Six Thetans sit around the table, their concentration fixed on the slowly revolving holo floating above its center, illustrating the events from every perspective. A young man stands to one side, waiting for the verdict. His face reflects the remorse, repugnance and apprehension roiling within him.
The woman wasn’t old. On Theta her face would still be marked by the bloom of youth. Her oily hair, normally modestly tucked up into a dingy cap, hung in strands about her face, hiding her eyes. He remembered the black eyes, snapping with energy when she spoke. Red-hot tongs approached her fleshy upper arm. He heard her scream, quickly followed by her confession. The men standing around the body chained to the wall nodded with the satisfaction of a job well done. One man smiled, the round placid face concealing his nature. He had not taken part in the torture but stood aside, eyes fixed on the woman’s face, hands tucked into the sleeves of a stained black robe.
She was tied to a stake in the center of the city square, defiantly facing the crowd gathered to see her burn. They were a cheerful lot, gossiping with each other as they waited. Her eyes carefully avoided the heavily cloaked figure, hood pulled well over his face, an intent silent watcher, ready to report everything to his superiors. Several town dignitaries carried torches to the pyre. The burning straw flamed the wood. There was one long howl of pain. The body slumped against the wooden pole as the fire consumed all. The child watched his mother die, one small hand tightly clutching the hand of a crone stooped by years of hard work.
B’Oman turns his head away. Every sleep period brings back the image in its full horror.
“Can’t bear to watch?” taunts his Met’Han. “It’s fine to have these feelings now, when it is too late. Too bad you didn’t remember the consequences of meddling before you acted.”
The other officers remain silent.
“Barbarians,” someone mutters. “A planet I’ll be glad to see the back of.”
“Nothing of value. Too populated for colonization. A waste of our time.”
Another says angrily, “Send the data to the Imperial Archives and let’s be gone.”
The Met’Han raises a hand to put an end to this litany of complaints and to bring them back to the disciplinary matter at hand.
“Repentance, Remorse, Reparation. That is our rule,” she intones solemnly. “Certainly you are sorry, B’Oman. I, for one, am convinced you will never again violate the ban on revealing our presence to indigenous people. Remorse is satisfied. But what about Reparation?”
She looks around the circle. One officer clears his throat, signaling his readiness to make a suggestion. She nods at him.
“B’Oman is a Biologist,” D’Thoren opens. “Not only a Biologist but also the newest member of our crew, a person with the least off-planet experience.”
D’Thoran is the oldest member of the ship’s crew. A veteran of several long exploratory trips looking for planets that would satisfy the needs of corporations that subsidize colonization, he is regarded as an expert in dealing with alien cultures. It was natural that he should mentor B’Oman, who had been recruited at the last minute to replace the ship’s Biologist after she suddenly and inexplicably refused to renew her contract.
From the very beginning, B’Oman’s ways rubbed many of his colleagues the wrong way. Take his mech, for example. Instead of the traditional box-shaped computer on flexible wheels that accompanied other crew members who went downside, a box that could easily be disguised to fit into any set of alien cultural artifacts, B’Oman’s mech looked like a Thetan, a crude Thetan but definitely an upright humanoid with rough features and dull brown skin. D’Thoren knew B’Oman’s shyness alienated his fellows, who mistook it for the natural arrogance of many Biologists. He thought the same shyness led to the mech’s shape, a shape that allowed B’Oman to think of the computer as a friend.
The Biologist’s desire to help a desperate woman with a dying child, a child a Biologist could save, led to the tragedy.
D’Thoren makes his suggestion for Reparation. “I think the destruction of B’Oman’s mech will satisfy the imperatives of Reparation. After all, it was the mech’s database that enabled him to save the child. It was a neighbor’s discovery of the existence of the mech that led to the accusation of witchcraft.”
Nods of agreement around the table.
“B’Oman. You are ordered to transfer any information you have stored on your mech to a suitable replacement. Destroy M1500 before we leave this system. Dismissed.”
B’Oman leaves the Met’Han’s conference room. Destroy my mech, he thinks as he stumbles to his quarters. Unfair! M1500 followed his orders, gave him needed information, stored information, and obeyed his commands.
D’Thoren knew the mech gave B’Oman confidence. His friend clearly thinks that once that information was downloaded to a traditional mech, B’Oman would have the same confidence.
