By Maggie Clark

Transfer orders reached me in active storage—awake but shelved, and attentive only to the smaller sounds of silence: the hum of ventilation shafts, the occasional click of distant footprints, the minute grind of locks on other doors.

Call them my meditative years—four and a half, give or take, since the last serious incident on Loris Prime. Just don’t ask why I logged into storage after putting that sorry case to bed. Fatigue doesn’t hit an AI the same way it might a Natural Intelligence, and for all the cynicism in my personal profile, the notion of growing too jaded or spooked for detective work, as an NI often does, won’t pass muster either. The best I can offer is that time passes differently for AIs: every sluggish human second its own eternity, and yet, what are four-plus years to someone with whole centuries in their wake?

Unfolding and unplugging myself to answer the official call, I made note of all the points along and under my ’steel frame operating at suboptimal efficiency: plastics thick with particulate; liquid wiring that had just begun to crystallize; phase-shifting nanoprocessors in need of realignment. Minor fixes, all, but important reminders of my own mortality—gradual though it would be, unless I hastened things along.

My associate had been sent straight from Network HQ—meaning, straight from basic training—to join me on the journey out. He was young as recruits went, but then, they all seemed childlike to me, from the freshest to the most seasoned NI in the outfit. This wasn’t just my age talking, either: Everyone I’d been programmed to care about had died generations past, and I suspected that, for whatever reason, self-actuation had lessened my ability to build a similar rapport with others since.

Hearing tell of this suspicion, a previous associate once suggested that maybe we weren’t so different after all—humans, that is, and AIs. At the time, 58 and widowed, he maintained that his heart had been permanently wearied by its losses, and though he saw youthful optimism all about him, he knew he’d never again join in. I accepted this as his view for as long as he held it, and then, when he was 62, likewise accepted word that he’d found a man who taught him to laugh and cry anew. Granted, though, this was forty-odd years ago, and they’re both making their way back to stardust now, so he wasn’t entirely wrong: I’d be joining him and all other NIs, eventually, on that protracted road.

In the meantime, the kid before me was of the nervous, jumpy sort, and as ill-fitting in his Network jumpsuit as he seemed in the hush of the storage lockers. When he spoke he cleared his throat first, as if in competition with the silence for my attention.

“If you need a moment to get—ah—dressed?”

If I’d still had a synth-skin I might have smiled. I’d worn one such outfit or another for centuries: the first the body of a Companion with ample female attributes, the next a broad-shouldered male number, and the rest all variations therein. But the naked chassis had its benefits, too; it “breathed,” as an NI might say of their birthday suit.

Instead I declined his offer by making directly for the shuttle, as the Network surely knew I would. My associate jogged to keep up while rattling off details of our case: Twenty-three dead monks in a mountain-dwelling community on a hunk of rock so old, so remote, and so apparently bereft of commercial value that at first I thought it no wonder the Network didn’t want to waste “real” agents on the case.

“Witnesses?”

“Just one—the only surviving monk.”

“And what does he say happened?”

“He doesn’t.”

“Scared into silence, huh?”

“No, just—too busy to talk.”

The kid almost bumped into me when I stopped short at the loading dock for a passing luggage car. The ticker for our own transport flashed its final boarding call.

“Too busy for a murder investigation?”

His cheeks and ears reddened as we took our respective seats. “Well—ah—that’s the tricky part, Detective Bennett—sir. See, the monk won’t stop singing long enough for anyone to get a word in edgewise. And the locals say he can’t. Their people—they believe the universe was sung into being, and the monks’ job is to keep it going. For as long as anyone remembers, the monks have been holding the universe together in song—in shifts, of course, but without pause. So now the locals are terrified because if he stops… well, he won’t stop, sir. Not with that much on the line.”

“Well, that’s a damned nuisance. What’s your name, kid?”

“Yes, sir. Hersh, sir.”

Out the nearest viewscreen, Hersh and I watched Loris Prime fall away.

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I skimmed all pertinent files from Hersh’s sig-card during the last minute of the flight. The hunk of rock we’d landed on had three official names: its Network designation, its everyday name, and its sacred name. Only three would be unusual, if not for the planet’s culturally homogenous population: just under a quarter million calling Cog “home.”

Cog was a planet of relentless mountain ranges, many containing caverns large enough to port three shuttles through, side by side, with room to spare on either end. But if Cog had ever held lucrative mineral and metal reserves (and some signs pointed to interplanetary mining operations thousands of years back), they stood depleted now. What remained was a multifaceted people, their skins a patchwork of colors, shapes, and sizes, with agrarian traditions haphazardly merged from what might have been as many as twelve original sources, and a persisting caste system not unusual for colonies their age and size.

