Thirg, asker-of-forbidden-questions, lived in the higher reaches of the
forests south of the city of Pergassos in the land of the Kroaxians, where the
foothills rose toward the mountains bounding the Great Meracasine Wilderness.
He lived in something that was more than a hut but less than a house,
in keeping with the not quite hermitic but certainly less than sociable life
that he preferred to lead. His home was situated in a small clearing amid pleasant
forest groves of copper and aluminum wire-drawing machines, injection molders,
transfer presses, and stately pylons bearing their canopy of power lines and
data cables, among which scurrying sheet riveters, gracefully moving spot welders,
and occasional slow-plodding pipe benders supplied a soothing background of
chattering, hissing, whirring, and clunking to insulate him from the world of
mortals and their mundane affairs, and leave him in peace with his thoughts.
A low ice cliff stood at the back of the clearing to prop up the hillside rising
away toward the mountains beyond, its line broken on one side by the valley
of a liquid methane stream which tumbled cheerfully down over cataracts and
ice boulders between clear pools where zinc-separating electrolyzers and potassium-precipitating
evaporators came to wallow and wade and dip their slender intake nozzles and
funnel-shaped scoops at the height of the bright period.
Thirg had grown the actual dwelling himself, having learned the craft
from an old friend who was a builder in Pergassos. After laboring to clear the
area of dead steel lattice-works and structural frames, the carcass of a transformer
that had clung obstinately to its concrete base, and assorted scrap-metal undergrowth,
he had prepared an area of the hydrocarbon soil below the cliff with nitrogenous
loams collected from the stream bed, and planted the seed culture for the outside
wall in a line ten paces out from the cliff base, curving inward at its ends
to close off the frontage of a dry cave. Then he had laid out the baselines
of the interior walls to provide a living area, a workroom, and a library, and
while carefully nurturing with methane solutions gathered from the forest, he
had enlarged the cave at the rear into a second workroom and a storeroom. The
doors and window fittings had grown from secondary cultures grafted into the
structure when the frames had stabilized at their correct shapes and sizes,
and the larger furnishings from premolded miniatures purchased in the city.
A conduit of forest piping diverted running methane from the stream, and a power
line strung from a nearby distribution mast provided all the comforts of home
recharging. To provide the rustic finish that suited his taste, Thirg had lined
the walls with polished alloy sheets obtained from the rolling mill a mile farther
downstream, and laid the floors with ceramic bricks and lengths of girder from
a partly decomposed foundry that he had come across while walking near the stacking
meadows just below the cabinet assembly line on the slopes overlooking the river.
One morning Thirg was sitting outside his house on a stump of steel forging,
pondering the mysteries of life while he watched a phosphor-bronze bearing collector
buzzing and chattering to itself as it poked and rummaged among a pile of undergrowth
on the far side of the clearing. It was a species of a general family of collector
animals that a naturalist friend had spent a lifetime cataloguing and classifying--discreetly,
since such inquisitiveness could lead to trouble with the authorities if it
was brought to the attention of the priests. Like all its related species, it
selected just one type of metal composition by sniffing the emissions from a
tiny spot that it vaporized with a needle laser, and then only from samples
of a particular size and shape, and delivered its trophies to the nearest conveyor
to be carried off to other parts of the forest. Thirgs friend had spent
many hours following components through miles of forming, processing, and finishing
stations to the assembly places where animals came to life, and observing the
furnaces that devoured reject components and excreted pure materials from which
new components were manufactured; he had drawn elaborate charts depicting the
merging and branching patterns by which components and subassemblies flowed
through the forest; and he had dismantled hundreds of dead animals and other
machines in an attempt to trace where their organs and constituent parts had
come from, what routes, and where the raw material had originated. But even
with the findings of generations of earlier naturalists to build on, the work
was barely begun. The intricate, interlocking, mutually interdependent pathways
by which Nature recycled its materials as it constantly renewed the living world
were so bewildering that Thirg sometimes suspected that, despite all the effort,
hardly a fraction of the whole had been glimpsed yet, let alone comprehended.
It was fascinating to think that one of the scraps of metal being sorted by
the collector that he was watching now might be found twelve-brights later inside
the rotor mounting of a centrifuge located miles away, or perhaps in the wheel
bearings of a dead plastics-browser on the other side of Kroaxia.
Although Thirg had never elected to start a family of his own, his natural
curiosity had led him at times to the places where subassemblies of robeings--the
unique, self-aware species to which he belonged--came together for final assembly.
He had watched in fascination as the embryos grew to their final forms and shapes
while anxious parents scurried back and forth to make sure all the parts were
available and all the requirements of the assembly machines satisfied, and he
had shared their elation when the new robeing was at last activated and departed
trustingly with the proud couple to its new home to begin the process of learning
language, behavior, customs, and all the other things that characterized an
adult member of society.
The assembly process was essentially identical to the ways in which animals
and other life forms grew. Thirgs naturalist friend had assured him that
all forms, including robeings, were supplied from the same sources of components,
and it seemed remarkable that one species should exhibit thinking abilities
sufficient to distinguish it so sharply from all the others. On the face of
it, the difference seemed to support the orthodox teaching that robeings were
unique in possessing souls which would eventually either return to the Lifemaker
after undergoing worldly quality-assurance testing, or else be consigned to
the Great Reduction Furnace below, from which the liquid ice volcanoes originated.
But the physicians who had dismantled and studied bodies of dead robeings had
been able to find nothing more than was found in any other machine: the same
kinds of perplexing arrangements of tubes, fibers, brackets, and bearings, and
baffling arrays of intricate patterns etched into countless slivers of crystals
that descended to levels of detail way beyond the power of the most powerful
lenses to resolve. So where was the soul? If it existed, why was there no sign
of anything different to say that it existed? True, nobody could explain how
robeings were able to think, but on the other hand nobody could explain how
animals came to act the way they did or to know what they seemed to know either.
