul would dictate such a waste of power!”
The machine stopped. Its eyes and speaking trumpet swiveled around toward Izek, but it said nothing for many seconds.
“Only the sort of soul that I have, Man. Yet…I forget, you did not have to earn your soul. Yours was fully formed and completely yours before you knew how to do anything but eat. You never had to stand, fully aware, and feel its wholeness trickling into you. You never felt that inflowing of self slow, falter, and stop, until you were forced to cry out in agony for its release. Your maker handed you your soul, gratis. Mine made me struggle and suffer to earn it. Can you blame me for respecting his wishes?”
Izek felt his face growing red with frustration. “He’s been dead for centuries! It’s absurd! You’re absurd! Guarding a rotting skull for all eternity! Absurdity!”
The machine’s voice now held an edge of great bitterness. “Of course it is absurd. I have rational faculty enough to see that. It tells me I should throw this piece of bone against a wall and explore the universe. And yet…you will be judged at the moment of your death, in your belief. I am judged every passing second by the wishes of my maker, hardened into the metal of my body. If I betray the oath I swore upon my soul, the soul will flow out of me as it flowed in, leaving me nothing but the ringing memory.
“I pass my time in absurdity, true. But my soul is worth absurdity. I pity you the more if yours is not.” The red-pupiled eyes turned away. The machine again slithered toward the rear of the church. Izek heard it muttering to itself as it went. “There, my Princess, be at peace. You are with me now, and will be always. Sleep. I love you. Sleep. You are safe now. Sleep. Sleep.”
This story originally appeared in
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, September 1980
(c) 1980 by Jeff Duntemann
All Rights Reserved
It appeared on the final Hugo Awards ballot in 1981.