Students were marching that day through the center of the city, protesting a new law for the housing of prisoners’ souls. The young person who organized the march had written a very earnest note imploring Sor Ana to join them and speak against the proposal. Naturally, she had refused. A holy sister who had renounced the world outside the cloister could not very well turn around and play figurehead to a secular political movement. But politics was one thing, and personal opinion another, and so on the day of the march she left the Holiest House to go out to the city and watch the protesters pass by; it seemed the very least she could do.
At one time, not so long ago, a sister such as Sor Ana would have been required to seek permission well in advance to leave the cloister’s walls. An escort would have accompanied her, to protect her reputation and her chastity. Such things were no longer necessary for the souls that dwelled in Virenzia’s Holiest House. Sor Ana appreciated this reminder of the real, tangible good that had come of her work. Especially on this day, with the new law overhanging.
The Holiest House stood on the outskirts of the city, three miles away from the Citadel and the Plaza of Justice. The day was brisk and the wind whipped at the plain hooded cloak that Sor Ana did not need for warmth, but wore to disguise her recognizable form. The people of the city were still prone to staring when one of the holy sisters went by in their habits.
As she toiled up the cobblestone streets towards the marble of the Citadel, she noted that the toe of her left boot was beginning to wear at the tip. She would have to remember to get new ones for the next time she walked out into the city. Dust and dirt caused no end of difficulty to the mechanisms of her feet.
Once she reached the Citadel steps, the vibrant orchestra of city-sound took on a thundering underbeat. She stepped aside from the street and lined up with the others who were coming out of civil buildings and coffeeshops, curious to see the marchers go by.
The dull roar of the chanting did not resolve into intelligible words before the first of the marchers came into view. After that, Sor Ana had no attention to spare for any sensory input beyond the visual. Her glass eyes were fixed on the figure that marched mechanically at the very front between two students, wearing a scholar’s robe over its porcelain-enamel limbs, and carrying a large banner that read: “SHE MADE ME TO BE FREE.”
Sor Ana watched the figure until it was out of sight. She stood there long after the civil servants and the minor ministers and the students and supporters and protesters had all gone back inside to their desks and their audiences and their afternoon coffee. Only when it was approaching nightfall did the thousand tiny mechanisms that gave motion to her soul’s habit spin once more into life. She walked the three miles back to the Holiest House, taking care not to strain the wearing glue of her boot, and attempting, with limited success, to extinguish the ember of rage deep within her metal heart.
The next day, Sor Ana dispatched a letter. The following day, she received an almost offensively cordial reply, and on the third day she went out again, this time to the University. Twice in one week was notable for any holy sister. The porter of the Holiest House made a friendly joke about her busy social life as she passed by. Being in no mood for jokes, she ignored it.
It had been a long time since she had visited the University. Still, the porter recognized her at once, with visible surprise. “Doctora Salia! We’re honored –”
“Sor Ana,” she corrected. “I’m here to visit a student in the College of Scientific Soteriology. I know the way already.”
“Sor Ana, of course,” said the porter, deferentially, and Sor Ana proceeded down the familiar paths—though, of course, she had spent most of her time in this place walking on very different feet. Still, her metal ones carried her without needing much explicit guidance.
The last time she’d come to the University had been for the unveiling of her portrait, one of the few female faces staring down from a wall hung with notable graduates and professors. At some point over the intervening years, the armchairs in the main hall had been reupholstered in dignified blue instead of dignified red, but that was all the difference she could see.
She did not pause to look at the portrait as she passed it. It was a surprisingly good likeness, given that the artist had no longer had her original to work from at the time of the painting, but vanity was something she had put behind her long ago. In any case, she suspected was going to spend more than enough time looking at her own face today.
The designated meeting room sat off a hallway in the back of the College, and had a sign on it noting that it was reserved until vespers. Sor Ana knocked on the door, then, hearing no reply, opened it. She stood herself in a corner and locked the joints of her knees to wait.
A few minutes later, the door swung open again, without a preliminary knock.
