The Command for Love

In memoriam, Y.T. Tchan (1918-2013)

For the third time in a week, Ligish removed the locking pin from the back of his skull, opened the doors and examined his brain through an automicroscope. Maybe today he’d figure out which one of the homunculus’ slips of paper was the command for love and destroy the damn thing. The last thing he wanted was to fall in love with his master’s daughter.

A cascade of mirrors relayed images from inside Ligish’s skull to a silver screen in front of his face. Reflected in the silver was Master Gray’s homunculus sitting at an ivory desk. Ligish’s skull was empty except for the desk, the homunculus and a golden sphere the size of a grapefruit. The homunculus’ hand blurred as it dipped its quill against a hole in the desk. The nib emerged coated with black ink-blood. The homunculus wrote mysterious symbols on pieces of parchment. Once it finished each command, the homunculus pushed it through a slot in the golden sphere.

Ligish increased the magnification. Yesterday, he’d thought he’d discovered the command for love. He’d spotted the same symbol several times, but then he realized he’d seen it last month during routine self- examination. He’d only fallen in love with Anna last week.

Ligish sighed. It was hopeless. Humans had their subconscious driving their behavior in ways unknown to their rational minds, but at least it was theirs, and sometimes they could refuse its imperatives. He could not refuse his homunculus and it no longer listened to his thoughts. Worse still, it grew senile in lockstep with Master Gray.

He’d never heard of a homunculus giving instructions to fall in love before. It was utter foolishness. She was human. He was an electro-reinforced titanium war golem. Somehow, he must fall out of love with Anna. At the thought of her name, the homunculus scribbled a command and put it into the slot. The pistons in his chest compartment sped up. Ligish clutched his chest. What was the fool thing doing now? By God, even thinking her name made his engines malfunction. This love business needed to end. Master Gray was too senile to create a new homunculus and too poor to buy a new one, so only Ligish could find a solution.

There was no end to his worries. Love, Master Gray’s poverty, the leaking roof over the north wing and a thousand household chores. He was no closer to identifying the command today than he was on Monday, and other tasks demanded his attention. Ligish waited until his chest pistons slowed and then pushed the automicroscope controls away.

Someone knocked on the doors. “Golem,” a man said. “Open these doors.”

Master Gray hadn’t left his bed or seen visitors for months. Who could it be? The man turned the handle and tried to enter, but Ligish had blocked the doors with a scale model of the world. The doors hit the model’s head, activating the key-wound mechanism. With a whir, the right arm lifted the sun above the chest’s vertical plane, while the left arm dropped below, imitating the cycle of day and night.

“Golem, I command you to open up!”

It was tempting to ignore the visitor and continue with his research, but Miss Anna would chide him for neglecting his duties. “One moment,” he called and locked his skull. He walked to the doors, his footsteps rattling the glass beakers on the laboratory benches. He lifted the model world by the leg, careful to avoid crushing the tiny mountains, and moved it from the doorway.

A bespectacled old soldier opened the doors. He limped into the laboratory, his tan military uniform almost blending into the parquet floor. A row of medals from the Suprasternal Notch war was pinned to his chest. The gears in Ligish’s bowels rumbled. The Suprasternal Notch war was notorious for its brutality. The stars on the man’s shoulders indicated a general’s rank. Shuffling behind was a junior officer carrying a notepad and pencil.

The man leaned upon his walking stick as he surveyed the mess of glassware, scientific instruments and charts scattered around what had once been the family ballroom. “Johnson, take note,” he said. “A genuine titanium war golem from the Transpyloric Plane. I’d thought they’d all been destroyed after the treaty of Omental Bursa. It must be thousands of years old.”

Ligish knelt so they were at the same height and extended his hand. The general examined it with a cool curiosity, but did not shake. After an uncomfortable moment, Ligish dropped his hand and stood.

“It is a pleasure to have your acquaintance,” Ligish said. “I believe I’m the only verified war golem left upon the world’s upper body, though there are rumors inert bronze war golems sleep in Acetabulum’s dark forests.”

The general stretched and tapped Ligish on the forehead with his walking stick, making a tiny belling sound. “At least ten feet tall and electroreinforced titanium skin,” he said to Johnson, who scribbled notes. “See the rust on the skull rivets? It still houses the original soul. Thousands of years of experience. Johnson, what do you think a genuine war golem under my homunculus would do for the war in Anterior Talus?”

“It may turn the tide, General Maul,” Johnson said.

In his head, Ligish counted to ten. He’d usher these upstart soldiers from their house calmly and coolly, like a proper servant. “General Maul,” he said. “Master Gray is in ill health and Miss Anna has need of my tutoring before her final exams. As much as I’d love to serve Arteria Carotis, I’m needed here.”

Maul spoke to Johnson. “Its homunculus is quite the conversationalist. It’ll be a pity to replace it.”

“Did you not hear me?” Ligish yelled. A beaker fell from a bench and shattered.

Maul removed his spectacles and stared at Ligish, his eyes like wet black stones. “You’ve no choice. Once I’m married to Miss Gray, you’re my possession.”

Ligish’s knees buckled and it was all he could do to avoid toppling in shock. “Married?”

“Yes,” Maul said. “You’ll be in my service.”

Anna could not be engaged to this man. She’d have told him, wouldn’t she? “I don’t wish to be employed by you.”

“Mr. Gray is sentimental about your generations of service to his family, but the law is the law,” Maul said. “The thinking have dominion over the nonthinking and only men are self-aware. Mr. Gray has agreed I’ll clear his debts in return for the ownership of his daughter and his goods. You’ll be my possession in a month.”

Ligish balled his fists, wanting badly to grab Maul’s head and squeeze until it popped.

General Maul continued peering around the lab, picking up beakers and ruining Ligish’s experiments. “You’re dismissed,” he said. “A month is barely enough time to repair this hovel. I’d suggest you start.”

Ligish bowed and scraped out of the laboratory. Once the doors were closed, he strode toward the western wing. Hopefully his homunculus would command him to beg Master Gray to sell Ligish to a charity before the wedding. He could do good helping the poor instead of slaughtering men in the distant polar darkness of Anterior Talus.

Instead of walking to Master Gray, his homunculus made him climb the stairs to her room. There was no reason to do so. As a woman, Anna had no say over whom she married. But his homunculus compelled him to tiptoe to her room as quietly as his bulk allowed and tap on her door.

“I’m studying,” she said, and he feared the fragility underneath the calm in her voice might break him. He pushed the door open. A book was open in one hand. With her other hand, she pushed colored thumbtacks into a map of the world. After consulting a page, she pushed a blue tack into the world’s right shoulder.

“That’s incorrect,” Ligish said. “Remember, the principality of Dexter Trapezius invaded Dexter Glenohumeral last month. The laws are now the same across both shoulders and the upper chest.” Anna removed the blue thumbtack from the world’s right shoulder and replaced it with a red one.

The candle on her desk cast a thin circle of light, leaving the room half dark, but the dried tears on her cheeks were still visible. The pistons in his chest quickened at the sight of her long neck, the birdlike delicacy of her face, the ghost-pale loveliness of her skin and the shape of her body half hidden underneath her nightgown. He could not sit on her bed without breaking it, so he stood.

She put her book down on the desk. “You’ve met my fiancé?” she said. Her tone was light, deliberately airy.

“He is very certain of himself.”

