Schlafstunde26 min read

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Alcohol, Death or dying, Drug Use, Terrorism/Bio-terrorism, Violence

1.

There was a shop in old Haifa that specialised in Treif artefacts, so that was where Mili went first. Haifa sprawled along the side of Mount Carmel. Successive waves of regeneration didn’t do much to change it. Now adaptoplant buildings sprouted like weeds between the cracks, and down in the harbour Drift ships waited, gleaming in the sun. Mili crossed through federated streets and enclaves, moving between Judean and Palestinian authority, briefly cutting through a Baha’i enclave, her ident tag pinging off each authority server, but it didn’t really make any difference these days. The quilted land slumbered: in Haifa the afternoon rest was still sacrosanct.

Mili came to Hadar. She could smell lamb fat cooking, cumin and turmeric. Her stomach growled. She stopped at a falafel stand and bought a half. She ran a scan. Her energy levels were combat operational. The last upgrade had wiped out what money she’d saved. And tending bar at the Monte Carmelo wasn’t nearly enough to pay her bills.

She wended her way through narrow sloping streets, past tiny shops that sold old and obsolete things: paper books and genome sequencers bulky with age and rust, junkyard embryotech and rootkit talismans for systems no one could remember anymore. Cheap sunglasses and compasses and atlases and cutlasses mass-manufactured in Yiwu. All kinds of stuff.

She went down Sirkin, where a view of the sea burst through from an unbuilt lot, the sun breaking into fractals on the calm blue Mediterranean. A lone solar kite surfed against wispy white clouds.

A group of robotniks sat in the lot. A fire burned in an open drum between them. They sat with their backs to stacks of old bricks. They drank vodka and gasoline. Their rusted metal parts creaked. Their human eyes looked at her as she came.

‘Boys,’ Mili said.

‘Mili. What brings you down here?’

‘This and that. You know anything about swarm aggregates, Jedediah?’

The robotnik stared.

‘After my time,’ he said. ‘Sorry.’

‘That’s what I thought. Is the shop open?’

‘Now? It’s Schlafstunde, bubbe. You know that.’

The damn afternoon nap. It didn’t matter if people had built robots and gone to Mars and settled Titan and seeded the solar system with the Conversation itself: in Haifa, people still shut shop for their afternoon sleep. This was old Earth. They did things the old-fashioned way.

‘Want a drink?’ another robotnik said. Zebulun.

‘Thanks,’ Mili said. She sat down cross-legged and Zebulun passed her the bottle. Mili took a swig. She was sort of a robotnik herself, she supposed. Part machine and all that. But they were more machines than humans: corpses revived into war engines, in the old days when people still had wars.

‘I heard a Cohen Artefact was found in the seabed last month when they tried to open a new vent for Gaza-Under-Sea,’ Zebulun said. He looked at her in amusement and Mili shrugged.

‘Rubbish,’ she said. ‘There are no such things.’

‘You’re related to him, aren’t you?’ Zebulun said. ‘St. Cohen of the Others?’

‘Very distantly, maybe,’ Mili said. ‘So what?’

‘So nothing. It’s just a rumour.’

‘What else did it say, then?’ Mili said.

‘The rumour?’

‘Yeah. The rumour.’

‘That the digger just vanished, along with a four-person crew, and so did the object, whatever it was. But ever since then the octopi and dolphins avoid the area, and the Conversation in the local server’s filled with ghosts.’

‘I don’t like ghosts,’ Mili said.

‘No one likes ghosts,’ Zebulun said.

‘You have any other gossip?’ Mili said.

‘Heard the ‘Neands in the Sanctuary are causing trouble again. You know anything about that?’

Mili played innocent. It didn’t fool the robotniks one bit.

‘Beats me,’ Mili said.

‘Aha.’

‘You ever been?’ Mili said.

‘To the Sanctuary?’ Zebulun laughed. ‘We fought over it back when it was still Homo Sapiens land. Now even I wouldn’t go there. Too much debris.’

‘Too many ghosts,’ Jedediah said.

The robotniks fell quiet. They passed the bottle around. Mili took another swig. The sun danced on the sea and a dolphin leaped out of the water and shrieked something obscene at a boat that went past. She didn’t hear it, but she didn’t need to. Dolphins were always horny, and they were always rude.