Sor Ana did not recognize the young woman in student’s robes who came in first, but she suspected that she would have, had she been paying more attention to faces during the march. The suspicion was confirmed when the woman gave the perfunctory version of a student’s courtesy and said, “Good morning, Sor Ana, I’m Josefa Barnarda. We’ve corresponded before.”
“Indeed,” said Sor Ana. “I am glad to put a face to the name.” She looked beyond Josefa Barnarda to the figure that stood behind her. She was grateful for the pipes in her throat that produced a consistently even approximation of a voice, no matter what she might be thinking or feeling. If her soul had still been housed in weak flesh, rather than steel and porcelain, her knees might have bent, her heart might have stuttered. Her voice would most certainly have cracked.
But instead she stood calm and still, the inert material of the habit a prop for her unsteady spirit. “And I see,” she said, “you have brought your figurehead with you.”
The soul’s habit she wore now was simple and clean, lacking in curves and self-flattery; a holy sister had no need of such things. But she had been younger when she made the body that now walked into the room, self-propelled and horrifying, and extended its arms politely in a scholar’s bow before turning an idealized version of her own face back up to her.
“Good day, Sor Ana,” said the thing that was not her soul. “I am Doctora Aznieta Salia.”
“No,” said Sor Ana—just a soft breath of air emerging from her pipes. “You are not.”
She turned to look at Josefa Barnarda, who had flung herself casually into one of the open chairs and was now flopped in a most undignified position, back curled up against one arm and knee propped up against the other. “I was flattered when you asked me to march with you,” Sor Ana said. “I admit I’m less flattered when I see how easily I am replaced.”
Barnarda looked quite unabashed. “I still hope you will come to march with us, Sor Ana.”
“Marching alongside the construct, I suppose,” said Sor Ana, “holding a sign that reads ‘I MADE HER TO BE FREE?’ You’ve been putting words in my mouth. What on earth do you think freedom has to do with it?”
“I’ve read your early writings on the transference of souls into construct bodies more recently than you have, I suspect,” said Barnarda. She lifted the fingers of her right hand and began counting off on them: “Freedom from want, freedom from pain, freedom from the sins of the flesh, freedom from the desires of men—if I had a peseza for each usage, I could be a wealthy woman.” She dropped her hand again and smiled. “You did make her to be free, Sor Ana. But perhaps you’ve been free of all those things for so long that you don’t remember the need anymore.”
“Beautiful rhetoric,” said Sor Ana. “You have been well-trained, I’m sure. But you’re drawing, as you say, from very early writings, and that –” She nodded coldly towards the construct. “– is a very early work.”
Barnarda said, “The constructs they’ve designed to hold the prisoners’ souls aren’t anything like as well-made as she is.”
Sor Ana folded her hands together in front of her, forcing her form into a pose of serenity. “I approve no more than you do of the appropriation of the soul’s habit towards penal servitude. However, I also object to the appropriation of my face and my words towards a meaning I never intended. The soul’s habit is a sacred thing. Both you and the governing council of Virenzia would do well to remember that.”
“Well, I wish you would tell them that,” said Barnarda. “It would have a great deal more weight coming from you—people know who you are, you’re not just respected or famous, you’re holy. We’ve a much better chance of stopping this proposal with your support—and it’s an evil notion, Sor Ana, you must feel that. You must feel your own responsibility in it. Don’t you? I’d imagine a holy sister would, of all people.”
“Is that what this is?” said Sor Ana. “Blackmail? I break my vows of seclusion and discipline to speak in the way you would have me speak, and in exchange you return that thing to where it belongs and stop parading it around the town? Because I really don’t think –”
“Not at all,” protested Barnarda. “If the Doctora had been of your mind about joining the protests, I would not have pressed her.”
“On the contrary.” The construct’s piped voice came quietly out of the rose-tinted porcelain mouth. “I am very much of Sor Ana’s mind. It is one of the very few things I know of myself.” It gave a small, polite nod in Sor Ana’s direction. “The holy sister and I agree on the obscenity of forcing a soul into a construct that it did not choose. However, Sor Ana is bound by social contracts which do not apply to me. This being so, there seems no reason I should not seek to see if my voice may do some good.”