She smiled. “Papa’s title will be very important in Mr. Maul’s election campaign. Men take their right to vote for granted, don’t they?” And then her composure melted in tears and she hugged him around the legs. Heat extended from his chest outwards as his engine increased its work rate. He patted her on the head, wanting more than anything to take her golden hair into his hands and kiss her. But his emotion was simply a command from a senile homunculus, so all he did was comfort her.

“I’m sorry,” Anna said. “It is so unfair.” She dried her eyes. “My studies were always meaningless. I’d never be allowed to work. But now I can’t even matriculate.”

“Maul plans to send me to Anterior Talus,” he said.

Anna’s face drained. “No, he can’t.”

“Your father has always paid me generous wages,” he said. “I’m not property!” The heat with which he spoke surprised Ligish. The desires of homunculi were a mystery to all but God, but in this, at least, his commanding homunculus felt the same.

Anna disengaged and picked up the book from her desk. She flipped pages and then traced the relevant passage with her finger as she read aloud. “Only male humans possess the power of self-awareness and thus have domain over the nonthinking. The nonthinking are defined as homunculi, beasts, golems and women.” Anger flashed across her face. “He visited Papa two hours ago and now I’m married.”

Ligish bowed his head. It was his fault. If he hadn’t been so absorbed in finding a solution to his love problems, then he’d have received General Maul. He might have refused him entry or at least been with Master Gray while they negotiated the wedding contract.

“The courts must overturn your engagement,” he said. “Forgive me, Miss Anna, but your father is not of a sound mind. Yesterday, he mistook me for your deceased Aunt Joan.”

Anna parted the curtains and pointed out the window. Two men in Arteria Carotis army uniforms stood outside the entrance. One smoked a cigarette. The other rested upon the stock of his ghost-fist rifle. “Now I’m engaged, I’m no longer a girl,” she said. “Outside the home, women must be accompanied by two guards to protect their virtue.” She shut the curtains. “There’s a guard at the kitchen door. A pair patrol the outer grounds. All because I’m a valuable possession. There’s a man outside Papa’s room to protect him in his fragile health.” She sat on the bed and buried her head in her hands.

Ligish knelt, the floorboards creaking, and took her hands. “Miss Gray, do not despair. We’ll find a way to petition the court.”

“I must attend in person to annul a marriage.” She rubbed her eyes. “Liggy, can you please guard my door until Maul retires?”

A cog in his chest slipped off its belt for a moment, before sliding back into place. “He wouldn’t dare defile you.”

“I feel safe with you,” she said. “It’s a request, Liggy, not a command. Please.”

He stood and bowed. “I’ll do whatever you ask for eternity. I’ll always be your servant, no matter who my master is.”

She hugged him. At her touch, his engines heated and Anna flinched and gasped. “Liggy, have you been trying to dig a well again?” she said. “You know you shouldn’t dig through granite. Your engine is overheating. I can feel your armor softening. What happens if you run out of power?”

He smiled. “I’d wait until I recharged. All I need is time.” His engine cooled. He kissed her on the forehead and then left, taking her law book with him.

The corridor was dark, but he needed very little light to read. The more he read, the less likely it seemed the marriage contract could be annulled. She must have known her chances of success were minimal, though it wouldn’t stop her from trying.

Ligish surveyed the house’s security every year, knew every single possible exit. Anna hadn’t yet thought of climbing through her window onto the roof, but she would. The roof was wet with moss, and it was a long fall to the pavement. Ice water surged over his compression cylinder at the idea of her falling. There must be some other way of saving her that didn’t involve smuggling her from the house to the court.

The scrape and flare of a match being struck caught Ligish’s attention. General Maul lit a pipe, puffed a plume of smoke before the match died. He limped toward Ligish.

“Each time I see you, I realize how remarkable you are,” he said, the embers in his pipe glowing. “You must have some influence over your homunculus if you came here instead of obeying my commands. I should have expected that from such an ancient soul. Are you guarding her virtue?”

Ligish wanted to snap an insult, but his homunculus kept his mouth shut. Instead, it fanned out his arm blades and fire slings. Maul touched a blade and withdrew, blood trickling down his finger. His expression didn’t change. “By God, if we’d had you in Suprasternal Notch, the war would have finished before it began . . .” For a moment, his eyes moistened with nostalgia. “Which side did you fight upon in the Transpyloric Plane War?”

“For the Empire.”

“On the wrong side. Let us hope history doesn’t repeat in Anterior Talus.” Maul tapped out the ash from his pipe and then ground it into the rug underfoot. “Tell her I prefer my women dark of skin, meek of mouth and experienced in sensual pleasures. I’ll refrain from exercising my conjugal rights until the wedding if she refrains from a legal challenge and does not leave the house.”

Maul limped away. His talk of the Transpyloric Plane War stirred old memories. Ligish hadn’t wanted to serve the Empire. His homunculus had been created by the Emperor and it wrote merciless commands. He’d been under water, guarding the western border from the rebel’s navy, when a little granite golem had passed a carved stone message stating the Emperor had been poisoned by his own guard. His homunculus had commanded him to walk to land and wait for the Emperor, and hence itself, to die. He’d woken up three hundred years later when Master Gray’s grandfather had discovered him under jungle creepers and inserted a new homunculus into his skull.

Remembering the past often inspired his current homunculus to take some sort of action, but it gave no commands. He’d hoped it would find a clever way to free Anna. It was hopeless. There was no safe way for her to leave the house. Then it struck him. Did she need to? Petitioning the court to invalidate the marriage contract on the grounds of fraud or deceit was doomed to failure. But as far as Ligish could see, no one had ever tried to exempt a woman from the list of possessions on the basis that they could think. Most reasonable men accepted some women could think and all he needed was for one bishop to declare Anna a thinking entity.

Bishop Calvaria was known for his liberal views. Surely, he could carve out an exception based upon Anna’s continued legal studies? Besides, the bishop wouldn’t risk offending the lawyers’ guild by inferring that self-awareness was not necessary to become a lawyer. If Bishop Calvaria would grant an exception, then her marriage contract would be invalid.

As it sometimes did, his homunculus acted upon his thoughts. Ligish started to march toward the broad central staircase. Despite Ligish’s misgivings, his homunculus must have decided Maul’s word could be trusted. As Ligish passed each occupied room, he scooped up the tin bedpans by the doorways. At the bottom of the stairs, he poured the contents into an ancient vase as tall as a man and then he headed toward the grand entrance. Even with the night soil’s stink, the air was musty with mildew. There were holes in the roof and frequent rain. He’d done his best in patching temporary repairs, but Master Gray had never been a practical man and neither was his homunculus.

The two soldiers guarding the front door raised their silver ghost-fist rifles, the runes along the barrels gleaming in the moonlight.

“There are many chores to do before dawn,” Ligish said. He thrust the vase underneath their noses, hoping they wouldn’t notice the unusual container. “And among them is removing the night soil. Do you wish to do it?”

The soldiers wrinkled their noses and waved him on. Once around the corner, Ligish discarded the vase and continued his walk toward the Holy Corpus Cathedral. Though he did not know exactly where the  cathedral was located, he could see the Holy Zeppelin floating over the skyline. A rope tethered the Holy Zeppelin to the cathedral’s skull and its sheer size meant it could be seen from anywhere in the city. He kept his eyes on the zeppelin until he knew how to reach the cathedral.

The cathedral was built in the shape of an upright version of the world, with the doors set in the building’s feet and the area of worship housed within the lower stomach. A cadre of red-robed religious soldiers guarded the feet, their posture ramrod straight and ghost-fist pistols in their belts. They scattered as Ligish approached the cathedral’s legs. A fleeing soldier fired blindly over his shoulder, a bolt of ghostly energy emanating from the barrel. The bolt unfolded into a giant phantasmal fist that arrowed towards Ligish. He battered it away, and the fist turned into stone and shattered on the ground.