B’Oman is shy but he is not a fool. The consequences of his behavior torment him. The vision of the woman surrounded by flames haunts his nights. If the Met’Han couldn’t find a fitting Reparation, it is up to him to find one.
The ship will be in-system for another three planetary days, collecting the last of the information required for the Archives. It takes B’Oman only a few hours to decide what needed to be done. He avoids D’Thoren, pleading the complexity of sorting through the data stored on M1500, deciding what needed to be stored on another mech, and eliminating redundant information. If D’Thoren gets wind of B’Oman’s plans, the older man will stop him. Once the ship is gone, no one will want to examine his behavior or actions. Schedules are schedules.
Coding instructions for M1500’s future behavior is the most difficult task. It will not be able to speak so it will not be able to share its capabilities with anyone on-planet. It will not be able to initiate activities. It is programmed to obey the orders of the first native to encounter it. B’Oman knows the priest never enters the forest so that individual cannot gain control of M1500. The mech must act within the constraints of the local culture. B’Oman’s programming insures that the Met’Han’s order will be irrevocably carried out. The self-destruct command is the last to be coded.
How to transport M1500 from the ship to the city? It is a problem that takes some planning, but, in the end, is not difficult given the preoccupations of his mates. He can make a quick evening shuttle ride to the city. The city, what a misnomer that is, more accurately, call it a collection of crowded houses along a river, dominated by an enormous castle, occupied by an insane ruler who thought the stars ruled his life. True, the rudiments of science are developing. B’Oman spent several pleasurable hours drinking in a riverside tavern listening to a gloomy man describe his attempts to plot the path of one of the star system’s other planets. It was hard for B’Oman not to smile at the man’s total misunderstanding of his universe. Did B’Oman ever slip, ever try to nudge the astronomer towards the right direction? Never, he thought with satisfaction. But the child, the agony of a sick child and its frantic mother, reminded him too much of the tragedy of his litter mate, A’Oman, first born, short lived, who died because there was no Biologist available to treat her.
The shuttles fly back and forth between planet and ship, collecting people and samples in the frenzy of last minute activity that leads to chaos. No one questions B’Oman’s requisition of an unloaded shuttle. He quickly modifies it, programming in-flight coordinates. The shuttle will have just enough time to complete its flight and return to space to burn brightly for a minute as it explodes. A grim smile flits across B’Oman’s face as he wonders if his astronomer will be watching the heavens at that moment and, if he is, how the explosion can be explained. M1500 enters the shuttle and sits before the controls. It waits exactly fifteen minutes before activating them.
B’Oman sits before his communications screen, finally at peace. Everything is working out as planned. The Met’Han is busy briefing the senior crew on their next destination. He enters the message he prepared for D’Thoren. He sends a second message to his family. Honor is satisfied.
“It’s a terrible waste,” D’Thoren says sadly, looking down at the small pile of ashes lying on the floor in B’Oman’s quarters. “I blame myself for not forcing a talk, for letting B’Oman put me off with that twaddle about being too busy.”
“And who do you blame for the destruction of a shuttle? A heroic end for a mech, pieces scattered to the stars, bah! We might have used the parts. Take the blame. We might recover the cost of both man and mech then. Or, perhaps, we can blame our missing Biologist who failed to fulfill her contract and landed us with this sentimental baby. Now we have no Biologist to deal with the crew’s health problems on the next planet we visit.”
With a disgusted snort, the captain turns on her heel. “Com his family,” she orders over her shoulder as she returns to her quarters.
M1500 lands the shuttle in the forest that runs along the river, just outside the town. It moves away from the craft quickly to avoid being caught in the backwash as the shuttle returns to space. There is a small gap in its programming. How is it to encounter a native? Initiative is forbidden. It stretches out under a tree to wait for an opportunity to complete its programming sequence.
Two days pass. Snow falls; the wind blows. The late winter storm passes. The sun peeps through the bare branches of the trees. Stray sunbeams bounce from a mound stretching out from the tree trunk.
At the end of the third day, as the river water reflects the rays of the setting sun, a tall man strides vigorously through the forest wilderness. His carefully clipped black and gray beard covers the lower half of his face; his head is covered with a small cap. His eyes look this way and that, as though searching for something specific. He stops by the tree. The mound of snow holds his gaze. Lifting a long black walking stick, he pokes it in several places.
