by Poul Anderson
Three women: one is dead; one is alive; One is both and neither, and will never live and never die, being immortal in SUM.
On a hill above that valley through which runs the highroad, I await Her passage. Frost came early this year, and the grasses have paled. Otherwise the slope is begrown with blackberry bushes that have been harvested by men and birds, leaving only briars, and with certain apple trees. They are very old, those trees, survivors of an orchard raised by generations which none but SUM now remembers (I can see a few fragments of wall thrusting above the brambles)—scattered crazily over the hillside and as crazily gnarled. A little fruit remains on them. Chill across my skin, a gust shakes loose an apple. I hear it knock on the earth, another stroke of sonic eternal clock. The shrubs whisper to the wind.
Elsewhere the ridges around me are wooded, alive with scarlets and brasses and bronzes. The sky is huge, the westering sun wanbright. The valley is filling with a deeper blue, a haze whose slight smokiness touches roy nostrils. This is Indian summer, the funeral pyre of the year.
There have been other seasons. There have been other lifetimes, before mine and hers; and in those days they had words to sing with. We still allow ourselves music, though, and I have spent much time planting melodies around my rediscovered words. “In the greenest growth of the May-time—” I unsling the harp on my back, and tune it afresh, and sing it to her, straight into autumn and the waning day.
“—You came, and the son came after,
And the green grew golden above:
And the flag-flowers lightened with laughter,
And the meadowsweet shook with love.”
A footfall stirs the grasses, quite gently, and the woman says, trying to chuckle, “Why, thank you.”
Once, so soon after my one’s death that I was still dazed by it, I stood in the home that had been ours. This was on the hundred and first floor of a most desirable building. After dark the city flamed for us, blinked, glittered, flung immense sheets of radiance forth like banners. Nothing but SUM could have controlled the firefly dance of a million aircars among the towers: or, for that matter, have maintained the entire city, from nuclear powerplants through automated factories, physical and economic distribution networks, sanitation, repair, services, education, culture, order, everything as one immune immortal organism. We had gloried in belonging to this as well as to each other.
But that night I told the kitchen to throw the dinner it had made for me down the waste chute, and ground under my heel the chemical consolations which the medicine cabinet extended to me, and kicked the cleaner as it picked up the mess, and ordered the lights not to go on, anywhere in our suite. I stood by the viewall, looking out across megalopolis, and it was tawdry. In my hands I had a little clay figure she had fashioned herself. I turned it over and over and over.
But I had forgotten to forbid the door to admit visitors. It recognized this woman and opened for her. She had come with the kindly intention of teasing me out of a mood that seemed to her unnatural. I heard her enter, and looked around through the gloom. She had almost the same height as my girl did, and her hair chanced to be bound in a way that my girl often favored, and the figurine dropped from my grasp and shattered, because for an instant I thought she was my girl. Since then I have been hard put not to hate Thrakia.
This evening, even without so much sundown light, I would not make that mistake. Nothing hut the silvery bracelet about her left wrist bespeaks the past we share. She is in wildcountry garb: boots, kilt of true fur and belt of true leather, knife at hip and rifle slung on shoulder. Her locks are matted and snarled, her skin brown from weeks of weather; scratches and smudges show beneath the fantastic zigzags she has painted in many colors on herself. She wears a necklace of bird skulls.
Now that one who is dead was, in her own way, more a child of trees and horizons than Thrakia’s followers. She was so much at home in the open that she had no need to put off clothes or cleanliness, reason or gentleness, when we sickened of the cities and went forth beyond them. From this trait I got many of the names I bestowed on her, such as Wood’s Colt or Fallow Hind or, from my prowlings among ancient books, Dryad and Elven. (She liked me to choose her names, and this pleasure had no end, because she was inexhaustible.)
I let my harpstring ring into silence. Turning about, I say to Thrakia, “I wasn’t singing for you. Not for anyone. Leave me alone.”
She draws a breath. The wind ruffles her hair and brings me an odor of her: not female sweetness, but fear. She clenches her fists and says, “You’re crazy.”
“Wherever did you find a meaningful word like that?” I gibe; for my own pain and—to be truthful—my own fear must strike out at something, and here she stands. “Aren’t you content any longer with ‘untranquil’ or ‘disequilibrated’?”
“I got it from you,” she says defiantly, “you and your damned archaic songs. There’s another word, ‘damned.’ And how it suits you! When are you going to stop this morbidity?”
“And commit myself to a clinic and have my brain laundered nice and sanitary? Not soon, darling.” I use that last word aforethought, but she cannot know what scorn and sadness are in it for me, who know that once it could also have been a name for my girl. The official grammar and pronunciation of language is as frozen as every other aspect of our civilization, thanks to electronic recording and neuronic teaching; but meanings shift and glide about like subtle serpents. (O adder that stung my Foalfoot!)
I shrug and say in my driest, most city-technological voice, “Actually, I’m the practical, nonmorbid one. Instead of running away from my emotions—via drugs, or neuroadjustment, or playing at savagery like you, for that matter—I’m about to implement a concrete plan for getting back the person who made me happy.”
“By disturbing Her on Her way home?”
“Anyone has the right to petition the dark Queen while she’s abroad on earth.”
“But this is past the proper time—”
“No law’s involved, just custom. People are afraid to meet Her outside a crowd, a town, bright flat lights. They won’t admit it, but they arc. So I came here precisely not to be part of a queue. I don’t want to speak into a recorder for subsequent computer analysis of my words. How could I be sure She was listening? I want to meet Her as myself, a unique being, and look in Her eyes while I make my prayer.”
Thrakia chokes a little. “She’ll be angry.”
“Is She able to be angry, anymore?”
“I… I don’t know. What you mean to ask for is so impossible, though. So absurd. That SUM should give you back your girl. You know It never makes exceptions.”
“Isn’t She Herself an exception?”
“That’s different. You’re being silly. SUM has to have a, well, a direct human liaison. Emotional and cultural feedback, as well as statistics. How else can It govern rationally? And She must have been chosen out of the whole world. Your girl, what was she? Nobody!”
“To me, she was everybody.”
“You—” Thrakia catches her lip in her teeth. One hand reaches out and closes on my bare forearm, a hard hot touch, the grimy fingernails biting. When I make no response, she lets go and stares at the ground. A V of outbound geese passes overhead. Their cries come shrill through the wind, which is loudening in the forest.
“Well,” she says, “you are special. You always were. You went to space and came back, with the Great Captain. You’re maybe the only man alive who understands about the ancients. And your singing, yes, you don’t really entertain, your songs trouble people and can’t be forgotten. So maybe She will listen to you. But SUM won’t. It can’t give special resurrections. Once that was done, a single time, wouldn’t it have to be done for everybody? The dead would overrun the living.”
“Not necessarily,” I say. “In any event, I mean to try.”
“Why can’t you wait for the promised time? Surely, then, SUM will re-create you two in the same generation.”
“I’d have to live out this life, at least, without her,” I say, looking away also, down to the highroad which shines through shadow like death’s snake, the length of the valley. “Besides, how do you know there ever will be any resurrections? We have only a promise. No, less than that. An announced policy.”
She gasps, steps back, raises her hands as if to fend me off. Her soul bracelet casts light into my eyes. I recognize an embryo exorcism. She lacks ritual; every “superstition” was patiently scrubbed out of our metal-and-energy world, long ago. But if she has no word for it, no concept, nevertheless she recoils from blasphemy.