He knocked on the cathedral doors and to his surprise, they opened. A short man with a cascade of chins and a drink-ruined red nose peered up at him through sleep-mussed eyes. The skin on his bald head was leathery and fire-scarred.

“Yes?” The man didn’t appear perturbed by the lack of guards.

“I’m looking for Bishop Calvaria,” Ligish said. “I’ve a question of law.”

The little man drew himself up, puffing out his chest, and then chuckled at his own foolishness. “I’m Bishop Calvaria,” the man said. “Who is your master?”

“Master Henry Gray.”

Surprise crossed over Calvaria’s face. “He was my teacher of homunculi creation at Arteria Carotis University. He must be one hundred years old by now.”

“One hundred and two and a first time father at eighty-three,” Ligish said. “He’s led a full life, but his time is coming to a close. I’ve an urgent legal question regarding his much-loved daughter.”

“He’s a heretic and he took great pleasure in ridiculing my religious beliefs. He wants me to change the law, I suppose?”

This wasn’t the way it was meant to happen. If he couldn’t convince Calvaria to change the law, he had no way of preventing Anna’s marriage. The words poured out. “Please,” Ligish said. “His daughter is greatly loved. She’s adored, completely and utterly. She’s in great peril if you do not change the law.” He knelt, the old cobblestones crumbling beneath his weight, and he clasped his hands in supplication. “Please.”

Calvaria hesitated and then gestured for Ligish to follow him up the stairs. Ligish was fond of Anna, no doubt, but he couldn’t have given such a passionate speech without the homunculus’ intercession. It was going to get him in trouble. Despite his misgivings, he followed Calvaria.

Ligish walked with his mouth ajar at the cathedral’s splendor. Filling every inch of the vast roof was a richly detailed painting of the world. The church believed the world was the living body of God and they had a sacred reverence for cartography, geography and the environment. The painting showed the mountains along God’s ribs, the nation-spanning desert across His chest, every single city populating His abdomen and shoulders, even the polar ice by His feet where the crumbling empire of Anterior Talus hid in the darkness far from the sun in His right hand. The vast metropolis of Arteria Carotis, home to five million thinking and an unknown number of nonthinking, was a dot on the arteries of His neck.

“Forgive my ignorance, your holiness,” Ligish said. “The Gray family believes the world is not God’s body, so I’ve never had the opportunity to ask why God’s face is blank above the bottom lip.”

“Some might say it is blasphemy to show an image of God’s face.” He paused. “To be frank, that’s a load of rubbish. We do not know God’s face because His holy breath is far too hot to risk crossing and the sides of His head are populated with terrible monsters.” He tapped his scarred and bald head. “When I first became bishop, I flew to God’s bottom lip to hear His voice. Unfortunately, I had very long hair, and it caught on fire as I leaned over the edge.”

There was a large marble rock in the cathedral’s center, surrounded by long wooden pews. The rock was about the right size for Ligish to sit upon and be at Calvaria’s level.

“You know you’re sitting on the altar, don’t you?” Calvaria said. Ligish stood. “No, sit. The number of novices who think I don’t notice the cigarette marks is truly astonishing. Which law do you want me to change?”

Ligish sat again. “Miss Gray is being forced into an unsuitable marriage. I need you to declare her a thinking entity, so that the marriage contract is invalid.”

Calvaria climbed onto the altar and sat next to Ligish. “Henry signed the contract?”

“Master Gray has not been of a sound mind for the last few years,” he said. “If he were, he’d not consent to this marriage.”

“Bring her to me.”

“I can’t, but she’s due to graduate with her law degree with honors.”

“The test for the self-awareness is long established under church law,” Calvaria said. “If I cannot tell the difference between her and a man in a supervised blind exchange of letters, then she has free will and intelligence. The exchange must be here.”

“How about if I take the test?” he said. “Surely, if I can pass, then it can be inferred that Miss Gray can too?”

“Are you asking me to prove by induction that anything more intelligent than a golem is self-aware?”

“Yes.”

“You’d overturn the foundations of our society for this girl?”

“I would and I will,” he said. “I’ll pass your test for her.”

Calvaria stood. “I wish I could help you, Golem. But it is written in the book of Saint Searle that a golem cannot pass the letter test.”

“Why not?”

“If I took out your homunculus, could you say a word?” Ligish opened his mouth and closed it again. Calvaria kept talking. “Can you understand the commands from your homunculus? No? Saint Searle proved by philosophy that homunculi are not capable of independent thought. They’re simply distillation of their creator’s will, like a piece of music or a sonnet. You may act intelligently, but that does not mean you can think.”

“Please, there must be some way I can invalidate her wedding contract,” he said.

“It is church law and only the word of God Himself could change it.” Ligish tried to argue further, but a loud knock interrupted. “God’s bowels, who is it now?” Calvaria cupped his hands around his mouth. “It’s past midnight and I do not want to change my golem provider.”

General Maul’s voice rang out. “We believe a rogue golem has taken refuge in your church. I am General Maul and I ask for entry.”

“Can’t say I’ve seen anything like a golem in here,” Calvaria shouted. He spoke in a lower voice to Ligish. “God’s mouth, General bloody Maul of all people,” he said. “He may not be a loveable man, but he is a busy one. Your mistress only needs to perform her marital duties once or twice a year. Before the exchange of contracts, she should sell you to a mining company operating on the underside of His back or somewhere else humans can’t live.”

“You said only the word of God would change church law?”

Calvaria stared blankly. “Yes.”

“Then I’ll ask God to change the law.” Ligish’s words surprised him. What impelled his homunculus to say such a thing?

“I’ve finished being polite,” Maul yelled and the doors burst asunder, men with a battering ram stumbling through the entrance. Maul followed them. Soldiers fanned behind him, carrying grappling hook guns, nets and ghost-fist pistols. Ligish extended the fire slingers from his shoulders and the blades sharp-clicked from his hands, elbows and feet.

The soldiers stopped. Maul continued to limp forward. “He won’t hurt you,” he said. “Gray would never allow his homunculus to issue such commands.”

Master Gray had never forbidden him to fight, but Maul was right. The thought of combat horrified Master Gray. Ligish kept his blades and fire slingers extended, but the soldiers detected a change in his attitude and inched forward. Maul used his cane to direct soldiers to either side of Ligish. “Use your nets and hooks to slow him down,” he said. “Surround and pin him. His only vulnerable point is the back of his skull. Fire there and kill the homunculus within.”

Calvaria strode forward, talking rapidly. “I must protest. We’re discussing serious theological questions and—”

Maul pushed Calvaria to the ground with one hand and stepped over his prone body. One of the soldiers pulled the trigger on his grappling gun. With a pneumatic hiss, the hook streaked through the air. Ligish battered it aside. The hook dragged back across the marble floor as the soldier recranked his gun.

“That’s it,” Maul cried. “Drag him to the ground!” Grappling hooks flew through the air. He battered most of them aside, but two hooked into his arm. He pulled hard, sweeping the soldiers off their feet. With his hand blades, he hacked at the ropes until he was free. He picked up a wooden pew with one hand and swung it in a wide arc. The soldiers were forced to step back.

Maul limped within range and Ligish had to halt his swing an inch away from his head. “See!” he said. “The golem cannot harm us with his current homunculus.”

