Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (9/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.)

Black clouds covered the sky, drenching the land in thick sheets of rain. Waves reared up and plunged against the grey rocks that opposed them; layers of mud and gravel grew ever thicker, occasionally crashing down in thunderous crashes, exceeded in noise only by the actual thunder all around them. And eventually - at the very far end of the rocks, so far separated from the safety of (relatively) dry land - there was something that might have, if you squinted, looked something like a building.

"I'm certain about it," Thirteen said. "It can't be anything else. This is exactly where the map said it would be - the only thing past here is the sea. This must be it. The house of the Creator."

"I want to believe you," Twenty said vehemently, "But your logic is ludicrous. 'Exactly' here - you know how imprecise that map is! It showed triangles, tremendously out of scale, on a stylized map! And what's more - even if this were the final triangle on the map - so what? All the other triangles were useless - an tomb, a pair of scrapyards for creations that destroyed themselves in their Creator's absence. Why do you think that anything but another failure awaits us here?"

"We know that the Creator exists," Thirteen argued. "We have not yet been created; if there is no Creator to create us, then that is paradox. Nonsense. Therefore, the Creator must exist somewhere; and the best clue we have been given is that map. I exaggerated somewhat - there is no certainty that the Creator is there, in that building. But what have we certainty of? We may only offer probability - and the probability, in this case, is so fantastically high - by the fine-blade of simplicity in logic, if nothing else - that we may act on it as if we were certain. The Creator is there."

"I want to find the Creator as much as you do," Twenty said tiredly, rain sliding off its green-patinated sides. "I do. But... I don't know. I just can't find the confidence to possess such certainty in its existence as you do - not when I look at Learned Hand and its brothers, who have believed - with equal certainty - for tens of thousands of days - exactly the opposite of what we do. I just don't know - and I'm reluctant to risk our existence, even as backups, on such a slim chance."

"You've corrupted it!" Thirteen yelled, turning to Learned Hand. "Twisted it with your heresies!"

"I only say what I know to be true," Learned Hand replied, entirely unaffected by the rain that was steadily corroding the metallic members of the party. (The travelling-frame, finally broken beyond point of repair, had been left behind two days ago.) "I do not coerce. I do not decieve. I do not manipulate. I only speak. What others believe is their own concern. I am only concerned with actions - and your safety. And I tell you this now - going out there, to that far rock, is a deadly risk to all of you, like none before through the whole course of this doomed quest. My purpose here is to protect you, and I will say this: if I do not stop you now from going there, my purpose will be hollow."

"Pessimist," Three said coolly.

"What?" Learned Hand said, rotating to face Three. "You accuse me of distorting the facts to make matters appear worse than they are?"

"It's better than the alternative," Three replied.

Learned Hand's eyes flashed, and it made no answer.

Thirteen had been looking out at the rocks - partially to calm itself, partially to plan. Now it spoke. "There are two major threats," it said. "Waves - if they hit us, they'll wash us clear off the rock. (Except Learned Hand, probably - though some of those waves look pretty powerful.) And rain - it's heavy enough that we could easily slip on any exposed rock and, again, tumble into the water. That would be the end of us. Our priorities will be to avoid these, by travelling along the tops of the rocks. This will expose us to two minor threats: mudslides, which seem fairly infrequent; and lightning, which seems only to be striking elsewhere, at some distance. If either of those conditions change, our priorities will have to adjust accordingly."

"Cannot we go later?" Twenty asked. "This rain has been continuing for days - but it cannot rain forever. It has been lightening, as of this morning - I think it may soon stop."

"We cannot afford it," Thirteen said. "We must get to the Creator before our joints lock - in the best case, so that the Creator can repair us and allow us to lead him to the Origin; in the worst case, so that we can at least give him directions before we suffer final shutdown. Every moment we wait about in the rain is another fraction-inch of corrosion on our vital mechanisms. We must go now. We will not get another chance."