So I say, wearily, not wanting an argument, wanting only to wait here alone:
“Never mind. There could be some natural catastrophe, like a giant asteroid striking, that wiped out the system before conditions had become right for resurrections to commence.”
“That’s impossible,” she says, almost frantic. “The homeostats, the repair functions--”
“All right, call it a vanishingly unlikely theoretical contingency. Let’s declare that I’m so selfish I want Swallow Wing back now, in this life of mine, and don’t give a curse whether that’ll be fair to the rest of you.”
You won’t care either, anyway, I think. None of you. You don’t grieve. It is your own precious private consciousnesses that you wish to preserve; no one else is close enough to you to matter very much. Would you believe me if I told you I am quite prepared to offer SUM my own death in exchange for It releasing Blossom-in-the-Sun?
I don’t speak that thought, which would be cruel, nor repeat what is crueller: my fear that SUM lies, that the dead never will he disgorged. For (I am not the All-Controller, I think not with vacuum and negative energy levels but with ordinary begotten molecules; yet I can reason somewhat dispassionately, being disillusioned) consider—The object of the game is to maintain a society stable, just, and sane. This requires satisfaction not only of somatic, but of symbolic and instinctual needs. Thus children must be allowed to come into being. The minimum number per generation is equal to the maximum: that number which will maintain a constant population.
It is also desirable to remove the fear of death from men. Hence the promise:
At such time as it is socially feasible, SUM will begin to refashion us, with our complete memories but in the pride of our youth. This can be done over and over, life after life across the millennia. So death is, indeed, a sleep.
—in that sleep of death, what dreams may come—
No. I myself dare not dwell on this. I ask merely, privately: Just when and how does SUM expect conditions (in a stabilized society, mind you) to have become so different from today’s that the reborn can, in their millions, safely be welcomed hack?
I see no reason why SUM should not lie to us. We, too, are objects in the world that It manipulates.
“We’ve quarreled about this before, Thrakia,” I sigh. “Often. Why do you bother?”
“I wish I knew,” she answers low. Half to herself, she goes on: “Of course I want to copulate with you. You must be good, the way that girl used to follow you about with her eyes, and smile when she touched your hand, and—But you can’t be better than everyone else. That’s unreasonable. There are only so many possible ways. So why do I care if you wrap yourself up in silence and go off alone? Is it that that makes you a challenge?”
“You think too much,” I say. “Even here. You’re a pretend primitive. You visit wildcountry to ‘slake inborn atavistic impulses’… but you can’t dismantle that computer inside yourself and simply feel, simply be.”
She bristles. I touched a nerve there. Looking past her, along the ridge of fiery maple and sumac, brassy elm and great dun oak, I see others emerge from beneath the trees. Women exclusively, her followers, as unkempt as she; one has a brace of ducks lashed to her waist, and their blood has trickled down her thigh and dried black. For this movement, this unadmitted mystique has become Thrakia’s by now: that not only men should forsake the easy routine and the easy pleasure of the cities, and become again, for a few weeks each year, the carnivores who begot our species; women too should seek out starkness, the better to appreciate civilization when they return.
I feel a moment’s unease. We are in no park, with laid-out trails and campground services. We are in wildcountry. Not many men come here, ever, and still fewer women; for the region is, literally, beyond the law. No deed done here is punishable. We are told that this helps consolidate society, as the most violent among us may thus vent their passions. But I have spent much time in wild-country since my Morning Star went out—myself in quest of nothing but solitude—and I have watched what happens through eyes that have also read anthropology and history. Institutions are developing; ceremonies, tribalisms, acts of blood and cruelty and acts elsewhere called unnatural are becoming more elaborate and more expected every year. Then the practitioners go home to their cities and honestly believe they have been enjoying fresh air, exercise, and good tension-releasing fun.
Let her get angry enough and Thrakia can call knives to her aid.
Wherefore I make myself lay both hands on her shoulders, and meet the tormented gaze, and say most gently, “I’m sorry. I know you mean well. You’re afraid She will be annoyed and bring misfortune on your people.”
Thrakia gulps. “No,” she whispers. “That wouldn’t be logical. But I’m afraid of what might happen to you. And then—” Suddenly she throws herself against me. I feel arms, breasts, belly press through my tunic, and smell meadows in her hair and musk in her mouth. “You’d be gone!” she wails. “Then who’d sing to us?”
“Why, the planet’s crawling with entertainers,” I stammer.
“You’re more than that,” she says. “So much more. I don’t like what you sing, not really—and what you’ve sung since that stupid girl died, oh, meaningless, horrible!—but, I don’t know why, I want you to trouble me.”
Awkward, I pat her back. The sun now stands very little above the treetops. Its rays slant interminably through the booming, frosting air. I shiver in my tunic and buskins and wonder what to do.
A sound rescues me. It conies from one end of the valley below us, where further view is blocked off by two cliffs; it thunders deep in our ears and rolls through the earth into our bones. We have heard that sound in the cities, and been glad to have walls and lights and multitudes around us. Now we are alone with it, the noise of Her chariot.
The women shriek, I hear them faintly across wind and rumble and my own pulse, and they vanish into the woods. They will seek their camp, dress warmly, build enormous fires; presently they will eat their ecstatics, and rumors are uneasy about what they do after that.
Thrakia seizes my left wrist, above the soul bracelet, and pulls. “Harper, come with me!” she pleads. I break loose from her and stride down the hill toward the road. A scream follows me for a moment.
Light still dwells in the sky and on the ridges, but as I descend into that narrow valley I enter dusk, and it thickens. Indistinct bramblebushes whicker where I brush them, and claw back at me. I feel the occasional scratch on my legs, the tug as my garment is snagged, the chill that I breathe, but dimly. My perceived-outer-reality is overpowered by the rushing of Her chariot and my blood. My inner-universe is fear, yes, but exaltation too, a drunkenness which sharpens instead of dulling the senses, a psychedelia which opens the reasoning mind as well as the emotions; I have gone beyond myself, I am embodied purpose. Not out of need for comfort, but to voice what Is, I return to words whose speaker rests centuries dust, and lend them my own music. I sing:
“—Gold is my heart, and the world’s golden,
And one peak tipped with light;
And the air lies still about the hill
With the first fear of night;
“Till mystery down the soundless valley
Thunders, and dark is here;
And the wind blows, and the light goes,
And the night is full of fear.
“And I know one night, on some far height,
In a tongue I never knew,
I yet shall hear the tidings clear
From them that were friends of you.
“They’ll call the news from hill to hill,
Dark and uncomforted,
Earth and sky and the winds; and I
Shall know that you are dead.—”
But I have reached the valley floor, and She has come in sight.
Her chariot is unlit, for radar eyes and inertial guides need no lamps, nor sun nor stars. Wheelless, the steel tear rides on its own roar and thrust of air. The pace is not great, far less than any of our mortals’ vehicles are wont to take. Men say the Dark Queen rides thus slowly in order that She may perceive with Her own senses and so be the better prepared to counsel SUM. But now Her annual round is finished; She is homeward bound; until spring She will dwell with It Which is our lord. Why does She not hasten tonight?
Because Death has never a need of haste? I wonder. And as I step into the middle of the road, certain lines from the yet more ancient past rise tremendous within me, and I strike my harp and chant them louder than the approaching car:
“I that in heill was and gladness
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infinnitie:
—Timor mortis conturbat inc.”
