February 2020

Light filtered through the debris, igniting a spark in his crystalline heart.

Bending all his will to the effort, the little golem opened his eyes. Pink, hazy dawn — or perhaps twilight? — filtered through a cloud of dust motes. It was barely light at all, yet it set his body thrumming, energy tingling through silicon veins. The light soaked into his heart and filled it with life.

He tried to move his arms, his legs, but he was too weak. He tried to check if he still had limbs, but he couldn’t lift his head. Even his thoughts trickled like tar.

How long had his core been dim? Where was he?

From above came scraping and grunting. A rustle of debris, as pebbles tumbled down. More light squeezed through the gap, and the gears of his mind began to turn.

Grand, he thought. My name is Grand. He was a Clay, a Stonesinger, a servant of the Lord of Earth. And he had failed his Master.

Somehow, Grand had to make his way home. He wondered if the Master would be surprised to see him after so many centuries — how many had it been? Perhaps the Master would be pleased, if only the smallest bit, to see his wayward Clay return?

It was a queer thought, Grand knew. Emotion was a defect of logic. The Master had no defect.

It was not the first queer thought to have crossed Grand’s mind, in his ages in the dark. But now there was light. Unlooked for, unhoped for, undreamed of light.

Grand was not his name. The golem had no name, only a designation: GR-A90.

He had taken the name “Grand” on a whim; to pass the years in the dark, he had imagined himself part of the city above his tomb. Through the stone he had felt the vibration of a thousand voices, a thousand souls. He had dreamed that he walked among them, sharing their joys and cares and woes. When they spoke, he spoke back, though none could hear him. His favorite voices became dear friends, and he ached when they were silent.

Grand knew it was mad affectation to play at being a flesh-thing, that he was damaged in ways he could not comprehend. It was his guilty secret and his only joy. It had been a way to pass the centuries.

Then the city vanished, all voices silenced but his own.

He spent another age gently humming to the stones of his prison – a waste of energy, but also a comfort. It was the task for which he was made. He knew the song of every mineral, and with a bare touch could set them singing in purest tones. At his full strength, he could shake mountains.

But sealed away from light, Grand had no strength. He, master of stone, became its slave. It had been a mercy when his core went dim.

The stone above shifted and the pink glow welled through the gap, fainter now. So, it was twilight after all.

From above came a gasp of excitement. A gaunt face peered into the breach, eyes wide with wonder. It belonged to the most ill-fed, ill-favored seraph Grand had ever seen. Even stunted, it towered over him, at least thrice his size.

A seraph. He had never shown a seraph mercy, and had no right to expect any. After untold ages of waiting, his rescue would be his death. The irony stung him.

The seraph shouted in a language Grand could not comprehend, some distant kin of the tongues he remembered. Had the world changed so much in his sleep?

The seraph called out again, turning his back to Grand. No wings. Not a seraph. So what was this flesh-thing?

The golem dredged his recollection, mind sluggish with sleep. Even now, the dim light fading from the sky, his brain threatened to shut back down. He was designed to never forget, but how much damage had he suffered when the city fell atop him?

A human. That’s what the flesh-thing was.

Grand had warred with many races, the creations of pretender gods, but humans he barely recalled. They were an aberration, an error, sprung from the dirt with no god to claim them. They had been beneath the Master’s notice, and so were beneath his.

A second human appeared, this one bearded, older. Just as gaunt. He eyed Grand skeptically and prodded him with an iron rod, clinking it against his chest.

Grand tried to reach for the bar, but his arms would not obey. He lay in the pit, as still as the rock around him. All he could move was his eyes.

The men jabbered in their strange tongue, until the young one persuaded the elder to help him dig. They pried at the rubble, levering away fragments of broken wall. And, with each stone moved, more debris cascaded down.

The pit grew choked with sand and stone. Grand’s small world closed in until it reached no further than his body, more claustrophobic than ever. Panic welled within him. Were they burying him? His thoughts swam with nightmares of eternity beneath the dirt, alone and forgotten.

