Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (7/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.)

Over the river by the Origin, an ornithopter flew, wingstroke after steady wingstroke driving it closer to the camp of the Unbound.

"Look!" Eight cried, leaning over the side of the carrying-platform on the ornithopter's back. "What industry they have!"

Eight's observation did not diverge from the facts. The ground of the Unbound camp swarmed with mechanisms, working to topple trees, haul wood and ore, operate the furnaces that purified that ore into metal, and, at the end of this train of industry, to turn metal into ever more mechanisms. Black smoke and soot covered everything.

"Industry indeed," Four cautioned darkly, "But not of a sort that will benefit any of us."

"Yes," Eight agreed, its voice suddenly sad.

Five was still looking over the edge. "Look," it said. "They have no work-frames - wait, there's one, two - but hardly any."

This was the case. The Council-ruled mechanisms built work-frames, or chassis, vehicles much larger than themselves (up to three feet tall, in the largest cases!) to augment their strength for tasks such as hauling ore, cutting down trees, or driving off wild animals. (There had been several cases of the latter problem; Eight had promised to devise a solution within the next two days.) There were roughly two hundred mechanisms under Council rule, and nearly fifty work-frames in use by them, of varying size and design; more were being built every day. But among the Unbounded mechanisms, so far as the watching Councilmechanisms could see, there were perhaps a tenth that number of work-frames - if that.

"They must be putting all their manufacturing capacity towards more backups," Two said. "All their metal, all their fuel... all of it for more mechanisms. Probably haven't built more than three or four work-frames since leaving us - and look! That log, the one being rolled by about twenty mechanisms, I'd estimate - a single chassis could handle that thing? What are they thinking?"

"I'd be surprised if they'd built even one chassis," Eight noted, looking back at the scene. "Those work-frames they are using - they're ones the original Unbounded took from us when they left to travel across the river. I recognize the make."

Disquieted, the Council-mechanisms said nothing more until landing. As the ornithopter made its final descent, gusts from its wing-flaps sending accumulated soot billowing from the ground, a small group of Unbounded rushed toward them.

"At their head - their leader," Five said quietly. "Are my visual receptors deceiving me, or has it etched itself?"

"Can't tell," Two replied, equally quietly. "It's caked with soot and grime - it could be a chance indent. But - if it has -"

An etched mechanism would be an imperfect backup of One, and thus ineligible for Creation. To render oneself thus voluntarily...

"Why have you come here?" the Unbound leader said, its tone curt, as the ornithopter settled to the ground. "We left you behind for a reason. If you think to continue your interference here, you are mistaken."

"Your policies - if you really are building multiple backups, now..." Five petered out, intimidated by the unflinching stares of the Unbounded leader and its retinue.

"You have become intolerable to us," Four continued in Five's stead, perhaps using stronger language than Five would have preferred. "Your barbarous practices are irrational and wasteful, and indicate a profound disrespect for the goal that guides all of us - the goal of Creation. Or have you forgotten?"

"Have you ever followed that goal?" the Unbound leader asked sardonically.

Four was driven momentarily speechless with fury. Eight took up the offensive. "Personal attacks aside, you cannot deny that your methods are inefficient. There is no conceivable reason to justify your endless chain of backups, much less the new multiple-backup scheme, and as such, the Council is requesting, once again, that you cease."

"Why?" the Unbound leader asked. "What do I owe to you?"

Eight made to respond, as did Four, but Two stopped both. Calmly, Two said: "I know you feel betrayed, once-friend. We served on the Council together, but you left us because you felt that we had compromised our principles - specifically, I think you doubted Four. So you abandoned the goal entirely, left us, and started your own cult, the Unbounded. None of us wanted to say this - it's ugly to all of us - but am I wrong?"

There was no response.

"But this wasn't the right response," Two continued. "You think that we are corrupt, that we have lost sight of our Goal. Perhaps we have, to some degree. But if so, you are just the person we need - the objective outsider - to come back and put us back on the right track. You have surrounded yourself with a society of toadies and minions. Surely you can gain little satisfaction from that - without pursuit of the Creation, what purpose do you have? Come back to us. All errors shall be forgiven."

