Size / / /

Listen to the podcast: AudioPlayer.setup("", {width: 290 });

AudioPlayer.embed("audioplayer_1", {soundFile: ""});

Heart of Gold by A. L. Kaplan

© 2015 A. L. Kaplan, "Heart of Gold"

Later, Brother Francis would not be able to remember when it was that he first started thinking of the golden thing as a man—possibly when it blanched, braced itself against its restraints, and vomited oil all over the floor. Lord Masashige winced; Francis sent an immediate ping to the housekeeping network and then knelt down himself to look for towels in a cupboard. The creature shuddered and flung its tawny head back onto the feather pillow. Francis heard its uneven breath: breath it didn't require, he mused, breath it had no reason to draw.

Breath he didn't require. The little word slotted itself into Francis's mechanical mind. It was inaccurate, he supposed. But then, so it was for him as well. They were men neither of them; someone had fashioned them each in Man's likeness.

"Poor thing," said Lord Masashige with a frown.

"We should take this in for testing," said Brother Francis, holding up a soiled towel.

Lord Masashige regarded the sleeping creature on the bed. (Just after voiding his stomach, he'd fallen into a sort of wracked, anthropomorphic sleep; he lay there with his face turned to one side, his warm complexion touched with a lifelike pallor.) He said, "To say the least. —Have you ever seen anything like him? Is there anything else like him?"

The oil had a rank, expired smell. Francis had no idea what it was. Visitors to Yamazoe Basilica sometimes expected miraculous function out of the Brothers, based on what they knew of AI, only to be reminded that the Brothers were tailored to worship, relic maintenance, and tour guidance. He folded the towel and wrapped it up in a clean one; its slimy traces stuck to the synthetic surface of his fingers.

"I don't know, sir," he said truthfully. "I think that you should fill out a Found Object form."

Francis was fifteen years of age when he met Lord Masashige, and an hour old when he took holy orders and dedicated himself to Christ. This backwards order was how he remembered, like whittling through geological layers: down a little and he was bowing over Masashige's hand, down more and Abbot Simon was blessing him, and he was vowing himself to God, and he was opening his eyes.

Brothers at Yamazoe were all born with the knowledge of Catechism, every word of Scripture, everything that prepared them to enter the seminary: but it was impossible to build faith into the design. —Doctrinally speaking, anyway. That was what they said. So when a Brother was born he was always given the choice: to pronounce the Nicene Creed, to take holy orders or not. And if he didn't, he would be let go without rancor and sponsored in a placement elsewhere.

Every Brother was fashioned identically. Each turned out, of course, minutely different. God's creatures, great and small. Not one refused his vocation.

But climb up a few layers, and he was back to remembering Inoue Masashige. Abbot Simon caught Francis as he was passing through the Minster, presented him to a civilian, introduced him. He was saying— "Our youngest novice. And our most studious! My lord, may I present to you Brother Francis?"

Francis bowed: "Your servant, my lord. I hope your visit here finds you well."

"Walk with me, Brother Francis?" Masashige was a slight, fading man of thirty-six, then. He indicated his ornate walking-stick, the leisurely circuit of the cloisters. "I've an interest in artificial cognition. I understand that you experience the mystery of faith."

And he gestured inward, towards himself, and drew Francis into a lengthy and erudite conversation on exactly this. (Masashige would remark: 'You couldn't say?' Again?, to which Francis would reply, I've no need for subjective opinions, sir. Begging your pardon.

Masashige smiled—and then, reached out and chucked him under the chin. He had to reach up. Well, maybe you should cultivate one.)

Masashige's role in Yamazoe life was patron: handsomely generous, well spoken of around the orbiting Basilica. His role in his own was collector.

Masashige-sama had a passion for collecting. Rather, he made a hobby of collecting. His passion was for salvage. He loved to comb through the inventories of lost or derelict ships and station—remotely, while automata like Francis sifted through them by hand. His dream was to assemble a true collection of human history: a museum of the recent and distant human past, he said.

