Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (5/?)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

Three descended into the underground sanctuary of the Creator, led by the enormous, enigmatic figure of Learned Hand.

The halls of the sanctuary were wide, easily capacious enough to hold four Learned Hands side-by-side. The walls were smooth, built of some dark stone: no ornamentation could be observed on their surfaces. Light radiated evenly from the ceiling and floor. (This was a relief to the mechanisms; as they moved ever deeper into the underground, they had feared that they might be deprived of power, and be forced to ignominiously retreat from this, the sanctuary of the Creator, their goal!)

"Where does the light come from?" Twenty asked, breaking the silence that had persisted since the mechanisms entered the sanctuary. "It seems to have no source."

Learned Hand was built to a different scale than the mechanisms. They were nearly a centimeter tall; it was nearly two meters tall, two hundred times their size. Its strength was orders of magnitude beyond their own, and should it have wished to, Learned Hand could have crushed the mechanisms in an instant from the moment it first observed them onwards. But it was for all that unfailingly polite, and treated the mechanisms as equals at all times; it was for this, among other reasons, that the mechanisms were convinced that its Creator was theirs as well. Its six eyes, arranged in rows of two; its eight arms, each ideal for a different task; and its sentience, above all, the sentience that allowed "I" and "why" and "therefore", the sentience that distinguished Learned Hand from everything else that they had encountered on their journey from the Origin. So Learned Hand might treat the mechanisms as equals, but they, for their part, gave it a healthy amount of deference: this was its home, after all, and it had allowed them here for no profit of its own. When Learned Hand spoke, the mechanisms listened.

Learned Hand turned to respond to Twenty's question, its smooth, sliding motion forward continuing uninterrupted as it did so. "We are not certain," it told Twenty. "We were not here at the sanctuary's creation. But from certain observations, mainly a correlation between cloudy days and dim-lit nights, we believe that daylight is collected from a large area, stored, and released after nightfall. Predictions made by this model correspond closely to observed results."

"You said 'we'," Fourteen noted. "Are there more of you here?"

"Yes," Learned Hand told it. "There are three of us here."

"Only three?" Twenty asked, astonished. "It must be terribly lonely!"

Learned Hand's eyes flashed. "At times," it said tonelessly. "But we have been here for a very long time. We have learned to compensate; that is why we studied the source of the light, among other things."

Three looked around, noting again the dust that dampened the light from the floor (except in the very center of the corridor, where a track exactly as wide as Learned Hand had been cleared); not only in the corridor along which Learned Hand led them steadily, but in every one that branched off from it. "How old are you, exactly?" Three asked.

"We were activated approximately twenty-seven thousand, seven hundred light-fluctuation cycles ago," Learned Hand said. "Possible error of point-one-seven percent. We believe that the sanctuary was built somewhere between two thousand and eight thousand days before that, and that we were activated to serve our role upon a preset contingency."

"What role is that?" Twenty asked.

"We guard this place," Learned Hand responded. "This role was not stated explicitly in our pre-initialization instruction set, but analysis of our surroundings and capabilities quickly yielded this result."

Much as One deduced its own purpose, Three mused.

"You say that you were activated by some contingency," Fourteen said. "What do you believe that was?"

Learned Hand did not respond; instead, it smoothly rotated to face forward again, speaking once it had done so. "There is no need to tell you," it said. "We are here, at the place you said you wished to go, the heart of this sanctuary. You wish to find the Creator? Very well. Here is his tomb."


It was a very big tomb.


The end of the corridor that Learned Hand had led the mechanisms along opened into a much larger, open space. The ceiling, still lit by the same dim light as elsewhere, sloped up to a sharp peak in the center; three other corridors entered the room, one across, two at right angles, seemingly identical to the one in which the stunned mechanisms stood. None of these were the dominant feature of the room, though: that honor was held by the vast, lightless pit at its center. The Creator's tomb.

The walls here were no more ornate than those anywhere else in the compound; the only irregularity in them was a set of large alcoves, one in the center of each wall. Three were empty as the mechanisms entered; but one was filled by a stone figure that might have been Learned Hand's twin. Upon seeing the mechanisms, its eyes, which had been dark, lit; it approached quickly, skirting the edge of the pit by centimeters. "My brother," it said to Learned Hand, "I trust in your wisdom, but this is unprecedented. Do you have explanation for the tiny machines' presence here?"