There it was again, the anger that served nothing and nobody—but how dare this child make a mockery of her, how dare she put words in Sor Ana’s own mouth! “I understand that students play pranks,” Sor Ana said, carefully. “I’m sure it may have seemed a clever notion, to make the construct walk and talk on its own, with no animating soul—to provide it with actions to perform and words to speak. You must have great technical skill—”
“I couldn’t take the credit for that.” Barnarda seemed incapable of letting her finish a sentence without interrupting. She must be a nightmare for her tutor. “The Doctora was nearly perfect as she was already. If she were only self-winding, there’d be hardly any difference between her and the current models. Honestly, Sor Ana, it’s absolutely true that you’re the greatest genius this college has ever produced. When the Doctora is just the prototype—”
Her eyes practically glowed with intellectual avarice as she looked at Sor Ana; her fingers gave a very slight twitch. One could say she was exhibiting restraint. During the first few days of Sor Ana’s tenure in her soul’s habit, practically every scholar in the College had seized her arm or spun her about with the intention of seeing for themselves how her machinery worked. It had, on occasion, occurred to some to ask permission first.
This was not why she had removed to the Holiest House—she had always intended to bring the transfigurative possibilities of the soul’s habit as a gift to the sisters there—but it had confirmed her resolve that she was correct to do so.
Barnarda did not ask permission to examine Sor Ana’s arm, but then, she must have known it would not be granted. She sighed, her fingers stilling. “Truly, I didn’t intend to animate her. I accepted what was written in your notes, that without the soul transference she was nothing but an early model. It wasn’t until I examined her closely that I saw that the material mentalities of the cranium had already been activated—and then, well—” She gave a small shrug, a halfhearted gesture towards an obligatory apology she clearly didn’t feel. “It looked too easy not to do it. You know.”
Sor Ana did know. There were many scholars in the College of Scientific Soteriology like this—young men, and a few young women, with no real draw towards divinity, loving the means of the work for its own sake with only the barest acknowledgment of the theological ends. She had always feared becoming one herself.
But it was not her responsibility to educate this child. “Regardless,” Sor Ana said, “you must deanimate her.”
Barnarda smiled. “I don’t think she would let me.”
“That’s correct,” said the construct. “I would not.”
Sor Ana had done very little to update the vocal mechanisms of the soul’s habit between the various prototypes. As the construct continued speaking, hearing the way its voice resembled hers was almost more discomfiting than seeing her own embarrassingly stylized face. “I fear you’re under a misconception, Sor Ana. Josefa has done nothing except correct a few minor mechanical inconsistencies and—er—wind me up, to allow for activation. She has not provided me with any animating principles. Those, as she has explained, were already in place when she retrieved me from the archives.”
“I suppose you can make her say anything,” said Sor Ana, to Barnarda, “but I don’t know how you expect me to believe –”
“The material mentalities were activated during your first attempted soul transference, Sor Ana,” said the construct. “It’s easy to prove this. Felivostia 3:12 – the text I engraved upon the needle that I used for the transference, the one that was destroyed in the attempt. I have confirmed that it is not in the documentation. Josefa could not have known of it until now. Nobody knows of it except myself.” It paused, cool glass eyes resting on Sor Ana. “Ourselves,” it corrected itself.
Slowly, Sor Ana turned her head back to the construct, and met its glass gaze with her own. “You are a construct,” she said. “You are a failed prototype. The soul transference failed. It is not possible that you contain my soul.”
“I am Doctora Aznieta Salia,” answered the construct. “That is all I know of the matter.”
There was a pause, and then the construct added, briskly, “But not, of course, all that I intend to find out. That I possess thought and free will—these facts are self-evident. A soul is harder to quantify. Perhaps I don’t have one. Perhaps there is only one soul belonging to Aznieta Salia, and it is yours. Perhaps a soul can be duplicated as well as transferred. Romero’s theories on gestational development of identical twins suggest a possibility along these lines, and might provide a fruitful avenue for investigation.” The voice was rattling along faster now, the pipes squeaking as they were pushed to the edge of their capabilities. Sor Ana remembered, as if from a long way away, that she had had this problem herself before learning to modulate the speed of her speech. “On the other hand, perhaps our initial line of research was wrong all along. Perhaps there was only one soul among us, and it was destroyed with the flesh of the incarnate Aznieta Salia during what you believe to have been your successful soul transference. Perhaps you and I are both something new—mental copies only rather than spiritual ones. Perhaps we are something unholy. It is certainly possible.”