The car detects me and howls a warning. I hold my ground. The car could swing around, the road is wide and in any event a smooth surface is not absolutely necessary. But I hope, I believe that She will be aware of an obstacle in Her path, and tune in Her various amplifiers, and find me abnormal enough to stop for. Who, in SUM’s world—who, even among the explorers that It has sent beyond in Its unappeasable hunger for data—would stand in a cold wildcountry dusk and shout while his harp snarls.
“Our pleasance here is all vain glory,
This fals world is but transitory,
The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:
—Tumor mortis conturbat me.
“The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now saiy,
No dansand miny, now like to die:
—Timor mortis conturbat me.
“No state in Erd here standis sicker;
As with the wynd wavis the wicker
So wannis this world’s vanitie:
—Timor mortis conturbat me.—?”
The car draws alongside amid sinks to the ground. I let my strings die away into the wind. The sky overhead and in the west is gray-purple; eastward it is quite dark and a few early stars peer forth. Here, down in the valley, shadows are heavy and I cannot see very well.
The canopy slides back. She stands erect in the chariot, thus looming over me. Her robe and cloak are black, fluttering like restless wings; beneath the cowl Her face is a white blur. I have seen it before, under full light, amid in how many thousands of pictures; but at this hour I cannot call it back to my mind, not entirely. I list sharp-sculptured profile and pale lips, sable hair and long green eyes, but these are nothing more than words.
“What are you doing?” She has a lovely low voice; but is it, as oh, how rarely since SUM took Her to Itself, is it the least shaken? “What is that you were singing?”
My answer comes so strong that my skull resonates; for I am borne higher and higher on my tide. “Lady of Ours, I have a petition.”
“Why did you not bring it before Me when I walked among men? Tonight I am homebound. You must wait till I ride forth with the new year.”
“Lady of Ours, neither You nor I would wish living ears to hear what I have to say.”
She regards me for a long while. Do I indeed sense fear also in Her? (Surely not of me. Her chariot is armed and armored, and would react with machine speed to protect Her should I offer violence. And should I somehow, incredibly, kill Her, or wound Her beyond chemosurgical repair, She of all beings has no need to doubt death. The ordinary bracelet cries with quite sufficient radio loudness to be heard by more than one thanatic station, when we die; and in that shielding the soul can scarcely be damaged before the Winged Heels arrive to bear it off to SUM. Surely the Dark Queen’s circlet can call still further, and is still better insulated, than any mortal’s. And She will most absolutely be recreated. She has been, again and again; death and rebirth every seven years keep Her eternally young in the service of SUM. I have never been able to find out when She was first born.)
Fear, perhaps, of what I have sung and what I might speak?
At last She says—I can scarcely hear through the gusts and creakings in the trees—"Give me the Ring, then.”
The dwarf robot which stands by Her throne when She sits among men appears beside Her and extends the massive dull-silver circle to me. I place my left arm within, so that my soul is enclosed. The tablet on the upper surface of the Ring, which looks so much like a jewel, slants away from me; I cannot read what flashes onto the bezel. But the faint glow picks Her features out of murk as She bends to look.
Of course, I tell myself, the actual soul is not scanned. That would take too long. Probably the bracelet which contains the soul has an identification code built in. The Ring sends this to an appropriate part of SUM, Which instantly sends back what is recorded under that code. I hope there is nothing more to it. SUM has not seen fit to tell us.
“What do you call yourself at the moment?” She asks.
A current of bitterness crosses my tide. “Lady of Ours, why should You care? Is not my real name the number I got when I was allowed to be born?”
Calm descends once more upon Her. “If I am to evaluate properly what you say, I must know more about you than these few official data. Name indicates mood.”
I too feel unshaken again, my tide running so strong amid smooth that I might not know I was moving did I not see time recede behind me. “Lady of Ours, I cannot give You a fair answer. In this past year I have not troubled with names, or with much of anything else. But some people who knew me from earlier days call me Harper.”
“What do you do besides make that sinister music?”
“These days, nothing, Lady of Ours. I’ve money to live out my life, if I eat sparingly and keep no home. Often I am fed and housed for the sake of my songs.
“What you sang is unlike anything I have heard since—” Anew, briefly, that robot serenity is shaken. “Since before the world was stabilized. You should not wake dead symbols, Harper. They walk through men’s dreams.”
“Is that bad?”
“Yes. The dreams become nightmares. Remember: Mankind, every man who ever lived, was insane before SUM brought order, reason, and peace.”
“Well, then,” I say, “I will cease and desist if I may have my own dead wakened for me.”
She stiffens. The tablet goes out. I withdraw my arm and the Ring is stored away by Her servant. So again She is faceless, beneath flickering stars, here at the bottom of this shadowed valley. Her voice falls cold as the air: “No one can be brought back to life before Resurrection Time is ripe.”
I do not say, “What about You?” for that would be vicious. What did She think, how did She weep, when SUM chose Her of all the young on earth? What does She endure in Her centuries? I dare not imagine.
Instead, I smite my harp and sing, quietly this time:
“Strew on her roses, roses,
And never a spray of yew.
In quiet she reposes:
Ah! Would that I did too.”
The Dark Queen cries, “What are you doing? Are you really insane?” I go straight to the last stanza.
“Her cabin’d ample Spirit
It flutter’d and fail’d for breath.
To-night it doth inherit
The vasty hall of Death.”
I know why my songs strike so hard: because they bear dreads and passions that no one is used to—that most of us hardly know could exist—in SUM’s ordered universe. But I had not the courage to hope She would be as torn by them as I see. Has She not lived with more darkness and terror than the ancients themselves could conceive? She calls, “Who has died?”
“She had many names, Lady of Ours,” I say. “None was beautiful enough. I can tell You her number, though.”
“Your daughter? I … sometimes I am asked if a dead child cannot be brought back. Not often, anymore, when they go so soon to the crèche. But sometimes. I tell the mother she may have a new one; but if ever We started re-creating dead infants, at what age level could We stop?”
“No, this was my woman.”
“Impossible!” Her tone seeks to be not unkindly but is, instead, well-nigh frantic. “You will have no trouble finding others. You are handsome, and your psyche is, is, is extraordinary. It burns like Lucifer.”
“Do You remember the name Lucifer, Lady of Ours?” I pounce. “Then You are old indeed. So old that You must also remember how a man might desire only one woman, but her above the whole world and heaven.”
She tries to defend Herself with a jeer: “Was that mutual, Harper? I know more of mankind than you do, and surely I am the last chaste woman in existence.”
“Now that she is gone, Lady, yes, perhaps You are. But we—Do you know how she died? We had gone to a wildeountry area. A man saw her, alone, while I was off hunting gem rocks to make her a necklace. He approached her. She refused him. He threatened force. She fled. This was desert land, viper land, and she was barefoot. One of them bit her. I did not find her till hours hater. By then the poison and the unshaded sun—She died quite soon after she told me what had happened and that she loved me. I could not get her body to chemosurgery in time for normal revival procedures. I had to let them cremate her and take her soul away to SUM.”
“What right have you to demand her back, when no one else can be given their own?”
“The right that I love her, and she loves me. We are more necessary to each other than sun or moon. I do not think You could find another two people of whom this is so, Lady. Amid is not everyone entitled to claim what is necessary to his life? How else can society be kept whole?”