The way Hersh had told it, though, today’s Cograns were nobodies in the Network, and from the report that wasn’t quite true: their use simply lay elsewhere, in communication relays and intelligence-gathering, two services which—at the shit end of a particularly cold and inhospitable solar system—these people could perform with greater ease and discretion than most. So maybe there was more to my reassignment than first appeared.

Either way, the Cogran who met our transport was taller than the average native, and from the accessories on his outerwear, more affluent, too. Sev Franz, he called himself—Sev being a designation not unlike “Father” or “Reverend” in other parts of the galaxy, but with the added implication of “mediator” or “peace-maker.” There was no official police force on Cog, where most communities numbered in the low thousands, but each had an upper-caste council that met to discuss various infractions therein. Sev Franz introduced himself as one of seven such councilors from the community of Pagora, which encompassed the mountain cavern where the world’s monks—a population already in sharp decline in recent years—lived and worked and held the universe together in song.

“Striking place,” I said, as he directed us to the primary crime scene. “Cog’s what, now—thirteen, fourteen billion years old?”

Sev Franz shot me a puzzled look, but if he’d hoped to read anything off my naked ’steel frame, its impassive ocular sockets and rigid, empty jaw, he could only be disappointed. “No, of course not. Closer to—well, five billion, I suppose. But surely you know that.”

“And your people? Do they know that, too? My files suggest strong literacy rates, no major panic about modern medicine and the like. And yet, the universe is billions of years older than your world, and your people are terrified that it will end if the singing stops?”

Sev Franz’s mouth parted. “Ah,” he said, winking. “Yes, I see now. I suppose it all sounds incomprehensible to someone like you—a robot, yes?”

“AI will do. Just ‘robot’ would be the equivalent of calling you a mammal, or invertebrate, understand?”

“Absolutely. But the point remains, no?”

“No, I don’t find it incomprehensible.”

“Because you already find humans irrational in everything we do?” Sev Franz glanced in amusement at Hersh, but the kid was trying his best to appear professional, so only the flushed tips of his ears conveyed his own uncertainty.

“Well, you are, but no.” I affected a sigh to set the NIs at ease. “No, I was originally programmed to worship, myself. One person, mind you, but to me she was a god.”

“I’m not so sure that’s the same…” Sev Franz started, before a look of discomfort passed over his face. “Then again, who am I to say it isn’t?” His next smile was all business—big and toothy as he clapped his hands and gestured to a narrow cavern entrance, no more than an unadorned crack along the mountainside. Only from the wear along its edges (the rock worn smooth by many palms over many generations) could one begin to guess the meaning of this place. We entered the recesses of the mountain one by one.

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Our narrow walking path opened into an antechamber many meters in, after which various markings of civilization—mosaics, friezes, metalworks, and free-standing sculptures, all given the impression of movement by torchlight—flooded our field of view.

“Shouldn’t this place be cordoned off?” said Hersh. “For genetic testing?”

Sev Franz looked ready to tousle the kid’s hair. “Already done, son. Took you two a while just to get here, remember?”

Our timing was relative, of course. Network logs showed that three days had passed on Cog since the incident, with the lone surviving monk hooked to a saline drip as he sang the song of the world alone in the temple’s inner sanctum. For me and Hersh, though, it had been just under a day from Hersh’s briefing to our joint arrival. Plenty still refused to travel in the Spiders—giant mechanical structures, vaguely arachnoid in form, at the outskirts of every known solar system, opening their arms to approaching vessels and transporting each to its desired coordinates—but even those who shuddered at such machines still benefited from their use. Hell, the Network itself, as a web of resources spanning the known galaxy, had only become possible after decoding and adapting to such alien technologies.

“And beyond this passage?” I nodded to a corridor wreathed in images of monks—some reading, others buried with saintly glosses, still others in transcendent acts of prayer. “The temple?”

“After you.” Sev Franz gestured and I obliged. Hersh alone stumbled as we reached a balcony from which the whole mountain seemed to give way—its interior rising hundreds of meters to a ceiling entirely painted over, but also descending hundreds of meters more into pitch-black void. Once I’d adjusted my visual settings, I could make out five other balconies around the circular perimeter, while at the chamber’s center, along a pillar that ran the whole height and depth of the cavern, lay a second sphere—a room from which the brightest lights emanated through intricate gaps in the stone. The whole temple was filled with song: deep, raw, and simple—at times no more than a guttural ahhh that proceeded from this second sphere and reverberated throughout.

Though I assumed our lone monk lay within that room at the center of the pillar, I could not so easily surmise how he’d entered the inner sanctum in the first place. I turned to Hersh to speculate, but his gaze was fixed on the trick of the shadows that made the temple floor seem infinite. His forehead beaded with sweat.

“Afraid of heights?”

“A little.”

Sev Franz came between us, peering over the ledge. “Our oldest stories speak of monks climbing down the sides of these walls, crossing the base of the cave, and scaling the pillar for their turn at song. See? You can even make out the footholds on either side—a bit run down now, but passable with the right equipment.”