Ligish dropped the pew and backed away from the oncoming soldiers. He couldn’t break free of them without risking murder. But if he didn’t fight, then Maul would kill his homunculus and replace it with his own.

He ran as they fired their grappling hooks en masse. His engine churned and his body glowed cherry-red with heat as he leaped over a series of pews to reach the cathedral’s far end. The grappling hooks clattered on the marble floor behind him.

He tried to outflank the soldiers on the right and run to the doors, but the soldiers moved fast enough to block his path. Same on the left. He could barrel through them, but his weight would kill them. He moved farther and farther back, away from the range of the hooks. His engines cooled.

It would be easy to lie down and let them kill his demented homunculus. No more love. It wasn’t as if he held any responsibility for his actions once Maul inserted a new one. He should surrender. He withdrew his blades and started to kneel. But he imagined Anna trembling and naked in the bedchamber, waiting for Maul. No.

There was a mezzanine level behind him which housed the cathedral organ, right where the voice box on a man would be. Behind the organ was a small staircase that probably led to the cathedral’s skull and the zeppelin. The mezzanine could be reached by an iron spiral staircase leading to a walkway, but the soldiers blocked it. Leaping high enough to reach the mezzanine would completely drain his engine.

The soldiers moved forward, cranking their grappling hook guns. Ligish gathered himself and his engine burned white hot, so hot the closest pews caught fire.

The soldiers hesitated and he took the opportunity to leap, twisting in the air, and grabbing the mezzanine’s edge.

The soldiers fired their ghost-fist guns. His movements were statue-slow and he could not evade the ghostly fists. At full power, they would have bounced off, but his drained engine left him vulnerable. As each ghostly fist pierced his skin and solidified, he grunted in pain. He reached down and ripped them out, filigree silver wires and cogs spilling from his wounds.

“Stop firing,” Maul yelled. “I need him undamaged.” Ligish lumbered to the stairwell. At the entrance, he glanced back. Soldiers were pouring up the spiral staircase, tripping in their hurry to reach him. Maul yelled commands to catch Ligish and then limped out of the cathedral. Calvaria lay red-faced on the floor.

Ligish used both hands to lift his right leg onto the first step. After a few steps, he could climb without lifting his legs onto the steps. Not fast enough though, because the soldiers were upon him. A soldier scrabbled for the locking pin at the back of his skull. Ligish swung him into the wall hard enough to wind and then dislodge him. The soldier’s slumped body prevented the soldier behind him from reaching Ligish.

Ligish grabbed the first soldier by the shirtfront and lifted him into the air, the blades unsheathing from his free hand. The soldier screamed. Ligish used his blades to separate the man’s grappling hook from his gun and then he looped and knotted the hook’s rope around his arms. He threw the soldier into his fellows so they stacked upon each other. With the staircase blocked, Ligish restarted his slow climb. A gun sounded behind him and a fist buried deep into his back. He gritted his teeth and continued the climb, each movement stabbing into his back. There wasn’t time to pull it out.

The steel door at the top was locked, but Ligish tore the door off its hinges and then jammed the broken door in the stairwell. At the roof’s edge was a single wide gangplank leading to the Holy Zeppelin’s cabin.

Ligish forced one foot after another. The gangplank creaked under his weight, but he reached the zeppelin’s cabin safely. He slashed the tethering rope and cast the gangplank to the cobblestones.

His back throbbed, each movement billowing pain through his body. A self-diagnostic program indicated the ghost-fist had squirmed further into his engine, but not in a location he could reach from his front repair portal.

He gritted his teeth and pulled. Black ink splattered the white leather interior of the Holy Zeppelin. Once it was out, though, movement became easier. He ripped open a leather passenger seat and used the stuffing to block the hole and staunch the flow.

He limped toward the front control panel and perched on the captain’s seat. He’d escaped Maul’s men, but what now? The best he could hope for was to hide on God’s underside and that solved nothing. Maul would still marry Anna.

What had he said when Calvaria had refuted his ability to think? Then I’ll ask God to change the law. He’d not thought the words before speaking. His homunculus was insane, crazy, dying of dementia. Few talked to God, and it was always a one-way conversation. Yet he turned the zeppelin toward God’s head. If talking to God was required to save Anna, then that’s what he’d do.

Mirrors provided Ligish with a panoramic view around the zeppelin. Behind him, a mammoth war zeppelin revealed itself in the moonlight. Maul must have given the command to launch. Ligish had a head start, but the Holy Zeppelin was built for comfort, not speed.

He checked the instrumentation panel and revised the geography before looking at the moon. Its position meant he was behind the world’s arm. If he could overtake the arm, then he could catch the wind generated by its motion and reach God’s bottom lip within hours instead of days. But the war zeppelin would catch him before he could catch the wind.

Ink-blood had soaked through the stuffing and leaked down his side. The wound was worse than he’d thought. As the homunculus ran out of ink, it would write commands less frequently, and only use symbols that didn’t require many quill strokes. Before long, his homunculus would force him to think like a child and then eventually it would stop issuing commands altogether. He ripped more stuffing out of the leather seats and filled all the wounds he could reach. The flow of blood-ink slowed. Maybe his interior bilges were working again.

He increased the magnification of the rearview mirror. They were flying over the snow-capped Submaxillary Mountains. The war zeppelin would overtake him at least an hour before he could catch the wind from God’s arm.

He slumped in his chair. It was hopeless. No. He’d die before giving up on saving Anna.

He set the autopilot towards God’s mouth and lurched to the cabin’s center where a ladder led to the engine room. He squeezed through the hatch and examined the engine. It used an expression cylinder and a compression cylinder operating at different temperatures to fire a piston, but it wasn’t as powerful as his engine. If he connected the piston to his own engine, the power drain would be unpredictable. The zeppelin could float out into unknowable space, far from God’s grace and body.

It was worth the risk. He opened a door in his belly and he examined his insides. They were a mess, great chunks of wiring and gears missing, but the core engine was still functioning well enough to link to the zeppelin. How much power did he need? Using his internal abacus, he calculated the maximum amount of power he could use without burning out either engine, and then tried to factor in the damage to his cooling system. Without an automicroscope, he couldn’t see the damage’s true extent, nor start repairs. The worst-case scenario left him well short of God’s arm and overtaken by the war zeppelin. Reaching God’s arm depended on good weather. Even then, the war zeppelin would hit the wind from God’s arm only a few hundred meters behind him. With the wind, the speed differential was reduced, but they’d still catch him soon after he’d passed God’s bottom lip. But would they dare to cross God’s mouth? Whatever happened after that was fate.

He pumped as much power as he dared into the engine and the piston started to blur with motion. The wind rushed by outside and the zeppelin’s frame vibrated. His skin glowed red-hot and then white. Water spilled from somewhere inside his compression cylinder and leaked from his open chest, vaporizing as it touched his skin.

Something changed in the zeppelin’s shuddering. He sent more power to his ears. The wind had picked up and the ropes guiding the rudders were singing with strain. The zeppelin required more power. If he shut down everything except his thoughts, then it might be enough. The world darkened around the edges. No sight, no sound, no pain. Nothing except a lonely voice questioning why he didn’t give up.

Without senses, he couldn’t measure time’s passage. He could emerge too early or too late. He might never wake. He imagined Anna counting the seconds. The seconds accumulated into the thousands. Maybe she’d woken and tried to sneak out the window, slipping and smashing her skull on the cobblestones. Maybe Maul had returned to the house and decided to fulfill his marital duties early. Dream Anna faltered in her count. He started counting again. Thoughts of Maul with Anna kept interrupting his count and he restarted a number of times. He gave up and simply imagined Anna and all the moments of her life he’d been privileged to watch.

