In August Rome is blinding after noon. From far away the long black cassocks of Father Abel Nightroad and HC-IIIX / Father Tres Iqus gradually well into sight against whitewash and marble like slow-forming bruises. Walls the colour of bleached bone seem to shimmer above the stone streets. Abel lugs a dusty suitcase and drifts from piazza to piazza like a wilting flower, his eyes half-closed against the heat and his hair weeping down his back in a drooping silver trail. "I would like some gelato," he says like a man in a dream. "Do you see any shop selling gelato along this street, Tres?"
"Do you also have any money on you?"
"Then we will go and buy some gelato," Abel announces.
"That is very unreasonable of you, Tres!"
"You will be late for your meeting with the Lady Catherine," Tres says. "And I shall be late for my service."
"I have been called in for servicing to ensure that I continue to function efficiently."
Abel's head moves up, his glasses down.
"I thought you could repair yourself?" he asks. His eyes are still narrowed but the look in them now is less vacant and less clouded than the eyes of a man suffering only from the heat. Tres looks at him and then takes him by the arm and steers him across the street. This is not as suicidal as it would have been anywhere else in the city; there is no traffic here because vehicles are not permitted into the Residence square. Once on the other side of the street Tres continues to propel Abel forward, but now they walk in the shade of a tall block of deserted townhouses with skeletal ironwork curling tight as though with grief over the curtainless windows, and the tall elegant gates of the Residence are slowly drifting closer toward them like the few wisps of cloud at the edges of the sky. Looking down at Tres's hand, Abel can see a thin strip of pale skin between the hems of black cuff and white glove.
"Is it the same people who made you?" he asks.
Tres spends a few seconds in silence, raising queries and calling recursive functions. "Yes," he says.
"Can I meet them?"
"No." This answer is immediate.
"I would just like to thank them."
"I will pass them your message."
"But I also want to ask them questions!"
"I will ask them the questions and then I will communicate to you the answers," Tres says with the smooth and brutal logic of a steamroller.
"It's a little awkward to tell you the questions," Abel says. He curves his lips into a childish moue and pushes a long lick of damp hair off his cheek. Tres looks at him and there is the weighted feeling in the air of Tres examining this statement, feeding it through algorithms and filters but finding no command in it; looking back, wordless, unable to respond to it. Very quietly Abel says, "I wanted to ask them how you were made." Tres begins to reply, and Abel shakes his head; Tres identifies this as a gesture to stop and shuts his mouth with a smooth noiseless snap of his jaw.
"I asked Lady Catherine once and she said I wouldn't understand. Then I asked her to explain in words I could understand and she told me a long fairy tale about golems," Abel says. "Do you know what that is, Tres?"
"Do you think you are one?"
"A golem is an animate being crafted by the holy men of Judaism from inanimate material," Tres says. "I am an animate being crafted by the engineers of the Vatican from inanimate materials. There are dissimilarities and there are also similarities."
Abel looks at Tres. When he does this and asks himself what he sees, the answer is always /Tres/, a single word that stands for scarecrow silhouettes in unexpected places, a pinpoint red glow in the absence of light, the smell of gunpowder and iron and synthetic skin-dyes, crisp cropped hair the colour of dried blood. "I went and read up about golems after she told me," he says. The crude woodcuts of heavy stone and iron figures lumber through his memory and he shuts them out with a sharp tug on a lock of his own hair. "The books said that if you wrote the name of God on a golem's forehead it would come to life . . ."
"The name of God, or the Hebrew word /emet/," Tres says.
"Yes, true," Abel says. "But the word does not give the golem true life at all. No personality or intellect or motivation. It just makes the golem move on its own, and be able to receive orders and carry them out."
"And once its mission is over the name of God or of truth is removed from it," Tres says, "and it is returned to the ground."
"Ah, Tres, truly you know everything," Abel says in a moment of unbridled admiration. Tres gazes calmly at him and Abel beams a bright smile in return. But this lasts for only a little while before fading away, as though something very much like the fierce heat of the summer sun is pressing down on Abel's happiness even in the shade where they stand.
"I had a dream about you, you know," Abel says. "After I read the golem stories I had a very large glass of milk with a plate of gingerbread cookies and then I went to sleep. When I slept I dreamt that I met a holy man who had made a golem, but he hadn't written the words on its forehead yet. He said he had to choose the words to fit the golem's master. Then he looked at me, and then he said he knew what this golem's word should be, and I was happy that I could help him with his work. But when he wrote the word on the golem's forehead and the golem sat up I saw that the word on its forehead was met/, death. The opposite of truth and life." He scratches his cheek and lookes at Tres's smooth forehead and the calm blank gaze below it, at the irises of Tres's eyes full of sharp metallic light and shadow. "That /met should destroy a golem. Why did this one come to life instead?"
Tres is silent for a while.
"How is this dream about me?" he asks at last. Abel does not look at him. Across the courtyard a resident flock of doves takes flight most stunningly into the bolt-blue sky.
"If I was a golem," Tres says, "met should bring me to life because death is what I am best programmed to bring; and emet would undo me, because the truth is that golems are not alive."
"No," Abel says. "There are words that keep people alive. Those are the words that should go on golems."
He drops his suitcase on the cobbles, comes forward and places his hands on both sides of Tres's head and his lips on Tres's brow. Tres's vat-grown skin is warm and smooth and slightly damp but with a faintly sweet chemical taste instead of the salt of human sweat; Abel remembers overhearing once how the most recent HC units had been built to mimic perspiration in order to avoid the overheating that had crippled their predecessors. He lets his hands fall, steps backwards and picks up his suitcase again. Tres's face is unchanged and his stance continues to indicate that he is standing still because he is awaiting further instructions. Only his collar has been thrown somewhat askew from the enthusiasm of Abel's elbows.
"I am not alive," Tres says. Then: "You are going to be late for your meeting with Lady Catherine."
There is something Abel wishes to say, but when he looks at Tres he does not say it and instead he goes in through the iron gates and crosses the wide stone square in a crows'-wing flutter of black fabric and long sprays of silver hair. Tres stays at the gate, watching until Abel reaches the entrance to the Residence and is escorted inside by the doorman. Somewhere in his artificial brain an exception is being thrown, over and over again, telling him that a sensor he did not know he had is registering the feel of something lying on his forehead. He brushes his hand across his brow but the sensor insists that the unnamed presence continues to lie there with all the weight of a word such as might have been used to command the creation of the world.
Sign up to rate and review this story