Anything but that, his mind screamed. Grand prayed feverishly to a Master who could not hear. Let the flesh-things kill him if they must — only, let them do it above the ground, beneath the boundless sky. Outside of this tomb.

Grand fixated on the scrape of iron on stone, the sound of salvation. He had to get out. The fear of darkness without end weighed on him physically, crushing him like the very rock that pressed down from above. So close to freedom, it was too much to endure.

Time passed. Grand flickered in and out of consciousness, his power ebbing. Though intoxicating after an age in darkness, his sip of twilight had been scant. Straining to hear the blessed scraping, his thoughts ground to a halt.

Moonlight. Two men in headscarves inspected him, one holding a shovel. They chattered in their nonsense tongue, disagreeing. One enthusiastic, the other annoyed.

Sand and broken stone stretched to the horizon in every direction. The city was gone. He had known it would be, but seeing was different from knowing. It was ironic how he ached for its loss – he who had tried, and failed, to destroy it.

A man placed him gently into a sack, not quite empty. It drew shut, and the darkness returned.

Grand woke to lamplight. He found himself lying on a bench or table. Something made of wood.

Even had he the strength to move, Grand had no power over wood. Its structure was messy and random compared to the beautiful order of stone.

Voices argued. Grand tried to look around, but couldn’t. He was sprawled amidst knickknacks and rubbish. He heard the men who had found him bickering with a third.

No, not bickering. Haggling. Haggling over the junk on the table, with which he had shared a sack. They haggled over a brooch, a buckle, an ivory comb. A granite face chiseled off some capital or lintel. The hilt of a long-rusted sword, and so on. All sorts of rubbish.

The men who found Grand were scavengers, which made him salvage. He, a Clay, mightiest of the Master’s tools, was now junk, pulled from the refuse heap of history.

The shame stung him. An eternity in the dark hadn’t extinguished his pride.

Grand lay and he listened, having no other option. Though most of the haul was rubbish, some pieces caught his interest – the gears and springs and tubes of forgotten machines. There were even two small piezo-crystals, which the elder scavenger presented reverently.

The buyer placed a lens on his eye to inspect them. He turned them over in his hand, clucking his tongue as he studied them carefully, facet by facet.

At first Grand thought the collector was checking for damage, but soon realized the man simply enjoyed the sparkle — as if the crystals were nothing more than shiny baubles. He was amazed. How far had civilization fallen? Humans were infants, ignorants. Barely more than beasts.

Grand itched to explain their error, but held his tongue. Even had they shared a common speech, he wouldn’t have spoken. With creeping discomfort, he realized that he feared the flesh-things. Did they see what he was? Did they know what he had done?

Would they destroy him if they knew he lived?

Perhaps not, but Grand would take no chance.

Once they had settled terms on the rest of the detritus, the younger scavenger hoisted Grand, his large hands wrapped around the golem’s trunk. He chattered excitedly about the prize of the collection.

It was an honor to be saved for last, the finest garbage. He was the Lord of Junk.

At least, held upright, Grand could finally look around the room. The walls were lined with cabinets where trash and treasure mingled freely, the shiniest bits of debris given places of honor. Weapons and potsherds and mechanical parts were sorted loosely by theme, but with several wrong guesses. Other bits were unidentifiable even to Grand.

The centerpiece of the whole collection was a golem power core, shimmering and dead. It was too large to belong to a Clay, large even for a Stone. A fissure ran halfway through, rendering it inert.

It was the crystal heart of a living thing. It should have been brought home, to be repaired and born again in a new body. To display it like a sparkly trophy was beyond cruel. It was barbaric.

Grand pictured them prying him like an oyster for the shiny bits inside, and the thought filled him with horror. He strained to draw in light, willing his body to absorb it, but he had no strength to fight. He couldn’t even move. He was nothing but a helpless stone doll, who waited centuries in the dark for nothing.

The collector, a stooped man in a gold-threaded kaftan, leaned toward him. He looked weary from the endless dickering, and clearly bored. He rolled his eyes and made an offer.

The young man replied with disgust; the sum had been paltry. The other scavenger gave a derisive grunt, universal to all language. It said, “I told you so.”