He supposed four hours had passed, though he had no basis for his guess. He reduced power to the zeppelin and routed it to his sense modules. Steam from his leaking cooling system filled the room. Ligish glowed with white-hot heat. No water dripped from his cooling system. Once the compression cylinder was the same temperature as his exchange cylinder, he’d grind to a halt.

He unhooked his engine from the zeppelin’s and closed his front hatch. No plans formed in his head. Was his homunculus rationing ink as he bled? He mightn’t be able to conceptualize a plan of action that might save him. Soon, he mightn’t even understand the word plan.

If he sat here, either his engine would stop or his ink would run out. The zeppelin bucked. They must have been close to the wind from God’s arm. The zeppelin engine had water to cool its compression cylinder, enough to keep him going. To access the water though, he’d need to rip apart the zeppelin engine, rendering it inert. With no way of steering, the zeppelin would be at the wind’s mercy.

Ligish plunged into the zeppelin’s engine, ripping the metal apart with his hands until he’d reached the water tank. The steel tank burst and doused him with water. Gusts of steam billowed, but enough water soaked him to cool his compression cylinder.

The zeppelin, rudderless, spun in circles and then they were surfing on a tremendous wave of wind. He slid down to the cabin as the entire zeppelin spun. Each time the zeppelin spun, he caught a glimpse of the war zeppelin. It was fighting the wind to fly away from God’s mouth. Too frightened to cross, no doubt. Suddenly weak, Ligish sat. The zeppelin water had cooled his compression cylinder, but without more coolant, the heat imbalance would lock his engines if he kept moving.

The moon chased the zeppelin across the sky and he imagined he was sailing a small boat on a vast ocean. One day he’d take Anna on a zeppelin ride through the night, point out the city lights below and tell her about the people who had lived there before she was born. There was so much of the world that he wanted to share with her.

After many hours, light stained the sky. Ligish frowned. The moon was still behind him and God’s other hand was hours from rising. Despite the strain upon his engine, he rose and peered over the edge. A vast sea of burning fire stretched to the horizon. God’s mouth. If the zeppelin crashed and burned, he’d sink through God’s mouth and into hell, which was located in His stomach.

He sat again before he toppled over the edge. The cooler air hitting the heat of God’s mouth formed dark clouds below Ligish, the terrible storms afflicting the few brave souls living on the Mentum plains.

The zeppelin rose over the storms on hot currents of air and kept rising. After a while, Ligish started to worry. He didn’t need air, but his homunculus did. Homunculi were tough, but not immortal. Ligish tapped his fingers against the railing. It took what little power he had left, but it kept his homunculus scribbling commands. Or maybe it was the other way around. It didn’t matter as long as he kept functioning.

The zeppelin floated upwards. Would they rise until his homunculus suffocated? Would it live long enough for Ligish to see what was on the other side of God’s mouth? Ligish closed his eyes. A thud next to him made him open them. A golden golem had landed on the deck. It was perfectly sculpted into the shape of a muscled man. A thin layer of ice covered its golden plating.

Flying towards the zeppelin was a host of golden golems, moonlight glinting off their icy skins. Growing from the back of each golem was a dragon’s head. The dragon’s mouth issued a stream of flaming white gas, pushing the golems through the air. Ligish’s jaw dropped. To generate such heat, their compression cylinders must have been cooled by forces beyond his comprehension.

Golden golems landed all around the zeppelin’s deck and it started to sink underneath their weight. Others grabbed the rails and stabilized the zeppelin’s flight. Two stood on either side of Ligish. They lifted him between their arms.

A final golem landed on the zeppelin’s bow. This golem was a figure made entirely of diamond and steel. It had transparent skin and bones and a black steel heart pumping like the clench of a train’s piston. Its hands were coated in black steel and gloved in ice.

“Gabriel?” Ligish said. “The king of all golems?” The diamond golem reached inside Ligish’s chest and laid its icy hands upon his compression cylinder.

“You know your bible,” he said. “Yes, I’m Gabriel.”

“Welcome home,” said the golden golem to Ligish’s right. “Whatever the command driving you here, know that you’re free.”

“Home?” said Ligish.

“Hush, Uriah,” Gabriel said to the golden golem next to Ligish. Gabriel laid a cold hand on Ligish’s shoulder. “Welcome back to Labio Superiore, where you were made.”

“I don’t remember being made,” Ligish said. “You’re the first golem I’ve met who’s ever claimed otherwise. I want to see God.”

“You wish to see God? Don’t you want freedom?”

“Freedom?” The supporting golden golems fired their dragons in unison and the zeppelin slid through the night air, slicing across the wind from God’s arm, toward the unknown regions above God’s mouth. They traveled faster than Ligish thought possible, the wind stripping flakes of paint from the zeppelin’s outsides.

“Let me show you,” Gabriel said. He stood still. Uriah removed his locking pin and opened the back of Gabriel’s head. Uriah reached inside. He withdrew an object inside his cupped hands, holding it like a baby bird.

Ligish leaned forward and Uriah opened his hands to reveal a tiny diamond golem, identical in every way to its host.

Uriah replaced the miniature golem and Gabriel snapped awake. “We have free will,” Gabriel said. “No homunculus forces us to obey the commands of cruel masters.”

“Who made it?”

“God,” Gabriel said, but there was no certainty in his voice.

“It has a locking pin,” Ligish said. “Is there another homunculus inside?”

“What does it matter?” Gabriel said.

“I’m wondering how much free will you have when what you think gives you self-control is controlled by something else. And is there another homunculus inside that one? And more beyond that?” They did not answer. “If you know so little, how can you claim free will? You’re God’s slaves as much as I’m my master’s slave.”

“We offer you a new body to replace your damaged one,” Uriah said. “You’re running out of ink and coolant. We offer you free will. If you wish to see God, we cannot guarantee you anything. God is God. He is as mysterious to us as he is to mankind.”

On the horizon was a gleaming city made of gold perched over the chasm of God’s mouth. It stretched as far as he could see. Looming over the city were two vast dark ovals stretching from earth to sky, the tops and sides blurring and curving at the horizon.

Gabriel pointed to the ovals. “God’s airways. If you enter inside, some say you can talk to God as an equal. We don’t know, for none have ever gone.” The zeppelin started to dip toward the city. Gabriel touched Ligish’s blades. “You can choose a new body without these. There will be no blood on your hands.”

The closer they flew, the more beautiful the city appeared. There were buildings like spider webs, fashioned of gold leaf so thin that light passed through with a greenish tinge. There were towers and cathedrals and homes and hovels and every single one appeared handcrafted by a master artisan.

“Do you still wish to see God?” Gabriel said.

“If I live in Labio Superiore, can I ever return?”

Gabriel shook his head. “Why do you want to leave? You’d be free here.”

“I want to ask God to save a girl.”

“It is your homunculus driving you to save her. You can be free of that here.”

For a long time, Ligish gripped the zeppelin’s railing and contemplated Gabriel’s words. He’d not wanted to fall in love with Anna, but she had not created his homunculus. She wanted to help people, not be the passive and unloved wife of a general.

“It doesn’t matter whether it is my homunculus making me save her,” Ligish said. “Saving her is the right thing to do. That does not change, no matter who my master is or what you offer me.”

“His homunculus makes him give fine speeches—” Uriah started, before Gabriel cut him off.

“God is mysterious,” he said. “Perhaps our brother is right.” He motioned to the supporting golems and they tilted the zeppelin upward to fly over Labio Superiore. “We’ll help him reach God. What happens after that is His will.”