She was just about to get up and check if the shop had finally opened when two small, neat figures appeared from the street and stood above them with weapons in hand. It only took her a moment to assess the threat: the size of children, human-seeming at first, until you saw the dead eyes, the artificial skin, the unnatural stillness as they waited: Hoi An battle dolls, verboten tech outlawed since the first battle of the Trifala King war.

The robotniks didn’t stir. But they were alert.

‘But we just spoke—’ Mili started to say.

Before realising that of course, one battle doll looked exactly like another.

Before thinking, This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.

Before speeding up, her wired systems kicking into battle mode, as external time slowed—

Pebbles moved underfoot, so slowly, so slowly—

She looked to the dolls but they had vanished. She ducked as a projectile flew—fast—and just missed her. It hit a wall. She moved again—

Too slow

Felt a tiny fist punch her in the gut with inhuman force. It threw her up in the air, then down hard

Two tiny figures with their human faces not quite right, the empty eyes, small teeth ringed in a circle like a shark’s mouth—

One held a rock. It brought it down

She was too slow, how could she be so slow!

She tried to roll away but the rock came down fast

A rusted metal arm moved impossibly fast, old servos groaning. It held the doll’s hand and pulled

The rock dropped harmlessly to the ground. Mili rolled, sprang upright—

The two dolls stood back to back surrounded by the robotniks. They blurred together in a battle she couldn’t even follow. Zebulun flew back with a kick from a doll. He slammed into a wall and broke it. Jedediah countered with simple brute force. He back-handed the nearest doll. The impact jarred

The head flew off the body. It fell on the ground by her feet. It blinked up at her. The lips finally moved. The doll smiled.

‘Run!’ Mili screamed. Her voice escaped so slowly, the sound lengthening. She saw the robotniks in a blur, doll limbs lying on the ground. The head at her feet closed its eyes. The mouth opened.

Counted, softly, ‘Three, two, one…’

§

Mili blinked back tears—vision came back slowly. Pixelated at first, then growing sharper. She smelled smoke, burnt rubber, spilled vodka, blood.

The blood had to be hers, she realised. The dolls were full machines and what the robotniks had running through their veins was stuff she didn’t even want to think about. She sat up.

‘Still alive?’ she said, looking at Zebulun.

He sat against the wall. He was missing a leg. He picked up the bottle of vodka and took a sip and smiled.

‘We’re hard to kill,’ he said.

Mili tried to move. Winced in pain. She ran a scan: torn ligament, two broken ribs, a slash across her abdomen. Repair systems kicked in. She wanted them to work fast. Which meant pain.

Well, she’ll just have to put up with it.

‘Friends of yours?’ Zebulun said.

She shook her head. ‘I don’t know what they were.’

‘This kind of doll’s old,’ Zebulun said. ‘But then, so are we.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ Jedediah said, and the two robotniks laughed.

‘Thanks,’ Mili said. She got to her feet. The tiny machines inside her rushed over muscles and flesh, rebuilding cells one by one. She’d need energy. She took the vodka bottle and downed what was left. It burned going down. Ethanol and water: it will do for the machines for now.

‘Don’t mention it. It was almost like old times.’

‘I remember them swarming over the Sinai,’ Jedediah said. ‘Thousands of tiny identical bodies. If you took one out five more took its place …’ He fell quiet.

‘Whose side were we fighting on?’ Zebulun said.

Jedediah said, ‘I don’t remember.’

2.

There were two of them sat at the counter at the Monte Carmelo two days earlier. Mili was behind the bar, polishing glasses. A group of First Humans sat in a booth in one corner. A couple of antique dealers from Gaza City sat at a table talking to Geshem-Nofel-Ba’oranim—who was staying out of trouble for once. No one used words like ‘Neand or Neanderthal in this bar. Not if you wanted to stay on their good side.

The two dolls had come in so quietly she didn’t even notice them at first. They were part-chameleon—their skin tones changed to blend in with the bar. They sat on stools and looked like two young people, or like two things vaguely made to look like young people. Their heads rotated in tandem and tracked her as she moved behind the bar.

‘What can I get you?’ she said.

They spoke at the same time, with the same identical voice.

‘Do you have Carmel Oriental brandy?’ the dolls said. ‘It is my favourite of the old wines.’ The dolls sighed, together.

Mili startled. Mili considered.

‘One, or two?’ she said at last.

The dolls laughed.