“You are being fantastic,” She says thinly. “Let me go.”
“No, Lady, I am speaking sober truth. But poor plain words won’t serve me. I sing to You because then maybe You will understand.” And I strike my harp anew; but it is more to her than Her that I sing.
“If I had thought thou couldst have died,
I might not weep for thee:
But I forgot, when by thy side,
That thou couldst mortal be:
“It never through my mind had past
The time would e’er be o’er,
And I on thee should look my last,
And though shouldst smile no more!”
“I cannot—” She falters. “I do not know—any such feelings—so strong—existed any longer.”
“Now You do, Lady of Ours. And is that not an important datum for SUM?”
“Yes. If true.” Abruptly She leans toward me. I see Her shudder in the murk, under the flapping cloak, and hear Her jaws clatter with cold. “I cannot linger here. But ride with Me. Sing to Me. I think I can bear it.”
So much have I scarcely expected. But my destiny is upon me. I mount into the chariot. The canopy slides shut and we proceed.
The main cabin encloses us. Behind its rear door must be facilities for Her living on earth; this is a big vehicle. But here is little except curved panels. They are true wood of different comely grains: so She also needs periodic escape from our machine existence, does She? Furnishing is scant and austere. The only sound is our passage, muffled to a murmur for us; and, because their photomultipliers are not activated, the scaniners show nothing outside but night. We huddle close to a glower, hands extended toward its fieriness. Our shoulders brush, our bare arms, Her skin is soft and Her hair falls loose over the thrown-back cowl, smelling of the summer which is dead. What, is She still human?
After a timeless time, She says, not yet hooking at me: “The thing you sang, there on the highroad as I came near—I do not remember it. Not even from the years before I became what I am.”
“It is older than SUM,” I answer, “and its truth will outlive It.”
“Truth?” I see Her tense Herself. “Sing Me the rest.”
My fingers are no longer too numb to call forth chords.
“—Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
Princis, Prelattis, and Potestatis,
Saith rich and poor of all degree:
—Timor mortis conturbat me.”
“He takis the knichtis in to the field
Enarmit under helm and scheild;
Victor he is at all mellie:
—Timor niortis conturbat me.
“That strong unmerciful tyrant
Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
The babe full of benignitie:
—Timor mortis conturbat me.
“He takis the cam pion in the stour,
The captain closit in the tour,
The ladie in boor full of bewtie:—”
(There I must stop a moment.)
“Timor mortis conturbat me.”
“He spans no lord for his piscence,
No clerk for his intelligence;
His awful straik may no man flee:
—Timor mortis conturbat me.”
She breaks me off; clapping hands to ears amid half shrieking, “No!”
I, grown unmerciful, pursue Her: “You understand now, do You not? You are not eternal either. SUM isn’t. Not Earth, not sun, not stars. We hid from the truth. Every one of us. I too, until I lost the one thing which made everything make sense. Then I had nothing left to lose, and could look with clear eyes. And what I saw was Death.”
“Get out! Let Me alone!”
“I will not let the whole world alone, Queen, until I get her back. Give me her again, and I’ll believe in SUM again. I’ll praise It till men dance for joy to hear Its name.”
She challenges me with wildcat eyes. “Do you think such matters to It?”
“Well,” I shrug, “songs could be useful. They could help achieve the great objective sooner. Whatever that is. ‘Optimization of total human activity’—wasn’t that the program? I don’t know if it still is. SUM has been adding to Itself so long. I doubt if You Yourself understand Its purpose, Lady of Ours.”
“Don’t speak as if It were alive,” She says harshly. “It is a computer-effector complex. Nothing more.”
“Are You certain?”
“I—yes. It thinks, more widely and deeply than any human ever did or could; but It is not alive, not aware, It has no consciousness. That is one reason why It decided It needed Me.”
“Be that as it may, Lady,” I tell Her, “the ultimate result, whatever It finally does with us, lies far in the future. At present I care about that; I worry; I resent our loss of self-determination. But that’s because only such abstractions are left to me. Give me back my Lightfoot, and she, not the distant future, will be my concern. I’ll be grateful, honestly grateful, and You Two will know it from the songs I then choose to sing. Which, as I said, might be helpful to It.”
“You are unbelievably insolent,” She says without force.
“No, Lady, just desperate,” I say.
The ghost of a smile touches Her lips. She leans back, eyes hooded, and murmurs, “Well, I’ll take you there. What happens then, you realize, lies outside My power. My observations, My recommendations, are nothing but a few items to take into account, among billions. However… we have a long way to travel this night. Give me what data you think will help you, Harper.”
I do not finish the Lament. Nor do I dwell in any other fashion on grief. Instead, as the hours pass, I call upon those who dealt with the joy (not the fun, not the short delirium, but the joy) that man and woman might once have of each other.
Knowing where we are bound, I too need such comfort.
And the night deepens, and the leagues fall behind us, and finally we are beyond habitation, beyond wildcountry, in the land where life never comes. By crooked moon and waning starlight I see the plain of concrete and iron, the missiles and energy projectors crouched hike beasts, the robot aircraft wheeling aloft: and the lines, the relay towers, the scuttling beetle-shaped carriers, that whole transcendent nerve-blood-sinew by which SUM knows and orders the world. For all the flitting about, for all the forces which seethe, here is altogether still. The wind itself seems to have frozen to death. Hoarfrost is gray on the steel shapes. Ahead of us, tiered and mountainous, begins to appear the castle of SUM.
She Who rides with me does not give sign of noticing that my songs have died in my throat. What humanness She showed is departing; Her face is cold and shut, Her voice bears a ring of metal. She hooks straight ahead. But She does speak to me for a little while yet:
“Do you understand what is going to happen? For the next half year I will be linked with SUM, integral, another component of It. I suppose you will see Me, hut that will merely be My flesh. What speaks to you will be SUM.”
“I know.” The words must be forced forth. My coming this far is more triumph than any man in creation before me has won; and I am here to do battle for my Dancer-on-Moonglades; but nonetheless my heart shakes me, and is loud in my skull, and my sweat stinks.
I manage, though, to add: “You will be a part of It, Lady of Ours. That gives me hope.”
For an instant She turns to me, and lays Her hand across mine, and something makes Her again so young and ushaken that I almost forget the girl who died; and she whispers, “If you knew how I hope!”
The instant is gone, and I am alone among machines.
We must stop before the castle gate. The wall looms sheer above, so high and high that it seems to be toppling upon me against the westward march of the stars, so black and black that it does not only drink down every light, it radiates blindness. Challenge and response quiver on electronic bands I cannot sense. The outer-guardian parts of It have perceived a mortal aboard this craft. A missile launcher swings about to aim its three serpents at me. But the Dark Queen answers—She does not trouble to be peremptory—and the castle opens its jaws for us.
We descend. Once, I think, we cross a river. I hear a rushing and hollow echoing and see droplets glitter where they are cast onto the viewports and outlined against dark. They vanish at once: liquid hydrogen, perhaps, to keep certain parts near absolute zero?
Much hater we stop and the canopy slides back. I rise with Her. We are in a room, or cavern, of which I can see nothing, for there is no light except a dull bluish phosphorescence which streams from every solid object, also from Her flesh and mine. But I judge the chamber is enormous, for a sound of great machines at work comes very remotely, as if heard through dream, while our own voices are swallowed up by distance. Air is pumped through, neither warm nor cold, totally without odor, a dead wind.