So Grand was worthless after all. Not even the Lord of Junk. Merely junk.

But then realization set in. The flesh-things were, indeed, clueless. They didn’t know what he was, didn’t know his danger or his worth. Their ignorance was his salvation. To them, he was a stone doll, and nothing more.

Relief washed him like a wave, more refreshing than light itself. He would be a doll until he had his strength back. After that, let it be their turn to fear.

The scavengers finished their business, took their money, and left grumbling under their breath. They brought Grand with them, perhaps hoping for a better price elsewhere. He’d never been so pleased to be stuffed into a sack.

Grand had traded one prison for another, but at least this one had light. Precious light.

His new prison had walls of mud brick and stucco, with windows open to the sky. Outside was a neighborhood of similar houses — whitewashed, flat-roofed, two stories tall. They ran in neat rows along a terraced hillside, beneath an endless blue sky.

The scavengers left Grand in the downstairs room – a living area with a kitchen to one side. A doorway peeked into an adjacent workshop, while stairs led upwards, disappearing into mystery.

Though the living room was spacious, the furnishings were sparse. The scavengers’ home felt hollowed-out, full of empty places where things should be. What remained was a table and chairs, some sackcloth bedding, shelves of crockery, resentment, and the lingering embers of faded hope.

The ragged scavengers were father and son. The son had a ragged wife, and together they had a ragged little girl. On the mantle, behind a votive candle, sat a painted wooden soldier, but there was no ragged boy to play with it.

From his perch on the shelf, Grand watched the drama of their lives unfold. Their words meant nothing to him, but their tones, their expressions, told him everything.

Though the old man walked and breathed, he was already dead. He spent his time in the workshop, puttering over junk as if he could restore its lost worth. He avoided his family, even slept in the workshop.

The son was a disappointment to both father and wife, and, by the way he hung his head around them, he knew it. He was a dreamer, always hoping the next haul would restore them to better times. His wife kept him grounded with her scowls.

As for the woman, she was proud and bitter. Though her dress was a rag, the bangles on her wrists were pure silver — Grand could tell by the way they clinked and chimed. She found labor distasteful, and had no words but sharp ones. Sometimes, while the others slept at night, she cried.

And then there was the little girl, skinny and precocious. They called her Farah, and, if there were any smiles in that house, they were for her. Even the old man warmed when she spied upon his work, though he pretended not to see her. Mostly, though, they ignored her.

For want of an audience, she often spoke to Grand, chattering words of longing and wonder, whispering secrets he couldn’t comprehend. She showed him her treasures — a ragdoll, a top, some colored glass beads. She had a piece of granite, glittery with mica, that he rather liked.

One time, she draped a garland of wildflowers around his shoulders. Though Grand couldn’t fathom the purpose of the dead vegetation, it was the first gift he’d ever received. He wore it with confused and wary gratitude.

Of course, the girl also spoke to the toy soldier, but nervously, and only when no one was looking. Grand wondered if she wasn’t a touch daft.

Regardless, she was the closest thing to a spark of light in that dismal house.

After a week of milling about, the scavengers left on another expedition. At last, Grand had a chance to explore the house.

He had prepared for this day by flexing his limbs and testing his joints in his few unwatched moments. Though still feeble from centuries of light deprivation, his body functioned. It was a minor miracle, and he did not take it for granted. In his crystal heart, Grand praised the Master for the genius of his craftsmanship.

Even with the men gone, there remained some difficulties, but Grand had already planned for them. He would make his way down the wall by gently deforming the plaster, gouging a series of handholds. He would do this at night, after the woman retired to her chamber upstairs. He worried that, in the dark, he’d find himself too weak to climb back up, but he’d spent several days basking in the sunlight that trickled through the window. It would have to be enough.

Grand’s one obstacle was the little girl. Her bed was a mat beneath the window – one of two mats, actually, though none used the other – where the cool breeze wafted away the heat of the day. Most nights she slept soundly. Yet, if she woke, he would have to…

Grand didn’t want to think about it. While it was his duty to return to the Master, his right to kill anything that interfered, he wasn’t eager to kill Farah. Her randomness intrigued him. Though she had no Master, she flitted about with enigmatic purpose. She raised questions he hadn’t thought to ask.