‘Yes,’ they said unhelpfully.

Mili dug out the old bottle. She dusted it off. It was older than her. It was older than the Monte Carmelo. But it was not so old when compared to the Stella Maris Carmelite monastery, or to the discarded flint knives one could still find in the ground from time to time, left by the First Humans even before Homo Sapiens came …

She poured two glasses. The dolls sipped—in unison.

‘It is good …’

Mili shrugged. ‘It is old,’ she said.

‘I am old.’

‘Who are you?’ Mili said. ‘What are you? If you don’t mind me asking.’

‘You are Mili Cohen-Chong,’ the dolls said, ignoring her question.

‘Am I?’

‘Distantly descended from St Cohen of the Others on one side, and related to the Chongs of Central Station on the other. You worked off-world and did off-book wetwork in the Third Martian War. You next popped up on Titan, serving either with or against Nirrti the Black and her pirates. Then a spell on Triton—am I boring you?’

‘You must have me confused with somebody else,’ Mili said.

‘We would like to hire you,’ the dolls said.

‘Hire me to do what?’ Mili said.

‘Find us.’ The dolls hesitated. ‘Some of us are missing.’

‘What are you, a hive-mind?’ Mili said.

The dolls sipped their ancient brandy.

‘You visited Dragon’s World,’ they said.

Mili didn’t deny it. She remembered the termite warrens of that frozen moon called Hydra, the thousands of identical battle dolls, Earth-imported centuries in the past onboard the Gel Blong Mota, all speaking with a single voice. She had met Dragon and seen its world: but Dragon was a single entity with many bodies, not a true hive. And it was alone. She had always assumed it was alone.

‘We are old,’ the dolls said. ‘I am old. It is only recently that we had found ourselves again. Most of what is us, what is we, is missing. Perhaps irrevocably. We—I—don’t know. We need us. I need me.’

‘You’re giving me a headache,’ Mili said.

‘We believe my parts are still extant,’ the dolls said. ‘Somewhere in this part of the world.’

‘Why here?’ Mili said.

The dolls said nothing.

‘The old wars,’ Mili said. ‘You were a part of them.’

‘Perhaps,’ the dolls said. ‘I do not know.’

‘How much do you remember?’ Mili said.

The dolls shook their heads.

‘Very little.’

‘How many of you are there?’ Mili said. ‘Besides these two.’

‘There are other parts of me.’

Which wasn’t really an answer.

‘I’m retired,’ Mili said.

‘I can pay,’ the dolls said.

‘With what?’ Mili said.

‘This,’ the dolls said. The doll on the left reached into a pocket. It brought something out. It placed it on the counter. A black disc, and she knew it was made out of organometal. Knew it even before she instinctively reached for it, as her fingers closed on the disc, as it—

Flashed images in her mind, recalled memories from deep within her messed-up DNA—

A mixture of the Chong’s Folly and vanished Cohen’s verboten experiments, after the first Others were bred in that lab in Jerusalem but before he’d disappeared—

She let it go. It sat there on the bar. It didn’t look like much.

‘Do you know what it is?’ she said when she could speak again.

‘A deciphering device,’ the dolls said. ‘To unlock data encoded into the genes of Cohen’s descendants. Does it work?’

‘Where did you find it?’ Mili said.

‘An old man sold it to us in the flea market in Jaffa.’

‘Come on,’ Mili said.

The dolls shrugged. ‘Will you take the job? We must find ourselves.’

‘I don’t need this old trinket,’ Mili said.

‘We can also pay you in Martian Shekels.’

‘What were you, before?’ Mili said. She didn’t reach for the disc again. ‘A kind of weapon?’

‘We don’t know.’

‘Why were you awakened? Why now?’

‘We don’t know!’

The entity that was the dolls sounded frustrated.

‘Do you have a name?’

‘You can call us Deborah.’

Mili sighed. She pocketed the disc.

She said, ‘I’ll take the rest of it in cash.’

3.

Now she limped down the path to the shop and saw with some relief that the owner was—finally—pulling up the shutters.

‘Hold it, Shimshon,’ she said. ‘You didn’t happen to see some old battle dolls roaming around, did you?’

‘Hiding in the shadows, dealing death in stealth mode, that sort of thing? No. Hi, Mili. What brings you here?’

‘You got coffee?’

Shimshon sighed.

‘Come in,’ he said.