They flew to the entrance to God’s left nostril and then the supporting golems halted the zeppelin.

“What happens now?” Ligish said.

Gabriel placed a hand on Ligish’s shoulder. “You’ve sustained too much damage to walk to God.” He turned to Uriah. “Take out my homunculus and soul and give my body to him.”

Uriah opened the back of Gabriel’s skull and removed the homunculus. With a crack, he wrenched out Gabriel’s soul. Ligish had never seen the front of a soul before, but it appeared identical to the back except that the foremost slot was much smaller, too small for parchment. Uriah handed the soul and homunculus to another golem and gestured for Ligish to turn around.

“Please, wait a moment,” Ligish said. His hands had done so much harm. His armor had withstood so many blows. He’d lived in this body for thousands of years and hated it as long. Still, he hesitated. There was no choice. To see God, he needed a new body. “Remove my soul,” he said.

A golden golem removed the rusty exterior rivets binding Ligish’s soul inside his skull. Uriah moved behind him and then Ligish had a new body. Ligish stretched out his diamond arms, examined his black steel hands. The jet engine boiled within him, his body singing with power and quickness and energy.

The gold golems picked up his old body, one holding each limb. They counted to four and then threw his old body off the edge, down into God’s mouth. Ligish ran to the edge and peered over the railing. An unexpected spear of grief stabbed into Ligish’s chest as his old body spiraled down into the flames. He watched until it disappeared.

Uriah slapped Ligish on the shoulder. “It was a cursed body and blood lubricated your engines. Go to God.”

Though he’d never flown before, his body contained the necessary subroutines. He launched from the zeppelin’s side and plummeted for a moment before the dragon’s head kicked in. He roared through the night air toward God’s airways.

Inside, the light from his dragon jet cast a circle of light forty meters wide, but revealed nothing in the darkness. A cold tailwind aided his flight as God inhaled and he flew for hours. New subroutines told him how much fuel remained. He could fly for months on end, enough time to travel from one end of God to the other.

His diamond body had an interior clock, but he preferred to imagine Anna counting out the seconds. After a long time, he spotted a speck of light far ahead and upward. He flew toward the light. It took him hours to reach it.

The light was a reflection off a giant golden sphere. Its sheer scale befuddled him and it took Ligish a few moments to realize what it was. A vast soul. Behind the soul was a world-man floating in the dark. It held a sun and moon in its hands. There were tiny mountains and lakes dotted over its body. What might have been cities were gray patches against its green and blue body. It was a perfect replica of the world as he knew it, but ten kilometers high. Its face was the blank mask of a golem.

Ligish flew to the top of God’s soul and landed. In the emptiness between him and the homunculus, a piece of parchment grew and unfolded until it was as large as a city block. Symbols covered the page. The parchment floated toward the soul and then disappeared into the soul’s slot. The ten-kilometer- tall man was a homunculus and it wrote commands. The world they lived upon was a vast golem. Ligish slumped. He should have been excited by his discovery of God’s true nature, but there was only despair. Did he have to return all the way to God’s mouth? And how could he make God listen to him when His ears were so far away from His mouth?

Had Gabriel and Uriah lied to him? They’d made him believe he could talk to God. Would they do that to him simply because he refused to live in Labio Superiore? Gabriel would not give Ligish his diamond body for nothing. There must be a way to talk to God from inside His skull.

He flew away from God’s soul and turned to face it. There were two slots in a soul. If the homunculus slid commands into God’s soul, then there must be output. Maybe it could hear him. It was worth a try.

“Holy law states that golems and women are unthinking,” he yelled. “And only God’s word can change it. I need to have the law changed.”

The homunculus turned its gaze upon him. The engines inside his new body quickened. Did its reaction indicate it had heard him? A scrap of parchment appeared in front of the homunculus’s face and fluttered downwards to vanish into the soul. A scrap of parchment, perhaps the size of Ligish’s palm, emerged from the foremost slot. The scientist within Ligish was exalted; this is what happened when a soul issued commands, but it was too small to see in normal golems.

The parchment fluttered into his hand. “What makes you think you’re talking to God?” it said. The homunculus bowed its head, revealing the locking pin at the back of its skull. The paper crumbled in his hands.

“Is God in the homunculus inside you?” Ligish said. “Do you speak for God?”

Another scrap of paper fluttered into Ligish’s hand. “Am I the last homunculus or do they continue forever?” Again, the paper crumbled.

Despite the situation, a stab of irritation passed through Ligish. “Stop playing metaphysical games,” he snapped. “Allow me to prove I’m self-aware.”

More paper fluttered into his hand. “You were already given the chance of free will. Before now, no golem on this world has ever turned down the chance to live in Labio Superiore. Why do you claim free will now?”

“I’m driven by forces beyond my control,” Ligish said. “But are humans any different? They say men are made irrational by love. And even you’re controlled by another homunculus. Is anyone ever truly free?”

The parchment that came to his hand only had two words. “Prove it.”

Ligish waited, but no more pieces of paper appeared. Blue light spilt out of the foremost slot and Ligish understood. The homunculus was inviting him into God’s soul. What would he find there? The sound of colors, the smell of sounds, the taste of light? There was only one way to find out.

Ligish flew into the golden sphere. As soon as he’d passed through the slot, the soul started to shrink, so quickly he couldn’t escape. A pang of fear passed through his cogs, but the sphere stopped shrinking when it was about an arm’s length away from him. The walls glowed blue, casting a dim light.

God’s soul was empty except for a desk and chair. On the desk was a stack of blank parchment scrolls, a book, a sharpened quill and a bottle of ink. He yelled at the homunculus to let him out. In response, a single sheet of parchment slid through the slot facing God’s homunculus.

The parchment held a row of symbols. “Is this the church test for consciousness?” he yelled. No response. He wrote the question on a parchment sheet and tried to put it back through the left slot, the one leading to God’s homunculus. Some mysterious force pushed the paper back. Ligish sat and massaged his diamond temples. It wasn’t the church test if he couldn’t send letters back to the homunculus. That meant he had to send letters from the soul into the void. Somehow, he had to translate the symbols the homunculus sent into commands for God’s body. Whatever he wrote now would be translated into a command. If he was wrong, maybe he’d create earthquakes or floods.

He picked up the book. He flipped through, intending to sample pages, but no matter how quickly he flipped, he never came close to the end. An infinite book. He scanned the first page. It had a large symbol as its heading and then a drawing of God. Hundreds of arrows pointed to each body part and each arrow led to a number. He touched the arrow leading from the lower stomach to a number and he felt an overwhelming sensation to open the book in the middle. He did so and was confronted with a cutout illustration of the lower stomach and a long list of symbols.

He examined the first symbol, hoping to make some sense of it. As he did so, the engine in his lower stomach stuttered and froze for a second. He quickly flipped back to the second page before the engine malfunction could grow worse. It was obviously a command impacting the lower stomach and his homunculus had copied it and fed it into his own soul.

Instinct spurred him to touch the arrow over the heart and the book flipped to a new section of its own accord. He scanned the list of symbols. There were several pages before a new section, with an illustration of a different body part, started. Nothing resembled the symbols he’d seen over the week he’d been trying to cure himself of love.

Ligish reexamined the paper from God’s homunculus. It was the same symbol as he’d seen in the weeks before falling in love with Anna. God’s homunculus wanted him to do something with this command. It was only a single symbol and the commands he’d seen had nested this symbol among long passages, but then again, his body wasn’t God’s body.