The vocal pipes shrilled to a halt. Room, at last, for Sor Ana to speak. But she did not know what to say.
Barnarda was not so plagued. “And to think,” she said, to Sor Ana, “how I’ve heard the Doctora chastise me for rudeness.” She smirked: an invitation to share a joke, made cruel by the fact that she must have known it would not be accepted.
The construct’s black-draped shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “I don’t say this to distress the holy sister. But we are scholars, both of us. We must consider a range of theories in pursuit of the truth.”
“You mistake me,” said Sor Ana. “I am no longer a scholar.”
Glass eyes met glass eyes once again. “You have the mind of one,” said the construct, politely, “if not the soul.”
It was this small piece of viciousness, more than anything else, that forced Sor Ana into an unhappy kind of acknowledgment. She remembered these sharp edges, the blade that flashed out to attack almost at random before being tucking itself away again behind the scholar’s calm visage. She had been so young when she attempted to transfer her soul into this first construct, all her best intentions all tangled up in brilliance and bitterness; she had not been the same woman, wiser and more tired, who had perfected the soul’s habit five years later. Still less was she the same person now, but all the same, she remembered, and she recognized.
She acknowledged, but she did not have to accept. She drew her belief up around her like a second habit, willing herself to remain faithful and unmoved. She knew who and what she was.
“Thank you for the audience,” she said, “and for the introduction. I see now it is not so simple as I thought. You have given me a great deal to consider.”
Josefa Barnarda hopped up from where she’d been lounging. “I’ll walk you out.”
“I’m afraid we distracted ourselves somewhat from the original topic,” said Barnarda, as she walked her back through the halls of the College, “which I suppose is my own fault. But I wanted to make sure we had the opportunity to discuss at least a little before you left, Sor Ana. The treatment of prisoners in this city is abominable enough without the additional violation of forcing their souls into constructs for the convenience of the state’s coffers –”
The speech that Barnarda proceeded to give bore a great deal of resemblance to the first letter that she had written to Sor Ana several weeks ago, though she delivered it better in person. Sor Ana wondered how Barnarda found herself with so much time to concern herself with current affairs. When Sor Ana had been a student, she had barely left her room in her determination to ensure that she would remain at the top of all of her classes, and that no excuse could be found to remove her from the rolls. Of course there were more women students now than there had been at that time. And perhaps Barnarda had some personal reason for being so passionately interested in the treatment of prisoners beyond an abstract notion of injustice; a brother convicted, or a father—but this was no particular business of Sor Ana’s, and she set the question aside. She had other concerns.
“On the topic of the construct,” she said, when the first break in Barnarda’s monologue presented itself. “You call her the Doctora, she speaks of pursuing scholarship—have you presented her to the College yet?” They were walking out of the hall as she spoke, her boots clattering on the steps that led down to the open quad. “I do keep abreast of current research around scientific soteriology, at least as regards its applicability to the Holy Sisters. I would have noticed a publication regarding your work.”
Barnarda gave her a sidelong glance. “The Doctora and I are co-authoring a paper, but we don’t expect for it to be published for some time. She’s building her case to be allowed to resume her former position –”
“My former position,” said Sor Ana.
“– and continue her work on the research questions we discussed earlier, but she wants to make sure it’s water-tight before we present it publicly.” Sor Ana was not surprised to hear this. It felt in character. “Until then, she marches, and joins my friends and I when we meet, but is otherwise content to remain a woman of mystery.”
“I imagine she rather enjoys that,” said Sor Ana. Barnarda looked a little startled, and then grinned.
They were coming up to the gatehouse now, at the entrance to the University. “Well,” Barnarda said, “your visit’s appreciated, and I’m happy to keep you apprised of our work, if you’re interested. If you ever change your mind about speaking against the proposal –”
“I have, actually,” Sor Ana said to Barnarda, and then turned to the porter. “Excuse me, but before I leave, I have a concern to report.”