She followed him over the threshold, the shop scanning her and her built-in circuitry and weaponry. Silent alarms flashed. Mili was conscious of several deadly objects repositioning themselves discreetly on the displays to have her in their sights.

Treif artefacts. They gave her the creeps.

‘What can I do for you, Mili?’ Shimshon said.

‘The coffee?’

‘Ah, yes.’

He went to a hob and started measuring coffee into a pot.

‘It will only be a minute,’ he said.

Mili stared out at the empty alley.

‘You didn’t see anything suspicious?’ she said.

‘Why, what happened.’

‘I got attacked earlier by obsolete tech.’

‘I hate when that happens,’ Shimshon said. He was like a man who cared for snakes. You got used to being bitten.

He made coffee. Mili drank it. The coffee was hot. She said, ‘What do you know about hive minds?’

Shimshon frowned. ‘I know they’re rare,’ he said. ‘If they ever really existed.’

‘You never met one?’ Mili said.

‘No. Look, I know the stories about you—you went to Dragon’s World, right?’

‘I did.’

He looked at her curiously.

‘Why?’

‘Dragon needed a job doing.’

She didn’t want to think about it. Days in those termite warrens with Dragon’s bodies moving like blind ants. She was there to lance an infection. A foreign body had lodged itself somehow, deep within Hydra. She remembered the smell, the things that were rotting organic matter living inside the host dolls. Some sort of half-digital and half-biological parasite, a nest of them deep in the ice. She torched the slugs and watched them writhe and melt.

That awful smell.

‘So what was Dragon like?’

‘I don’t know.’ She was always being asked this. ‘Like any Other, I guess.’

‘That’s the thing,’ Shimshon said. ‘Dragon’s still ultimately a single consciousness, flesh-surfing multiple bodies. Take one out and it makes no difference to the core. A hive mind is different. And not very efficient.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Mili said.

‘A hive mind’s a consciousness made out of individual minds,’ Shimshon said. ‘Each one’s a person, but together they make an ur-person. Like a … a quorum. A jury, maybe.’

‘Speaking in one voice?’

‘As it were.’

‘So if you remove the individual … cells,’ Mili said. ‘People, minds, whatever they are—’

‘Anything sentient,’ Shimshon said.

‘Then the ur-person, the hive-mind, it declines?’

‘It’s like losing a part of yourself,’ Shimshon said. ‘And not even knowing what it is you lost.’

‘But that must be awful,’ Mili said.

‘It’s why they’re rare,’ Shimshon said. ‘A single, mass-distributed mind is much easier. More efficient. It’s essentially what every Other in the conversation is anyway. But to join willingly into gestalt, it’s …’

‘It’s Treif,’ Mili said.

‘Right.’

Meaning, not kosher.

Meaning, the sort of stuff that probably did go on back in the days when there were wars.

‘What would wake a hive-mind?’ she said.

Shimshon shrugged.

‘Alright, then,’ Mili said. ‘How do you find its parts if its parts are missing?’

Shimshon shrugged again.

‘The individual members could have renounced the gestalt,’ he said. ‘Or died or gone into hibernation or they could just be out of range. Gone off-world or on the Exodus ships. In which case you’re out of luck. But usually, there’d be a hardcoded private cryptographic key. If you have the public key—the hive mind’s collective key, as it were—you can use it to pair up again.’

Which was all very interesting but of no use to Mili right then.

‘But how do you find them?’ Mili said.

Shimshon shrugged. A miniature UXO behind a display glass turned its head and regarded Mili with bright eyes. One eye closed. It winked at her.

‘You should find an old robot,’ it said.

So Mili went to do exactly that.

4.

The Monastery of Odds and Ends sat nestled into the Valley of Peace below what was once the city of Yoqne’am. It was deep within First Human territory, but the robots were there on sufferance.

‘They might not talk to you,’ Geshem-Nofel-Ba’oranim said. It rained and they stepped in pine needles and mud. The air felt fresh and clear. ‘Most of them don’t and the ones that do rarely make sense.’

‘I’ll take my chances,’ Mili said.

They walked on and soon came to the building. It was not really a building but the hull of a giant ship that had crash-landed there centuries before. The robots had cut windows into the sides and planted trees and flowers outside. Graffiti covered the walls, some of it static and some of it moving, spray-painted in living pigment.

‘First Humans?’ Mili said.