But, for now, Grand put his questions and worries aside. He scaled the wall, hands and feet boring into pliant stone. He worked slowly, but if caution delayed his homecoming, delayed his punishment, so be it. Perhaps a delay wasn’t so bad.

He prayed to the Master that the girl would not wake.

Grand explored the house each night, digesting a room at a time.

First he searched the kitchen, but its barren cupboards held no wonders. He climbed a short way up the chimney until it grew too narrow. He clambered back down and shook off the soot.

Next he chanced the staircase, but only far enough to peer into the room above. Nothing interesting there, either, save a crack in the wall that whistled with each gusty draft. He reached into the plaster and repaired it.

He told himself he was merely testing his powers, that he was irked by the disorder of ill-crafted stonework, and a dozen other lies. The quiet voice inside knew better. He hungered for purpose.

Grand touched the wall, feeling for the Master’s gentle pull. Nothing. Perhaps, in his weakness, the straw-laced bricks confused his senses?

The second night, he sneaked outside. Behind the house was a small garden, with a stone corral that ran up the hillside. Though there was room for perhaps a dozen beasts, Grand found only a pair of floppy-eared goats. He patched the walls of their pen, adjusting the stones into a sturdier, more aesthetic configuration. Strength and beauty were inseparable; all that served its purpose well was beautiful.

The open air reminded Grand of escape, of his duty to the Master. At least outside he had solid earth beneath his feet, with no straw to muffle the song of the stones. He pressed his hands to the ground, straining to hear the familiar drone of the Master’s voice. Besides the restless shuffling of the village, he found only silence.

Grand pushed harder, flaring energy recklessly. He reached deep into the world around him – and found it shifted, wrong. Barren desert, where rampant jungle once thrived. Mountains thrust up from the ground to twice their old height. The very geography was changed, as if cracked and split and reformed from its parts.

And the voices had changed, too. There were too few, and too many were human. Where had the old races gone? Where were his people?

Shaken, Grand made his way back to the shelf. Without the Master to guide him, how would he find his way home? What if he never did?

It was a lonely thought, but also a relief.

When Grand had failed the Master, he ceased to be useful. He had earned his destruction – it was right that he should be broken down, his parts recycled. Still, if he was centuries late, what mattered another delay?

By the third night, Grand’s sense of urgency waned. He would still escape, of course, but in his own good time. In the meanwhile, there was exploring to do.

Mostly, the house was empty and dull, but Grand had saved the best room for last. The workshop was filled with the cast-off fruits of the scavengers’ excavations — some neatly shelved, others sorted into piles. He was amazed to find that some of the pieces weren’t junk at all, but lovingly restored relics, the tools and toys of a bygone age. There was a signal glass, a mechanical gauntlet, a clockwork beetle, a light-drill, and much more. He studied them with reverence, savoring connection with the world he had lost.

Some of the objects were nearly whole, nearly repaired, with hand-machined parts replacing those missing. Others were fixed, and lacked only a power source. The old man was a genius. If only he hadn’t sold the piezo-crystals, who knew how many of the devices could have been brought back to life?

On a hunch, Grand searched the room thoroughly. It took an hour to find what he was looking for. In a hidden drawer beneath the workbench, he found two gold coins and a single tarnished crystal.

It was chipped and beyond use to the old man, but not to Grand. The particles wanted to align, to fuse and be whole again. They just needed a nudge.

He worked until dawn to mend it.

All through the next day, Grand bubbled over with impatience. Centuries of waiting, and somehow a single day was torture. But wait he did, and dreamed of the workshop, that temple to the past that was his world.

As always, the woman retreated to her chamber shortly after sundown. Grand pressed a hand to the wall and felt her moving around, oddly busy, but he didn’t care. Once upstairs, the woman never came down before sunrise.

The little girl’s eyelids fluttered shut, and he was off the shelf in an instant.

