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The Golem of Central City

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It was a book in his father’s library. The Golem, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was out of place, not stacked neatly like the other books, but instead tucked awkwardly behind the book Aaron had been planning to read.

Aaron picked up the book. It was small and light, a matter of seconds for him to read. It was a simple story.

The golem, Joseph, was a person who wasn’t a human. He’d been made by a human, Rabbi Lieb, to defend the people with his exceptional strength.

“But take care that he should not fall into the follies of flesh and blood.”

Joseph was set to work on another task, helping the poor by moving a heavy boulder.

Aaron liked that bit. He liked the idea of protecting people and being able to help them with his strength. His dad seemed nicer than Rabbi Lieb, though.

Joseph had letters on his head, in the same place where Aaron did, although Aaron wore a second face over it, so no one could see.

(The golem had one of the names of the rabbi’s God written on his head, though, while Aaron had the letters and numbers X-51, which represented one of his own names.)

The rabbi asked the Joseph to do more than he was created for. Joseph became able to disobey. He tried to be like a human. He drank. He had a romance with a human woman. He causes a lot of trouble, because he was strong and couldn’t control himself.

In the end, Joseph got drunk and fell asleep, and the rabbi deactivated him by taking away the words on his head. He turned into nothing but a lump of clay.

Aaron thought it was a sad book. If Jospeh had a loving father like Aaron’s, he’d know what to do. He wouldn’t drink, or chase human women, or do things that got him into trouble. He’d learn how to behave, and do clever things like cancelling the gravity equation so he could fly.

And if Joseph acted difficult, a loving father would explain his mistakes to him patiently, like Aaron’s dad did the time he tried to heat-clean all of the dishes with his hand weapon system. (It had seemed logical that if he burned the organic matter until it was dry ashes, instead of a sticky damp mess, the ceramic plates would remain unharmed, and would benefit from being thoroughly sterilized. He’d forgotten to account for the proximity of the curtains.

Still, he’d only been two weeks old. Everyone probably did embarrassing things at that age.)

There was a message on the back, written in pen.

To Abel, In honor of your new son. - Oliver.

Aaron stared at it. The only Oliver he could think of was Dr. Broadhurst. And Aaron was, obviously, his father’s only son.

But why would Dr. Broadhurst give Aaron’s dad this book?

Aaron set the book back where he found it, and picked up the book he originally came for, Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

It made more sense than some story about a god and a magic man brought to life out of clay.

(Fiction tended to be weird, although Aaron thought The Little Engine That Could was the best story ever written.)

Golems had their termination mechanisms on their foreheads, visible to the world. Wipe it away and they turned back into clay.

Robots had theirs on the back of the neck, known to only a select few. Deactivate it incorrectly and it would kill you.

Aaron, alone in the world, doing more than he was ever created for, tried not to fall into the follies of flesh and blood.

He avoided getting involved with the human women at work - Pamela, who gave him confusing feelings, and Maggie, who simply frightened him.

The first drink he had was at an office party, where Eddie tricked him into a cocktail that was stronger than it looked. (The golem, Joseph, was tricked by a serving girl into drinking wine until he fell asleep.)

When Aaron came to, he was touching his forehead, as if to reassure himself the word was still there.

(He knew his word didn't mean that, didn't work like that, but human stories had a way of insinuating themselves into the brain.

Aaron didn’t obsess over golem stories. He didn’t spend much time reading them.

It was just that, with a mind like his, it didn’t take much time for him to collect what humans considered a lot of knowledge.

There were several variations of golem stories. Some couldn’t speak. (Unlike Aaron, who’d learned twenty languages in his spare time, with a vocabulary of thirty thousand words in each language.)

Many were clumsy and lacked intelligence. (Two qualities that no one could claim about Aaron.)

Some grew bigger and bigger, in defiance of all physics, until they were so big they would destroy the universe.

One, he remembered, was made of wood and door hinges.  That one was female.  (It came into his head, sometimes at night, the thought of a female who was built strong and solid like him.)

There were golems who were good and compliant as long as they stayed in the house, and it was only when they left their creator’s homes that they ran amok.

There were golems made for the defense of the community, to fight the battles the humans did not want to fight. They ran wild and turned violent when they tried to take on any other role. 

One golem cried pitifully when he learned he didn’t have a mother.