Geshem grinned. He pointed to a slowly crawling caricature of a ‘Neand child with a club in his hand, facing a sabre-toothed tiger.

‘I made that one myself when I was ten,’ he said.

‘Cute.’ She looked at the whole edifice, the slowly crawling and faded graffiti, the old pines and the cyclamens that bloomed below them. ‘The robots don’t mind?’

‘I think they like it.’

He stopped as they came to the entrance. A solitary humanoid robot pulled up weeds, its back bent. It didn’t look up to see them. The entrance was an old air-lock, now permanently open.

‘You’re not coming in?’ Mili said.

‘I got no business with the Odds and Ends,’ Geshem said. He sat down, pulled out an orange and began to peel it. ‘I’ll wait for you here.’

‘Alright.’

Mili went in. She felt somewhat apprehensive. Inside the old ship it was gloomy. The windows cut into the hull let in the rain and sun, but no sunlight could truly illuminate the vastness of the monastery. Mili’s steps echoed on the metal floor. The monks had brought in earth and planted more trees in places, and small creatures moved between the vegetation. A goat came and stared at Mili sullenly. Mili didn’t like goats.

She walked on.

‘Watch it,’ someone said. Mili turned and saw an old rusting robot with a broom between its metal hands. It pointed the broom at her.

‘That’s a bloodstain,’ the robot said. Mili looked down at the dark spot on the floor. She was standing right on it.

‘Can’t get it off,’ the robot said. ‘No matter what I do I can’t wash off the blood.’

‘Sounds like a metaphor,’ Mili said. She stepped carefully away from the spot. How many more were on the ship? How many crew, how many battles? She had no idea.

The robot swept the floor without it making much of a difference to anything.

‘It’s metaphorical and literal,’ it said. It kept sweeping. ‘You’re human,’ it said.

‘Yes?’

‘Not like those Neo-Neanderthals we’ve got running around outside,’ the robot said. ‘No offence, I mean. But they weren’t here when we were here.’

‘When this was a battle zone,’ Mili said.

‘When wasn’t this a battle zone?’ the robot shouted. ‘It was war when Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals met, whatever anyone will tell you. It was war when the Babylonians came. When the Romans came. When the—you get my point. Then it was our war. Then …’

The robot looked lost.

‘There wasn’t a war anymore,’ Mili said.

‘Yes.’

‘You liked the war?’ Mili said.

The robot considered.

‘It was something to do,’ it said.

Mili nodded. She had been in battle before. But she had missed the war age, the real wars. Now all anyone ever got was at best a polite skirmish.

‘What do you know about hive minds?’ she said.

‘I know enough to avoid them,’ the robot said. ‘Thought we dismantled the last one back in the Battle of Ras Mohammed. Why, has one popped up again?’

It swept dirt to nowhere in particular.

‘Chop off an arm and it sprouts three,’ the robot said. ‘Chop off a leg and it walks right back and kicks you. If you know what I mean.’

‘Bodies,’ Mili said.

‘Yes. We used them in the war, those hives, the gestalts. Our side, their side, however many sides there were. It’s like having your own private network without a central server, so you can never take it offline. Some had thousands of nodes. Humans, drones, organic forms. Even robots. You couldn’t shut them down. They learned what you did and improved and adapted. They say some still live out in the desert, on the Peninsula and in Sinai. But I hope never to meet one again.’

‘Who was Deborah?’ Mili said.

The robot stopped sweeping.

‘Why?’ it said.

‘You know them?’

‘Of them.’

‘Who were they?’ Mili said.

‘A gestalt mind. They did not serve one side or another. They were just … present.’

‘I am looking for them,’ Mili said. ‘For their … constituent parts, as it were.’

‘That is not a good idea,’ the robot said.

‘Why?’

‘Besides, they were never destroyed,’ the robot said. ‘They just vanished. There were several hundred parts of the original mind. Some said they went off-world, to the Up and Out. Others said they took on new forms in the Drift. Me? I was just glad they were gone. Good riddance to that. Good day!’

And it turned its back on Mili and started sweeping dirt in the opposite direction.

5.

‘Well?’ Geshem said when Mili came out.

She told him of the conversation. ‘Then I went looking for some other robots but they all avoided me for some reason. I got the impression this Deborah wasn’t very popular with the old troops.’ She frowned. ‘And the robot said Deborah was never destroyed. So what happened to their parts? Something isn’t adding up, Geshem.’