Grand scuttled across the floor, as noiselessly as his stony frame allowed. He made a beeline for the workshop, head full of possibilities. All of the tools called to him, but the one little crystal — bathed in a day’s worth of sunlight on the windowsill — would have precious little charge for experiments.

He tried not to think how his heart would break if none of them worked.

After a minute’s deliberation, Grand settled on the practical choice. Of all the relics, the light-drill would be most useful. With it, there would be no need to blast through the straw-laced bricks – while he could, it would be sloppy, noisy work that might bring down the house. With the drill, he could carve silently through the door when he was ready to escape. When he was ready to go home, and face deconstruction.

As Grand reached for the crystal, he felt the gentle rumble of a key turning in a lock. He froze. The house door creaked open.

In strolled a man with oil in his beard and a swagger in his step. Though Grand had never seen him before, he crossed the house as if he owned it, and climbed the stairs to the private chambers. From above came swift footsteps and a gleeful squeal.

Grand looked around. Nobody had noticed him or thought to look for his absence. The girl was still on her pallet, hopefully asleep despite the noise from above.

There was no telling how long the man would be occupied. Grand crawled back along the floor, inch by painful inch, torn between terror of being caught and missing his chance for escape. What if the scavengers came back tomorrow? What if they found his crystal?

The crystal. It was still on the windowsill. He had to go back for it.

Panic got the better of reason. Grand turned and ran, clay feet clunking across the floor.

He remembered Farah, and skidded to a halt.

Grand peeked at the girl; she rolled over but did not wake. Cursing his stupidity, he scurried briskly through the shadows – not pausing until the precious crystal was tucked safely in the secret drawer. From there he made his way back to the other room, this time with caution, achingly slow.

Upstairs, the animal grunts and moans gave way to silence. Grand felt for his subtle handholds and scaled the wall. He crawled across the shelf and climbed to his feet, resuming his usual position.

Below Grand stood the little girl, peering up at him with wide, curious eyes. She stood on her toes and stretched toward him.

He was discovered, doomed. It was her life or his. Kill her and flee. Reach into the stone and bring the whole house down around them. He would be buried all over again, but he would be safe.

Safe in a tomb.

Grand’s mind raced in frantic circles, goaded by fears of death and imprisonment. He was paralyzed.

The little girl poked him and giggled.

For several more days the scavengers did not return, though oily-beard arrived nightly. Farah used the opportunity to make Grand her plaything.

It had been a near thing when she dragged him from the shelf — he wasn’t so much lowered as dropped, and had almost crushed her beneath his stony bulk. Though he only reached her waist, he was nearly her match for weight. Next she had lugged him outside and, with more strength than he expected, hoisted him into a little two-wheeled barrow. With it, she hauled him across the little village and beyond, jabbering to him the entire way.

Grand understood not a word, but the sunlight was glorious.

Day after day they came to the same spot, a meadow with a trickling stream on the shady side of the hill. The little village was blocked from view by a spur, but Grand could feel its vibrations, the sounds of life, through the soles of his feet. Aside from the sheep milling in the distance, they had the hillside to themselves.

Along the stream was a profusion of life, a stark shock of color that stood out from the dry grass and, beyond, the dusty countryside. Though Grand himself never knew thirst, he could see the ground was thirsty.

Farah liked to pick the flowers, to talk to Grand and show him her finds. She had a strange ritual of holding the flower first to her face, inhaling, and then to his. By the dozenth-or-so time he remembered that flesh-things could detect chemicals in the air, and he wondered what the experience was like.

After that he played along, and pretended to inhale, too.

By the third day he felt more comfortable around the girl, and no one else was in sight. When she talked, he spoke back. Neither could understand the other, but it made for companionable noise. When she hunted flowers, he searched for stones. They showed each other their prizes, and sometimes they traded.

On the fifth day Grand found a lovely red jasper, which he smoothed with his hands until it gleamed. It didn’t serve any function, but he liked it all the same. As he played with it, catching the sun, an odd idea struck him. He could give it purpose. Finally, he understood the riddle of the flower garland.

Grand traded Farah the jasper for a little violet flower — not because he liked the plant, but to make a gift of the stone. A gift was its own purpose.

On their way home that day, Grand realized that the violet flower was the only one he had seen. It might have been the only one in the whole meadow. He placed it in his mouth for safekeeping.

Farah watched him and giggled. He grinned back.

Life continued in this way for another week. Grand let himself dream that the old world really was gone — the wars, the enemies, even the Master. Though brimming with energy from days of sunshine, he invented new excuses to postpone his escape.

So what if he had become a plaything? Was that any worse than a weapon?

One morning, after Grand stopped counting the days, the scavengers came home. The woman embraced them both, her smile tight and manner nervous. Farah, on the other hand, met them with kisses and unabashed glee. The old man picked her up and whirled her about.

The young scavenger displayed a string of glittering coins. His face glowed with pride. It had been a good haul.

The woman’s eyes grew wide, and for a moment she forgot her unease. She kissed him on the cheek, took some coins, and left toward the market.

The old man walked over to Grand, who stood now on the floor. He eyed Farah with a frown. He asked her a sharp question, his manner stern.

Farah lowered her eyes. She nodded and gave a shy reply, pointing out the door. She took a flower from her hair and gave it to him, a token of apology.

The old man’s frown cracked, hints of a smile crinkling around his eyes. He patted Farah’s head and shooed her away. With the girl gone off to play, he picked up Grand and took him to the workshop.

The old man looked Grand over with a critical eye. He spoke, but Grand knew the man spoke only to himself. He unrolled a bundle of new tools onto the table.

Grand craned his neck ever so slightly, hoping to steal a glance. He saw tiny brushes, picks, chisels, and a delicate hammer.

What was the man going to do to him?

Old panic welled back up. The man would shatter him, pry out his heart. He would make a trophy of it. He would sell it to the collector. The chisel reached for Grand’s face…

…and softly tapped his cheek, the kiss of a feather. It shifted slightly and tapped again, twice more.

Then the old man brushed him off, and scuffed his cheek with a calloused thumb.

Grand held statue-still, struggling to rein in his fear, his whirling thoughts. What was the man doing? He looked again at the tools, and this time he understood.

They were sculptor’s tools. He should have known. Every artifact in the room had been repaired, invested with time and care. With love. The man was a healer of machines.

The old man placed a magnifying lens over one eye, and Grand saw himself in the distorted reflection. He saw what the man was fixing.

Half of Grand’s face was a shattered ruin.

The old man labored all through the day and into the evening, stopping only when the woman brought him supper. It was better fare than their usual, and a more generous portion, but the man barely touched it. He was consumed with his work.

In the glass reflection, Grand watched his new face take form. Tender, skilled hands shaped and smoothed his visage into something new — different, but beautiful in its own way.

With his cheeks scraped down until they were even, his new face could not help but look gaunt. But the old man was an artist. With a gentle cast around the eyes and a little twist of smile curling the edge of his stone lips, Grand thought his face looked kinder than before. In a way, he now resembled a human child.

He looked like Farah, if she were a boy.

The old man finished his work, curled up on his cot, and wept.

That night, the young man and his wife stayed up chatting in the kitchen — amicably, for the first time Grand had seen.

Once everyone thought her asleep, Farah crept off her pallet and tiptoed over to the workshop. She peered inside to wave goodnight to Grand, a ritual he had come to enjoy.

The girl saw him and gasped. She ran to the shelf, snatched the toy soldier, and hurried back to the workshop. She tried to press the toy into his hands; when he would not move to take it, she rested it reverently at his feet. Eyes watering, she kissed his forehead. She skipped around the room, making a circuitous route back to her bed.

The moment she lay down there came a knock at the door. It would be the man with the oily beard. Farah didn’t like him, so neither did Grand.

The conversation in the kitchen ceased. The man was perplexed, the woman terrified. He rose to answer the door. She dragged at him, pleaded with him, but he shook himself free.

Before the man could reach the door, it opened on its own. In strode oily-beard, tucking a key into his pocket.

The young man’s shock gave way to fury. His face turned red, then ugly purple. He pushed his wife away, and the other man laughed at him. They traded angry words.

The young man moved to strike the other, who was much bigger than him. His wife hung from his arm, shrieking.

Oily-beard didn’t hesitate. He bowled the young man to the ground and began punching, punching. Blood flew from his knuckles and flecked the floor.

The woman shouted and tore her hair. The old man rose and watched from the doorway, hands shaking. But little Farah charged.

It was insanity. There was nothing the girl could do to hurt a man that size, and yet she screamed defiance and pummeled with her useless little fists. She leapt on his back, biting and clawing like a wild thing.

Oily-beard grabbed a fistful of Farah’s hair and dragged her off him. He tossed her roughly, and she tumbled across the floor.

The girl climbed to her feet, heedless of her hurts, and again she charged.

This time the man was ready for her. He stopped her with a backhand that sent her sprawling. He stalked over and kicked her.

The woman screamed. Farah rolled on the ground, clutching her belly.

Grand’s stony flesh tingled, his hands trembling like a human’s. His crystal heart flared with an unpleasant new sensation. He had never felt it before, but he knew its name.

Rage.

Not caring if he was seen, Grand swung off the edge of the desk, dangling by one hand. He yanked the hidden drawer so hard that it broke loose. The coins tumbled past, but he snatched the crystal before it could fall.

With one arm he hurled himself back onto the desk, rolling to his feet. He brushed away tools, junk, and priceless relics, searching frantically. And then he found it.

Grand slammed the crystal into the light-drill. He wheeled around and pulled the trigger.

As the big man aimed another kick, a searing beam raked his chest, charring clothes and flesh. He looked down in wide-eyed astonishment, sank to his knees, and fell. Curling black smoke rose from the wound.

The woman and old man both rushed to Farah, cradling her protectively. The young man, nose smashed and lips split, struggled to sit up. He spat a bloody spray at the corpse.

Farah curled, whimpering, against the old man. The woman looked at him, eyebrows arched. The old man shrugged and pointed at the workshop.

The woman picked up a candle and walked cautiously to the workshop door. She held the light inside and peered around the corner.

Guiltily, Grand dropped the light-drill, drawing the woman’s gaze.

She saw the toy soldier, and then she saw his face. Her knees buckled and her eyes rolled back into her head. She dropped, limp as the dead man.

They buried the corpse in the goat field, and did not speak of it again.

The next day the woman refused to look at Grand, refused to remain in the house with him. She screamed and shrieked and wailed, casting an accusing finger at him. Nothing would console her. Nothing would satisfy her, except for him to be gone.

Reluctantly, against Farah’s tears and protests, the young man returned Grand to the sack in which he’d arrived. The old man frowned, but did not object. They took Grand back to the collector and sold him. They bartered eagerly and settled for a poor sum, despite the beauty of his new face.

After they left, the collector smiled to himself, pleased with his acquisition. He placed Grand in a box and sealed the lid.

Alone in the dark, Grand sulked.

Again he had failed. He had thrown away his chance at escape, risked his own survival, all to save a flesh-thing. He, who had toppled their cities, cracked the very earth to kill them by the thousands.

What had changed?

For centuries, the Master’s truth had been Grand’s truth. Utility was value, and the flesh-things served no function. They were as random as lichen growing on rock, with no purpose but to exist and to spread. Their rampant variation was an affront to the blessed uniformity of stone.

So why had he chosen Farah over himself?

Maybe Grand was broken, delusional. Maybe, in the Master’s silence, he had finally heard his own thoughts.

Or maybe he simply preferred Farah’s truths to his own.

To Farah, uniqueness wasn’t error. It was beauty, something to be treasured. It was the only purple flower in a field. And though she had no Master to guide her, to give her life meaning, she still had purpose. Grand understood this now.

Like the garland, like the jasper, she was a gift – something brought into the world to make it a little brighter. A gift was its own purpose.

It was a dangerous thought, this idea of purpose without a Master, but it resonated with Grand like song to a stone. It was a thought rich with possibilities, and he had ample time to ponder them.

Grand reached into his mouth for a violet flower that had already begun to wilt. He clutched it and settled in to wait.

Your thoughts?