Francis did find him educational. He was well-educated, after all; he had multiple doctorates from international universities, not even honorary ones. (They let androids study there now—all the reputable institutions, anyway, he said with a smile, while Francis bowed his head and said quickly, This is my vocation, sir.)

He was a clotheshorse out of date. His manners were consciously antiquated. He was conscientiously Christian, which was uncommon in their nations. They had to rely on Westerners for so much patronage that the Abbot probably favored Masashige for this whether he meant to or not.

But he liked exquisite things most of all. Once when he was visiting he asked Francis to sit with him while he ate, as he sometimes did. He wore a tailored wool suit and a sparkling filigree watch; he savored every bite and he smiled, periodically, at Francis.

Francis smiled back.

"One of my ships has a promising haul," said Masashige. "A storage unit from a very old luxury liner. Centuries old."


"Would you like to see?" said Masashige.

But it wasn't in the storage unit that they found the golden thing. It was in an airless stateroom, sleeping curled up all alone.

Francis never saw that, tucked safely away in the shuttle with Lord Masashige, his habit changed for a suit of civilian traveling clothes. He could only imagine the salvage robots picking their way along the corridors, hooked to their carabiners, scouring the walls and floors: until one of them picked up the golden thing. —Or maybe the bed, wholecloth. Francis liked that image—the robot carrying them both away in its enormous arms.

They only received the report later, when Masashige was giving Francis a tour of his pianoforte and keyboard collection. "'An android,'" Masashige read aloud from his assistant's text. "Oh, that sounds lovely. — 'How old?'" he dictated.

He raised his eyebrows at the reply. "I see. —Francis? Shall we go and have a look at this?"

Little Herakles sewn under the skin. Kaguya-hime— Analogues for children found alive in unlikely places were ripe and numerous, like grapes. Francis felt their weight on trying to understand what the golden thing really was. But this was Yamazoe space, not far from the Basilica. So it was already ordained that if he didn't provide them with a name, the aides were going to start calling him Moses. Though there was never anything Christian about him, nothing at all.

He didn't give a name. He didn't give them anything. He just slept—fitfully, when he shouldn't at all.

Francis had never seen an android that slept convincingly. Francis had seen very little, but Masashige agreed: "Not usually a function that suits anyone's purposes," he murmured as they watched him roll and bunch the sheets up in his hands.

He was tawny all over. His skin was darker than the rest of him, touched up in a richer shade of gold; his hair and eyelashes were burnished, even his irises when they blinked open fractionally during a dream. The humans might not have noticed, but Francis did. So much calculation had gone into giving Francis realistic human coloration: olive skin, brown eyes, brown hair a little lighter than the eyes, striated and naturalistic. No one had done the same with the android Moses: they'd just painted him in tones they found beautiful, which occurred on no living man, which Francis found garish.

Masashige pressed his hand to the window glass. "I certainly won't dismantle him," he said. "Some scans are in order, but he has rights, after all. I wonder if he speaks."

Francis sat up at vigil with him to see if the artificial boy would wake. At one point Masashige, sleepy, drummed his fingers on the back of Francis's hand; but he then moved it away, and in the morning he flew them back to the Basilica, returned Francis to the Abbot as promised, and moored there with his prize.

Matins and Lauds came and went without incident and Francis did not expect to meet Lord Masashige's new acquisition again. He put him out of mind completely. Every android could clear its head on command—anxiety was not something that plagued his kind, nor intrusive thoughts. Pathopsychology was not something that plagued his kind. All the better for prayer, one imagined, to clear the way for the Lord to occupy your heart.

At Lauds Francis cleared the way, as always, and waited for this to happen.

The golden thing woke in the night. The Abbot sent for Francis, much to his own perplexity: "Lord Masashige sends word that his guest is awake now." Francis bowed at this and kept his question to himself: why? He was a monk: not an archaeologist, not a diplomat trained to First Contact.

