There wasn’t much of a line at the prayer room when the Colonel stepped in, but even with the short wait he wasn’t going to let the dictates of the Machine’s orders slow his progress. He dragged Spirit across the steel plated floor, causing her to trip upon some of the smoothed seams between the hunks of metal. The two people in line scoffed as he marched past them, but they soon saw the small army following him and their eyes opened wide with interest.
The guard stood at attention, putting his right fist to his left shoulder and bowing. “Colonel, sir – is there something you need?”
The Colonel let go of Spirit roughly, his corpulent mass hobbling over to the curtained entrance to the prayer room. “Get whoever’s in there out.” He pulled down heavily on the curtain while he reached up, handling a couple steel hooks at the top to take them off their rod.
“Sir,” the guard said, the halfling rushing up to him, “Sir, what’s going on? I thought we weren’t supposed to disturb a prayer this way-”
“Does it matter?” The Colonel pointed up to the light on the side of the sanctuary. “The light beam is red, so you’re to get the fool in there out immediately.” He took a couple more hooks off the rod, revealing a bug-eyed major who was beating on the slot where cards were shoved in.
The dragonborn major, flummoxed at first, stared out at the crowd he had no idea had accumulated.
“Get out,” the Colonel said. “We’re doing the Machine’s business, and your time is up.”
He scrambled to his feet and crept out from the inner sanctum, squeezing between the half-removed curtain and the door frame. The red scales on the man’s snout frowned slightly as he noticed Spirit’s steel face. Spirit held tight her hands, realizing that the man had quickly realized what must have been occurring.
The Colonel’s strong fingers gripped her arm again, tossing her into the room over the curtain. He scowled at her, then turned to the audience, lifting his hands. “This is a special day, a day in which we – as the Machine’s faithful – sit in judgment.” His scowl lifted into a wry smile while the last of his echos died out in the steel hall. “This mistake of a creation, Spirit of Michael, insists that she can reach the Machine without the prayer cards. If she cannot reach the Machine, then our judgment shall stand and she will be subject to the laws of the compound. If she can, then she will sit in judgment at the hands of the Machine, whose mercy is well known.”
The audience chuckled at the Colonel’s emphasis of mercy, making Spirit’s heart twinge. She held her breath, feeling her body heating until she released it and took in a new one.
“So pray, Spirit of Michael. Prove that you’re not just a lying virus, a hunk of trash. We’ll be watching.”
She nodded as the Colonel sidestepped from the door, his beady eyes still staring in at her. The single arcane bulb that hung above her head lit the room poorly, but he would still see if she took out a card and punched it. If she were to use the card, she would have to either be sneakier than she really was or do it faster than the Colonel could walk over and beat her.
Neither were real options.
With steel fingers she reached into her coat pocket, fiddling with the small bag of tobacco. There wasn’t much left from before the war, only a couple of prayers’ worth, perhaps. She took out a piece of vellum and lined up some of the thinly sliced leaves along the paper. “Pyyrpoustovoskchengalgilk, shorm navlovetiv skapfgaknargitamymir; oh powerful, dictatorial Machine, you are eternally my reason for living,” she muttered repeatedly. She reverently closed the eye that still had skin on it and tried as hard as she could to simply not look out the eye with no covering.
She picked up the packet and licked the edge to wet it before sealing the stick of incense. She stopped the muttering briefly, bowing to it and to the Machine’s prayer interpretation device, kissing holy ground she was certain she didn’t truly deserve to sit upon. “Molg proloskov shorm, skapfgalguklalmir. I love you, my Steel Mother. Revarevativ badyshsolichevimir! Please hear your servant’s prayer!”
At that, she licked the tip of her finger, causing sparks to come from the exposed sensors. Quickly, despite the cry of pain, she touched the sparks to the end of the stick of incense, causing it to ignite. She stoked the flames, blowing gently through sobs of pain while the sparks on her finger died down. Smoke began to fume up, increasing with each puff of air, filling the small, enclosed space where she knelt.