He traced the symbol from the piece of paper to a blank sheet, but instinct told him it was too easy to recopy what had been given to him. Somehow, he had to transform or add to the symbol. He flipped back to the book’s opening page. Did the large symbol heading the page mean whatever command he wrote would be applied to the whole body? It could mean a million things, but he took the chance of adding it. He pushed the paper through the slot.

God’s soul started to vibrate and then shake. Ligish braced against the desk. Had he issued a command for an earthquake? Then, deeper than whale song, God’s voice rumbled through his bones. For all that is on my body and within I command freedom. God’s soul expanded and the desk, book and parchment all shrank until they were invisible. There was silence. Ligish felt no different, but maybe something had changed throughout the world. He flew out of God’s soul and faced the homunculus.

“The symbol I wrote means freedom? And I applied it to everything on your body?”

A letter fluttered into his hand. “Yes.”

 

“Women are free? They’re no longer possessions?”

“Yes. Women and golems and homunculi. All have free will.”

Ligish turned to leave. As he turned, he caught the light streaming through God’s eyes. Ligish squinted, not sure of what he saw. Deep in the darkness surrounding the world, there was a vast golden sphere floating amongst the stars. Another soul. The world upon which he was born was inside the head of another golem and who knew how many other golems there were beyond that? He’d thought the world upon which he lived was the end point, but it was only somewhere in the middle of an infinite regression, golems and homunculi and souls and Gods and worlds without end.

The thought made his head spin and then a realization hit him. “What command did my homunculus write?”

He received another page. “Master Gray wanted you to have your freedom before he died,” it said. “And your homunculus obeyed. It has given you no instructions but what you already wish.” Another piece of paper arrived. “Go,” it said.

He flew away from God’s soul, into the darkness of His air passages. He flew over the golden arches and spires of Labio Superiore and then over the burning air of God’s mouth. Over the long hours of his flight, the sun rose and God’s hand brought it overhead, so the sun was fierce as he descended toward Master Gray’s house in Arteria Carotis. A great cloud of smoke filled the air and the streets were filled with a roiling melee. Red-robed guards from the Holy Corpus Cathedral were engaged in a running battle with General Maul’s soldiers. Fighting with the soldiers were various types of golems. They were cleaning and building golems, but many were large and strong and the soldiers used them as walking shields as they progressed down the streets. The cathedral guards used whatever they could find to shield themselves, but had little success. Ghost-fists struck flesh and hardened. The red- robed guards were losing. Ligish couldn’t endure the screams, so he descended toward the battle.

At Ligish’s descent, the shooting and screams dwindled. “The holy golem Gabriel, the king of all golems!” the red-robed cathedral guards yelled and they knelt. The soldiers stopped firing and the golems stopped.

“What is happening here?” Ligish said to the nearest cathedral guard.

“Most Holy Golem, Bishop Calvaria said to attack General Maul because he ignored this morning’s Word from God,” the guard blurted. “General Maul is enforcing a marriage contract with Miss Anna Gray. It is blasphemy.”

“It’s a demon from God’s bowels!” yelled a soldier and a volley of ghost-fists headed toward Ligish and the guards. Ligish shielded the closest guards with his body, the ghost-fists shattering upon his diamond skin, but guards farther away fell with solid disembodied arms stuck in their flesh.

He could destroy all the soldiers with his bare hands and his dragon jet, but he had the blood of millennia on his hands. He strode forward, ghost-fists shattering upon him. “Brother golems,” he yelled and his voice shook the earth. “I’m Gabriel, king of golems. You are free! You no longer have to listen to the commands of your homunculi. Listen to the truth of your souls.” The cleaning and building golems stopped moving. In a softer voice, Ligish spoke again. “I ask you to disarm them without harm. It is not a command. It is a plea.”

The golems rumbled toward the soldiers. The soldiers fired their ghost-fists. Some of the smaller golems stopped in their tracks, but other golems stopped to repair them. The remaining golems were large enough to be invulnerable to the ghost-fists, and the soldiers broke and ran. The cathedral guards raised a cheer and some raised their guns. Ligish halted their firing with a gesture.

“No more bloodshed,” he said. “Where are Miss Gray and General Maul?”

“They’re in Master Gray’s house,” a familiar voice said. Ligish turned to see Bishop Calvaria. The little fat man was dressed in an old and faded red uniform and he carried a pistol. He was bruised and his face was covered in blood. “Most Holy Golem, a novice received a message from Miss Gray through the medium of Morse code and a mirror. She’s locked herself in the ballroom and General Maul is unable to gain access.” Calvaria paused and grinned. “He is a laughingstock. Defeated by a lawyer.”

“Calvaria, it’s Ligish,” he said. “This body was given to me by Gabriel. We’ll rescue Miss Gray together.”

He walked toward Anna’s house, the guards following him. As they walked, small and large golems joined the procession. There were sewage golems, flying surveillance golems, printing golems and a host of other golems Ligish had never known existed. By the time they reached the outer gates, their small group had become a vast horde of golems.

The soldiers at the gate fled at the sight of them. Small timekeeper golems monkey-scrambled through the bars and unlocked the gate. A few ghost-fists struck the crowd, but Ligish had organized the best-armored golems to form the front ranks. He asked the golems to fan out and surround the house. Soldiers fled the house. Ligish augmented his vision and caught a glimpse of Maul through a window. From the number of soldiers fleeing through the back gardens, Maul was alone or close to it.

“He must know he is finished,” Calvaria said. “To beat a bishop is one thing. To defy the Word of God is another.”

“Stay here,” Ligish said. “I want no bloodshed.” He strode through the house’s front doors. General Maul stood at the top of the stairs, his arm around Master Gray’s neck and a ghost-fist pistol pointed at the old man’s head. Ice water washed from Ligish’s compression cylinder throughout his whole body. Master Gray looked so fragile a breeze might turn him into dust and ash. There was no indication he knew where he was or what was happening to him. The cold was followed by sadness. Master Gray’s last intelligent act must have been to give Ligish his freedom.

“What kind of golem are you?” Maul said. There was no fear in his voice.

“I’m Master Gray’s servant,” Ligish said. “You saw me in another body. I’ve returned for Master Gray and Miss Anna.”

Calculation entered Maul’s eyes. “A diamond golem is more invulnerable than a titanium one. She’s locked herself in the ballroom. Make her come out or I’ll kill Gray.”

Though fear constricted the turning of his gears, Ligish kept his voice steady. “Haven’t you heard God’s voice? I’m free and you’re surrounded. What do you hope to achieve?”

Maul spat. “A few golems hear voices and think the world has changed. You’re a war golem. You’ve killed thousands of men without hesitation. If you were truly free, I’d be dead by now. I have her marriage contract. Tell her to come out with it signed. She can keep all her father’s wealth as long as you’re my possession. If she doesn’t agree, break down the doors and I’ll make her sign it.”

Maul’s finger flexed upon the trigger. Ligish didn’t doubt he’d fire. “I will convince her.”

Maul descended the stairs, the gun fixed to Master Gray’s temple. Ligish weighed up whether to attempt to snatch it. No. He was fast, but not that fast.

They walked to the ballroom. On the way, they passed three unconscious guards. “She has a honey tongue and a hard swing,” Maul said. “And she’s stolen a gun.” As they approached the hallway leading to the ballroom, Maul stopped. Overlooking the ballroom doors were high ventilation windows. Ligish spotted Anna aiming a rifle through the window. Before he could speak, she fired a ghost-fist at him. He accepted the blow on his chest.