“Needlessly elaborate, wouldn’t you say?”

“Oh no, Detective. It all accords quite well with our beliefs—man crawling out from the depths and into the light.” And he went on, with a lilt in his voice:

Little children, least of the universe,

Turning their voices heavenward—

The planets, the stars, their faces

Uplifted in song—

Who will keep this symphony in motion

When all the little children are gone?

I allowed Sev Franz a generous silence before asking, “How do we cross now?”

“Oh, it’s simple enough. Here—” And he wrapped both hands around a heavy, rounded stone by the passageway, dragging the knob from one side of the balcony ledge to the other. In so doing, the underside of our platform unfolded into a springy mesh bridge spanning half the cavern. “We’ve just had all these retracted to give our dear brother peace in this difficult hour. He has a hard enough task without being troubled by Pagora’s townsfolk, however well-intentioned their journeys out.”

Or their interest in finishing the job. I tested the tensile strength of our narrow walkway and its railings before leading the party on.

“But what if he wanted to leave the center chamber?” said Hersh. “Could he even operate the bridges from inside?”

Sev Franz’s baffled look was all the answer either of us required.

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On the way to Cog, I’d wondered why Pagora’s sitting council hadn’t conducted even the simplest yes/no interrogation with the lone surviving monk, irrespective of his need for constant song. To see Brother Yuco in the heart of the temple, though—sinewy with age, slumped in grief and exhaustion, a blanket wrapped about him, IVs in his arms, and his head shaking a relentless no no no while eleven crime scene markers held vigil all about—I understood at once the futility of such an exchange. The monk, however, was not alone; by his side knelt a woman, also old by human standards, to whom had clearly fallen the task of keeping Brother Yuco awake and full of universal voice.

“Marin Bris,” said Sev Franz, touching her shoulder when she turned and scowled at the sight of me. “This is Detective Bennett and his junior associate, from the Network. They’re here to help.”

“What in blazes we need a robot for,” she said. “And one with more skull than face—Stars preserve us, people’re going to think Death’s come to mark the End of Things.”

“It’d be fitting, though, wouldn’t it, given the circumstances?” I said. “However competent your ministrations, we both know Brother Yuco can’t keep this up forever.”

“You shut yourself with that talk this instant.” Marin Bris glared at me, then Sev Franz. “You’ve told him we’re training the next lot even now, haven’t you? They’ll be here in time—he’s only got to hold out a little longer, don’t you, old man? Oh, come now, don’t start that again—”

Hersh twitched and made to speak when the old woman ran her palms over Brother Yuco’s tear-stained cheeks, but I caught the kid’s wrist, and with a confused glance my way, he held his tongue instead. Together we watched Marin Bris kiss the salt from the monk’s eyes as he shook his head and intoned another verse from the Cograns’ ancient song.

“Come along, then,” said Sev Franz. “I assume you’ll want to see where the other twelve were murdered? We know they died first, in their beds, done away with by the same incineration tool we found at the bottom of the temple, and which the murderer ultimately overheated to the point of destroying all genetic evidence. Granted, the real puzzle is how the other eleven were killed here, in plain view of one another, and from so many angles, but we have all those stills on file already. I imagine you’ve already reviewed the lot.”

I nodded at this last, but lingered just the same at the edge of the inner sanctum. “Although I’m not so certain that’s the puzzle here.”

“Oh?” Sev Franz halted halfway across the mesh bridge, blocking my associate’s passage. Hersh clung desperately to one railing and shut his eyes against the depths below.

“Just think of it.” I surveyed the intricate carvings along the pillar and throughout the walls of the outer cavern, its acoustics perfectly suited to the monks’ millennia-old task. “You believe your song upholds the universe. You train for years and gather in shifts to meditate, to pray, and to sing. You shut your eyes, clear your mind, and hear only the force of that collective music—until it starts to go out, one precious thread after another. What do you do at first except sing louder, assuming—as is only reasonable at the time—a much milder explanation for all the other voices dropping off?

“So by the time you realize just how much silence has crept in, even if you do open your eyes and see the killer, and all your brothers’ corpses around them, how do you orchestrate response without giving up the song? Let’s say there are half a dozen monks remaining—maybe, at best—when the severity of the situation finally reaches them. That’s still half a dozen men trained only in slow, communal action, and now suddenly required, with frantic glances alone, to decide who’ll make the first move—and how, against such a silent but deadly weapon—while the rest try to keep the universe alive. Those just aren’t good odds for survival, Sev Franz. Not among your kind.”

Our Cogran mediator did not reply at once, and when he did there was something distinctly angry about his soft-spoken “I see,” as if to say—You must think us all fools. But Marin Bris did not hesitate, or equivocate, in her own howl from the heart of the temple.