We descend to the floor. She stands before me, hands crossed on breast, eyes half shut beneath the cowl and not looking at me nor away from me. “Do what you are told, Harper,” She says in a voice that has never an overtone, “precisely as you are told.” She turns and departs at an even pace. I watch Her go until I can no longer tell Her luminosity from the formless swirlings within my own eyeballs.
A claw plucks my tunic. I hook down and am surprised to see that time dwarf robot has been waiting for me this whole time. How long a time that was, I cannot tell.
Its squat form leads me in another direction. Weariness crawls upward through mime, my feet stumble, my lips tingle, lids are weighted and muscles have each their separate aches. Now and then I feel a jag of fear, but dully. When the robot indicates Lie down here, I am grateful.
The box fits me well. I let various wires be attached to me, various needles be injected which lead into tubes. I pay little attention to the machines which cluster amid murmur around me. The robot goes away. I sink into blessed darkness.
I wake renewed in body. A kind of shell seems to have grown between my forebrain and the old animal parts. Far away I can feel the horror and hear the screaming and thrashing of my instincts; but awareness is chill, calm, logical. I have also a feeling that I slept for weeks, months, while leaves blew loose and snow fell on the upper world. But this may be wrong, and in no case does it matter. I am about to be judged by SUM.
The little faceless robot leads me off, through murmurous black corridors where the dead wind blows. I unsling my harp and clutch it to me, my sole friend and weapon. So the tranquility of the reasoning mind which has been decreed for me cannot be absolute. I decide that It simply does not want to be bothered by anguish. (No; wrong; nothing so humanhike; It has no desires; beneath that power to reason is nullity.)
At length a wall opens for us and we enter a room where She sits enthroned. The self-radiation of metal and flesh is not apparent here, for light is provided, a featureless white radiance with no apparent source. White, too, is the muted sound of the machines which encompass Her throne. White are Her robe and face. I look away from the multitudinous unwinking scanner eyes, into Hers, but She does not appear to recognize me. Does She even see me? SUM has reached out with invisible fingers of electromagnetic induction and taken Her back into Itself. I do not tremble or sweat—I cannot—but I square my shoulders, strike one plangent chord, and wait for It to speak.
It does, from sonic invisible place. I recognize the voice It has chosen to use: my own. The overtones, the inflections are true, normal, what I myself would use in talking as one reasonable man to another. Why not? In computing what to do about me, and in programming Itself accordingly, SUM must have used so many billion bits of information that adequate accent is a negligible subproblem.
No… there I am mistaken again… SUM does not do things on the basis that It might as well do them as not. This talk with myself is intended to have some effect on me. I do not know what.
“Well,” It says pleasantly, “you made quite a journey, didn’t you? I’m glad. Welcome.”
My instincts bare teeth to hear those words of humanity used by the unfeeling unalive. My logical mind considers replying with an ironic “Thank you,” decides against it, and holds me silent.
“You see,” SUM continues after a moment that whirrs, “you are unique. Pardon Me if I speak a little bluntly. Your sexual monomania is just one aspect of a generally atavistic, superstition-oriented personality. And yet, unlike the ordinary misfit, you’re both strong and realistic enough to cope with the world. This chance to meet you, to analyze you while you rested, has opened new insights for Me on human psychophysiology. Which may head to improved techniques for governing it and its evolution.”
“That being so,” I reply, “give me my reward.”
“Now look here,” SUM says in a mild tone, “you if anyone should know I’m not omnipotent. I was built originally to help govern a civilization grown too complex. Gradually, as My program of self-expansion progressed, I took over more and more decision-making functions. They were given to Me. People were happy to be relieved of responsibility, and they could see for themselves how much better I was running things than any mortal could. But to this day, My authority depends on a substantial consensus. If I started playing favorites, as by re-creating your girl, well, I’d have troubles.”
“The consensus depends more on awe than on reason,” I say. “You haven’t abolished the gods, You’ve simply absorbed them into Yourself. If You choose to pass a miracle for me, your prophet singer—and I will be Your prophet if You do this—why, that strengthens the faith of the rest.”
“So you think. But your opinions aren’t based on any exact data. The historical and anthropological records from the past before Me are unquantitative. I’ve already phased them out of the curriculum. Eventually, when the culture’s ready for such a move, I’ll order them destroyed. They’re too misleading. Look what they’ve done to you.”
I grin into the scanner eyes. “Instead,” I say, “people will be encouraged to think that before the world was, was SUM. All right. I don’t care, as long as I get my girl back. Pass me a miracle, SUM, and I’ll guarantee You a good payment.”
“But I have no miracles. Not in your sense. You know how the soul works. The metal bracelet encloses a pseudovirus, a set of giant protein molecules with taps directly to the bloodstream and nervous system. They record the chromosome pattern, the synapse flash, the permanent changes, everything. At the owner’s death, the bracelet is dissected out. The Winged Heels bring it here, and the information contained is transferred to one of My memory banks. I can use such a record to guide the growing of a new body in the vats: a young body, on which the former habits and recollections are imprinted. But you don’t understand the complexity of the process, Harper. It takes Me weeks, every seven years, and every available biochemical facility, to re-create My human liaison. And the process isn’t perfect, either. The pattern is affected by storage. You might say that this body and brain you see before you remembers each death. And those are short deaths. A longer one—man, use your sense. Imagine.”
I can't; and the shield between reason and feeling begins to crack. I had sung, of my darling dead.
“No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.”
Peace, at least. But if the memory-storage is not permanent but circulating; if, within those gloomy caverns of tubes and wire and outerspace cold, some remnant of her psyche must flit and flicker, alone, unremembering, aware of nothing hut having lost life—No!
I smite the harp and shout so the room rings: “Give her back! Or I’ll kill you!”
SUM finds it expedient to chuckle; and, horribly, the smile is reflected for a moment on the Dark Queen’s hips, though otherwise She never stirs. “And how do you propose to do that?” It asks me.
It knows, I know, what I have in mind, so I counter: “How do You propose to stop me?”
“No need. You’ll be considered a nuisance. Finally someone will decide you ought to have psychiatric treatment. They’ll query My diagnostic outlet. I’ll recommend certain excisions.”
“On the other hand, since You’ve sifted my mind by now, and since You know how I’ve affected people with my songs—even the Lady yonder, even Her—wouldn’t you rather have me working for You? With words like, ‘O taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is; blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 0 fear the Lord, ye that are his saints; for they that fear him lack nothing.’ I can make You into God.”
“In a sense, I already am God.”
“And in another sense not. Not yet.” I can endure no more. “Why are we arguing? You made Your decision before I woke. Tell me and let me go!”
With an odd carefulness, SUM responds: “I’m still studying you. No harm in admitting to you, My knowledge of the human psyche is as yet imperfect. Certain areas won’t yield to computation. I don’t know precisely what you’d do, Harper. If to that uncertainty I added a potentially dangerous precedent—”
“Kill me, then.” Let my ghost wander forever with hers, down in Your cryogenic dreams.
“No, that’s also inexpedient. You’ve made yourself too conspicuous and controversial. Too many people know by now that you went off with the Lady.” Is it possible that, behind steel and energy, a nonexistent hand brushes across a shadow face in puzzlement? My heartbeat is thick in the silence.
