6

It took Watchman only a couple of minutes to run to the accident site, but by then the lift-beetles had moved the fallen block and the bodies of the victims were exposed. A crowd had gathered, all betas; the gammas lacked authority and motivation for interrupting their work programs, even for something like this. Seeing an alpha approach, the betas faded back, hovering on the edge of the scene in an uneasy conflict. They did not know whether to return to work or to remain and offer assistance to the alpha, and, thus caught unprogrammed, they stood by wearing the dismal expressions of android bewilderment.

Watchman quickly surveyed the situation. Three androids — two betas and a gamma — had been crushed by the glass block. The betas were beyond easy recognition; it was going to be a chore just to peel their bodies out of the permafrost. The gamma beside them had almost avoided being killed, but his luck had not quite been good enough; he was intact only below the waist. His had been the legs Watchman had seen sticking out from under the block. Two other androids had been struck by the falling scooprod. One of them, a gamma, had taken a fatal blow on the skull and was lying in a sprawl a dozen meters away. The other, a beta, had apparently received a glancing but devastating swipe in the back from a corner of the rod’s grip-tread; he was alive but seriously injured, and plainly in great agony.

Watchman selected four of the beta onlookers and ordered them to transport the dead ones to the control center for identification and disposal. He sent two other betas off to get a stretcher for the injured one. While they were gone he walked over to the surviving android and looked down, peering into gray eyes yellow-rimmed with pain.

“Can you talk?” Watchman asked.

“Yes.” A foggy whisper. “I can’t move anything below my middle. I’m turning cold. I’m starting to freeze from the middle down. Am I going to die?”

“Probably,” Watchman said. He ran his hand along the beta’s back until he found the lumbar neural center, and with a quick jab he shorted it. A sigh of relief came from the twisted figure on the ground.

“Better?” the alpha said.

“Much better, Alpha Watchman.”

“Give me your name, beta.”

“Caliban Driller.”

“What were you doing when the block fell, Caliban?”

“Getting ready to go off shift. I’m a maintenance foreman. I walked past here. They all started to shout. I felt the air hot as the block came down. I jumped. And then I was on the ground with my back split open. How soon will I die?”

“Within an hour or less. The coldness will rise until it gets to your brain, and that will be the end. But take comfort: Krug saw you as you fell. Krug will guard you. You will rest in the bosom of Krug.”

“Krug be praised,” Caliban Driller murmured.

The stretcher-bearers were approaching. When they still were fifty meters away, a gong sounded, marking the end of the shift. Instantly every android who was not actually hoisting a block rushed toward the transmat banks. Three lines of workers began to vanish into the transmats, heading for their homes in the android compounds of five continents, and in the same moment the next shift began to emerge from the inbound transmats, coming out of leisure periods spent in the recreation zones of South America and India. At the sound of the gong Watchman’s two stretcher-bearers made as if to drop the stretcher and rush for the transmats. He barked at them; and sheepishly, they hustled toward him.

“Pick up Caliban Driller,” he commanded, “and carry him carefully to the chapel. When you’re done with that you can go off shift and claim credit for the time.”

Amid the confusion of the changing shift, the two betas loaded the injured android on the stretcher and made their way with him to one of the dozens of extrusion domes on the northern perimeter of the construction site. The domes served many uses: some were storage depots for materiel, several were kitchens or washrooms, three housed the power cores that fed the transmat banks and the refrigeration tapes, one was a first aid station for androids injured on the job, and one, in the heart of the irregular clutter of gray plastic mounds, was the chapel.

At all times two or three off-duty androids lounged in front of that dome, seemingly idle, actually functioning as casual sentries who would prevent any womb-born one from entering. Sometimes journalists or guests of Krug came wandering this way, and the sentries had various deft techniques for leading them away from the chapel without actually provoking the forbidden clash of wills between android and human. The chapel was not open to anyone born of man and woman. Its very existence was unknown to any but androids.

Thor Watchman reached it just as the stretcher-bearers were setting Caliban Driller down before the altar. Going in, he made the proper genuflection, dropping quickly to one knee and extending his arms, palms upward. The altar, resting in a purple bath of nutrient fluids, was a pink rectangular block of flesh that had been synthesized precisely as androids themselves were synthesized. Though alive, it was scarcely sentient, nor was it capable of sustaining its life unaided; it was fed from beneath by constant injections of metabolase that permitted it to survive. To the rear of the altar was a full-sized hologram of Simeon Krug, facing forward. The walls of the chapel were decorated with the triplets of the RNA genetic code, inscribed in infinite reproduction from floor to summit:

AAA AAG AAC AAU

AGA AGG AGC AGU

ACA ACG ACC ACU

AUA AUG AUC AUU

GAA GAG GAC GAU

GGA GGG GGC GGU

GCA GCG GCC GCU

GUA GUG GUC GUU

CAA CAG CAC CAU

CGA CGG CGC CGU

CCA CCG CCC CCU

CUA CUG CUC CUU

UAA UAG UAC UAU

UGA UGG UGC UGU

UCA UCG UCC UCU

UUA UUG UUC UUU

“Put him on the altar,” Watchman said. “Then go out.”