“OUT!” came her personal song of the universe, as she clutched a now profusely weeping Brother Yuco. “OUT OUT OUT OUT!”

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Hersh had his own disapproving look by the time we reached the living quarters, and gone was the eager “Yes, sir” when I asked him to inspect each monk’s cell. I asked Sev Franz if he’d give us a moment alone, to which the mediator readily agreed, claiming that other Pagoran business called him anyway. I turned to my associate.

“They teach passive-aggression in basic training now?”

Hersh’s cheeks grew a livid pink. “You always that horrible around people in mourning?”

“Marin Bris, you mean, or Brother Yuco?”

“Both. Either. The hell does it matter.” Hersh cast about the room in that nervous, twitchy way of his. “You read the files, didn’t you? You know they’re both Ang—lowest of the low on this colony. So twist the knife in the wound, why don’t you? Picking on two scared old people who could never’ve advanced in the first place except through the Order, and even then don’t get much say about all that’s gone on.”

“Not quite. Only the men ever advance.” Hersh’s nostrils flared with what I took to be exasperation as I went on. “Fascinating, isn’t it? Cograns believe the song of the universe must begin with the lowest of the low, swelling until it reaches the stars themselves. In practice, that gives a few Ang men social mobility in exchange for sterility, and so ironically creates a new lowest class of Cogran: the Ang woman, for whom no such deal is on offer. Some follow Ang men into the mountains, sacrificing their own fertility in turn, but their lives here are not easy. Heaven’s whores would be my translation of the Cogran term.”

“There are women like Marin Bris on my world, too,” said Hersh, his arms now minutely trembling. “Shunned as class traitors for leaving oppressive homes, then exploited for the rest of their lives by the people they gave up everything to serve.”

“And you’re Ang yourself, I take it—or the equivalent on your world.” I waited for his reply, but Hersh only studied his hands. “It shows, you know. You’ve got the look of someone who doesn’t think he fits in, who’s just waiting to be found out. Who thinks he needs to defend his right to the very air he’s breathing, the room he’s taking up.”

Another pause on my part; another silence on Hersh’s.

“No wonder they paired you with me. Kid as jumpy as you, on assignment with a regular NI? That’d just be asking for trouble—for both of you. No way the Network risks your sorry ass and some human vet’s just to see if you’ll cut it in the field.”

At last Hersh’s head snapped up, his face and neck fully flush with anger. “I passed my entrance exams like anybody else. Top third of my class, too. Nerves of steel in a shuttle cockpit, or behind the controls of any other vehicle you can name. I joined the Network to serve the galaxy and improve the reputation of my people, and so help me, Detective Bennett—sir—I’m going to do that, whether you like it or not.”

I laughed: a rare, spontaneous gesture that made me wonder if I’d overlooked other repairs. If I still had synth-skin I would have affected wiping the corners of my eyes, too.

“Settle down, Hersh. Who the hell cares what I like or don’t like? I’m just the asshole AI running your first assignment. I mean, good for you, having dreams and shit. But see how easy you make it? Getting pissed because some unresolved angst hits an angle of the case the wrong way? That’s the kind of emotional baggage that leads NIs to violence, so get used to me pushing it: I’m running a homicide investigation here. I can’t always back down or play nice if I want to learn about the people involved.”

“Yeah? So what’d you learn from upsetting the old lady like that?”

I affected surprise as best I could without a human face. “Plenty. Why, didn’t you?”

Hersh clearly couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, so with a severe frown he returned to his inspection of the monks’ cells, silent at first but eventually getting into the rhythm of his labors, and at times even calling out the amused likes of: “Got some letters in here!” “Man, Brother Timu was a slob!” and “Brothers Wye and Kildew were sleeping together!”

I kept my replies short and mostly neutral, with the occasional bit of encouragement whenever warranted, and by the time we left the mountain, Hersh seemed almost a different field agent—not completely over the worst of his restless mannerisms, granted, but more comfortable, at least, in his persisting annoyance with me.

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Only twilight greeted us when we left the mountain, with even wildlife on this fragile, gutted world apparently in short supply. We soon learned that Sev Franz had indeed been called away by important business—the arrival of temple novitiates from far-off villages—but we hadn’t been forgotten; once we passed into town, we were escorted to a large enough hut that Hersh could sleep well apart from me. While I charged from my portable energy drive, he picked at a local delicacy of rice and beans.

“Thoughts on the good Sev Franz?”

Hersh paused in that way most socially-aware NIs do before responding, trying to convey serious consideration where most AIs, when left to their own devices, would simply churn out every relevant response.

“For someone who believes the world might end at any moment,” said the kid at last, “he’s pretty calm. But uptight in other ways. Especially about anything theoretical.”

“Not surprising, given his job description. He’s their front-of-house: the man who tends to their day-to-day spiritual needs and their political ones. And now he serves as Cogran’s representative to the stars, too, which would be quite a tall order for anyone.”