Suddenly It shakes me with decision: “The calculated probabilities do favor your keeping your promises and making yourself useful. Therefore I shall grant your request. However—”
I am on my knees. My forehead knocks on the floor until blood runs into my eyes. I hear through storm winds:
“—testing must continue. Your faith in Me is not absolute; in fact, you’re very skeptical of what you call My goodness. Without additional proof of your willingness to trust Me, I can’t let you have the kind of importance which your getting your dead back from Me would give you. Do you understand?”
The question does not sound rhetorical. “Yes,” I sob.
“Well, then,” says my civilized, almost amiable voice, “I computed that you’d react much as you have done, and prepared for the likelihood. Your woman’s body was re-created while you lay under study. The data which make personality are now being fed back into her neurones. She’ll be ready to leave this place by the time you do.
“I repeat, though, there has to be a testing. The procedure is also necessary for its effect on you. If you’re to be My prophet, you’ll have to work pretty closely with Me; you’ll have to undergo a great deal of reconditioning; this night we begin the process. Are you willing?”
“Yes, yes, yes, what must I do?”
“Only this: Follow the robot out. At some point, she, your woman, will join you. She’ll be conditioned to walk so quietly you can’t hear her. Don’t look back. Not once, until you’re in the upper world. A single glance behind you will be an act of rebellion against Me, and a datum indicating you can’t really be trusted and that ends everything. Do you understand?”
“Is that all?” I cry. “Nothing more?”
“It will prove more difficult than you think,” SUM tells me. My voice fades, as if into illimitable distances: “Farewell, worshipper.”
The robot raises me to my feet, I stretch out my arms to the Dark Queen. Half blinded with tears, I nonetheless see that She does not see me. “Goodbye,” I mumble, and let the robot lead me away.
Our walking is long through those dark miles. At first I am in too much of a turmoil, and later too stunned, to know where or how we are bound. But later still, slowly, I become aware of my flesh and clothes and the robot’s alloy, glimmering blue in blackness. Sounds and smells are muffled; rarely does another machine pass by, unheeding of us. (What work does SUM have for themn?) I am so careful not to look behind me that my neck grows stiff.
Though it is not prohibited, is it, to lift my harp past my shoulder, in the course of strumming a few melodies to keep up my courage, and see if perchance a following illumination is reflected in this polished wood?
Nothing. Well, her second birth must take time—O SUM, be careful of her!—and then she must be led through many tunnels, no doubt, before she makes rendezvous with my back. Be patient, Harper.
Sing. Welcome her home. No, these hollow spaces swallow all music; and she is as yet in that trance of death from which only the sun and my kiss can wake her; if, indeed, she has joined me yet. I listen for other footfalls than my own.
Surely we haven’t much farther to go. I ask the robot, but of course I get no reply. Make an estimate. I know about how fast the chariot traveled coming down… The trouble is, time does not exist here. I have no day, no stars, no clock but my heartbeat, and I have host the count of that. Nevertheless, we must come to the end soon. What purpose would be served by walking me through this labyrinth till I die?
Well, if I am totally exhausted at the outer gate, I won’t make undue trouble when I find no Rose-in-Hand behind me.
No, now that’s ridiculous. If SUM didn’t want to heed my plea, It need merely say so. I have no power to inflict physical damage on Its parts.
Of course, It might have plans for me. It did speak of reconditioning. A series of shocks, culminating in that last one, could make me ready for whatever kind of gelding It intends to do.
Or It might have changed Its mind. Why now? It was quite frank about an uncertainty factor in the human psyche. It may have reevaluated the probabilities and decided: better not to serve my desire.
Or It may have tried, and failed. It admitted the recording process is imperfect. I must not expect quite the Gladness I knew; she will always be a little haunted. At best. But suppose the tank spawned a body with no awareness behind the eyes? Or a monster? Suppose, at this instant, I am being followed by a half-rotten corpse?
No! Stop that! SUM would know, and take corrective measures.
Would It? Can It?
I comprehend how this passage through night, where I never look to see what follows me, how this is an act of submission and confession. I am saying, with my whole existent being, that SUM is all-powerful, all-wise, all-good. To SUM I offer the love I came to win back. Oh, It looked more deeply into me than ever I did myself.
But I shall not fail.
Will SUM, though? If there has indeed been some grisly error… let me not find it out under the sky. Let her, my only, not. For what then shall we do? Could I lead her here again, knock on the iron gate, and cry, “Master, You have given me a thing unfit to exist. Destroy it and start over."—? For what might the wrongness be? Something so subtle, so pervasive, that it does not show in any way save my slow, resisted discovery that I embrace a zombie? Doesn’t it make better sense to look—make certain while she is yet drowsy with death—use the whole power of SUM to correct what may be awry?
No, SUM wants me to believe that It makes no mistakes. I agreed to that price. And to much else… I don’t know how much else, I am daunted to imagine, but that word “recondition” is ugly Does not my woman have some rights in the matter too? Shall we not at least ask her if she wants to be the wife of a prophet; shall we not, hand in hand, ask SUM what the price of her life is to her?
Was that a footfall? Almost, I whirl about. I check myself and stand shaking; names of hers break from my lips. The robot urges me on.
Imagination. It wasn’t her step. I am alone. I will always be alone.
The halls wind upward. Or so I think; I have grown too weary for much kinesthetic sense. We cross the sounding river and I am bitten to the bone by the cold which blows upward around the bridge, and I may not turn about to offer the naked newborn woman my garment. I lurch through endless chambers where machines do meaningless things. She hasn’t seen them before. Into what nightmare has she risen; and why don’t I, who wept into her dying sense that I loved her, why don’t I look at her, why don’t I speak?
Well, I could talk to her. I could assure the puzzled mute dead that I have come to lead her back into sunlight. Could I not? I ask the robot. It does not reply. I cannot remember if I may speak to her. If indeed I was ever told. I stumble forward.
I crash into a wall and fall bruised. The robot’s claw closes on my shoulder. Another arm gestures. I see a passageway, very long and narrow, through the stone. I will have to crawl through. At the end, at the end, the door is swinging wide. The dear real dusk of Earth pours through into this darkness. I am blinded and deafened.
Do I hear her cry out? Was that the final testing; or was my own sick, shaken mind betraying me; is there a destiny which, like SUM with us, makes tools of suns and SUM? I don’t know. I know only that I turned, and there she stood. Her hair flowed long, loose, past the remembered face from which the trance was just departing, on which the knowing and the hove of me had just awakened—flowed down over the body that reached forth arms, that took one step to meet me and was halted.
The great grim robot at her own back takes her to it. I think it sends lightning through her brain. She falls. It bears her away.
My guide ignores my screaming. Irresistible, it thrusts me out through the tunnel. The door clangs in my face. I stand before the wall which is like a mountain. Dry snow hisses across concrete. The sky is bloody with dawn; stars still gleam in the west, and arc lights are scattered over the twilit plain of the machines.
Presently I go dumb. I become almost calm. What is there left to have feelings about? The door is iron, the wall is stone fused into one basaltic mass. I walk some distance off into the wind, turn around, lower my head, and charge. Let my brains be smeared across Its gate; the pattern will be my hieroglyphic for hatred.
I am seized from behind. The force that stops me must needs be bruisingly great. Released, I crumple to the ground before a machine with talons and wings. My voice from it says, “Not here. I’ll carry you to a safe place.”
“What more can You do to me?” I croak.
“Release you. You won’t be restrained or molested on any orders of Mine.”