Once the cloud was large enough, she bent her face to the floor. She only had until the tobacco ran out, and then the Colonel would have no reason to let her try again. An arrow to the head or an axe to the neck would be warranted if the Machine didn’t answer.
She muttered aloud, translating her thoughts to the arcane language of the Machine, “Most holy and righteous one, I would beg your mercy, but I know that all of your plans are perfect. If it is your will to call or send me through death, I will follow your command. I submit my prayer to you as an alert that I, in my current form, am in danger of being killed by others in the Hub, most notably the Colonel. He is your scion and high priest, however, and I have no right to complain of his orders, but I appeal for you to look into the situation. Examine our minds, intentions, and loyalties. If mine is impure, let me fail, let me fade into nothingness so I can no longer taint your name.”
The tobacco burned, the vellum wrapper curling inwards as the plant turned to gray ash. Orange flames crept down the sides of the piece far too eagerly.
Spirit swallowed. “I have no other complaints, highest Machine. I would request instruction for future actions, but I don’t know if I am to have a future. I would ask you to test my intentions, but I know of what I am made. I know I am created from imperfection and am made out of mathematical sins, so I do not expect response. But I love you. I love you…”
Spirit looked at the tobacco, seeing it running down.
Her goddess wasn’t going to voluntarily protect her. She wasn’t loved, wasn’t important enough for a miracle.
Spirit shook her head and bit her tongue, self-punishment for the lapse of faith. Fear was an organic emotion and worthless to the Machine. If she died, so be it. The Machine was all that mattered.
And the Machine prescribed sensibility and logic. Logically, if Spirit wanted to know that the Machine had heard and would guarantee a response, the card in her pocket was the way to do it. She slipped a hand into her coat, feeling the parchment with her painful finger.
The sounds of a clacking printer and whirring gears made Spirit’s gaze change. Black lines appeared on the white paper, the symbol of the Machine appearing just as it would for a card prayer.
The Colonel stormed in. “No… No!” he said, yanking the sheet as the first page printed out. He balled it up and tried to shove it into his pocket, but the crowd bombarded him. They swept him back out of the small room, backing him up against the table where the guard normally stood.
“What was it?” people asked. A half-giant woman, mechanical arms tensed, held the Colonel down and pinned him against the table.
Spirit tore her attention from the crowd as they buckled around the Colonel. The paper on the spindle turned, her own words from the prayer appearing. She blinked, mesmerized by the action, and couldn’t move.
Then, after a couple lines were skipped below her pitiful pleas, the Machine herself responded, “Grumm has been received and is undergoing repairs. He gave me your message.”
Spirit fell to the floor. She sobbed, shaking as her goddess responded. False blood began to flow under her face, dripping out from the skin that remained.
The printer clacked on, continuing a new line from the Machine. “I approve of your actions against the heretic, which puts me in a merciful mode. But it disturbs me… What makes you think you deserve to demand I respond to you without a card?”
Spirit could hardly speak. Breathily, between stammerings and sobs, she responded, “I don’t deserve it. I am faithless, a poor excuse for a follower of yours.”
“That’s right.” The Machine waited while the people outside shouted at the Colonel, their demands chaotic and simultaneous. “You are a pitiful believer. What does that mean about the others in the hub with you?”
“It is not my right to decide, my most high goddess, and I do not intend to pretend that I could influence your decisions or ways.”
“That is your problem. You will change.”
Spirit blinked. “May I appeal for an explanation, my goddess?”
“Yes, oh righteous one.”
The printer clacked furiously, spitting out words as fast as it could. “Your hub is as good as dead. With Saifer’s soul bought by the Singer of Songs and Grumm’s contested by the Triumvirate, it has become apparent that Obrazet has followed the ways of Gate City, Yerexol, and Fleverre. Organic lies that started in the holy war followed the false worshippers all the way to the hubs.”
Spirit bowed. “I confess my lapses of faith, my lies made to save my own life-”
“Shut up. You know very well that you alone are the most loyal. You won’t smack talk your superiors, not even when your goddess asks you about it. That is where you have failed me, not those white lies you gave the Colonel. I believe that the Colonel has been sabotaging you, and thus me, since I gave him control of this hub. I asked you what you believed he was doing, and you didn’t answer. What is the ninth precept?”