Hersh opened his sig-card, a projection screen hovering over his dinner. “It’s all pretty new for them, isn’t it—Network ties, trade benefits, the chance of leaving this rock? I mean, ‘Cog’—it even sounds worthless in the galactic tongue. Someone should tell them how it translates on other worlds. Maybe get them to put in for a name-change.”

“You might be surprised how many would take pride in the name’s translation, if they knew it. We’re talking about a culture that boasts of low beginnings, remember.”

“Not all of them, though. Not people like Sev Franz.” Hersh’s facial features were so expressive I could almost hear the gears in his head turning. He pointed at me with a spoon. “Sev Franz talks a good talk about his faith relying on the lowest of the low, but he seems pretty happy to be in another caste himself. One with plenty of mobility, and wealth, and best of all, the assumption that the universe just wanted things this way. That he’d earned all his luxuries and the confidence that comes with them just by being born.”

“Not bad,” I said—and meant it; the kid had potential—“but what’s it to us?”

Hersh shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t think he cares if we solve the case or not. He’s already fixing the parts that matter to him, turning the whole temple back into a well-oiled machine, so if we can’t figure this shit out, it’s no skin off his back. Hell, he might even come out of this looking more useful to his people if we leave empty-handed.”

“No reason for him to knock off twenty-three monks, then, that you can see?”

“Nope.” Hersh wiped his mouth and sat up. “And you—sir?”

I didn’t reply, and Hersh went back to his meal, speaking again only after pushing his plate aside. By then, in the time it took Hersh to say, “What I don’t understand—”, I had over a dozen rejoinders queued, like …could fill the whole mountain temple. …would stretch between one Spider and the next. …thankfully won’t bring about the ruination of any important civilizations.

We weren’t ready for that kind of banter, though, so I played it straight and let him finish: “—is why we’re here at all. I mean, yeah, it’s sad that almost all the monks on this world got wiped out, and upsetting that these people think the universe might end because of it, but what’s the Network’s angle? Because we both know they have one.”

I affected an unnecessary pause of my own. The kid was perceptive, but not yet able to extrapolate beyond his own experiences. “Of course they do,” I said. “But it’s obvious, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if the world actually ends or not—the trouble is that someone might have killed those monks thinking the world would end if their song did. That’s the kind of terrorist mentality that alerted the Network to this case. That’s why they sent us: on the off-chance we’re dealing with someone who might have access to the whole Network through the Spiders, and a death wish for the universe to boot.”

“But if Brother Yuco stops singing and the world doesn’t end—”

“Then our perp will either be humbled by how wrong they were, and maybe even give him- or herself up, or else they’ll retaliate in even more extreme ways—ways that might actually bring the universe to its knees. It’s just too big a risk to be ignored.”

“If our perp wanted to end the song, though, why leave Brother Yuco alive? Man, I wish they had surveillance cameras on this dump. I get that the temple’s a sacred place, but still—we could’ve wrapped this all up remotely with just a camera or two.”

I nodded and stood to retire. “Different cultures, different practices. It’s a good question, though. We’ll know more when we talk to the family.”

But Hersh only frowned at me. “You don’t already know who did it, do you?”

Without a synth-skin, I didn’t even bother feigning a smile.

“Night, kid. See you at dawn.”

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We made it to moonfall before being roused by a disturbance in the scrub-bushes just beyond our hut. Hersh had his hand on his holster when I opened the door and sighted three figures hunched and quarreling in the dark.

“That’s enough,” I said. “Present yourselves.” I was ready to give chase if they ran, but instead the one in the middle stood up sharply, then shoved the smallest into the light spilling from our hut.

“Take her when you go,” he said. “Please. She’s ruined if she stays here.”

The third figure, a woman perhaps in her late twenties, was crying and shaking her head. The child before us looked half her age at best, and when Hersh saw the bruises all along the child’s arms, he swore in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Who’s done this to your daughter?”

The man seemed startled by the obvious connection, then impatient. “It’s nothing compared to what will happen if she stays. She’s in love with one of the boys they’ve taken—she’s a fool. She’ll follow them all to the temple just like that old crone did, and bring shame upon my family. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

“You did this to her, then?” Hersh’s hand was back on the holster. I was half-inclined to stay silent and see what he’d do, but the Ang man’s last words intrigued me.

“Tell us,” I said, “how was it supposed to be?”

He hesitated, and seemed poised to speak until the child’s mother pulled at his arm.

“We can’t,” she said to him. “Too many have died already for this foolishness. There will never be an end to things.”

“There’ll be an end to your beating your daughter, that’s for certain,” said Hersh. He advanced with weapon half-upraised, gesturing at the child to get behind him. I admit to almost crushing his wrist until he let the service piece drop, the child still frozen between her parents and us. Hersh shot a furious glance my way as he cried out and nursed the injury.