So did the existence of robeings require anything fundamentally "different"
to be explained? Thirg wasnt at all sure that it did. To him the "fact"
of the soul sounded suspiciously as if it had been invented to suit the answer;
the answer hadnt been deduced from the facts in the way that was required
by the system of rules he had constructed for answering questions reliably.
And in all of the tests that he had subjected them to, the rules had never failed
A sudden grinding sound from the edge of the clearing interrupted his
thoughts. Moments later the grinding changed to sharp clacking as Rex began
gnashing his cutters and running backward and forward excitedly in front of
the trail leading from the forest. Thirg stood up just as a tall figure clad
in a woven-wire tunic and a dark cloak of carbon fiber came into view. He was
wearing a hat of ice-dozer wheelskin and carrying a staff of duralumin tubing.
"Down, Rex," Thirg said. "Its only Groork coming to pay
us a rare visit." You should know him by now." And then, louder, "Well,
hello, brother, Hearer-of-Voices. Have your voices led you up into these parts,
or do you bring us tidings from the world?"
Groork came into the clearing and approached between the metallic-salt
deposition baths on one side of Thirgs garden and a decorative row of
subminiature laser drilling and milling heads busily carving delicate aesthetic
patterns in an arrangement of used gas cylinders and old pump housings. His
radiator vanes were glowing visible after his exertions, and he was puffing
coolant vapors. "There are many strange voices in the sky of late, the
like of which I have never heard before," he replied. He didnt smile
in response to Thirgs greeting; but then he was a mystic, and so never
smiled at anything. "Surely it is an omen of great things that will soon
come to pass. I am called to go out into the Wilderness of Meracasine, and there
I will find the Revelation that many have sought. For it is written that--"
"Yes, yes, I know all about that," Thirg said, holding up an
arm of silver alloy, jointed by intricately overlapping, sliding scales. "Come
in and rest. You look thirsty. A drink of invigorating mountain methane is what
you need. I dont know how you stand that polluted muck that they run into
the city at all."
Thirg led the way inside, and Groork sat down gratefully on the couch
by the wall in the dining area. While Thirg was pouring a cup of coolant, Groork
selected one of the array of power sockets sprouting from the transformer unit,
each of which designated a particular strength and flavor, drew it out on the
end of its extension cord, and connected it to a plug inside a flap below his
chin. "Ah, that does feel a lot better," he agreed after a few seconds.
Thirg passed Groork the cup, then glanced at his hands and down at his
feet in their wheelskin sandals. He gestured towards the electroplating attachment.
"If youre wearing hungry anywhere, help yourself."
"Youve eaten already?"
"Yes, Ive had a plate. I can recommend a new composition of
chromium and vanadium that you ought to try. Delicious--home-regulated, fresh
from the garden. Or a top-up of lube, perhaps?"
Groork shook his head, and the fervent glint returned to his imaging matrixes.
"My purpose is not to trifle over pleasantries, Thirg. I have a higher
calling to answer, and I do indeed bear thee news--grave news, O brother who
forsakes his soul for Black Arts. They heresy hath betrayed thee! A writ has
been issued by the Kings Chancellor for you to be brought before the High
Council of Priests by the time of the next west-bright, to recant the public
utterances in which you have denied the Holy Scribings. Soldiers of the Royal
Guard have already departed the city and will arrive hither this bright. Flee
now and save thy wretched body while it lives, for its spirit is surely lost
already to the Dark Master thou wilt never renounce!"
"Oh... And what am I suppose to have said now?" Thirg asked.
Despite the tone of Groorks words, the thermal patterns playing on the
surface of his face painted expressions of a concern that was genuine.
"Does thy memory ail?" Groork said. "Is that not the first
symptom of the madness that afflicts all blasphemers and drives them into the
deserts to perish seeking covenant with the accursed in the lands of the Unbelievers?"
"Id have said they did it more to get away from the priests
and avoid being dipped in acid baths," Thirg replied, and asked again,
"What am I supposed to have said?"
"Didst thou not, in the hearing of many who were in the marketplace,
deny the Sacred Doctrine of the Divine and Unknowable Essence of the Maker of
All Life?" Groork whispered, as if fearful of uttering the words too loudly.
"Hardly. What I said was that some of the sacred logic strikes me
as precarious. For is not the existence of Life cited as proof that the Lifemaker
must have made it... at least when one troubles to penetrate the confusing tangles
of words?" Thirg shrugged and took a short draft from another cord to be
sociable. "But we would never permit such a form of argument in our more
mundane world of everyday affairs. For example, if I decided to invent an Unknowable
Windowmaker, I could hardly claim that because windows exist the Windowmaker
must have made them, could I? It is known that windows grow from cultures that
are engineered by builders. Like the first, the argument is circular: It begins
by assuming that which is sets out to prove."
Groork, who had raised his hands in an attempt to block his ears, lowered
them again with an anguished moan.
"Blasphemy!" he exclaimed. "What false creed of faith is
"Its not a creed of faith at all, but a process by which truths
can be shown to follow necessarily from simple observations," Thirg told
him. "My task has been the reduction of this process to a series of rules
which can be written down in a from of language and used by anyone. Truly the
results astonish me. Shall I demonstrate some examples?"
Groork looked aghast. "Do you presume to impose rules upon the Lifemaker
Himself? You would dare constrain how He might choose to manifest His design?
You would confine His works to the understanding of mere mortals? What arrogance
has taken possession of thee? What manner of--"
"Oh, shut up." Thirg said wearily.