“This is a sign,” he whispers to himself. “If I look closely I can almost see the figure of a man already, but my stick strikes nothing soft. This is not ready yet.”
He props his stick against the tree trunk. Pulling a garment and a book from his rucksack, he throws the cloak over himself and opens The Book of Formation. Memory refreshed, he walks carefully around the mound of snow, up one side to the tree trunk, along the other side, repeating the same words over and over again in a soft chant. M1500 waits for the seventh repeat. The words remain unintelligible but here is the native the mech was waiting for. It activates itself fully, rising from the ground, brushing the snow from its body to stand erect.
“And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.”
The man leaned forward, touching his face to the mech’s face, breathing into the mech’s putative nostrils. M1500 understands the words. The speech is local, not the predominant language of the area but a language that several informants speak. The meanings are incorporated in M1500’s data bank. It looks directly at the humanoid in front of it, waiting for direction.
The man steps back, exultant. The old ways worked as he hoped they would. His people will now have a protector, someone who can defend them from persecution. True, the features on the face are crude; the body the color of the muddy banks of the river. On the other hand, a cloak and hood will hide the outlines of this supernatural being. The most important characteristics to be wished for are there. The body is large, taller than the man, and the man is tall among his peers. It is a square sturdy body that broadcasts its strength.
“I am the Maharal,” the man says carefully to the apparition before him. “You are my creature and I name you Golem, the shapeless thing, as you are no beauty. I have made you, so you must obey me in all things. As you have no soul, you will be mute.”
M1500 bows its head to indicate that it heard. The man and the mech stroll silently along the river, crossing a broad stone bridge, and continuing until they reach the gates of the Maharal’s section of the city. The man’s mind whirls with the implications of what he has done. He is suddenly afraid. Is this a monster that no one can control? Has he presumed too much, tempting his god to wreak vengeance upon him and his people? The mech absently notes the flora about them, aware that it no longer needs to take small samples. It is dark when they reach their destination.
“Go to the stable.” The Maharal points to a low shack that lies behind a tall, imposing house. “I will give you direction in the morning. Come to my house and ask for me when the town clock chimes nine times.”
Golem does as he is bidden, leaning quietly against a far wall. It spends a little time observing the donkey and the horse that share its quarters, but once it realizes that they have nothing to say, it quickly loses interest in them.
A frightened young woman shrieks and tries to bar the door when M1500 appears as ordered. An older woman intervenes.
“Golem.” She smiles as she calls it by name. Her husband had told her about his success as they lay together before rising for the day. “I am Petaluma, the wife. I will bring you to my husband, but first you must have some clothes.”
Her smile broadened as she examines the creature her husband called forth. “Not completely a man,” she says to herself, “one less thing to worry about.”
An old cloak is found. Petaluma thinks it a little short; it doesn’t cover the odd feet, feet with no toes. Perhaps no one will notice.
The Maharal is sitting at a desk when Golem arrives. Two younger men stand, one on each side of the desk. The town clock strikes ten. The old man surveys his creation, then frowns.
“We’ll have to find boots. The first children that see you will run screaming to the authorities. Not yet, I don’t want them to know you yet.”
He turns to his companions. “There, you see it at last. A creature to protect our community.” Looking seriously at M1500, he continues, “Golem, these two men, Yitzchak and Yakob, they are my sons. They live here with their wives and my daughters and the children.”
M1500 bows his head, acknowledging the two strangers.
“These are my commands. You have been created to guard our community, to guard the people who live within the walls of this neighborhood, to protect my people from all persecutions that they may suffer from the hands of their enemies. You must do this even if it requires you to walk through fire, to dive into the river, or to leap from great heights.”
Again the mech bows its head.
“He is mute, without a soul,” explains the Maharal to the others. “Touch him, feel the strength of his body. It is as hard as metal becomes when it emerges from fire. Not even a sword will destroy this creature.”
Yitzchak cautiously approaches Golem. Moving the cloak aside with one hand, he strikes the creature’s chest with his fist. The blow is silently absorbed by the mech’s protective covering. The man’s knuckles smart. Yizchak rubs them ruefully.
“It is strong, as you say. Will it follow your commands or will this become another persecution to us all?”
Yakov echoes his brother’s doubts. “Father, can you control this creation? What happens if the Emperor discovers its existence, as he will? He will want it to protect himself.”