The stretcher-bearers obeyed. When he was alone with the dying beta, Watchman said, “I am a Preserver and I am qualified to be your guide on your journey to Krug. Repeat after me as clearly as you can:Krug brings us into the world and to Krug we return.”

“Krug brings us into the world and to Krug we return.”

“Krug is our Creator and our Protector and our Deliverer.”

“Krug is our Creator and our Protector and our Deliverer.”

“Krug, we beseech Thee to lead us toward the light.”

“Krug, we beseech Thee to lead us toward the light.”

“And to lift the Children of the Vat to the level of the Children of the Womb.”

“And to lift the Children of the Vat to the level of the Children of the Womb.”

“And to lead us to our rightful place—”

“And to lead us to our rightful place—”

“—beside our brothers and sisters of the flesh.”

“—beside our brothers and sisters of the flesh.”

“Krug our Maker, Krug our Preserver, Krug our Master, receive me back into the Vat.”

“Krug our Maker, Krug our Preserver, Krug our Master, receive me back into the Vat.”

“And grant redemption to those who come after me—”

“And grant redemption to those who come after me—”

“In that day when Womb and Vat and Vat and Womb are one.”

“In that day when Womb and Vat and Vat and Womb are one.”

“Praise be to Krug.”

“Praise be to Krug.”

“Glory be to Krug.”

“Glory be to Krug.”

“AAAAAGAACAAU be to Krug.”

“AAAAAGAACAAU be to Krug.”

“AGAAGGAGCAGU be to Krug.”

“AGAAGGAGC—” Caliban Driller faltered. “The chill is in my breast,” he murmured. “I can’t — I can’t—”

“Finish the sequence. Krug awaits you.”

“—AGU be to Krug.”

“ACAACGACCACU be to Krug.”

The beta’s fingertips dug into the yielding flesh of the altar. The tone of his skin had deepened in the past few minutes from crimson to something close to violet. His eyeballs rolled. His lips curled back.

“Krug awaits you,” Watchman said fiercely. “Do the sequence!”

“Can’t — speak — can’t — breathe—”

“Listen to me, then. Just listen. Make the codons in your mind as I say them.AUAAUGAUCAUU be to Krug. GAAGAGGACGAU be to Krug. GGAGGG—”

Desperately Watchman went down the rows of the genetic ritual as he knelt next to the altar. With each group of codons he rotated his body in the prescribed double helix, the proper motion for the last rites. Caliban Driller’s life ebbed swiftly. Toward the end, Watchman pulled a tie-line from his tunic, jacked one end into the input in his forearm and the other into Driller’s, and pumped energy into the shattered beta to keep him going until all the RNA triplets had been named. Then, only then, when he was certain that he had sent Caliban Driller’s soul to Krug, did Watchman unjack, arise, murmur a brief prayer on his own behalf, and summon a team of gammas to haul the body away for disposal.

Tense, drained, yet jubilant over the redemption of Caliban Driller, he left the chapel and headed back toward the control center. Halfway there his way was blocked by a figure of his own height — another alpha. That seemed strange. Watchman’s shift would not be over for some hours yet; when it was, the alpha Euclid planner was scheduled to arrive and relieve him. But this alpha was not Planner. He was altogether unfamiliar to Watchman.

The stranger said, “Watchman, may I have some time? I am Siegfried Fileclerk of the Android Equality Party. Of course you know of the constitutional amendment that we propose to have our friends introduce in the next Congress. It has been suggested that in view of your close association with Simeon Krug, you might be helpful to us in our desire to gain access to Krug for the purpose of obtaining his endorsement for—”

Watchman cut in, “Surely you must be familiar with my position concerning involvements in political matters.”

“Yes, but at this time the cause of android equality—”

“Can be served in many ways. I have no wish to exploit my connection with Krug for political purposes.”

“The constitutional amendment—”

“Pointless. Pointless. Friend Fileclerk, do you see that building yonder? It is our chapel. I recommend you visit it and cleanse your soul of false virtues.”

“I am not in communion with your church,” said Siegfried Fileclerk.

“And I am not a member of your political party,” Thor Watchman said. “Excuse me. I have responsibilities in the control center.”

“Perhaps I could speak with you when your shift has ended.”

“You would then be intruding upon my time of resting,” Watchman said.

He walked briskly away. It was necessary for him to employ one of the neural rituals of tranquillity to ease the anger and irritation surging within him.

Android Equality Party, he thought disdainfully. Fools! Bunglers! Idiots!

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