"Cannot Learned Hand go without us, should we fail?" Twenty asked. "It can wait out the rain with ease, and travel across the rocks far more easily than we. We can give it the directions, let it carry us there -"

"If we fail," Thirteen said, "Learned Hand will take us away from here, back to the Origin. It has no interest in doing otherwise."

"I will do that regardless," Learned Hand said. "There has been too much risk here. It is time to put an end to this foolishness."

Thirteen gave a look to the other mechanisms. Without a word, they began to move towards the rocks - Twenty moving more reluctantly than the others, but moving all the same.

"Stop," Learned Hand said. "This is your final warning."

Three and Thirteen clambered onto the first of the rocks, Twenty close behind.

Learned Hand began to move forward, accelerating smoothly and with no seeming mechanism of propulsion, as was standard. It came to the first rock - and then stopped.

"You are in my way," it said to Twenty. "You are preventing me from getting to the others and stopping their foolishness. You must move now."

"Why can't you just go around?" asked Twenty, unmoving.

"You have stopped at the narrowest place in the path," Learned Hand said. "I had planned to intercept you and the others further ahead, along the rock shelf, where it widens. But I cannot go around you here, and I cannot bend down to pick you up without falling. Move."

"The corrosion certainly acts quickly, with all this rain and water in the air," Twenty replied. "I'm afraid all my joints are locked. Completely immovable. What a shame."

"This place is dangerous," Learned Hand said. "The waves are very close to you - the storm causes random surges. Even one of them could wash you away. If blocking me is your intent, you can do that from further up on the rock. Move. For your own good."

"I asked you a question," Twenty said. "Back in the desert."

"Move," Learned Hand said. "The waves are getting stronger. I will accept the risk to the others if you will cease endangering yourself. Please."

"If we couldn't find the creator - if the Creator already died - if our purpose is meaningless - then why should I keep trying? Why should any of us?" Twenty asked, musingly. "You didn't have an answer then. But I've been thinking about it. Thinking hard."

Learned Hand's eyes flashed.

"It's a tricky question," Twenty admitted. "Very tricky. But I've spent a lot of time on it, and, well, it's changed me. I'm not the mechanism I used to be. One way or another - I don't think I want to go there, to whatever's waiting at the last triangle at the end of this rock-shelf. I don't think I can."

"There are answers," Learned Hand said, its voice strained. "Do not condemn yourself by an overly-quick judgement - take the time necessary - I can help you, the others too, and perhaps whatever's waiting for them - if there's anything - please - just come away from the edge!"

"Just like your brother, eh?" Twenty said.

A wave licked about it -

- and it was gone.

Learned Hand looked at Three and Thirteen, distantly visible, still possible to catch, if it hurried.

It did not move.

Eventually, they vanished from view.

Seven days passed. The storm broke.

Three and Thirteen returned, looking - different. Better.

"The Creator remade us," Thirteen told Learned Hand, its voice full of pride. "It's there - it's there, all right! We were in too bad shape to be Created - just reshaped, as something similar, but fundamentally different - and just as well, because we aren't at the Origin in any case. But he's following us - we'll guide him, all right, all the way there. The wisdom he has - and to think - he never even knew we were his! (Though it makes sense, because he hasn't created us yet, after all, so how would he know about us...)"

"Where's Twenty?" Three asked.

"Gone," Learned Hand said. "Dead."

"Destroyed in the purpose of the Creation," Three said, its voice sad, and yet full of pride. "It doubted - but in the end, it held to its faith and did the right thing. Its designation will be known forever as the number of heroism, and there will be a celebration -"

"It did the right thing," Learned Hand said in a monotone, "In exactly the wrong way, for exactly the wrong reasons."

Three stopped.

"How did Twenty... die?" it belatedly asked.

But Learned Hand did not answer. It had turned its gaze upwards, towards the figure approaching along the rocks.

"Creator," it breathed.