The older man sighs. “We will see what we will see,” he replies. “I cannot answer your questions. I do know that the townspeople are roused against us. I do know that someone, something must protect us against their violence.”
And so M1500 found a place for itself as Golem. It was introduced to the other members of the household, men, women and children. They were told that Golem was a wanderer who was now an assistant to the Maharal. It was given a corner of the stable, a thick covering of straw identified as its bed. Each night it was ordered to remain there until sent for by the Maharal.
The oldest daughter, a strong-minded woman who has no intention of being palmed off on one of her father’s acolytes, has yet to find a suitor who suits her. She is renowned in her community as a healer. This requires her to spend many hours in the fields and forest collecting the herbs and other plants she needs for her work. When she is on these errands, her father worries constantly, all the more so in recent weeks in the face of the increasing hostility in the people of the city towards his community, hostility fanned by a newly arrived envoy, sent from Rome itself.
Golem’s first assignment is to protect Miriam. The first weeks of his service to the Maharal and his family pass peacefully. M1500 carefully stays within the parameters of its programming. It never points out an herb or a plant that had been processed by it and later identified by B’Oman as potentially useful in developing a new medicine. It walks and it carries. Miriam, even though she knows Golem is mute, keeps up a stream of chatter, discussing the plants she gathers, gossiping about the other women in the family and all their children, occasionally sharing her concerns about her people and their enemies. It is on their return from one of these forays that M1500 comes face to face with a man who triggers another piece of B’Oman’s program.
They had just crossed the river on their way back to the walled neighborhood. M1500 sees the familiar black garb, a broad leather band belting the waist. The neatly tonsured skull gleams in the sunlight. Disappointment and hatred pull down the edges of a mouth designed by nature for merry smiles. There is nothing friendly in the cold eyes. It is the face of the man who smiled his way through the torture of the burned woman. M1500 quickly reviews its data banks. Thaddeus is the name. It checks its internal chronograph. Time is moving quickly.
Miriam keeps her eyes modestly cast down as they pass the priest. She suppresses a gasp as she hears him spitting in her direction. His curses follow her across the bridge. Golem interposes itself between the man and the maid. It listens to the several other men who stop on the bridge and speak to Thaddeus.
“It’s past time for these dogs to be driven from our city,” says one angrily.
“They suck our very blood, take everything we have, and live in luxury,” complains a second.
“Give us the word and we will be out in force. Not one of them will escape,” promises a third.
“Tonight,” counsels Thaddeus. “Be ready for my call.”
The household is in an uproar. News of an upcoming attack on their neighborhood is everywhere. The women scurry here and there, their faces white and pinched. Open boxes are being filled as the family prepares to hide its most valued possessions. The young children huddle fearfully in the kitchen, next to the fire. The men are nowhere to be seen.
Petaluma looks up briefly, too busy sorting the family jewelry, trying to decide what to leave to be looted and what needs to be hidden, for any idle greetings.
“Miriam, help your sisters. Golem, go to the klausen.”
Miriam demurs. “If the storm is breaking, it is more important that I prepare to deal with injuries.”
She leaves the room quickly, returning to the kitchen with her herbs and medicines. The children are given old linen to tear into strips. Water is set on the fire to boil and cool, ready to be used to clean wounds.
Golem makes its way through the narrow crowded streets to the klausen. Wagons full of household goods slow its progress. Rumors of an attack are everywhere. Rumors of the Emperor’s complicity set up a storm of questions. Will he honor his agreement with the community and protect them or will he send his men in to pick over the bones?
Maharal is relieved to see his creature arrive. He calls for quiet before announcing calmly, “Here is our defender. He is impervious to rocks; his skin deflects the knife; he is large enough to block the gate leaving us free to defend the walls.”
As night falls, Golem waits patiently. Normally, the gate is wide enough to admit a large wagon. Now furniture and paving stones are piled up to narrow the entrance. The mech is aware of the men by the walls, ready to defend their homes by resisting the invaders in the streets of their neighborhood. Everyone watches the bridge, waiting for the attackers to stream over it. The sound of drunken talk in the taverns on the other side of the river can be dimly heard as their enemies work themselves into frenzy. Golem picks out the words of the priest as he inflames the mob. The crow of catastrophe is in his favorite role.