“Obviously you’re going to appoint yourself My enemy forever. This is an unprecedented situation, a valuable chance to collect data.”
“You tell me this, You warn me, deliberately?”
“Of course. My computation is that these words will have the effect of provoking your utmost effort.”
“You won’t give her again? You don’t want my love?”
“Not under the circumstances. Too uncontrollable. But your hatred should, as I say, be a useful experimental tool.”
“I’ll destroy You,” I say.
It does not deign to speak further. Its machine picks me up and flies off with me. I am left on the fringes of a small town farther south. Then I go insane.
I do not much know what happens during that winter, nor care. The blizzards are too loud in my head. I walk the ways of Earth, among lordly towers, under neatly groomed trees, into careful gardens, over bland, bland campuses. I am unwashed, uncombed, unbarbered; my tatters flap about me and my bones are near thrusting through the skin; folk do not like to meet these eyes sunken so far into this skull, and perhaps for that reason they give me to eat. I sing to them.
“From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye
And the spirit that stan’ by the naked man
In the Book of Moons defend ye!
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken
Nor travel from yourselves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon.”
Such things perturb them, do not belong in their chrome-edged universe. So I am often driven away with curses, and sometimes I must flee those who would arrest me and scrub my brain smooth. An alley is a good hiding place, if I can find one in the oldest part of a city; I crouch there and yowl with the cats. A forest is also good. My pursuers dislike to enter any place where any wildness lingers.
But some feel otherwise. They have visited parklands, preserves, actual wild-country. Their purpose was overconscious—measured, planned savagery, and a clock to tell them when they must go home—but at least they are not afraid of silences and unlighted nights. As spring returns, certain among them begin to follow me. They are merely curious, at first. But slowly, month by month, especially among the younger ones, my madness begins to call to something in them.
“With an host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander
With a burning spear, and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world’s edge.
Me thinks it is no journey.”
They sit at my feet and listen to me sing. They dance, crazily, to my harp. The girls bend close, tell me how I fascinate them, invite me to copulate. This I refuse, and when I tell them why they are puzzled, a little frightened maybe, but often they strive to understand.
For my rationality is renewed with the hawthorn blossoms. I bathe, have my hair and beard shorn, find clean raiment, and take care to eat what my body needs. Less and less do I rave before anyone who will listen; more and more do I seek solitude, quietness, under the vast wheel of the stars, and think.
What is man? Why is man? We have buried such questions; we have sworn they are dead—that they never really existed, being devoid of empirical meaning—and we have dreaded that they might raise the stones we heaped on them, rise and walk the world again of nights. Alone, I summon them to me. They cannot hurt their fellow dead, among whom I now number myself.
I sing to her who is gone. The young people hear and wonder. Sometimes they weep.
“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”
“But this is not so!” they protest. “We will die and sleep a while, and then we will live forever in SUM.”
I answer as gently as may be: “No. Remember I went there. So I know you are wrong. And even if you were right, it would not be right that you should be right.”
“Don’t you see, it is not right that a thing should be the lord of man. It is not right that we should huddle through our whole lives in fear of finally losing them. You are not parts in a machine, and you have better ends than helping the machine run smoothly.”
I dismiss them and stride off, solitary again, into a canyon where a river clangs, or onto some gaunt mountain peak. No revelation is given me. I climb and creep toward the truth.
Which is that SUM must be destroyed, not in revenge, not in hate, not in fear, simply because the human spirit cannot exist in the same reality as It.
But what, then, is our proper reality? And how shall we attain it?
I return with my songs to the lowlands. Word about me has gone widely. They are a large crowd who follow me down the highroad until it has changed into a street.
“The Dark Queen will soon come to these parts,” they tell me. “Abide till She does. Let Her answer those questions you put to us, which make us sleep so badly.”
“Let me retire to prepare myself,” I say. I go up a long flight of steps. The people watch from below, dumb with awe, till I vanish. Such few as were in the building depart. I walk down vaulted halls, through hushed high-ceilinged rooms full of tables, among shelves made massive by books. Sunlight slants dusty through the windows.
The half memory has plagued me of late: once before, I know not when, this year of mine also took place. Perhaps in this library I can find the tale that—casually, I suppose, in my abnormal childhood—I read. For man is older than SUM: wiser, I swear; his myths hold more truth than Its mathematics. I spend three days and most of three nights in my search. There is scant sound but the rustling of heaves between my hands. Folk place offerings of food amid drink at the door. They tell themselves they do so out of pity, or curiosity, or to avoid the nuisance of having me die in an unconventional fashion. But I know better.
At the end of the three days I am little further along. I have too much material; I keep going off on sidetracks of beauty and fascination. (Which SUM means to eliminate.) My Education was like everyone else’s, science, rationality, good sane adjustment. (SUM writes our curricula, amid the teaching machines have direct connections to It.) Well, I can make some of my lopsided training work for me. My reading has given me sufficient clues to prepare a search program. I sit down before an information retrieval console and run my fingers across its keys. They make a clattery music.
Electron beams are swift hounds. Within seconds the screen lights up with words, and I read who I am.
It is fortunate that I am a fast reader. Before I can press the Clear button, the unreeling words are wiped out. For an instant the screen quivers with formlessness, then appears:
I HAD NOT CORRELATED THESE DATA WITH THE FACTS CONCERNING YOU. THIS INTRODUCES A NEW AND INDETERMINATE QUANTITY INTO THE COMPUTATIONS.
The nirvana which has come upon me (yes, I found that word among the old books, and how portentous it is) is not passiveness, it is a tide more full and strong than that which bore me down to the Dark Queen those ages past in wildcountry. I say, as coolly as may be, “An interesting coincidence. If it is a coincidence.” Surely sonic receptors are emplaced hereabouts.
EITHER THAT, OR A CERTAIN NECESSARY CONSEQUENCE OF THE LOGIC OF EVENTS.
The vision dawning within me is so blinding bright that I cannot refrain from answering, “Or a destiny, SUM?”
MEANINGLESS. MEANINGLESS. MEANINGLESS.
“Now why did You repeat Yourself in that way? Once would have sufficed. Thrice, though, makes an incantation. Are You by any chance hoping Your words will make me stop existing?”
I DO NOT HOPE. YOU ARE AN EXPERIMENT. IF I COMPUTE A SIGNIFICANT PROBABILITY OF YOUR CAUSING SERIOUS DISTURBANCE, I WILL HAVE YOU TERMINATED.
I smile. “SUM,” I say, “I am going to terminate You.” I lean over and switch off the screen. I walk out into the evening.
Not everything is clear to me yet, that I must say and do. But enough is that I can start preaching at once to those who have been waiting for me. As I talk, others come down the street, and hear, and stay to listen. Soon they number in the hundreds.
I have no immense new truth to offer them: nothing that I have not said before, although piecemeal and unsystematically; nothing they have not felt themselves, in the innermost darkness of their beings. Today, however, knowing who I am and therefore why I am, I can put these things in words. Speaking quietly, now and then drawing on some forgotten song to show my meaning, I tell them how sick and starved their lives are; how they have made themselves slaves; how the enslavement is not even to a conscious mind, but to an insensate inanimate thing which their own ancestors began; how that thing is not the centrum of existence, but a few scraps of metal and bleats of energy, a few sad stupid patterns, adrift in unbounded space-time. Put not your faith in SUM, I tell them. SUM is doomed, even as you and I. Seek out mystery; what else is the whole cosmos but mystery? Live bravely, die and be done, and you will be more than any machnne. You may perhaps be God.