“Is that it, then?” I said. “Do you really think bringing about the end is the answer? Better to destroy everything than live another day as you do?”

The woman spat in the dirt between us. “You want to talk destruction? You ask that old hag, Marin Bris, what right she had smuggling tools and the like into the temple. There’s nothing sacred to her kind once they go up. You don’t understand what those whores are capable of—the wrath that comes of a lifetime’s selfish indulgence. She was old, see? Too old. They were fixing to be rid of her, so why not repay ‘em with murder?”

“Village gossip,” Hersh spat back. “That woman won’t leave Brother Yuco’s side.”

“Then we’re on borrowed time,” said the man, his expression ashen. He took hold of the child by an elbow and tugged her into the shadows. “It’s no use now, trying to run—Come, Isla. We must pray.”

Hersh started after them, but I held his shoulder too firmly. “The hell’s the matter with you,” he said, and kicked a ’steel leg instead. “We can’t just let them get away.”

“I’m not,” I said. “But you still need your sleep.”

Hersh gave no sign of comprehension at first, but when I began to walk away his brows shot up. NIs might take a little longer, but they more or less get there in the end.

“Hey,” he said, crouching in the dirt. “Here.” He tossed his firearm my way. I crossed the barrel over an ocular socket in salute, then gestured again for him to go bed. This time, to even my surprise, he obeyed.

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I didn’t pursue the wretched family, though explaining this neglect to such a young and emotional NI would not be possible. In the morning I’d tell Hersh I’d spoken with the father and put the fear of the Network into his superstitious head, and Hersh would accept this both because he’d never known me to lie and because he wanted to believe that things would turn out better for the child. Never mind that a culture is rarely changed overnight, this girl’s problems ran wider than her immediate, frantic family, and the Network has a strict policy against removing natives from their worlds. Some hopes, I knew, were clung to not because they made sense, but out of sheer despair at the alternatives.

What did strike me, though, was the woman’s backtracking—how she’d launched into a tirade against Marin Bris as if to deflect from initial words she hadn’t meant to say. The idea of a death cult was not out of the question on a world as stark as this one, with the Sev Franzes of society contentedly running lower castes into the ground, but if there were natives willing to destroy the universe in order to make their suffering end, surely they already had their next target lined up: the young boys training to take Brother Yuco’s place.

I took the main Pagoran road—now ill-lit in the dead of night—to the compound where the children had been gathered. Sure enough, sentries were stationed at all corners. I raised a hand to one by the entrance and he glanced nervously at me. I highly doubted the glint of my ’steel frame in near-darkness was for him a reassuring sight.

“Any disturbances tonight?”

“Just you,” he said, jutting his chin. “We’ve strict orders to turn everyone away.”

“I’m here on behalf the Network, running a—”

“Yeah, we know,” said the man, his voice growing heated. He swept his rifle through the air between us. “Just—leave this place alone. Sev Franz’s orders.”

I nodded to the light coming from the compound windows: no song; only changes in the shadows. “Sev Franz is here now? Working with the little boys?”

The man’s expression hardened at the inflected word. It was almost tediously easy to rile an NI this way.

“Sev Franz is a great man,” said the sentry. “And he’s only ever had this planet’s best interests at heart. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to protect our people—even from themselves, if it ever came to it.”

“Do you think it might have, three days ago?”

It took the sentry a few seconds to grasp my meaning, after which he looked at me in disgust. “If Sev Franz needed to kill twenty-three monks, putting our entire universe in peril in the process, you can bet there was a damned good reason for it. If. Now get away, will you? Before I call the others.”

I bowed and clicked my ’steel heels together, the farce of the gesture entirely lost on this little NI. For the next few hours I observed the compound at a distance, monitoring its perimeter more acutely than the sentries ever could, but no covert Ang force—or any force—appeared. The only real movement was in the predawn hush, when a slight chill settled in the air and a figure slipped from the front doors into the street. From his gait and the way the sentry greeted him, there was no mistaking Sev Franz, in all his eminent apparel.

When he’d passed fully out of sight, I stole back to the guest hut and woke Hersh with a good shake to the arm. He groaned, passing a hand over his eyes. “Time already?”

“If it’s not already too late.”

That got his attention, groggy as the poor NI remained.

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Dawn met us halfway along Pagora’s main road, somewhere between the upper-caste residences and the downriver slums where the city-Ang resided. From then on we were greeted by dozens of hardened bodies and startled faces—more so than even the strangeness of my chassis could explain.

“They look terrified,” said Hersh, whose yawning had just abated. “You think that shit of a father passed the message on, that we’re not to be messed with?”

I didn’t reply, but sure enough, the Ang hid their gazes even from my young associate, and only by inference, from darting eye movements when we asked, could we extract any information about where Brother Yuco’s sister lived.