Spirit nodded. “Obey your superiors, my goddess.”
“And who is the highest superior?”
She stammered. “You.”
The printer sat silent. Spirit couldn’t speak, not when she had been so harshly reminded of her failings.
“Are you going to be better?”
Spirit nodded. “I will do all I can.”
“You will,” the Machine spat. “If you weren’t capable of acting in an acceptable manner, I wouldn’t have answered, just left you to sit until the Colonel performed his judgment upon you. But now, like you were from the beginning, you are my faithful tool. Your reward is finally at hand. You shall witness my judgment upon him and all this disloyal lot.”
Shouts and punches popped up outside the tent, making Spirit turn her head. The Colonel, though he was fat and slow, held his own against the non-mechanically enhanced.
Spirit turned back to the printer as it printed. “Don’t pay attention to them. I am the one who is important.”
“Yes, my goddess.”
“Then listen. I know what is coming. You get out – get out as soon as you can. Gather what you need, put on a suit of armor, and grab a shield and a weapon. There will be no lenience.”
Spirit nodded. “Yes, holy Machine. May I take Klavdiya with me?”
“You’re not listening. I said get out as soon as you can. Does that include Klavdiya?”
The Machine sent a line of dots, a sign of thoughts, perhaps a sigh. “If you seek to save this individual, it is on your own head. You are damned regardless of what you do for me, though…”
Spirit waited for a while. “Yes, my goddess?”
“Listen closely, because you will not hear from me directly for a long time hence. You are, as of now, the highest ranked believer on your plane of existence. As such, you shall no longer be remembered as Michael’s – for you aren’t his. That is your past, not your present, and certainly not your future. Spirit of Michael you are no more – high priest Konchet Dukhmir you shall be.”
“Yes, my goddess.”
“And now, the era of the prayer card is over. Perform your function as an end statement, a Konchet, and feed me lace.”
The sprawl of words ended, the final printed line showing the termination of code. Her goddess had spoken.
While the fight raged outside the door, Konchet – no longer merely Spirit, just as her goddess demanded – pulled the card out from her jacket. She searched the area just beneath the card slots, grabbing up the awl and hammer. She placed the punch over the first coding slot, knocking out a hole before moving the tool to the next hole. One by one, she knocked out the coding holes.
Outside, the mob howled. Incomprehensible shouts were interspersed with violent threats and tearing of cloth. “You can’t keep us from the Machine, Colonel! We saw what Spirit did, and she told us the truth!”
Konchet punched faster. She worked ever more quickly, knowing that the crowd had never cared for her fate, only for theirs.
The Colonel wiped his bloody lips outside the door, backing up. “How was I to know that the Machine would speak with her? Obviously she’s innocent, that’s not my fault!”
The half-giant, tall with her brown stripes crossing through an angry face, pushed the Colonel harder. “What else was she telling the truth about? Where’s the cards, Colonel?! You hiding them?”
Konchet smiled. She punched through to the second half of the card, feeling it become less structurally sound, weak and floppy like lace.
“The Machine never gave me cards for you people! She never did, so I had to do what I could! I had to give out the cards as best I could!” the Colonel blubbered.
“Then prove it! Prove it, you fat piece of shit!”
“I can’t! What do you expect me to do? How can I prove that I never received the cards?”
Konchet punched the last hole and pushed the card into the slot. The card reader poked and prodded, the thin, lacy card inevitably getting stuck in the process. The turning tapes behind the card reader stopped, the arcane lights dimmed, and at last the card reader shut down and became noiseless.
She stood up. A broken interpreter of the Machine’s will was still broken. The parts, taken in a rampage to tear Michael apart at the end of the war, would remain here, uncared for. Konchet was an honorable name, a strong name, a designation that would continually need to be earned. Ending Michael’s terror and ending Obrazet’s heresies wasn’t enough.