"They are sentient," Learned Hand said. "They say that our Creator is theirs, and they wished to see him. All of these things are unprecedented."

"I do not think they knew he was dead," the other Hand noted, observing the mechanisms now gathered at the edge of the pit.

"Shock upon shock," Twenty moaned. "We were close to despair - then we found this place, so very close - and now we are told the Creator has been dead, dead from long before we existed!"

The others were silent.

Then Fourteen spoke decisively. "We must go down to see him."

"Impossible." came from both Hands at once. "It is forbidden," Learned Hand said. "A dereliction of our duty as guardians," the second Hand opined.

"And we will not have you follow our late brother's path," a third voice came, somber and remorseful.

"Noble Hand!" Learned Hand said, surprised. "I did not know you were here."

"I just came in from the west quadrant," Noble Hand explained. "And it is meet that I did. Surely you should have informed me of such a precipitous event as the arrival of visitors!"

"We arrived here scarcely sooner than you did," Learned Hand said. "Augustus Hand can attest to it -"

"Pardon me," Twenty interrupted, "But what did your brother do?"

"It took it on himself to guard the Creator," Augustus Hand said, staring downwards into the pit. "Or so we suppose. It said nothing of his intent, but merely, without forewarning or explanation - jumped."

"That is what you did not want to mention, before," Three hypothesized.

Learned Hand's eyes flashed again. It made no further response.

Fourteen, somewhat recovered from the shock that had gripped him after entering the tomb, moved close to Three. "There is something that does not fit here," it said. "Something in what they have said..."

"I know," Three told Fourteen. "This will require much speech, at which you are better. But this is the issue..."

Three explained; tersely, but enough to clarify the uncertainties that Fourteen had possessed. When it was done, moments later, Fourteen collected itself, and then raised its voice to speak to the Hands.

"You say you have been here for over twenty-seven thousand days," Fourteen began, "and that the Creator has probably been dead for even more than that, at least thirty thousand days in all. Am I correct thus far?"

"That is correct," Augustus Hand said. "I see that Learned Hand has taught you much."

"But, for all my appreciation for those teachings, I must dissent," Fourteen said forcefully. "For our progenitor, One, is no more than twenty days old, if that; and it has not yet even been Created."

"Not yet been Created," Noble Hand said, a questioning tone in its voice.

"Yes," Fourteen said.

"You will have to explain this," Noble Hand said.

The mechanisms attempted it.

"I appreciate your fervor in completing your purpose, though I am still not certain I fully understand it," Noble Hand said when they had finished. "Admirable nonetheless. But this we know, and this only: that we guard the Creator's tomb. Your quest is in vain; and, very possibly, your purpose. We will be glad to shelter you for the night, and provide you with whatever you need to maintain that clever travelling-machine of yours; but in the morning, it will be best for you to return to your Origin, and inform your brethren of your error."

"No," Fourteen said.

"No?" Augustus Hand asked; and suddenly it, and the other Hands, appeared very large indeed.

"No," Fourteen said, resolute. "Our quest is not in vain; our purpose is true. All you know is that you guard the Creator's tomb; but there is a similarity between us you have overlooked. We exist while not yet Created; and perhaps you guard a tomb not yet filled. You hypothesized that the contingency that awoke you was the death of the Creator; but this complex was empty even when you awoke, yes?" This was a gamble; but the Hands offered no disagreement. Fourteen continued. "What are the chances that the Creator would die in his own tomb? If the sanctuary was empty, even when you awoke - it seems far more likely that you were awoken, not by his death, but by his prolonged absence!"

"Scarcely better," Learned Hand remarked.

"The difference between one and zero is slight; the proportional increase is infinite," Twenty bravely parried.

"These are very interesting ideas," Noble Hand said. "They bear some similarities to matters I discussed with Learned Hand approximately eighteen thousand light-fluctuation cycles ago, but differ in a number of particulars. I will be glad to debate them later. But we are here speaking of your situation, and I still see problems for you, even if the Creator is, somehow, alive. You do not have any idea of where he is. (Nor do we, of course.) How do you intend to find him?"