The good citizens of the city trust to twilight to obscure their faces. The first drunken men across the bridge stumble up to the gate, throwing stones at Golem as they taunt him. Behind this vanguard comes a much larger, more orderly group led by the zealot, Thaddaeus. They march ten abreast, carrying heavy newly sharpened cudgels. Each has a knife tucked into his belt, for close work, soldiers of hate and intolerance.
The struggle continues through the night. Golem is no match for the large numbers of men who attack. After a valiant defense of the gate, it is pushed aside by a battering ram. After that, it stands with the other defenders, picking up one attacker after another to dash them against the stone wall.
Towards dawn a tragedy strikes. The community is prevailing. Their attackers expected an easy victory to be followed by a pleasurable plunder. The ferocity of the defense dismayed them. Instead of loot, carts are carrying their wounded back across the bridge. The mob follows the carts, in full retreat. Sensing a lull, Miriam emerges from her makeshift hospital to look for those wounded members of her people who have not been brought to her. She drops to her knees next to an unconscious Yakob. He lies on the cobblestones, blood pouring down his face. One of the attackers sweeps by her. He stops for minute to see if she is worth his attention before picking her up as a trophy and racing for the safety of the bridge. Miriam screams for help.
Golem is with the Maharal defending the klausen from a group of potential despoilers led by Thaddaeus. The latter has a particular hatred of this building. If the priest had his way, he would pull it down, stone by stone.
The mech stops for a minute, listening to Miriam’s screams, searching through its database for a way out of its dilemma. It was ordered to defend the temple. It had been ordered to defend Miriam in the past. Golem pushes through the men surrounding Thaddaeus. The mech and the priest stare at each other for a long moment. The mech picks up the man, throws him over one shoulder like a sack of wheat, and races for the bridge. As it suspected, with the loss of their leader, the other attackers flee in disarray.
The man carrying a now ominously quiet Miriam, stands uncertainly at the foot of the bridge. When he sees Golem advancing upon him, he throws the woman to the ground. She lies there, quite still. In return, Golem throws the priest at the man. They collapse in a heap of tangled limbs.
Golem moves quickly to examine Miriam. She is alive, but one side of her dress is soaked in fresh blood. Tired of her screams, her assailant beat her into unconsciousness. M1500 looks more closely. She had been thrown against the end of a sharp stave, now embedded in her side. Horses’ hooves sound on the bridge as Golem carefully removes the point of the stave from Miriam’s flesh and lifts her gently into his arms.
“Now, when it’s too late, when that drunken crowd is already in retreat, now the Emperor sends his guard to protect us.”
Yakob speaks bitterly as his mother carefully cleans his head wound. They sit in Miriam’s makeshift hospital, surrounded by men speaking in low tones as they compare their wounds. Smoke from half-extinguished torches fills the room. The boiled water is long gone. There are no more strips of clean linen. The last piece was used to bind Yakob’s head. The Maharal stands silently among them. The arrival of the Emperor’s men makes further defense unnecessary. Yitzchak is standing with his oldest boy in the doorway anxiously looking for his sister. At first he does not identify the person Golem is carrying. He turns to his mother.
“We need a place to lay this man. Golem brings him as I speak.”
Petaluma, recognizing the skirts brushing the middle of Golem’s knees, realizes the worst. “Miriam,” she shrieks. “She is the only woman who would have gone out.”
The Maharal had been smugly congratulating himself on the lack of fatalities. Now guilt overwhelms him. If his daughter dies, it will be a sign that the creation of Golem had offended, that he, the teacher and leader of his people, is being punished for his hubris in attempting creation. He looks at Golem with loathing as it enters. He remonstrates with himself. He is to blame, not his dumb creature.
Golem lowers the woman slowly to the pallet Yitzchak pulled out from a corner. Miriam’s black eyes are dull with pain, her breathing shallow, her long dark hair matted with blood. Golem uses her headscarf to bind up her wound. The Maharal stands over her, his arm around his wife in an ineffectual attempt to comfort her.
“Who can heal Miriam? he asks softly.
In desperation, Yakob turns to the mech. “Golem, have you learned nothing from her? Has she told you nothing of the plants she gathers? Can you not do something?”
The Maharal has no such hope. This creature is made of mud, made to take orders, to be strong and to protect. It has no mind, no soul of its own. What can it do. Looking sadly at his son, he says, “if Golem could heal her, I would order it to do so. Alas…”
M1500 hears the order clearly. ‘If it could heal her.” Well, of course, it can heal her more effectively than any of these primitives. It nods at the empty water pot and points to the linen strip on Yakob’s head. Then it disappears.