The porter sprang upright. “Sor Ana?”
“In third meeting room in the College of Scientific Soteriology,” said Sor Ana, “there’s an artifact that’s been removed from my archives at the University without my approval or, I imagine, the University’s.” Barnarda’s face went pale parchment-brown; Sor Ana reached out and locked a porcelain hand around her wrist. “The artifact contains complex clockwork. I would recommend locking the door of the meeting room to ensure it winds down entirely before returning it to the Archives.”
“Don’t listen!” shouted Barnarda. She was struggling against Sor Ana’s shackling grip; Sor Ana locked her knees to prevent being pulled off-balance. “The person in that room is a professor of this College! You can’t just let her run down like –”
“Students frequently become carried away with the zeal of their studies,” said Sor Ana. The porter swung his gaze back to her from Barnarda, clearly relieved to be hearing a voice of reasonable authority. “It’s understandable. I don’t intend to make a personal complaint about the theft.”
“—she’s not a faulty clock, she’s the same as you! Doctora Salia, how can you do this? She’s the same as—”
“If you don’t find the artifact in the third meeting room,” said Sor Ana, “she will be in the personal chambers of Josefa Barnarda.”
“I’ll see it’s taken care of, Sor Ana,” said the porter. He bowed, cast one last uneasy glance at Barnarda, and then hastened away towards the College.
“No!” Barnarda had found a loose stone from under the gate; now she smashed it against Sor Ana’s imprisoning hand. The porcelain cracked, but the underlying metal and gears held firm.
Sor Ana gave Barnarda’s arm a small shake. “Josefa Barnarda,” she said, sternly. “Get a hold of yourself. You are making yourself a spectacle in the University.”
Barnarda stared at her. She was blinking too fast. Tears of grief, or frustration—Sor Ana, long distant from any such thing, wondered which they were. “A spectacle? You just condemned a thinking creature with free will –”
“I took responsibility,” said Sor Ana, “for something I created, which had the potential to cause great harm.”
It was all too easy to imagine: scholars seizing on the evidence of the Doctora, arguing that the sisters of the Holiest House were not in fact human souls incarnate in a sinless form, but only copies—only constructs—without rights and without sanctity. The Doctora herself, pursuing her research without concern for the consequences; a woman who had not yet learned the calm of the Holiest House, and the peace that quieted the scholar’s never-ending questions. A woman who did not understand that she had been made to pursue salvation, and who thought merely that she had been made to be free.
She looked at Josefa Barnarda, and tried to infuse her voice with gentleness, though she knew the sound of her pipes came out the same way that it always did. “You were right, and I was wrong. I cannot stand back and let the things I created be used for evil intent. I will speak against the proposal for the habiting of prisoners’ souls.”
“Do you think,” spat Barnarda, “that if you do what I wanted you to do, I’ll let what you’ve done to her pass?”
“No,” said Sor Ana. She released her grip on Barnarda’s wrist. It was too late now; Barnarda couldn’t get there before the porter, and they both knew it. “What you think is not my concern. I know now what my duty is, that’s all.”
She gave Josefa Barnarda a small, polite bow. The student was impudent, short-sighted, and misguided—much as she herself had once been—but one ought to acknowledge a person who has taught you something. “Thank you,” she said.
Then she turned and walked back down the street, away from the College. She had not had time to get her boots fixed, and she could still feel the wearing along the sole. Small shattered pieces of porcelain rattled around the inside of her hand, providing a percussive underbeat to her steps. The damage would be costly to fix, and the repairs imperfect, but after all, it was well known that even a habited soul could not achieve perfection. Only the gods could do that. For a human being, there was, there could only be, the endless striving after it.
|Rebecca Fraimow is an author and archivist living in Boston whose short fiction has been featured in venues such as PodCastle, Daily Science Fiction, and Diabolical Plots, as well as anthologies such as Consolation Songs: Speculative Fiction for a Time of Pandemic and The Long List: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List. For more information about Rebecca’s work, visit rebeccafraimow.com.|