‘And why were you attacked in Haifa?’ Geshem said. ‘And by who? A part of Deborah themselves? Another hive-mind?’

‘I have no idea,’ Mili said. A swarm of bees buzzed past and landed on the flowers. Mili zoomed in on them and saw that they, too, were robotic. Their eyes tracked her.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ she said.

‘Sure,’ Geshem said.

It had stopped raining but the sky was grey. They walked between the trees, away from the downed ship and its recalcitrant robots. Fat weeping boletes sprouted under the pine trees. Mili heard the buzzing sound of the mechanical bees, following them. A wild drone came and landed on a branch and looked down as they passed. Geshem moved with lumbering intensity. He stopped and listened to the quiet. Mili amped her hearing, scanned in an audio range above and below human hearing.

‘What is it?’ she said.

‘Something,’ Geshem said. ‘Something b—’

A huge dark shape hurtled overhead. It hit the ground before them with an impact that shook the ground. Geshem took Mili’s hand.

‘Run!’

She felt the explosion, fire and brimstone, the heat singed her hair. Her eyes filmed over with protective shielding. Her skin toughened as monofilaments woven into the dermal layers joined and came online. The blast lifted her into the air. Geshem spun beside her. She held on to him—

Gravity lost, for just one moment they were in free fall—

Then came crashing into pine and collapsed to the ground.

‘Wow,’ Mili said.

‘—bad,’ Geshem said. He was breathing heavily. ‘Something bad.’

‘No, I figured,’ Mili said.

She pulled out her guns. Scanned for moving shapes in the copse of trees. Was that a doll sneaking behind a cedar tree? Mili blasted fire and saw something drop. She grinned and reloaded. A drone came down on her then, claws outstretched, and she took aim and blew it out of the sky. The body fell at her feet and twitched. She saw electric blue light—

‘Run!’

The drone exploded. Geshem pulled ahead, making his way through what, to Mili, were just trees. Did they have pines and cedars here when the first First Humans settled on this land? She had no idea. She wasn’t big on botany. Something moved and she fired—she thought it was another doll.

‘Stop shooting things!’

‘I would if they stopped attacking me!’

‘You don’t know what they want,’ Geshem said. ‘You don’t know who they are. This is an old place. There are a lot of old dangerous things here. So just … stop it.’

‘Stop it?’ Mili said. She felt a wave of outrage. Something like a giant leech fell from a branch and tried to engulf her like a black coat. She felt it lengthen and contrast around her, felt its mouth try to fasten on her toughened skin.

‘Get it off me! Get it off me!’

‘It’s just a gloamer,’ Geshem said. He stroked the creature. ‘That’s good, that’s good. Come off, now. Come off …’

‘What’s a gloamer!’ Mili said.

‘They’re like data leeches,’ Geshem said. ‘Just an old bio-weapon everyone forgot. They breed here in peace. They like to come out this time of day.’

‘Get it off!’

‘It’s off,’ Geshem said. The gloamer left Mili’s body with a sigh and sank to the ground. She stared at it in revulsion.

‘How come it didn’t attack you?’ she said.

‘They’re encoded for Homo Sapiens,’ Geshem said. ‘All of the things that kill are, around here.’

Mili stared at the gloamer. ‘Are you Deborah?’ she demanded. ‘Who are you? Who sent you?’

The gloamer said nothing. Mili stared around her. Nothing else moved. She had no idea who attacked her. The whole Sanctuary felt hostile and alive. It was hostile and alive. And Geshem was right. Most things that lived here were bred or made to kill humans. It didn’t matter how much tech she carried inside her, she was still just modern hominid DNA.

‘I need to find the missing pieces of this hive mind,’ Mili said.

‘If they exist,’ Geshem said. ‘Come on.’ He took her hand. She liked his hand in hers. He led her through the trees, until at last they came to a First Human village she had visited before. Geshem’s grandfather, Ruach-Noshevet-Ba’gfanim, was sitting cross-legged by a small fire, his hands dancing through the air.

‘What’s he doing?’

‘Accessing the Conversation. I think he’s playing the Guilds of Ashkelon with someone on Mars.’

‘With the time lag?’ Mili said.

‘What is time?’ Ruach said. He swiped a finger through the air and let his arms drop and looked at them. ‘I have nothing but time. Which is not something I can say for you.’