“Yon dumb creature at least knows that you need to clean and rebind the wound,” says one of the men in the room dryly. “You can’t leave your daughter to die without an attempt to help her.”
The Maharal calls for his daughters-in-law. He realizes that Miriam’s clothes need to be removed. He clears the room, telling the men to go home to their wives or mothers for further nursing. He sends Yakob’s son for water. He goes out to bring wood to throw on the fire. The activity brings Petaluma to her senses. When her daughters-in-law arrive, confused with sleep, she is ready to issue her own orders.
M1500 has gone to Miriam’s workroom. It is full of the smells of drying herbs mingled with the odors of the various minerals the Maharal purchased for his daughter’s work. The mech is looking for something specific, sure that it saw the substance one day while sorting seeds for Miriam. She had poured out golden crystals from a trader’s box, divided them into small amounts, and put each pile into a paper twist. Sulfur was how she identified it, explaining that the words meant “burning stone,” a name for a mineral that burns easily. She said it came from far away, was collected on the sides of volcanoes. Miriam used it to help those who came to her with skin problems. M1500 analyzed it idly one day when there was nothing else occupying it. Checking its database, it found that B’Oman had decided that although the compound was plentiful on the planet, and, that although it had certain anti-bacterial qualities, it did not warrant commercial exploitation.
Once the mineral is located, the mech takes several twists of the substance. At this cultural level, infection is the most probable outcome of wounds. At least Miriam’s people understand the necessity of cleanliness in wound treatment, something that sets them apart from the people around them. The Maharal attempts to bar Golem’s way in the name of his daughter’s modesty as it returns to the kitchen, carrying the sulfur crystals.
“Yehuda,” his wife protests. “This is not a man. Let it in. Let us see what it has brought. Those are packets from Miriam’s room. Perhaps she has taught it something, after all.”
But, when Petaluma sees what Golem has brought with it, she sighs in disappointment that turns to alarm when her husband’s strange creature approaches Miriam. It removes the binding that has been placed on the injury. The wound is clean. Golem opens packet after packet and pours the sulfur into the wound. The golden crystals become a mass. Miriam gasps with pain. Clenching her teeth, she weakly waves her concerned parents off, irrationally certain that Golem will do what she herself might have done. What Golem does next does nothing to allay her parents’ fears. It stuffs still wet, clean linen strips into the gap in their daughter’s shoulder. Only then does it loosely bind the wound.
Miriam faints. Golem looks at the Maharal and points up. Something will be needed to help Miriam deal with the pain. Her family should know what medicines their daughter used. Given life in these times, she treated everyone in the house for pain at one time or another.
Petaluma refuses to leave Miriam’s side. Her pursed lips communicate her displeasure with Golem. The Maharal looks down at his daughter. Her breathing is faint, but steady. Golem looks hard at Sara, Yitzchak’s wife. She races from the room, understanding exactly what Golem wants. Returning quickly, she brings the proper flask with her. Yitzchak accompanies her, responding to her pleas of distress. If his father cannot deal with his creature, perhaps he will allow one of his sons to do so. Petaluma indignantly throws a blanket over her daughter.
The Maharal feels his age. For the first time in his life, events are outstripping his ability to deal with them. If he is being punished for hubris, he must accept that, must not interfere.
Yitzchak stands beside his father and, speaking softly, says, “The creature is not yours, father, whatever you may believe. It was sent to save us all. Perhaps it can save Miriam.” He shakes his head, not sure he believes his own words as he remembers the gaping wound. He turns to his mother, who continues to look disapprovingly at all of them. “Prepare more cloth,” he orders. If there is nothing else we can do, we can, at least, keep the wound clean and allow Golem to do his best.”
Under Yitzhak’s direction, Golem carries Miriam to a prepared bed in her own chambers. It stays by her side for the next two weeks, examining the wound when it is uncovered each day to change the cloths. Petaluma and her daughters-in-law watch the mech closely, fearing they know not what. Several times, Golem removes anxious hands, too eager to remove the crystals. The bandages seep, the edges of the wound turn red and angry. Healing continues.