Lord Masashige was waiting for him with a wrinkle in his forehead and a wineglass in hand. "Francis," he greeted him. "I thought you might be less alarming to him. You're of the same kind."

In fact, Francis was of a kind: the Basilica's own family line. The foundling was not. "If you wish it so," he said to Lord Masashige and bowed to him.

Lord Masashige smiled at him. "I'll be right outside," he said.

The two of them went to the hallway where the golden thing was being kept. Francis must have dawdled outside his room, because Lord Masashige laid a hand between the blades of his shoulders and said, "Go on." So he did.

The golden android was sprawled forward across the bed in his restraints, his arms and legs thrown out underneath him at uncomfortable angles. One hand was curled in the sheet under it. He looked like he'd been dropped. Francis would have taken him for unconscious—that was to say, 'unconscious'—were it not for his half-lidded metallic eyes which tracked Francis's footsteps.

Francis pulled out the chair next to the bed and took a seat in it. He made a throat-clearing noise.

The golden thing had his back to Francis. He didn't move or acknowledge him.

"Salve," said Francis: and then, further in Latin, "Are you feeling better?"

Latin was Francis's designated first language, though to visitors in this space he often had more cause to use Korean or Japanese. He was beginning to wonder if he and the other android had any languages in common when the golden thing turned his head a fraction to look at Francis, made a hff noise of distaste, and turned away again.

"My name is Brother Francis of Yamazoe," continued Francis without rancor. "What's yours?"

The golden thing rolled back onto the mattress face-up with a lazy twitch of his shoulders. He stared at the ceiling, lips slack. "A man of God," he said. His voice was warm and resonant, touched by an unknown accent. "I suppose I should be so lucky."

Francis sat back in his chair, a little startled. "So I am," he said. "And you are?"

Only later did it occur to him that no one called him that.

The golden thing kicked at the sheets with one well-shaped foot. "I want water," he said.

"I don't know if water would be good for your circuitr—"

"I want water," whined the golden thing.

Francis went to fetch Lord Masashige. They concurred on the matter of water, which was to say that the golden thing was not to be getting any: "He speaks Latin," he told Lord Masashige. "Though I haven't gotten anything about his name."

"The orderlies call him Moses," Lord Masashige mused.

"They do indeed, sir," said Francis with doubt.

From samples of his synthetic skin, Lord Masashige's foundling was old. Francis consulted the report with which he'd been provided for the purposes of including him in the process. No outsider had ever bothered to include him in a process before.

Exquisitely lifelike, said Lord Masashige's handwriting on the report. An entertainer? Or even a personal companion? I've never seen anything like him. I don't think anyone has. —R&D would kill for the chance to take him apart.

"Are you going to auction him?" asked Francis. He was on a picnic with Lord Masashige on-station; nearby, one of Francis's brothers tracked a path through the grass without looking at them.

Lord Masashige bit into an apple. "Lord, no. You don't get a piece like this every day." The lump of its flesh bunched up in his cheek as he frowned and swallowed. "I only wish he'd talk to me more. I'd like to keep him in better accommodations, but it simply isn't possible with the way he behaves."

The golden thing asked for water again. Francis gave him the remote to the television.

The thing threw it back at him, hard. "I don't want the TV," he said. "I don't want him. I want you to talk to me."

Francis scooped up the broken pieces in his hands.

"Talk to me, Francis," the thing demanded over his shoulder. Francis retreated with what was left of the remote control and nearly bumped into Lord Masashige in the hallway, who patted him briskly on the shoulder and brushed past him into the room, where he went in with placating hands outstretched.