"We found this place with no more idea of the Creator's location than we have now," Fourteen said. "We will continue as we were before, searching the world until we run out of world to search."

Twenty spoke, a curious tone in its voice. "Hm," it said.

"What?" Three asked.

"Look up," Twenty suggested.

They looked up.

"There's something on the ceiling," Fourteen observed.

"Oh, yes," Noble Hand said. "The map."

The mechanisms were momentarily silent.

"It shows the area around the tomb - partially a view from above, partially from the side, from what we've been able to determine," Augustus Hand explained helpfully. "We make very few trips outside, but our observations from those trips seem to correlate the surroundings with the map. See - here, the mountains - here, the desert - here, the forest..."

"If you knew about this," Fourteen asked, "Why did you say you had no clues to the Creator's location?"

"Well, we don't," Noble Hand said. "This only shows what is already plainly visible. As far as we can tell, it's simply decoration."

"What about those triangles?" Fourteen asked, pointing. "One of them right where we are, three of them further that way, past the desert. You didn't think those represented anything?"

"Not really," Noble Hand admitted. "Our best guess was that they were decorative."

"On the decoration," Twenty clarified.


"We will set out in the morning," Fourteen said, "towards the nearest of those triangles. Until then, do we still have your permission to rest here?"

"You do," Augustus Hand said, with the agreement of the other Hands. "Further, you may have the run of the halls; there is no place here that shall be secret to you, for you are of the same Creator as we. Damage nothing; take nothing; and there shall be peace between us."

Thus it was.


The halls of the sanctuary were bare and empty, filled only with ancient dust. The rooms were little better; nothing living inhabited them, no movement stirred the stagnant air save that of the mechanism that explored them. To Twenty, created in a glorious, life-filled forest, it was stifling.

"I will be accompanying you in the morning," Learned Hand said suddenly.

Twenty had thought it was alone. Startled, its voice was only mostly steady as it replied. "Why? I thought your purpose was to guard this place."

"I have decided that my purpose extends to guarding all things of the Creator," Learned Hand said. "You are very small; there are many dreadful things in the world. You need my guardianship more than this ancient sanctuary does."

"How will your brothers fare without you?" Twenty asked. "Do they know of this plan?"

"They do not," Learned Hand said. "They may be upset. But they will accept it. This sanctuary, for all our claims otherwise, does not truly need us. We are superfluous here. Do you know how many visitors this place has had, in all the time we have been here?"

Twenty recognized the rhetorical question as such.

"Four," Learned Hand said. "Three just now: you three mechanisms. Before that, only one. Over ten thousand days ago. A desert rat."

"What did you do to it?" Twenty asked.

"I killed it," Learned Hand said. "It was my duty as a guardian."

Twenty was not certain what to say to that.

Learned Hand moved to leave. Then it paused. "Know this, though," it said. "Your friend - Fourteen? - had interesting arguments. They opened possibilities. But they are not conclusive. The opposite, if anything. The Creator is dead, whether he is buried here or elsewhere. I will guard you while you search for him; and when you realize that it is a doomed effort, I will guard you when you return. I wish to make this clear, not just for the sake of openness, but for duty: the sooner you realize your error, the safer you will be. It is for your own good."

Silently, Learned Hand left. Even after it vanished around a corner, though, Twenty did not move; it stood in place, motionless, until morning came. Thinking.


Three was thinking, too; helping out with Fourteen's repair of the travelling chassis as needed, but mainly thinking.

What it was thinking was this:

"It has been eleven days now since we left the Origin. I have not seen Two, my original, for even longer; not since it created me."

"Does it think me ungrateful, for leaving? Does it understand what I am trying to do?"

"I hope... it is all right."

But it continued to help Fourteen, holding the chassis steady as Fourteen hammered out the dents in the metal; for with regard to Two, hope was all that Three could do.

It hoped it would be back soon.


Bonus: Something that doesn't appear to be drawn by a small child, for a lovely change! Here:

The Creator's Tomb, apparently. Quite decent. Wonder how long the artist spent on it?

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