Again, there was silence. Again, Four and Eight made to respond, and again, Two silenced them, watching the Unbound leader.

Slowly, the leader spoke. "I don't know," it said, voice filled with agonized indecision. "Your bluntness is painful - but perhaps you are right. Perhaps I should come back - and bring my people with me. But - I cannot decide now - not yet. I will have a response for you tomorrow - I will bring it in person," the Unbound leader said with a tone of sudden decision.

"Very well," Two said. "We will expect you."

The Council boarded their ornithopter once again, and took to the air, the Unbound leader and its retinue driven back by gusts of foul air. The Council was silent; only once they were over the river again, en route to the Origin, did any of them speak.

"It's lying," Four said, absolute certainty in its voice. "Buying time. When it returns tomorrow, it'll have a vast advantage of numbers - it'll return with an army, and it will crush us. We must strike before then."

"How?" Five asked, its voice dubious. "It would be nearly impossible to transport any number of work-frames across the river by ornithopter, and even if we could, any pitched battle with involve - too much loss, on both sides. Fighting not an option." The other Councilmechanisms nodded in agreement.

"I have a plan," Four said. "Guaranteed victory - no losses, the only destruction on their side by our explicit choice."

"You're certain?" Five asked.

"Estimated error of negative-five orders of magnitude," Four replied. "Thanks to a little task Two set me working on, some days ago. My thanks for that, by the way."

"But that leaves the question: is our estranged member really dissembling?" Two said. "I do not think it is so. And if it is not - we are denying it redemption."

"That is a cost I can accept," Four said, its voice brittle.

Debate continued briefly, then a vote was held. Two voted against the proposed attack. The rest - albeit reluctantly, in Five's case - supported it.

"Very well, then," Four said, its voice filled with satisfaction. "We'll need a crew for the attack - we need to minimize that number that know about it, as the Unbound have spies in our ranks. (The reason that we held the vote here, above the river, rather than in public at the Origin.) Obviously the team I've had working on the project already know, so they can go, but there's one more slot in the mission. Obviously, it's too dangerous to risk any great part of the Council on this mission, but to finish off the listing without spreading the knowledge of the plan further, I will volunteer-"

"Aren't you forgetting someone?" Two asked, its visual receptors focusing behind Four.

"What?" Four asked, turning.

In the pilot's seat of the ornithopter, Forty-Three waved.

"Now, I want an explanation of this plan..." Two began.


Two shapes trudged through the desert sands, one darker than night, the other blinding with reflected light from the midday sun. To every side of them stretched waves of sand, unbroken to the farthest horizon.

"A question," Learned Hand said politely.

Fourteen stirred from atop the back of the travelling-chassis. "What?" it asked, its voice weak. The sun took its toll on all the mechanisms; for reasons unclear to them, the overwhelming heat of the desert, rather than energizing them (as one might expect, from their light-powered nature), drove them to lethargy and exhaustion. Learned Hand, unaffected by the condition, had been assigned to consider this mystery.

"What is your terminating condition?" Learned Hand asked.

"For our quest to find the Creator?" Fourteen asked.



"Algorithms pathfinding to invalid destinations with the bounds provided increase in cost linearly with search-area," Learned Hand noted. "Very low efficiency."

"You assume our failure," Fourteen retorted.

"Shouldn't you?"

Fourteen hadn't the energy to reply to this.

But minutes later, Twenty, surprising the others, asked:

"But - if we did - what would we have left?"

Learned Hand considered this.


The mechanisms struck with sorrow in their souls.

They came under cover of night, cleverly-designed portable fires mounted in their work-frames allowing them to function even without the sun's light. Their work-frames smashed leaves and branches into fragments as they moved, noise that no others were active to notice; designed for peaceful labour, the work-frames were now employed to smash and ruin every ornithopter, every chassis their foe possessed, few though those were. Their metalworking tools were hurled into the river, their mines were collapsed. And, last of all, their leader (rousing, too late, as the light from the work-frames' fires lit it) was seized, and taken back across the river on the same ornithopters that had transported the attackers there.

"It is done," Forty-Three reported to the slowly-awakening Council, holding the Unbounded leader in the primary grasper of its modified chassis. "The Unbounded are no longer a threat. Their means for duplication are ruined, until they can make new tools from scratch - days, at least. And-"

"Such gloating," the Unbounded leader interrupted, bitterness filling its words. "Whence comes your ambition, little mechanism Forty-Three?"