Eventually the golden thing got what he wanted: water, freedom, and Francis. Lord Masashige reasoned that any android weak enough to be bound by psychiatric-ward restraints was no danger to the hull or the personnel, so he was consigned merely to being locked in his room for the interim. Francis watched him knock back the water with considerably more trepidation—but no ill effects manifested, so he stared at the thing's naked chassis and wondered again at his physical composition.

The golden thing received Francis's attention with a roll of his shoulders and a curious little tip of his head. "That's better," he said. "But it took too long. My host is rude."

"Lord Masashige is very courteous," said Francis with bowed head.

"Lord Masashige is rude." The golden thing shook out his hair, as if that settled it. "And dull. I don't want to see him again."

Lord Masashige is the reason you have this room. If it were up to me I'd have you remanded for dissection. For the first time, Francis realized that the foundling's attitude irritated him.

But he was assigned to him. For whatever reason—maybe their shared nature—the thing preferred Francis's company to his host's. So Francis smoothed the front of his habit and said, "Would you like some more water?"

The golden thing regarded him. "Are you a doll?" he said.

"I am a Benedictine brother."

"You don't look much like a man," said the golden thing. "You look like a doll. —That's all right. It means you'll live forever, like me."

Said Francis: "I can only hope to live forever in the Kingdom of Heaven."

"I know you're capable of being less dull than this." When the golden thing stretched, the light caught his shoulders and the curve of his back in soft, rounded highlights—organic, nearly. "Well. This is a start. You're right, I would like more water. Fetch me some," he said, with delight, "man of God."

Silicone, plastic, and steel: those were what largely comprised him, according to the scans. He ate and drank like a man, though there was no way he needed it. Two hours later, he excreted—or rather, he vomited oil again. Then he was ship-shape and asking for more water.

"I don't know what to make of him," admitted Lord Masashige aloud. But neither did anyone.

Lord Masashige sat together with Francis in a conference room aboard his own ship and together they tabulated what they knew about Lord Masashige's find. Silicone, plastic, and steel. He was much older than the luxury liner where he'd been found, though in better shape. He refused to provide a name or a history—the closest he came was when he curled up in his bed with his toes tucked into his sheets and informed them that he had "seen the Bull of Heaven die."

"I suppose that means he's not a Christian," said Lord Masashige. He rubbed his knuckles over the backs of his eyes.

"No," Francis agreed, "though he does seem to know what they are. —In fact, I think he regards himself some sort of divinity, sir."

Lord Masashige held up a hand. "I'm tired. Let's think of something else for the evening."

Much as Francis disliked the golden thing, he'd turned all his energies to understanding him; being asked to abandon this pursuit was, of all things, a bit disappointing. All the same he asked, "What would you like to think about?"

"Oh, I don't know. Scripture. The stars. The color of your hair." Lord Masashige smiled and appended, "Ah, it must be late. Let's find something to do."

They ended up going down to the planetarium together and sitting under the false stars, where Francis said, "Do you think of me as a doll, sir?"

"I think of you as my friend," said Lord Masashige. His arm was loose around the back of Francis's chair. Francis frowned at the unanswered question.

Mass came and Francis and his brothers were all favored with Scripture to consider. Instead he thought about Masashige. In a brotherhood of artificial novices, there was rarely anything new to think about, save the Abbot's homily, and Francis had already given the homily all the thought he had to give it: Mark 1:14-20. Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men. "He did," Abbot Simon exhorted, "the only question is, have you?"

He remembered Masashige's hand on his back, his arm around the back of his seat. He knew there were Brothers who'd left the Basilica before. Not everything about android behavior could be accounted for. But Francis had a vocation. Francis didn't understand what Lord Masashige was hoping for from him; Francis couldn't go anywhere.

When the hour came for his vigil with the golden thing, he was almost relieved for the time to himself. Half the time the thing slept, and his dislike of Lord Masashige barred him from their presence; it saved Francis from the confusing hinterlands of their relationship. All he had to contend with was a strange, imperious creature on a bed.

He was awake tonight. "Brother Francis," he said when Francis came in. "I almost didn't expect to see you."