Yuco Mera was an old woman herself, but already deep into the day’s labors of washing and folding while tiny Ang children settled about her, peering at her work or playing in the dirt. She had the calmest expression of any of the adults we’d seen all morning, her long-whiskered brows perhaps too wearied instead by grief.

“Sister Yuco,” I said—and that caused her to crook her mouth and grunt ha.

“Mera,” she said, scrubbing hard in the basin before her. Out the corner of my eye I saw that the children had taken a shine to Hersh, and he to them. I let them be.

“Mera.” I crouched to eye level. “We’re from the Network, come to investigate the murders up in the mountain. Your brother—”

“Good as dead.” Mera flung a sopping wet blanket onto another pile. “And everything with him.”

“You mean the universe? It’s been around a lot longer than your planet, Mera, let alone your Cogran monks.”

Mera cast a tired look my way. “Ever think maybe it’s all in reverse, spaceman?”

“You mean, the universe created retroactively? Its entire past arising the moment the first monk on Cog broke into song?” She nodded so gravely then that, for the first time since my arrival, I truly longed for synth-skin, and the gentleness of the smile I could have managed in reply. “Cograns are tremendous storytellers, Mera. I’ll give you that.”

Mera grunted, flinging another garment on the stack for drying. As she did, Hersh and I both caught sight of a faded tattoo on her inner arm—a blue circle with a line spanning its radius and extending beyond the circumference.

“What’s that?” he said, and from the heat in his voice I could tell his past was getting in the way again. “They don’t mark you here, do they?”

Mera covered her arm and looked away. “No child,” she said. “Some in the city think it’s all a great line, the universe—from the lowest to the highest—but we Ang know otherwise. The universe is a circle of unity, and needs all of us to survive.”

“Your brother believes that, too?” I said. Mera nodded. “And Marin Bris?”

Mera snorted and returned to her scrubbing. “Only circle she knows is the one she’s been making for decades between temple beds.”

Hersh visibly blanched—young NIs and their horror over the thought of old and rutting flesh. I had all I needed, though, so I bowed to Mera and stood.

“But that’s not what I meant,” she added softly, and when she looked up this time she seemed as nervous as all the other Ang we’d seen. “About everything ending with him.”

“I know,” I said. “And for that I’m truly sorry.”

Maybe it was surprise that allowed her to accept my hand then. Maybe not. Either way, Companion though I’d once, long ago been, with just the ’steel chassis a little squeeze was the only comfort this old AI unit could provide. It was high time we were moving on.

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Hersh had to sprint to keep up as I made for the temple. Though he quizzed me with glances all the while, I would say nothing until we’d entered the mountain, crossed the mesh bridge, and found ourselves observing the Order’s newest monks as they prepared to take over from Brother Yuco, who was more groaning than singing from his place on the floor. Marin Bris still knelt beside him, stroking what threads of hair remained and tucking his blanket in, while two medics stood ready to carry him out at Sev Franz’s word.

“Marvelous timing,” he said, gesturing at the nervous young boys in their robes, fresh from crash courses in—at the very least—the Cograns’ ancient song and ceremonies. “You bear witness to history in the making. Cog has sadly declined in its practice of taking tribute, which is why our monastic numbers were so perilously low to start—but no more. These boys have all been volunteered by their families, who’ve been amply rewarded in turn. With these faces we will begin anew, building a better, stronger Order—and oh, you will see our results the galaxy over! How the very stars will burn brighter in the coming years!”

As if to signal their agreement, the boys at that very moment picked up Brother Yuco’s fading refrain, and the whole cavern reverberated with a song far deeper and richer than any (I must admit) I’d ever heard before. Hersh himself looked ready to give way before the majesty of the performance, and there were tears in all the other NIs’ eyes. I allowed them their moment of rapture before tapping Sev Franz on the shoulder.

“I would speak to you, Sev Franz, in the antechamber. With Brother Yuco.”

“Of course,” he said, and gestured to the medics, who took his cue and hefted the old monk out, Marin Bris clinging to one flagging hand.

Even in the antechamber, though, surrounded by various artifacts of the ancient Cogran peoples, the tremendous song of the young monks presided. To be heard at all, I spoke slower than usual, and ensured each word was especially firm. Sev Franz insisted that the medics be sent out before I went on, but I in turn insisted that Marin Bris stay. After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded, and I surveyed my little audience.

“It’s all over, Brother Yuco,” I said. “But you know that already.”

The dying monk blinked at me, silent at last, but still profusely weeping.

“You can’t mean to accuse him of all this,” said Marin Bris, leaping between us with clenched fists despite her years. I sympathized, but continued speaking directly to the monk.