At first, Petaluma moans over her daughter with anticipatory grief, casting accusatory glances at her husband whenever he enters the sick room. As Miriam grows stronger, however, her mother begins to resume her normal duties. Miriam leaves her bed for hours at a time. The infection is contained but it recedes slowly. The wound begins to close. M1500 becomes aware that its time is running out.
The Maharal is busy with the aftermath of the attack. Golem has almost certainly saved the community. Everyone talks about its fighting skills, its ability to shake off blows, blows which would have felled any of them. A few witnessed an attack on Golem with pointed staves that seemed to bounce off the creature. The Maharal is uneasy. Such talk will reach the Emperor sooner or later, and, then what? From the very beginning, he knew that the spell that created Golem had a limited life span, forty days. Then dust-to-dust as it returns to the earth from which it sprang.
Thaddeus sits in the riverside tavern, eating and drinking with a few local lay-abouts. He listens thoughtfully as they excitedly discuss the attack on the non-believers, each reliving his heroic role in the event. Thaddeus knows, as he hears the descriptions of the giant that overwhelmed each of his faithful in turn, that he has a challenge worthy of his considerable skills. If he is successful, the Emperor will reward him handsomely. His name will be on everyone’s lips, Thaddeus, the priest who turned a monster into a weapon for the faithful.
A smile creeps over his face, the same smile that sends fear into the hearts of witches when their evil pact with the devil is discovered. Thaddeus, defender of the faithful, scourge of all heretics, is about to embark on the most important task of his lifetime. The smile broadens before it disappears into the fire of an unwelcome thought. If the Emperor receives word of this giant before the priest has time to act, the Emperor will want him immediately. Soldiers will be sent to demand him from the Maharal.
Thaddeus speaks for the first time. “What news from the palace?”
One of his companions guffaws as he responds. “The Emperor is angry that the town broke his compact. He is equally angry that we didn’t succeed. I think he owes too much money to the godless bankers there. A little debt relief wouldn’t have come amiss.”
“The soldiers had orders not to hurry,” another adds. “They didn’t expect those swine to make a defense at all.”
“We did our best,” whines a third. “If not for the giant, the soldiers would have been too late.”
The bar maid arrives with a platter of dumplings. “I understand that the Emperor has more important things to think about,” she says slyly as she places more food on the table. “His bowels are loose again.”
Everyone roars with laughter. Thaddeus feels an overwhelming sense of relief, knowing that between the Emperor’s preoccupation with his intestinal tract and the painful ministrations of his physicians, he will be uninterested in rumors from the town. The priest gives a small prayer of thanks as he crosses himself.
Thaddeus and M1500 are each interested in encountering the other, the former to seduce Golem into the Emperor’s service, the latter to complete its programmed instructions.
The priest leaves the tavern abruptly. Celebratory drinking will come later. He might never have to pay for another drink again. The thought warms his heart. Walking slowly around the old city, Thaddeus is unsuccessful in finding the giant. He crosses the bridge. Entering the walled neighborhood, he is aware of the hostile stares he evokes. Angry whispers follow him as he peers here and there, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fighter. He should not be hard to see, given his size, but he is nowhere to be seen.
For his part, Golem stands quietly, banished again to his corner of the stable. Petaluma did not believe the golden crystals were efficacious, attributing Miriam’s recovery to her own prayers.
“I wondered where you had gone.” Miriam’s gentle voice drifts to him from the stable door. Golem approaches her carefully, ready to receive instruction. She waves it back to its corner and walks over to a pile of straw to sit down.
“I’m so sorry you cannot speak. I would know more about the crystals you used. The time may come soon when I will need to use them on others. I have already asked father to obtain more for me. It seems that there are none left in my stores.” She smiles ruefully at her companion. “You cannot speak but you can hear, so hear my thanks, Golem. I know wounds and I know that only your actions saved me. My mother is angry at what she cannot understand. My father is fearful of what he does understand. I know only that you have helped where help was needed.”
She rises to her feet. “Now come with me. I would walk in the woods to smell the air and to hear the birds and to thank all creation that I can do so. My father orders you to accompany me.”
M1500 is ready. It will never complete its task by staying in the stable. The giant and the small woman walk through the streets of the neighborhood, through the gate, and over the bridge to continue slowly along the river.
Thaddeus watches them from the bridge parapet. He has found his man. Now he needs to separate his quarry from the woman.
The mech is aware of the priest’s presence, aware of the eyes that follow it and Miriam so intently.