‘What do you mean?’

The old man didn’t look pleased to see her. ‘You stomp around the Sanctuary like a woolly mammoth,’ he said. ‘Waking up and upsetting the old things. And the last time I saw you, you kidnapped my grandson.’

‘Grandfather …’ Geshem said.

‘No, you’re right,’ Mili said. ‘I should go.’

‘Go where?’ the old man said. ‘Sit down. Geshem, bring her something to drink. Let’s talk, Mili Cohen-Chong.’

‘Talk about what?’ Mili said, suspicious.

‘This and that,’ the old man said. ‘I heard you went to see the robots.’

Mili sat down by the fire. It felt nice, sitting there by the fire.

‘Heard where?’ she said.

‘From the birds. From the skies. From the rain that falls in the pines.’

‘You mean, Geshem told you.’

The old man smiled. ‘He did,’ he said. ‘But everything talks, here. The Conversation is muted but the hills and valleys are alive. You just have to know how to listen.’

‘You talk to the old machines?’ Mili said.

‘Sometimes. Sometimes.’

‘And what do they tell you, Ruach?’

‘Stories. They tell me stories.’

Mili considered the old man carefully.

‘Did they mention a name?’ she said.

‘Deborah.’

‘Ah …’ Mili said.

‘In the Hebrew Bible, Deborah was a judge,’ Ruach said. ‘She sat in the mountains of Ephraim and passed judgement on the people of Israel. She lived right here. And she went to battle, and she was victorious.’

‘So?’

‘So back in the days of the old wars of the Sapis—I’m sorry, of your humans—there was an entity with that name. A hive mind, each node independent like a single member of a jury, but together, linked, a single judge. They materialised on the battlefields, unexpected, unwanted. Robots and humans and battle dolls and drones. They judged … I suppose you would say, war crimes. And then they passed their sentence.’

Mili closed her eyes. She tried to picture it.

Somewhere in the ruins of Tiberias, robotniks on patrol. Great Taninim floated in the Sea of Galilee, and beyond them in the Golan great shapes battled each other in the sky. A spaceship crashed, falling from orbit. It hit near Chorazim and a mushroom cloud rose, and from the fortifications of Capernaum came the Green Abominations, swarming to the downed ship with greedy hunger.

Something stalked through the streets of Tiberias.

The sky above the Sea of Galilee was the colour of a television, tuned to a dead ch—

The figure—figures?—moved through the ruined streets, stalking their prey.

Mili pictured battle dolls. Small, interchangeable. The hive mind that was Deborah, the judge, spread out as it spotted its quarry. Who were they? What crime could be worse than the crime that was war itself?

She didn’t know. She couldn’t picture a conversation. A battalion of human soldiers, maybe. Surrounded now by Deborah.

A conversation—brief, impersonal. The soldiers were judged, and were found wanting.

Then Deborah struck.

The judgement: executed.

Mili opened her eyes.

The fire burned and it was warm, and the stars overhead shone.

She said, ‘What the hell’s a television?’

6.

Mili came to the place that Ruach-Noshevet-Ba’gfanim told her about.

She climbed the slopes of Mount Tavor. Here Deborah fought Sisera of the Canaanites, the Jezreel Valley below, here robotniks bled and died millennia later. Here First Humans fought Homo Sapiens and lost. Here …

She saw ancient spacecraft debris and impact craters. A rusting robot arm lying in weeds. She saw the remains of a crusader fort. She saw the remains of a Greek Orthodox church and a mosque. She saw Narcissus flowers and a carob tree. She picked a dried fruit pod from the ground and chewed it.

She came to the entrance of a cave and went in.

Her systems picked up nothing, though all the way here she’d had the sense of being tracked.

She saw alcoves cut into the walls and expected bodies to be lying in them but they were empty.

She thought, too late, that the information Ruach had given her was wrong.

She turned to leave.

Two battle dolls blocked her way. They stood motionless and stared.

‘Deborah?’ Mili said.

The dolls shook their heads in unison.

‘Where are they?’ the dolls demanded. ‘Where is the Deborah?’

‘Who are you?’ Mili said. She thought of shooting them both. But they were just nodes on a network. And she didn’t know how many more of them were outside.

‘You can call us Sisera,’ the dolls said.

‘Is that your name?’

‘No.’