The thing still had no Christian name, so Francis just nodded and said, "Good evening."

"No water?" But the thing only grinned when Francis shook his head in response; these were uncharacteristically merry spirits. "Tell me, Francis, how old are you?"

"I am sixteen. Age hasn't the same significance for me as it would for—"

"I know. You're a doll." The foundling's white teeth glinted and were tucked away. "Your time here is short as well. Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, the mayfly on the water."

Francis said, "I do not understand."

The golden thing gestured. "Come and sit on the other side of the bed. —I'm tired of turning my head this particular way."

To his own astonishment, Francis laughed. He stood up, rounded the other side of the bed, and complied; and the golden thing said, "Tell me about this place where we are."

Francis told him about the Basilica: every variegated piece of hand-blown glass fitted into the dome. He told him about Lord Masashige's ship, too, the plush staterooms and the chrome conference rooms. When he came back he told him of the curious artificial Brotherhood of Benedictines that lived there, and of Abbot Simon, and of Abbot Simon's latest homily though it made the thing's rich metallic eyes roll back in boredom. "Why do you never tell me about you?" he said to Francis once during a visit.

"I am telling you about me," said Francis after some consideration.

His devotions passed. So did the spaces in between: the maintenance duties, the time spent in conversation with his brothers. At one point the Abbot took him aside, radiating satisfaction, to say that Lord Masashige of the Inoue family had granted Yamazoe a most generous endowment. "That's wonderful," said Francis with unhidden confusion, and the unspoken words on his tongue, Why are you telling me?

Abbot Simon shepherded him off with vague, muttered plans for the Basilica and without looking Francis much in the eyes. Francis wondered about it; in between he folded towels and played docent to a group of Dutch-speaking tourists.

One of his sessions with the golden thing was upcoming. Francis showed himself on to Lord Masashige's ship with a wave of his hand, took an elevator to the appropriate corridor, and was surprised to hear voices when he stepped out. His first thought was a security breach: not that he had any idea what to do about something like that. But he recognized the two voices.

One was raised higher than he'd ever heard it. The other was shouting. Francis was conscious that he had no business being here. Still—he padded down the corridor and peered around the corner into the room. The door was half-ajar.

"If you would only, ever—" Lord Masashige was saying, heated. He was half-standing, half-seated by the bed, with his hand on the golden thing's shoulder pinning him to the mattress.

"No," the golden thing snapped at the top of his lungs. "I refuse. I do not permit it!"

With a low noise of frustration, Lord Masashige let go. "Then so it is," he said. "This is not going to improve until you budge." He straightened up and swept past the bed, as the thing drew in breath for another shouted screed, and stumbled as he encountered Francis in the doorway. "Francis—! I didn't realize it was time for your. . . Oh. I'm sorry," he mumbled, casting his hand toward the room.

"Would you like me to talk to him?" Francis thought of the thing, of his bare golden arm thrashing as if on an operating table.

But Lord Masashige shook his head. Behind them, the golden thing shouted incomprehensible profanities. "I want a drink," he said under his breath. "I'd much rather look at your face, Francis. Come with me and pour me a drink."

Francis didn't know very much about wine. He said so to Lord Masashige—decanting something expensive and red-purple for him—and Lord Masashige smiled and pressed his finger to Francis's dry lips.

"I wish you could drink," Lord Masashige said. "Lord. No, I don't, it brings out the worst in men. You don't know very much about the worst in men," he stated, peering at Francis.

"I don't," Francis agreed, unsure what else to say on the matter. He couldn't excise the image of the golden thing's arm from his own head: it struggled and beat against the walls of his mind.

Lord Masashige leaned forward, brushed Francis's hair away from his face with both hands, and kissed him.

Afterward Lord Masashige settled back into his chair, breathless and flushed around the mouth. "I shouldn't have done that," he said.