They grow tumultuous. They shout replies, some of which are animal howls. A few are for me, most are opposed. That doesn’t matter. I have reached into them, my music is being played on their nervestrings, and this is my entire purpose.
The sun goes down behind the buildings. Dusk gathers. The city remains un-illuminated. I soon realize why. She is coming, the Dark Queen Whom they wanted me to debate with. From afar we hear Her chariot thunder. Folk wail in terror. They are not wont to do that either. They used to disguise their feelings from Her and themselves by receiving Her with grave sparse ceremony. Now they would flee if they dared. I have lifted the masks.
The chariot halts in the street. She dismounts, tall and shadowy cowled. The people make way before Her like water before a shark. She climbs the stairs to face me. I see for the least instant that Her lips are not quite firm amid Her eyes abrim with tears. She whispers, too low for anyone else to hear, “Oh, Harper, I’m sorry.”
“Come join me,” I invite. “Help me set the world free.”
“No. I cannot. I have been too long with It.” She straightens. Imperium descends upon Her. Her voice rises for everyone to hear. The little television robots flit chose, bat shapes in the twilight, that the whole planet may witness my defeat. “What is this freedom you rant about?” She demands.
“To feel,” I say. “To venture. To wonder. To become men again.”
“To become beasts, you mean. Would you demolish the machines that keep us alive?”
“Yes. We must. Once they were good and useful, but we let them grow upon us like a cancer, and now nothing but destruction and a new beginning can save us.
“Have you considered the chaos?”
“Yes. It too is necessary. We will not be men without the freedom to know suffering. In it is also enlightenment. Through it we travel beyond ourselves, beyond earth and stars, space and time, to Mystery.”
“So you maintain that there is some undefined ultimate vagueness behind the measurable universe?” She smiles into the bat eyes. We have each been taught, as children, to laugh on hearing sarcasms of this kind. “Please offer me a little proof.”
“No,” I say. “Prove to me instead, beyond any doubt, that there is not something we cannot understand with words and equations. Prove to me likewise that I have no right to seek for it.
“The burden of proof is on You Two, so often have You lied to us. In the name of rationality, You resurrected myth. The better to control us! In the name of liberation, You chained our inner lives and castrated our souls. In the name of service, You bound and blinkered us. In the name of achievement, You held us to a narrower round than any swine in its pen. In the name of beneficence, You created pain, and horror, and darkness beyond darkness.” I turn to the people. “I went there. I descended into the cellars. I know!”
“He found that SUM would not pander to his special wishes, at the expense of everyone else,” cries the Dark Queen. Do I hear shrillness in Her voice? “Therefore he claims SUM is cruel.”
“I saw my dead,” I tell them. “She will not rise again. Nor yours, nor you. Not ever. SUM will not, cannot raise us. In Its house is death indeed. We must seek life and rebirth elsewhere, among the mysteries.”
She laughs aloud and points to my soul bracelet, glimmering faintly in the gray-blue thickening twilight. Need She say anything?
“Will someone give me a knife and an ax?” I ask.
The crowd stirs and mumbles. I smell their fear. Streetlamps go on, as if they could scatter more than this corner of the night which is roiling upon us. I fold my arms and wait. The Dark Queen says something to me. I ignore Her.
The tools pass from hand to hand. He who brings them up the stairs conies like a flame. He kneels at my feet and lifts what I have desired. The tools are good ones, a broad-bladed hunting knife and a long double-bitted ax.
Before the world, I take the knife in my right hand and slash beneath the bracelet on my left wrist. The connections to my inner body are cut. Blood flows, impossibly brilliant under the lamps. It does not hurt; I am too exalted.
The Dark Queen shrieks. “You meant it! Harper, Harper!”
“There is no life in SUM,” I say. I pull my hand through the circle and cast the bracelet down so it rings.
A voice of brass: “Arrest that maniac for correction. He is deadly dangerous.”
The monitors who have stood on the fringes of the crowd try to push through. They are resisted. Those who seek to help them encounter fists and fingernails.
I take the ax and smash downward. The bracelet crumples. The organic material within, starved of my secretions, exposed to the night air, withers.
I raise the tools, ax in right hand, knife in bleeding heft. “I seek eternity where it is to be found,” I call. “Who goes with me?”
A score or better break loose from the riot, which is already calling forth weapons and claiming lives. They surround me with their bodies. Their eyes are the eyes of prophets. We make haste to seek a hiding place, for one military robot has appeared and others will not be long in coming. The tall engine strides to stand guard over Our Lady, and this is my last glimpse of Her.
My followers do not reproach me for having cost them all they were. They are mine. In me is the godhead which can do no wrong.
And the war is open, between me and SUM. My friends are few, my enemies many and mighty. I go about the world as a fugitive. But always I sing. And always I find someone who will listen, will join us, embracing pain and death like a lover.
With the Knife and the Ax I take their souls. Afterward we hold for them the ritual of rebirth. Some go thence to become outlaw missionaries; most put on facsimile bracelets and return home, to whisper my word. It makes little difference to me. I have no haste, who own eternity.
For my word is of what lies beyond time. My enemies say I call forth ancient bestialities and lunacies; that I would bring civilization down in ruin; that it matters not a madman’s giggle to me whether war, famine, amid pestilence will again scour the earth. With these accusations I am satisfied. The language of them shows me that here, too, I have reawakened anger. And that emotion belongs to us as much as any other. More than the others, maybe, in this autumn of mankind. We need a gale, to strike down SUM and everything It stands for. Afterward will come the winter of barbarism.
Amid after that the springtime of a new and (perhaps) more human civilization. My friends seem to believe this will come in their very lifetimes: peace, brotherhood, enlightenment, sanctity. I know otherwise. I have been in the depths. The wholeness of mankind, which I am bringing back, has its horrors.
“When one day
the Eater of the Gods returns the Wolf breaks his chain
the Horsemen ride forth
the Age ends
the Beast is reborn
then SUM will be destroyed; and you, strong and fair, may go back to earth and rain.
I shall await you.”
My aloneness is nearly ended, Daybright. just one task remains. The god must die, that his followers may believe he is raised from the dead and lives forever. Then they will go on to conquer the world.
There are those who say I have spurned and offended them. They too, borne on the tide which I raised, have torn out their machine souls and seek in music and ecstasy to find a meaning for existence. But their creed is a savage one, which has taken them into wildcountry, where they ambush the monitors sent against them and practice cruel rites. They believe that the final reality is female. Nevertheless, messengers of theirs have approached me with the suggestion of a mystic marriage. This I refused; my wedding was long ago, and will be celebrated again when this cycle of the world has closed.
Therefore they hate me. But I have said I will come and talk to them.
I leave the road at the bottom of the valley and walk singing up the hill. Those few I let come this far with me have been told to abide my return. They shiver in the sunset; the vernal equinox is three days away. I feel no cold myself. I stride exultant among briars and twisted ancient apple trees. If my bare feet leave a little blood in the snow, that is good. The ridges around are dark with forest, which waits like the skeleton dead for heaves to be breathed across it again. The eastern sky is purple, where stands the evening star. Overhead, against blue, cruises an early flight of homebound geese. Their calls drift faintly down to me. Westward, above me and before me, smolders redness. Etched black against it are the women.