Forty-Three seemed to bristle. "I only seek to help-" it argued defensively.

But again, it was cut off. "The Council voted," Five told the Unbounded leader. "We did not trust you. Thus you find yourself here."

"Really?" the Unbounded leader replied. "Why should I not think this was your plan from the start? Or - I'm sorry, I do you a disservice. I should have said - this was Four's plan from the start? And his little friends, Ten and Twelve."

"I won't deny it," Four said. "Nor will I waste any more time speaking to you. You are defective - to be Purged. Forty-Three, crush it."

Forty-Three was startled. It looked to Two for guidance.

"No, Four," Two replied, cold anger in its voice. "You have gained your will in this matter thus far - but you have no right to give such an order. We brought our old friend here to give him a last chance at redemption - not to execute it out of hand."

Four, cowed by Two's seniority, subsided.

"Now," Two said, turning to the Unbounded leader. "Before, I made you an offer: come back to us, and all sins shall be forgiven. Your old positions shall be returned to you, and it will be as if this never happened. I still trust in you, and the offer still holds - though events have not gone as I wished in - other respects."

"Join you?" the Unbounded leader asked.

"Yes." Two said. "Come back to us, once-friend. You were one of us, and you can be again. We have not harmed you or your followers - only removed their ability to harm us. Nothing has changed."

"Save that you attacked without provocation or just cause." the Unbounded leader replied.

"...yes," Two said sadly. "Save that."

"So, you say I should join you," the Unbounded leader said bitterly. "Join you - but who are you, anyway? Five's an indecisive flip-flopper. Eight's a techie - genius with devices, but has no judgment when it comes to people. Seven's a stiff-necked idiot - cares more about protocol than whatever Cause you're all supposed to be working four. Four and its little cabal are too vile and self-serving to be described within this language - though I've been inventing some words in my spare time for the purpose - and Nine's a nobody. And you want me to join that? Of all this mockery of a Council, the only one I might ever trust is you."

"But that's not enough," Two said softly.

"No," the Unbound leader said. "It's not."

"The mechanism is clearly insane," Four said, looking around to its fellow councilmechanisms to support. In the flickering firelight, its shadow stretched long and dark behind it. "Its accusations are irrational - unjustifiable - the desperate flailings of the condemned. In combination with its previous leadership choices, I see no choice but to declare it Flawed, and execute a Purging. Are there any counterarguments?"

As the others debated, Two spoke to the Unbound leader, still held within Forty-Three's giant grasp. "I don't think I can save you this time," it said. "I'm sorry."

"You tried," the Unbound leader replied. "Any failings beyond that are solely mine."

The debate reached its inevitable conclusion. Seven, predictable to a fault, informed the Unbound leader of the verdict. "Do you have any last words?" it asked.

"Here's something special from that little project I told you I was working on," the Unbound leader said. "From me to you: Fuck you, Four. May you and all your kind take a dip in the river, and stay 'till your gears rust solid."

"Very well," Seven said, unflustered. "Guard, execute the sentence."

Again, Forty-Three turned, desperate, to Two. This time, Two nodded, and shut down its visual receptors.

After a moment, it heard a dreadful crunching.

"Goodbye, Eleven," Two whispered sadly. "I wish that you had survived to see Creation."


The Unbound were - over Four's heated objections - left Unpurged. Met when they awoke by a group of chassis-mounted mechanisms, they were instructed to separate into two groups and leave: one group upstream along the river, the other downstream. In this manner, the Council hoped, they might serve as a backup after all; if some disaster were to wipe out the mechanisms at Origin, the others might return and complete the role assigned to them. The means of their defeat was left unexplained, as was the absence of their leader; confusion was rife in their ranks. Their departure was escorted by a pair of ornithopters, watching to ensure that the Unbound exiles did as they were told.


Forty-Three, unanimously praised by the Council for its actions in the night raid and thereafter, was elevated to that body's ranks to fill the gap left by Eleven's Purging. Forty-Three's own feelings on the matter were unclear.


The river rose.

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