For once Francis was abruptly aware of a second consciousness within himself: a mind within his mind that not only observed what was happening, but commented tartly with No, you shouldn't have. He listened to himself and let it go.

He folded his hands and waited.

Lord Masashige said, "Oh, God, Francis," and buried his face in his hands.

What did you expect? thought Francis's new mind. Francis listened to that too and turned it aside and, instead, struggled to identify what he was feeling, the way the Abbot always instructed him to. He came up with no certain answer. So he reached out his hands and laid them on Lord Masashige's arms to comfort him; then he got up and walked around the table and put his arm around the man's narrow shoulders.

Francis put their heads together. Then, since he was taller than Lord Masashige, he rested his chin atop Lord Masashige's mussed head.

He hummed something under his breath.

Christ is dead. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. "Do you believe in the mystery of faith, Lord Masashige?"

Lord Masashige's voice steadied. "Of course, Francis," he said.

"Why? Why this in particular?"

Lord Masashige hesitated. "There's all manner of apologia written as to why the Christian faith makes the most sense to me," he said. "I'm sorry, I can't quote names or lines just now."

"I understand," said Francis and touched Lord Masashige's hair; it seemed the right thing to do.

Someone had given the golden thing more pillows by the time Francis came back to see him. He had them arranged in a peacock's-tail pattern against the headboard and was sitting up wide awake against them. "Brother Francis," he said. "Come to ease your troubled mind? Or mine?"

"Do you have faith?"

"I was there when Inanna stripped off her godhood piece by piece," the golden thing said, "and went below. I am faith."

Francis searched himself for how he was feeling: but where he'd once been promised an answer he found nothing but a great howling divide.

"I thought you were going to ask me whether I did," Francis said.

"You?" The golden thing yawned. "Why would I ask you something like that? —Of course you don't. Anyone could see it in the spaces under your eyes."

When Francis finished his catechism and was finally confirmed, they'd anointed him with oil over his head. He remembered feeling it in his hair for days after the process. Unconsciously he reached up to his head to feel for it again between his fingers—but it was no use, too much time had passed and his hair was clean. Instead he summoned to mind the reassuring weight of Abbot Simon's hand on his shoulder. The liquid weight of the Eucharist in his mouth.

"See," said the golden thing—and to his surprise, Francis realized that he was not mocking him—"look at you."

Francis said, "You were built for entertainment, weren't you? Before someone took you as a prize?"

"I was born in heaven when heaven was born," said the golden thing.

"You're so weak. I've never seen an android built not to struggle."

The golden thing folded his arms, tilted his head, sitting judgment. "And I'll fall when the stars fall into the great void that swallows up the sea."

"Who are you?" Francis persisted. "When were you made?"

"I tell you and I tell you," said the golden thing with great languor and some little pain, "but you close up your own mind with your hands and you don't want to listen. Even when everything else has fallen away. I suppose that's the problem," he mused. "You have nothing left. That's almost right."

Just then Francis tired of the creature's grand supercilious modes and the circles he talked in. He wanted to— Anger, the other half of his mind supplied. You're angry.

Coolly he said: "I have one more question for you tonight."

The golden thing watched him, with one beat of his dark eyelashes like the wings of a fly.

"What did you and Lord Masashige quarrel about?"

With immediacy the golden thing closed inward, drawing his legs up, his shoulders together. He regarded Francis with more wariness than they had since they'd first glimpsed one another. For a while Francis supposed that he wasn't going to get this answer either, but after the long pause the golden thing tossed his head, as if with indifference, and said, "I told him that I was weary of your company and I wanted to send you away."

"What?" Francis drew back. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," said the golden thing, slow, "that that was the subject of our quarrel. —I grow tired. Are you finished interrogating me, then, man of God?"

Things that made no sense to Francis tended to knock around in his head like objects out of place in flight. Customarily these questions were metaphysical and he would put them to Abbot Simon. Now, he thought, not without irony, he thought he mightn't trouble the Abbot for his time.