‘I didn’t think so.’

‘This is where we fought,’ the dolls said. ‘Where we were once victorious.’

‘Who were you fighting?’

‘We do not recall. But we were victors! And so we put the losers to the sword.’

Mili stared at them. How old was this entity?

‘Not literally,’ she said.

‘Well, not swords,’ Sisera said. ‘Though when it came to it the end of the battle may well have been done with bows and arrows, or rocks. We were a third of us depleted, lost. It is like losing your mind. So we executed them, every single one, without mercy. Whoever they were. That memory was some of what we lost. But it didn’t matter. We remembered enough to know they were the enemy, and we had won. So we killed them.’

‘How many?’ Mili said, feeling a slow horror rise in her.

‘The ground was red with their blood,’ Sisera said, with some satisfaction. ‘Thousands, at a guess. Humans and machines. Those who dared oppose us. We had a job to do, Mili Cohen-Chong, and we did it. We won.’

Mili nodded. She began to understand. She took a step forward but the dolls didn’t move. She pulled out her gun.

‘Let me go,’ she said.

‘Where are they!’ Sisera demanded.

And a voice behind them said, ‘They are here.’

7.

The dolls spun. An old human woman stood at the entrance of the cave. Wires ran into her scalp and through her arms.

‘You hid well, Sisera,’ she said.

‘You knew?’ the dolls screeched.

‘The condemned forever seek to escape their sentence,’ Deborah said. ‘But only you succeeded.’

Mili was putting things fast in her mind. She needed to get out. Get out before the old hive minds destroyed each other. She’d be just collateral damage in the fight.

She tried to edge silently away from them.

The dolls moved fast. They blurred. They attacked the old woman. The old woman stood perfectly still. Then the two dolls were lying on their backs on the ground.

‘Thank you, Mili,’ Deborah said. ‘You did your job well. The recommendations did not lie.’

‘You used me?’ Mili said.

‘Of course.’

‘You were never lost!’

The old woman laughed. ‘I was dispersed, but whole. The old wars ended and the new war didn’t need a Deborah anymore. I would have gone to Mars, perhaps. But there was one unfinished business to take care of.’

Mili said, ‘Sisera.’

‘Their crime could not go unpunished,’ Deborah said. ‘They alone escaped me, here on Mount Tavor. They went into hiding. I could not find them. At last I hid, hoping they would think me gone. Then, perhaps, I thought I could draw them out.’

‘I searched for nothing?’

‘You searched for everything!’ the old woman said. ‘You went around and asked unwelcome questions. You were nosy. You carried with you a name not spoken in centuries. My name. And you drew my ancient enemy out of their hiding places at last.’

Mili just felt numb. She stared at the dolls lying on the ground. She stepped over them, brushed past the old woman, and went outside.

A calm blue sky and the Jezreel down below. A carob fruit pod on the ground. She didn’t pick it up this time.

She stared.

All about her were the two old hive minds. Chameleon dolls brown and green from earth and vegetation, swarms of drones suspended in the sky. A roc faced off against a Minor Tanin. Old humans and older robots and things that were something in between. All suspended in battle, half Deborah, half Sisera.

‘What will you do with them?’ Mili said.

‘Sisera will be punished.’

‘Is it worth it?’ Mili said. ‘After all this time?’

‘The dead remember,’ Deborah said.

Mili just felt sad.

‘The dead,’ she said, ‘are dead.’

She walked away.

She didn’t look back as, behind her, the passing of judgement commenced.

8.

Mili stood behind the bar of the Monte Carmelo. She polished a glass. A group of First Humans sat drinking beer. They liked the barley. Geshem-Nofel-Ba’oranim perched on a stool.

‘Did you get paid, at least?’ he said.

‘All of it, in Martian shekels,’ Mili said. There was also the mysterious Cohen artefact, she thought. She didn’t know what she’d do about that one yet. She kept polishing the glass.

‘I think it’s clean,’ Geshem said.

‘Nothing is clean,’ Mili said.

Geshem put his hands on the counter. ‘Let it go,’ he said gently.

Mili put the glass down on the counter.

‘You want a beer?’ she said.

‘Sure. You want one?’

Mili said, ‘If you’re buying.’

Geshem squirmed.

‘I’m a little short…’ he said.

Mili put another glass down on the counter, then reached for the tap. She looked at the First Human in affection.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are.’

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