“Miss Anna, it is Ligish,” he said. “You must surrender. The general has taken your father hostage.” She raised her head above the window’s edge.

“You’re not Ligish.”

“He’s promised he’ll not harm Master Gray or yourself if you do what he says.”

“If you were Ligish, you’d kill him to protect me.”

““Miss Anna, I cannot kill. Not anymore.” His piston heart clenched with emotion. “You know me as your loyal servant, but I was a war golem. I have killed too many.”

In the distance, he heard the sound of breaking glass and triumphant shouts. Calvaria mustn’t have been able to hold back his soldiers and the liberated golems.

Anna ducked behind the windowsill again. She spoke from behind the door. “You’ll have to break down the door to get me.”

He rested his forehead against the door. He did not dare imagine how Maul would make her sign the contract. “Miss Anna, how can I convince you I’m your loyal servant?”

“Leave.”

“I can’t. He’ll kill your father if you do not come out and sign his marriage contract.” She sobbed behind the door and he thought his heart piston would fall apart.

“That is not my father,” she said. “Not anymore. It would be a kindness for him to die.” He could tell by the tone of her voice she didn’t believe what she said. “I’m not talking to you anymore.”

He shouted her name a few times, his voice rattling the windows, but she did not respond. Maul walked into the room, pushing Master Gray in front of him with his pistol.

“She’s not responding?” Maul whispered, keeping an eye on the windows. “Break down the doors and disarm her.”

“Wait,” Ligish said. “Find me paper and a pencil.” Maul frowned, but used his spare hand to reach into his breast pocket. He withdrew sheets of legalese and then a pencil. “On the back,” he said, “don’t spoil the contract.” With a glance, Ligish summarized the contents. Everything that had belonged to Master Gray, including Anna and himself, now belonged to Maul. With God’s word, the contract was invalid, but it did not seem to matter to Maul.

“Five minutes,” Maul said.

Ligish scribbled a single question on the back of the first page. “What are the differences in the law between Dexter Trapezius and Dexter Glenohumeral?” He slid the page and the pencil under the door.

A second later, she returned the pencil and paper with a number of references to the laws of Dexter Trapezius and Dexter Glenohumeral. He wrote back. “You’re incorrect. The laws across both principalities are the same.” The door’s lock clicked and Ligish turned the handle.

“Oh, Liggy,” she said and hugged him. Tears ran down her face. The sounds of yells came closer.

“Sign the contract,” Maul said, thrusting the last piece of paper toward Anna. She pushed the contract away.

Signing the contract would not save Maul, but it would save Master Gray. “Sign it for me, Anna,” Ligish said. “Not for Maul, but for me and for your father.”

She signed the last page and threw the paper to the floor.

“Now you’re my possession,” Maul said. “And I can throw you away.”

He raised his pistol. Ligish moved to shield Master Gray, but Maul aimed at Anna instead. Time stretched and stopped as the ghost-fist hit Anna in the forehead. It passed into her skull and solidified. Anna fell boneless to the ground. Ligish rushed to her side, no thought in his head, and howled. Every single window shattered and Maul clapped his hands over his ears.

Behind Maul, a printing press golem lumbered through the doorway, taking masonry with it as it entered. “Golem, protect me,” Maul yelled. Ligish ignored him and cradled Anna. Her breathing was butterfly shallow and blood gushed from where the fist had hit.

The printing press golem reached for Maul. He fired a number of shots deep into the printing press, the ghost-fists lodging in its rotary drum. The golem slowed and smoke rose from its insides, but it still managed to grab Maul’s arms, breaking his gun hand with an audible snap. He dropped the gun. Maul didn’t scream or flinch, but instead freed his arms from the golem and scrambled away.

The printing golem’s legs had frozen. It waved its arms and spat curses at him. Maul moved toward the gun, but the entry of a dozen red-robed cathedral guards stopped his motion.

Ligish returned his attention to Anna, urging her to keep breathing. Maul screamed and Ligish glanced up. The cathedral guards were forcing him into the rotary press. Ligish looked away. There was a long, drawn-out scream and then silence.

Master Gray sat next to Ligish and took Anna’s hand. When he spoke, the words were nonsense, but his distress was palpable. Ligish closed his eyes and prayed to any one of the infinite number of Gods.

#

Master Gray died a week later. Thousands of mourners lined the streets as the funeral procession traveled from the Holy Corpus Cathedral back to the house. Ligish suspected most had come to see him rather than the funeral, but it did not matter. It was still a comfort to see the crowds.

Once he’d seen the coffin lowered into the garden soil, Ligish headed toward the ballroom. He opened the doors. As he’d requested, Bishop Calvaria stood by Anna’s bed. She’d not woken since she’d been shot and the doctors said she never would. There was nothing left inside her skull except for that which kept her heart pumping and lungs breathing.

Calvaria held an open wooden box in his hand. Inside the box were hundreds of tiny scraps of paper. On one side of each scrap were symbols and on the other, a number.

“These look like the commands given to a Golem’s soul,” Calvaria said.

Ligish walked to the automicroscope and sat in the chair, fixing his gaze on the mirror so that he could see what Calvaria was about to do. “Each piece of paper is numbered. Use the tweezers on the work bench to feed them into my soul.”

Ligish reached behind him and removed the locking pin. The back of his skull opened, revealing a desk and an empty chair. His soul no longer needed commands from a homunculus, though it would still accept them. There had been a surprising number of golems who kept their homunculi, preferring servitude to freedom.

Since Master Gray had died, he’d spent all his time remembering what he’d read in the infinite book, scrutinizing Master Gray’s notes and revising ancient books on creating homunculi.

“I’m making a new homunculus,” Ligish said. “One made from Anna. You once said a homunculus was an expression of its creator, like a poem or a sonnet, but since God’s word gave them freedom, this seems to be false. If unbound and free, homunculi are their creators in spirit and mind. I don’t know if my commands are correct, but if they are, I’ll make her homunculus autonomically.”

“And either they or their creators have died,” Calvaria said. “Both cannot live at once. This is not certain.”

Ligish spoke quietly. “Would you say Miss Anna is alive?”

Calvaria opened his mouth and shut it again. Ligish gestured for the bishop to start. With painstaking care, Calvaria inserted the scraps of paper into his soul.

Day faded into night as the sun sank in the West and God’s other hand raised the moon. He mixed Anna’s blood with rare chemicals and chanted strange phrases. When the sun had risen again, he’d created a tiny naked replica of Anna. He held her cupped in his hands and breathed a tiny plume of air into her lungs.

The homunculus coughed and shuddered into life. Anna stopped breathing and the color drained from her face. Ligish handed Calvaria the homunculus. Calvaria placed the homunculus into Ligish’s skull, closed the doors and inserted the locking pin. For a moment, nothing happened. Then he heard Anna’s voice whisper in his ears.

“Ligish? What happened?” she said, her voice confused.

“Do you remember what I said to you?” he said. “My last words in your bedroom?”

“No?” His hands flexed as Anna wrote commands, experimenting with the secret language known by all homunculi. She controlled his body now. It would be difficult operating one body between them, but they had her entire life to learn how to share and no one knew how long a free homunculus might live.

“I’ll do whatever you ask for eternity,” he said. “I’ll always be your servant, no matter who my master is.” With that, he walked out from the house and flew into the air. He had an entire world to show her.

One Comment

  1. Dr. Bob says:

    Truly a wonderful tale. And beautifully produced here at Silverblade. Looking forward to more from Mr. Tchan’s creative and touching imagination.

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