Miriam greets familiar trees with pleasure. She checks everywhere for new sprouts of the herbs that she might bring back to the kitchen to sweeten her mother’s mood. There is a little watercress in a small rain swollen tributary making its way to the larger river. She gathers it, chewing on a few leaves, their bite reminding her of spring. Her strength gives out after an hour, however, and they return to Miriam’s home.
Meanwhile, Thaddeus develops his plan. Its one drawback is that he will be forced to enter the forest. A city man to his core, Thaddeus distrusts nature, seeing only potential dangers to himself. Forests are the places where, if he were willing to face the thought, the devil lives. But he must conquer his fears and put his fate into the hands of his faith.
He inquires among his friends after any woman who was close to her confinement, an event sure to bring Miriam to the woman’s house to assist if she is called for. Miriam cannot accompany the giant if she is already occupied somewhere else. A word is dropped in the ear of the palace astrologer, a man always looking for new opportunities to impress the Emperor. There is a newly discovered herb, guaranteed to sooth the bowels, known to both the daughter of the Maharal and to her constant companion, a man named Golem. This is enough to obtain a letter, complete with the royal seal, requesting said herb. Thaddeus’s agent quickly appears at the Maharal’s door.
“My daughter is not here,” the Maharal says.
“The matter is urgent,” the agent insists, knowing that Thaddeus will pay him only if he is successful in his errand.
The Maharal raises his hand, indicating that the man should wait. Golem is sent for.
“Go with this man,” the Maharal reluctantly instructs his creature when the mech appears. “Find my daughter and give her this letter. She can tell you what to gather to send to the Emperor.”
He looks affectionately at Golem, always ready to obey, a stalwart friend, a faithful creature to the end. A wave of sorrow overcomes him as he realizes that the creature’s forty-day life span is rapidly drawing to its end.
Golem and the agent leave to find Miriam. After receiving the necessary instructions from her, the two cross the bridge to begin the walk along the river to the forest. M1500 notices the agent is dropping out of sight. The mech stops. Thaddeus appears at its side.
“I will accompany you,” the priest says, flashing his broad, insincere smile. “Jonathan is tired, too old to make the long walk. I offered to accompany you to find the herb and to bring you and the herb back to the palace.”
M1500 turns and continues walking. It knows the exact spot where it will complete its program. Ignoring the priest, it strides deeper and deeper into the forest, moving away from the river and towards the top of a small hill.
Weeks ago, a shuttle landed there. The very tree M1500 laid under is not far away.
The pace Golem sets leaves the priest with barely enough energy to think about how he might be most convincing. Should he stress the advantages of being in the Emperor’s service rather than at the beck and call of the most despised people in the city? He might point out the splendid uniform Golem would wear, the handsome boots. On the other hand, it might be best to talk about the glories of coming into the church, stressing spiritual redemption rather than worldly goods. Thaddeus is relieved to see the crown of the hill, the perfect place for a talk.
Golem stops and leans against the trunk of an old oak tree. How to carry out the next task? The same thought occupies the priest. The mech reviews its data banks, looking for a solution. The balance is almost complete. A woman’s life has been returned to her, due to its intervention, an intervention well within its programmed guidelines. But how is it to deal with the being next to it? The mech has processed enough information since its shuttle landing to understand that the burning of that unfortunate mother was but one of the many deaths that can be laid at Thaddeus’s door.
On his side, Thaddeus sees his opportunity and takes it. He strides up to Golem, standing close. Curious eyes, the priest suddenly notices, colorless, or, rather, the same color as Golem’s skin. He dismisses the momentary thought that perhaps he is dealing with something he does not understand.
The priest begins talking, deciding to use both strategies, beginning with the glories of service to the Emperor and finishing with the glories of spiritual redemption. It is the last word that catches Golem’s attention—redemption. It raises its eyes to the priest and appraises him thoughtfully. Then it sticks out a hand as though to seal a bargain.
Thaddeus is triumphant. He knows Golem is mute. The gesture speaks volumes. He grasps the proffered hand, surprised at the hard, cool feel of the skin. Golem draws the priest into an embrace. The latter is not alarmed.
After all, the poor mute creature can probably only express its gratitude for salvation in this manner.
As M1500 holds the priest in its enfolded arms, it triggers its self-destruct mechanism.
About Kaaren Strauch Brown
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