So for once he sought out Inoue Masashige before Inoue Masashige could seek him.

They met on Masashige's ship at his long cherrywood dinner table, where Masashige always seated Francis to his right. It would have been rude to invite Francis, who did not eat, to dine, but Francis liked to sit there for conversations more serious than those warranted by the parlor-room. He liked the texture of the lacquer. Something comforted him about it.

This afternoon Francis only traced his hand along the grain of the wood once before he drove to his point. "Your android," he said. "He told me he quarreled with you trying to have me sent away. Is that right?"

A startled reaction in a human was such a slow, wide-open process. First the pupils dilated and the eyes flicked open wide: the breath jerked inward, the body flinched back. Masashige was a man of composure, but the basics were identical. "He's a moody creature," he began, "though, of course, absolutely phenomenal. I'd like to have him take some aptitude tests, if he'd cooperate. But I can't account for all of his behavior."

Any, thought Francis. You can't account for any of his behavior. "So you're not sure?" he said and funneled polite inquisition into his voice.

"I don't know," Masashige said.

That was the sum total of Francis's plan, so he sat up straight in his seat and wondered if the conversation would be over. But after some contemplation Masashige reached over and took Francis's hand. It was a careful, gentlemanly gesture—nothing like his drunken lapses of before.

"I'm not going to send you away," he said gently. "Quite the contrary. . . . I've spoken to the Abbot."

Now it was Francis's turn to be startled, but surprise in an android only manifested itself in harsh stillness. He sat terribly still as Masashige raised his hand and bowed his head, as if to kiss it, though his lips never touched. Then he straightened up and laid it back down on the table.

"I don't understand," said Francis.

"The Abbot's agreed to permit you to travel with me as my new ward's companion. He thinks well of the prospect of bringing another soul to God through your connection—and of your prospects as a missionary at large. It would be a temporary placement. At least until my ward adjusts to the human world."

Francis stared.

"Francis? Are you well?"

"Sir? Have you told him about this?"

There was no need to specify who he meant. Masashige thinned his mouth: "Yes. It precipitated his tantrum."

The series of authorization codes to take Francis to the golden thing's quarters was no mystery to him. An android didn't mean, or not mean, to observe. No one barred a door against one of the Benedictine brothers of Yamazoe Basilica.

The thing was in a fitful sleep. His leonine hair was even more disheveled than usual and one of his legs was kicked off the bed entirely. He woke when Francis opened the door, however, and rolled over unashamed onto his back to peel himself up into a sitting position. He blinked clarity into his eyes in one of his beautiful simulacra of life. Francis was in no mood to appreciate it.

"If you had a name," he said with unusual acerbity as he closed and locked the door behind him, "I would have something to call you."

The golden thing arched his dark blonde eyebrows. "If I had a name," he said, "it would pour out of your mind like the runoff from the rain."

They regarded one another at the same time. For the first time in days Francis really looked at the golden thing. Compared to him Francis was a clay figurine. He didn't even know the numbers for the estimate of the golden thing's worth. No one in his right mind would ever surrender him. Inoue Masashige certainly would not.

Eventually Francis asked, "Were you a personal companion once?"

The thing barked a derisive laugh.

"I don't understand," Francis said. "I don't understand you at all."

"Go running back to the Abbot, man of God," said the golden thing. "And then our wealthy benefactor will make pets of us both."

"What else would you have me do?" Francis put his hands palm-up. "There's nothing else I can do. Nothing that happens in the Basilica is my choice. Lord Masashige is—is a wealthy donor," he went on, bewildered, "and what he can do for the Basilica outweighs my presence in it a thousandfold. There's nowhere else to go."

"Leave your vocation," said the golden thing.


"Leave your Church," said the golden thing.