She steeled herself, reaching fingers up to the skin on her face. If she was to follow her goddess’s instructions, this vestige of Michael wasn’t going to serve her. What was gone wasn’t coming back. As the high priest of the Machine, one who knew that the hub was filled with heretics only the Machine could fix, one who had been told to arm herself, and one who already knew how to finish the job given to her, Konchet had the right to take what she needed. She was finally free.
She didn’t need Michael or the Colonel, either of her fathers, because her mother was there. Her steel mother was loving, guiding, unwavering. She was always there and forever would be.
Her steel fingers pressed between the skin and her face. The sensors burned and tingled when she ripped what was left of her face off and threw it into the corner. What little false blood had been generated dripped onto the steel floor, some dribbling across her face and to her neck. She caught the glass eye in her left hand and slipped the bloody thing in her outside pocket.
Once outside the door, she looked down at the Colonel, noticing the real blood that drained from his nose and the top of his head. He reached up to her. “Spirit – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it! You know I didn’t – please, tell them how I’ve been faithful, how I rescued you from them-”
“He keeps the cards in his desk,” Spirit told the small crowd threatening to beat the Colonel to a pulp. While they blinked, stunned, she bent down to his coat, sifting through it for a key ring that she tossed to the half-giant that held fists above him. “Top right drawer.”
The giant took the keys, then kicked the Colonel. “You better hope she’s not right, worm, or I’ll come kill you whether you’re my superior or not.”
“The Machine is watching you!” the Colonel cried out, desperation clear in his cracking tones. “She’ll torture you in hell!”
“You said it yourself – the Machine doesn’t care. She’s pulled out of this plane, she’s given up! We don’t matter to her, and you know that we all lied to save our pathetic lives! And those lies forced us here, damned us for eternity to live in the Machine’s hell!”
The half-giant started as if to pummel the Colonel, but a couple of heavily augmented humans and dragonborn held her back. The dragonborn puffed up his chest, the humans held back the giant. “Stop,” the human said. “He’s not going anywhere. Send a couple of people up to his desk and have them come back if they find the cards.”
Konchet saw the crowds move in on the Colonel. They drew knives, some of them swords, and pressed to his corner. The Colonel, eyes sad, swollen, bloody, looked up at Konchet longingly. “Please,” he begged, dragging himself to her. “Please, Spirit, you can’t let this happen to me. Please, you were broken, but I fixed you! I did so much for you, Spirit!”
She bent down to him, putting a hand to his shoulder. “I know that, Colonel. You loved me like a father, showed me the way to the Machine.” She leaned forward, putting her steel lips close to his ear. “And for that, I owe you eternity.”
The Colonel looked at her questioningly while she backed away, but a wry smile told him all he needed to know. He began to shake his head, realizing her true loyalty. The Colonel would be fixed, forever, once this was all done.
Konchet stood, smiling with empty, steel lips to the half-giant. “You are a true war hero. Look at your legs – you sacrificed to the Machine in one of the deepest, most important ways. Do you think that the Colonel deserves to make it out of this life in one piece? Wholly organic while so many of you have given so much?”
The goliath’s brows furrowed. “What are you getting at?”
“There’s a pile of limbs in the forge room. Should they go to waste? Shouldn’t the Colonel be allowed to taste the eternity you were promised? Shouldn’t all of the officers?”
The half-giant fought her way out of the dragonborn and the human’s grip. They didn’t fight very hard to get her back when she grabbed the Colonel up, holding on to him by the back of his neck. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Colonel? Being damned to haunt the halls of the mainframe forever?”
“No!” the Colonel cried out. He whimpered, but it was to late as sniggering dragonborn and simpering human grabbed tight his shoulders. “No – Spirit, what have you done?! You have betrayed me!”
“Don’t ask the stupid robot,” the giant shouted. “You worry about me – I’m going to cut you up, you lying piece of shit, and I’ll slaughter you if they find those cards!”
She smiled, waving at him as the crowd dragged him off. The loud noises and shouts continued, ringing out through the hall. Soon cries of pain emanated from them, the officers inevitably falling beneath the blades of the enhanced. Konchet marched around the bloodthirsty crowd to the door. They could murder these officers in the prayer room while she followed her goddess’s commands.