“You couldn’t kill yourself, too, because you weren’t trying to end the universe—only the caste system here on Cog. You had to make things just fragile enough in the Order to force your fellow Cograns to take stock of their fragilty, and hopefully compel them to distribute the load more equally. To make singing the universe everyone’s job, and so lift the Ang from an oppression the whole practice right now reinforces.”

Marin Bris and Hersh both cast startled glances at Brother Yuco, then me, then him again. “You couldn’t have,” said Marin Bris. “All your friends. Your brothers.”

“He didn’t,” I said. “That’s clear enough from the stills—the inconsistent trajectories of each incinerating shot. They were probably all in on it: the whole Order taking their lives in hope of a better tomorrow, and leaving behind only the oldest, the frailest—”

“—the lowest—” Hersh muttered. I nodded.

“—to shoulder the load until the rest of Cog came to its senses.” I turned again to Brother Yuco, who made what I could only assume was the first grief-sound he’d been able to utter on his own behalf since the whole ordeal began.

“Dear Brother Yuco,” I went on. “In all my years, in all my travels, I wish I could say that such transcendent acts are always enough to change the world, but the efficiency of the upper castes here is its own, fearsome thing. You won’t triumph in this moment—but you and your fallen comrades join a long line of people across the galaxy who at least have tried.”

Now it was Marin Bris’s turn to moan, and fall to her knees, and bury her face over Brother Yuco’s chest while the worn-out old monk—who had all on his own, without pause or reprieve, sung the universe for days now—took his last, ragged breaths.

“This doesn’t surprise you in the slightest, does it?” I turned to see Hersh confronting Sev Franz, who in turn blandly smiled at me.

“It’s as you said, Hersh,” I said. “Different expectations for different castes.” I nodded to our Cogran mediator. “We’ll be filing our report within the day, of course.”

Sev Franz shrugged. “Write whatever you want, but just remember that the Network’s word doesn’t count for much among my people. If your report is made public, though—if this is the view of Cog you release to the system at large, when we’re on the verge of so many new alliances—I will personally ensure that every Cogran knows Brother Yuco went mad and killed his fellow monks. In one fell swoop he’ll go from savior of the universe to deranged nihilist, and his family will live in infamy for the rest of their days.”

Marin Bris threw a cutting word the mediator’s way, but Sev Franz seemed unfazed, even bored. “Do what you need to in private, though, and Cog will forget the unsolved murders in a moon or two, but I guarantee that the legend of Saint Yuco will live on. My people will give thanks and sing praise-songs to his family tree for centuries.”

“Or at least until Cog gives up this nonsense of singing the universe altogether.” I knew this, at least, would annoy him.

Even then, he was quick to obscure his irritation by humming. “You know, Detective Bennett, you keeping mocking my people’s beliefs, but I wonder if you ever reflect on your own. The universe we’ve always known is one we’ve always been told needs song to exist—and lo and behold, there has always been song. Meanwhile, the Spider that brought you here—do you need to know how it works to accept that it does? Or whatever turned you from advanced program to sentient being—do you know precisely where the distinction lies? Are we really so different, you and I?”

His smile told me what he wanted then: the NI mediocrity of I learned something from you, now learn something from me. In this game, I’d parrot his earlier words—say, “I’m not so sure that’s the same…” and affect some AI equivalent of discomfort before adding, “Then again, who am I to say it isn’t?” After, we’d grimly shake hands, equals at the end of a bitter case, and I’d take Hersh with me to the nearest Spider, Marin Bris would wither away, and Sev Franz would go about his business with a renewed lightness in his step.

But I didn’t ape a word of it. Maybe couldn’t. Instead I put Hersh on the next transport, off to his second assignment with what every rookie loves best: an outlandish tale of working for a hard-ass to grease the wheels with new associates. All the better for him, too, that this hard-ass was made of both piss and ’steel: the vast narrative terrain he’d have at his disposal! I almost smiled a naked-chassis smile to see the young shit go.

Strangely, though, it would be whole minutes after my own transport out before I realized what I should have said to Brother Yuco, Marin Bris, and Sev Franz in the temple’s antechamber: that time spent within the Network brought its own, uncontrollable revolutions. That travelers from distant worlds, brimful with distant ideas, would one day topple the caste system where even the most valiant acts of Cogran resistance had failed. That my report, though classified for now, would eventually be released, and Brother Yuco’s true heroism reclaimed then by his people. That one day I would return to bear witness to all of this, and more, and tread upon Sev Franz’s long-obscured or infamous dust.

Or so I hoped—though the very delay in this realization gave me pause, and inclined me towards a service station before putting in for my next assignment. But I suppose even an AI must take great care with repairs if it wants to live long enough to hear the universe sung in just the right moral key. Too much time in stasis, and everything decays.

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Copyright  2015 Maggie Clark

Maggie Clark is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada). To date, her science fiction has appeared in Analog, Bastion, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Lightspeed.