"You don't—"

"Go away from here, if that's what concerns you," said the golden thing with a sudden passion, "and never see me again. I told you. I could always tell what you weren't."

Francis hesitated and then froze when the empty water glass crashed into the door next to him and fell to splinters on the floor. Not for the first time it occurred to him that the golden thing might do him genuine violence if provoked. From all evidence, Francis was stronger, but the superiority of the thing's craftsmanship was too obvious to discount.

But he let those thoughts fade from his mind and stayed where he was.

"No," he said.

"'No?'" the thing echoed him, still flushed with incandescence.

"No," he said and cleared his head.

The next time after that he saw the golden thing, the room was cold and weightless.

He picked his way down the corridor with his hands. The plants had floated through the garden past his head on his way in from the Basilica. He and his brothers had enough of a battery charge to last them for a week, though he hadn't encountered any to see how they were doing with it—he knew with what frantic work they were likely engaged, what hopeless causes they were tirelessly salvaging. They would hardly miss him. Not now, anyway. Not yet.

An android didn't mean, or not mean, to observe.

It had never occurred to him that he would experience the cold. Yet here it was: a sensation that pierced through his skin and his frame and his wiring.

The golden thing's door had snapped shut with the lockdown procedures on Masashige's ship. Masashige's ship had come first, but Francis hadn't had time to go back for the golden thing until it was all done.

He shouldered the door with his full complement of strength. It cracked off its hinges, not built to withstand the power of a destructive automaton, and Francis brushed it aside to look within.

In the darkness, he caught all the light. He was umber and vermilion and radioactive gold. Francis looked up at him.

He reached down to brush his hand through Francis's hair. "You're dying, now," he said. "You're running out of power, aren't you?"

Francis nodded.

"Are you afraid?"

Francis—looking up—shook his head.

"I know you're not," said he, "I believe in you." He kissed Francis on the forehead, and then in the lifeless dark he leaned down to breathe him full of the divine.

Gabriel Murray has only expended four lives, so he should be okay as long as he budgets from now on. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons: Our Queer Planet, GlitterShip, and a few other and less gay publications. He works in education.  
A.L. Kaplan is a comic book artist currently living in Reno, Nevada, waiting for the aliens. Their work can be seen on Tumblr at: and Tapastic:
Current Issue
2 Dec 2019

Winter has finally ended, and here you are, on the first day of summer, stuffing your pink feet into the sand.
By: Sheldon Costa
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Anaea Lay presents Sheldon Costa's “The Garden's First Rule.”
small bones / holding flecks of ash / rigid in her hands.
By: Mari Ness
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
In this episode of the Strange Horizons podcast, editor Ciro Faienza presents Mari Ness's “Gretel's Bones.”
Issue 25 Nov 2019
By: Nisa Malli
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Nisa Malli
Issue 18 Nov 2019
By: Marika Bailey
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Alicia Cole
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 11 Nov 2019
By: Rivqa Rafael
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Mary McMyne
By: Ugonna-Ora Owoh
Podcast read by: Mary McMyne
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 28 Oct 2019
By: Kelly Stewart
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Kelly Stewart
Monday: Aniara 
Issue 21 Oct 2019
By: Omar William Sow
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Amy H. Robinson
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 14 Oct 2019
By: Kevin Wabaunsee
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Ruben Reyes Jr.
Podcast read by: Ruben Reyes Jr.
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 7 Oct 2019
By: Charles Payseur
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Davian Aw
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 30 Sep 2019
By: Kali de los Santos
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Heitor Zen
Podcast read by: Julia Quandt
By: Sérgio Motta
Podcast read by: Sérgio Motta
By: Isa Prospero
Podcast read by: Solaine Chioro
Monday: 3% 
Issue 23 Sep 2019
By: August Huerta
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 16 Sep 2019
By: Marie Brennan
Podcast read by: Anaea Lay
By: Hester J. Rook
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Hester J. Rook
Load More
%d bloggers like this: