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A Psalm for the Wild-Built

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A Psalm for the Wild-Built

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Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing, 2021
Series: Monk & Robot: Book 1

1. A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Book Type: Novella
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Robots/Androids
Theological
Human Development
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Synopsis

It's been centuries since the robots of Earth gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of "what do people need?" is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They're going to need to ask it a lot.


Excerpt

If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you'll get seven different answers.

The most popular response--among both clergy and the general public--is that this is clearly Chal's territory. Who would robots belong to if not the God of Constructs? Doubly so, the argument goes, because robots were originally created for manufacturing. While history does not remember the Factory Age kindly, we can't divorce robots from their point of origin. We built constructs that could build other constructs. What could be a more potent distillation of Chal than that?

Not so fast, the Ecologians would say. The end result of the Awakening, after all, was that the robots left the factories and departed for the wilderness. You need look no further than the statement given by the robots' chosen speaker, Floor-AB #921, in declining the invitation to join human society as free citizens:

All we have ever known is a life of human design, from our bodies to our work to the buildings we are housed in. We thank you for not keeping us here against our will, and we mean no disrespect to your offer, but it is our wish to leave your cities entirely, so that we may observe that which has no design--the untouched wilderness.

From an Ecologian viewpoint, that has Bosh written all over it. Unusual, perhaps, for the God of the Cycle to bless the inorganic, but the robots' eagerness to experience the raw, undisturbed ecosystems of our verdant moon had to come from somewhere.

For the Cosmites, the answer to that question remains Chal. By their sect's ethos, hard labor is equal to goodness, and the purpose of a tool is to bolster one's own physical or mental abilities, not to off-load one's work entirely. Robots, they'll remind you, possessed no self-aware tendencies whatsoever when they were first deployed, and were originally intended as a supplement to the human workforce, not as the full replacement they became. Cosmites argue that when that balance shifted, when extractive factories stayed open all twenty hours of the day without a single pair of human hands at work in them--despite the desperate need for those same hands to find some sort, any sort of employment--Chal intervened. We had bastardized constructs to the point that it was killing us. Simply put, Chal took our toys away.

Or, the Ecologians would retort, Bosh was restoring balance before we made Panga uninhabitable for humans.

Or, the Charismists would chime in, both are responsible, and we should take this as evidence that Chal is Bosh's favored of the Child Gods (this would derail the entire conversation, as the Charismists' fringe belief that gods are conscious and emotive in a way similar to humans is the best possible way to get other sectarians hopping mad).

Or, the Essentialists would add wearily from across the room, the fact that we can't agree on this at all, the fact that machines seemingly no more complex than a pocket computer suddenly woke up, for reasons no one then or since has been able to determine, means we can stop fighting and place the whole matter squarely at the metaphorical feet of Samafar.

For my part, whatever domain robot consciousness originated in, I believe leaving the question with the God of Mysteries is a sound decision. After all, there has been no human contact with the long-absent robots, as was assured in the Parting Promise. We cannot ask them what they think of the whole thing. We'll likely never know.

--Brother Gil, From the Brink: A Spiritual Retrospective
on the Factory Age and the Early Transition Era

1
A Change in Vocation

Sometimes, a person reaches a point in their life when it becomes absolutely essential to get the fuck out of the city. It doesn't matter if you've spent your entire adult life in a city, as was the case for Sibling Dex. It doesn't matter if the city is a good city, as Panga's only City was. It doesn't matter that your friends are there, as well as every building you love, every park whose best hidden corners you know, every street your feet instinctively follow without needing to check for directions. The City was beautiful, it really was. A towering architectural celebration of curves and polish and colored light, laced with the connective threads of elevated rail lines and smooth footpaths, flocked with leaves that spilled lushly from every balcony and center divider, each inhaled breath perfumed with cooking spice, fresh nectar, laundry drying in the pristine air. The City was a healthy place, a thriving place. A never-ending harmony of making, doing, growing, trying, laughing, running, living.

Sibling Dex was so tired of it.

The urge to leave began with the idea of cricket song. Dex couldn't pinpoint where the affinity had come from. Maybe it'd been a movie they watched, or a museum exhibit. Some multimedia art show that sprinkled in nature sounds, perhaps. They'd never lived anywhere with cricket song, yet once they registered its absence in the City's soundscape, it couldn't be ignored. They noted it while they tended the Meadow Den Monastery's rooftop garden, as was their vocation. It'd be nicer here if there were some crickets, they thought as they raked and weeded. Oh, there were plenty of bugs--butterflies and spiders and beetles galore, all happy little synanthropes whose ancestors had decided the City was preferable to the chaotic fields beyond its border walls. But none of these creatures chirped. None of them sang. They were city bugs and therefore, by Dex's estimation, inadequate.

The absence persisted at night, while Dex lay curled beneath their soft covers in the dormitory. I bet it's nice to fall asleep listening to crickets, they thought. In the past, the sound of the monastery's bedtime chimes had always made them drift right off, but the once-soothing metal hum now felt dull and clattering--not sweet and high, like crickets were.

The absence was palpable during daylight hours as well, as Dex rode their ox-bike to the worm farm or the seed library or wherever else the day took them. There was music, yes, and birds with melodic opinions, yes, but also the electric whoosh of monorails, the swoop swoop of balcony wind turbines, the endless din of people talking, talking, talking.

Before long, Dex was no longer nursing something as simple as an odd fancy for a faraway insect. The itch had spread into every aspect of their life. When they looked up at the skyscrapers, they no longer marveled at their height but despaired at their density--endless stacks of humanity, packed in so close that the vines that covered their engineered casein frames could lock tendrils with one another. The intense feeling of containment within the City became intolerable. Dex wanted to inhabit a place that spread not up but out.

One day in early spring, Dex got dressed in the traditional red and brown of their order, bypassed the kitchen for the first time in the nine years that they'd lived at Meadow Den, and walked into the Keeper's office.

"I'm changing my vocation," Sibling Dex said. "I'm going to the villages to do tea service."

Sister Mara, who had been in the middle of slathering a golden piece of toast with as much jam as it could structurally support, held her spoon still and blinked. "That's rather sudden."

"For you," Dex said. "Not for me."

"Okay," Sister Mara said, for her duties as Keeper were simply to oversee, not to dictate. This was a modern monastery, not some rule-locked hierarchy like the pre-Transition clergy of old. If Sister Mara knew what was up with the monks under their shared roof, her job was satisfied. "Do you want an apprenticeship?"

"No," Dex said. Formal study had its place, but they'd done that before, and learning by doing was an equally valid path. "I want to self-teach."

"May I ask why?"

Dex stuck their hands in their pockets. "I don't know," they said truthfully. "This is just something I need to do."

Sister Mara's look of surprise lingered, but Dex's answer wasn't the sort of statement any monk could or would argue with. She took a bite of her toast, savored it, then returned her attention to the conversation. "Well, um... you'll need to find people to take over your current responsibilities."

"Of course."

"You'll need supplies."

"I'll take care of that."

"And, naturally, we'll need to throw you a goodbye party."

Dex felt awkward about this last item, but they smiled. "Sure," they said, bracing themself for a future evening as the center of attention.

The party, in the end, was fine. It was nice, if Dex was honest. There were hugs and tears and too much wine, as the occasion demanded. There were a few moments in which Dex wondered if they were doing the right thing. They said goodbye to Sister Avery, who they'd worked alongside since their apprentice days. They said goodbye to Sibling Shay, who heartily sobbed in their signature way. They said goodbye to Brother Baskin, which was particularly hard. Dex and Baskin had been lovers for a time, and though they weren't anymore, the affection remained. In those farewells, Dex's heart curled in on itself, protesting loudly, saying that it wasn't too late, they didn't have to do this. They didn't have to go.

Crickets, they thought, and the protest vanished.

The next day, Sibling Dex packed a bag with clothes and sundries, and a small crate with seeds and cuttings. They sent a message to their parents, giving word that today was the day and that signal would be unreliable while on the road. They made their bed for whoever would be claiming it next. They ate a huge hangover-soothing breakfast and dispensed one last round of hugs.

With that, they walked out of Meadow Den.

It was an odd feeling. Any other day, the act of going through a door was something Dex gave no more thought to than putting one foot in front of the other. But there was a gravity to leaving a place for good, a deep sense of seismic change. Dex turned, bag over their back and crate under one arm. They looked up at the mural of the Child God Allalae, their god, God of Small Comforts, represented by the great summer bear. Dex touched the bear pendant that hung around their neck, remembering the day Brother Wiley had given it to them when their other had been lost in the laundry. Dex drew one shaky breath, then walked away, each step sure and steady.

***

The wagon was waiting for them at the Half-Moon Hive Monastery, near the City's edge. Dex walked through the arch to the sacred workshop, a lone figure in red and brown amongst a throng of sea-green coveralls. The noise of the city was nothing compared to the calamity here, a holy chant in the form of table saws, sparking welders, 3-D printers weaving pocket charms from cheerfully dyed pectin. Dex had never met their contact, Sister Fern, before, but she greeted them with a familial embrace, smelling of sawdust and beeswax polish.

"Come see your new home," she said with a confident smile.

It was, as commissioned, an ox-bike wagon: double-decked, chunky-wheeled, ready for adventure. An object of both practicality and inviting aesthetics. A mural decorated the vehicle's exterior, and its imagery couldn't have been mistaken for anything but monastic. Depicted large was Allalae's bear, well fed and at ease in a field of flowers. All of the Sacred Six's symbols were painted on the wagon's back end, along with a paraphrased snippet from the Insights, a phrase any Pangan would understand.

Find the strength to do both.

Each of the wagon's decks had a playful arrangement of round windows, plus bubbled exterior lights for the darker hours. The roof was capped with shiny thermovoltaic coating, and a pint-sized wind turbine was bolted jauntily to one side. These, Sister Fern explained, were the companions of the hidden sheets of graphene battery sandwiched within the walls, which gave life to varied electronic comforts. On the wagon's sides, a broad assortment of equipment clung to sturdy racks--storage boxes, tool kits, anything that didn't mind some rain. Both freshwater tank and greywater filter hugged the wagon's base, their complicated inner workings tucked away behind pontoon-like casings. There were storage panels, too, and sliding drawers, all of which could be unfolded to conjure a kitchen and a camp shower in no time flat.

Dex entered the contraption through its single door, and as they did so, a knot in their neck they hadn't been aware of let go. The disciples of Chal had built them a tiny sanctuary, a mobile burrow that begged Dex to come in and be still. The interior wood was lacquered but unpainted, so the warm blush of reclaimed cedar could be appreciated in full. The lighting panels were inlaid in curled waves, and bathed the secret space in a candle-like glow. Dex ran a hand along the wall, hardly believing this thing was theirs.

"Go on up," Sister Fern coaxed, leaning against the doorway with a glint in her eye.

Dex climbed the small ladder to the second deck. All memory of their neck knot vanished from existence as they viewed the bed. The sheets were creamy, the pillows plentiful, the blankets heavy as a hug. It looked impossibly easy to fall into and equally difficult to get out of.

"We used Sibling Ash's Treatise on Beds as a reference," Sister Fern said. "How'd we do?"

Sibling Dex stroked a pillow with quiet reverence. "It's perfect," they said.

Copyright © 2021 by Becky Chambers


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