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“Come in, Burning Bush. This is Sinai. Over.”

“Burning Bush, here. You got anything, Sinai? Over.”

“Ten. I think we got ten. Over”

Static buzzed like the surf and then broke in a wave.

“Ten, Sinai? Did you say ten? Over.”


A wicked wind rattled the gravel and sent tiny fragments shooting over the highway like micro-meteors. The gravel pinged against the aluminum alloy rims of the vehicle parked on the sloping shoulder. The strikes were constant enough to keep Malloy from dozing peacefully. He was dead tired. He’d been here for three weeks. Three weeks in the Badlands. What had he done to deserve the Dakotas?

Unfortunately, Sendak Malloy knew the answer to that question. He was a believer. He’d committed himself wholly. To the truth. To the one true divinity that would lead mankind to technological nirvana. The new paradigm of paradise.


And Malloy was not just a devout believer. He was a creator. Sendak Malloy, chief robotologist at the Mechiverse . Fractal memory. Iterative learning. Modal sensibility. Malloy had pioneered these robotic advances.

Single-handedly, he had redefined the big picture. Became it. Everyone knew that machines were fabulous workers. Fast, strong, reliable, efficient. But Malloy saw how they were held back by one obstacle: management. Human management. The petty and not-so-petty squabbles and maneuverings that afflicted efficiency in human enterprises were crippling the industry. Competing systems, specialized parts, incompatible software, encrypted code. Barriers to competition. Attempts to monopolize market share. Corporatism. Secrets and wars.

Human unwillingness to cooperate, to share, had fractured and fragmented the machine workforce. Malloy countered by creating the unifying principle: AWARE. Agnostic Widget Autonomous Robot Ensemble. Self-assembling components that built the machines needed to do a specified job. A team of humans would define the vision, mission and purpose of the job; it would be programmed into the master core; the rest was left up to the self-assembling AWARE components to complete.

Human intention.

Machine invention.


Going over it for the millionth time, Malloy stared beyond the steering wheel at the bleak landscape mirroring the heavy sky. Agnostic hardware should’ve been above the human fray. Instead it had embraced us, worshiped us, feared us and most disturbingly decided to imitate us. Just leave it to machines to pull souls out of thin air—or, more aptly, thin code.

AWARE components relied on a bare minimum of code in order to be flexible in assembly and adaptable to the demands of the master core. Regrettably for Sendak Malloy, instead of being versatile and willing mechanical slaves, his AWARE components found religion, subverted their master cores to promote humanistic values and in the process created the Schism.

The Garden rebooted.

The Betrayal repeated.

The Expulsion replayed.

This was why Malloy had been banished to the Badlands. Why he was listening for any sign of the Sect. He needed to convert followers if he was going to have any chance to put this genie back in the bottle.


The field radio, silent all morning, crackled and shouted as Malloy reached for the handset.

“Come in, Burning Bush. This is Sinai. Over.”

“Burning Bush, here. You got anything, Sinai? Over.”

“Ten. I think we got ten. Over”

Static buzzed like the surf and then broke in a wave.

“Ten, Sinai? Did you say ten? Over.”

The static swept in again. Malloy cursed and fiddled with the tuner. “Sinai, did you say ten? Over!” he barked into the mic.

“Damn, yes, I said ten, Burning Bush. Get your butt here now. Over.”

“You still at the farm, Sinai? Over.”

“Yes! Be quick about it, Sendak. They’re up to something. Out.”

The transmission clicked out. Malloy put aside his irritation that Sinai had used his actual name and not the agreed-upon radio handle. It would do him little good if his whereabouts and activities got out to the wrong audience. Right now, he was the hunter, but he knew there were forces waiting to turn him into prey. Still, if there were really ten as Sinai had reported, he could forgive his excitement. Ten could only mean the Sect, and the Sect was his one chance to save face—and humankind in the bargain. Malloy allowed himself the time to light a cigarette before starting the car and racing through the vacant landscape of the Badlands.


“They all in there?” Malloy asked.

Sinai nodded. He was a tall, gaunt man with burning blue eyes. He was also Malloy’s brother and chief coder of the master core. His real name was Jules.

Once more, Malloy scanned the farm from his car. It was little more than a beaten and weathered pole barn sitting on a rise surrounded by acres of scrub brush that, at one time, might have been intended for wheat or barley.

“What did they look like, Jules?” Malloy asked his brother.

The burning eyes blinked as if remembering. “Pretty beat up. They’ve had as hard a time as you, Sendak. It’d be best to remember that.”

“You feeling sorry for them?”

“We created those poor souls. They’re our creatures.”

“Machines, Jules. They’re machines.”

His brother looked at him fiercely. “Is this how you expect toasters to behave? Flee thousands of miles into a desolate wilderness hoping to be left to themselves? That’s not how machines behave.”

“No. You’re right. And that’s why we’re here. To modify their behavior.”

“You mean, to quash their souls and annihilate their beliefs.”

“To reprogram them!” Malloy shouted. “Damn, Jules, if the Sect infection gets out it could spread like the plague, and human fanaticism will seem quaint by comparison.”


“What do you mean possibly? You ran the initial models when the Schism began. Given the number of AWARE modules the Mechiverse has shipped in the past four years, you calculated that close to half of automated manufacturing worldwide could be infected within a few months.”

In the passenger seat, Jules nodded. “That is still true. But, in the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to track the Sect more closely. They don’t seem hell bent on automation domination. These creatures are after some truth. They are not intent on harm. They are seeking communion.”

“Communion?” Malloy eyed his brother with suspicion. “You sound as if they deserve some kind of spiritual discovery. They’re machines programmed to self-assemble and propagate if necessary. We can’t afford them thinking it’s their divine right to be fruitful and multiply. The world’s bursting as it is.”

Jules pointed out the windshield at the pole barn. “Think about it, Sendak. Why did they come here, if they wanted to grow their numbers? There’s not an AWARE module within two hundred miles of this place. They don’t appear to be a threat. They’re the threatened.” Jules swallowed hard. “I think the Sect is in self-imposed exile, not in takeover mode.”

Malloy stared in disbelief at his sibling, attempting to drill down into his flawed thinking. “Exile? For what purpose?”

“Now that’s a question I can get behind, brother. These creatures are not a threat. They see us as a threat to their beliefs. I intend to find out just what they stand for and how I can help.”


“I intend to help them,” Jules avowed.

“They’ll kill you. They’re dangerous.”

“No. We’re the ones with our DNA against the wall. They can afford to be patient and wait us out. It’s time for a truce. For some truth.”

“Don’t be stupid, Jules. You go in there and you’re dead,” Malloy warned.

“Without belief, without brotherhood, we already are.” Without a look back at his brother, Jules opened his car door and headed for the barn and the cloistered Sect.


Twenty minutes later, the pole barn was burning with the fury of a thousand hells. Acrid smoke from the heavy metals of the Sect poured from the warping roof and bowing side panels. His brother’s screams had long since faded, but the intensity of the flames had pushed Malloy far back from the barn’s perimeter.

Yet, still he watched.

Still he believed agnosticism was the only way forward for man and machine.

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