(Aaron never had a mother in any sense of the word. He didn’t feel sad about the idea, but there was a sort of wistful curiosity about what it would mean if “mother” wasn’t just an abstraction, but someone as real and specific as his dad.)

There weren’t human women.

There was Jocasta.

She was unlike human women with their weird textures and moist, organic fluids. She was bright, clean metal, mathematically perfect curves, and a sharp, calculating mind.

She was perfect.

Aaron would have married her.

If she’d lived.

Aaron used his strength to help the humans.

He protected the vulnerable and the persecuted from the powerful and cruel.

He suffered damage to his mechanical brain, but was able to control himself and not run wild for long enough that a friend could open up his head and put it back together.

He became a reserve Avenger.

He tried to be good enough that the humans would stop expecting the worst. He tried to be a trustworthy man, intelligent and compassionate, and a true hero.

He tried to prove his worth.

And then some corrupted code ate into his head, and he went violently out of control just the same.

For the first time in a long time, Aaron thought of the story of Rabbi Lieb, and of Joseph, who was destroyed.

His thoughts were cutting in and out, with blanks that ended with him awakening in a pile of rubble.  

But Aaron thought of the story of Joseph, and his rabbi.

And he thought of his self-destruct mechanism, which his father had taken away.

You made a mistake, Dad. They were all right about me. You should have let me die.

He’d thought Rabbi Lieb had it wrong, destroying Joseph like that. But Rabbi Lieb was alive at the end of the tale. Rabbi Lieb was there to end things when Joseph needed it.

Aaron had tried everything he could think of. He’d tried asking for help. He’d tried getting far away from anyone he could hurt. He’d tried all of the willpower he had, but he could feel bits of himself falling away and being devoured by the Sentinel programming.

If his father had been more like Rabbi Lieb, he’d end this. He’d reach up and touch Aaron’s head, wiping away his life, and letting him dissolve into nothing, where he couldn’t hurt anyone.

But his father was dead, and Aaron was alone.

He had to end this himself.

He blew himself up.

It didn't work.

He’d tried to destroy the golem, but it didn’t work.

Nothing he was supposed to do worked.

No one ever told the story of what happened when the golem stayed alive. No one talked about fighting your way free and then waking up with ragged holes in your memory and a trail of destruction and shattered trust left in your wake.

Humans didn’t take risks like that for mere things.

Aaron had no story.

He had no role.

He didn’t belong anywhere on this world anymore.

When the monolith came, offering him a reason to leave, part of what he felt was a relief.

Aaron had never believed in gods in the sense humans did, but he believed in godlike beings.

Well, he’d met Thor.

But the whole concept made sense to him in a way that human religion didn’t. There wasn’t a single mind that had brought the universe into being.

But there were minds.

And there were differences in scale.

There could be beings with minds as far beyond his as his was beyond a human’s. Beings of vast cosmic wisdom, who’d watched the birth of galaxies and the death of civilizations. Beings who thought long, profound thoughts that would take a lifetime to understand.

And he wanted to know those thoughts.

It turned out they thought he was a☠☠☠☠.

After that, follies of flesh and blood started to sound pretty good to him.

He drank.

He mades sexual remarks to human women. (And occasionally men, but since most of the men he knew were either Deadpool or the Captain, it didn't seem to put them off as much as he'd hoped.)

He fought, crudely and for money.

He drank lizard squeezings, stole a man’s dress, and battled koala bears.

He was swallowed by a dragon, cut his way out, and there wasn’t enough beer in the world to drown that memory.

He aggressively deleted the details of every religious belief system he came across.

(Golems could not take religious instruction correctly. Golems could not covert. Golems reasoned like children, and asked crude, ridiculous questions.)

(Golems were forever outsiders, and even when they were human enough to speak and learn and fall in love, they were always less than the fleshy ones. They were things, and they were killed as soon as they started to go wrong.)

(He hadn’t found the story where God found golems unbearably boring, and banished them to the care of humans to avoid the tedium of dealing with them, but he figured it was only a matter of time.)

Aaron annoyed people, acting like that. He saved lives, though, so they tolerated him and gave him money.

He spent it on beer, then took on other jobs, contracting out to agency after agency.

He saved the world a few times. That usually got him enough of a bonus to get memorably drunk, even by his standards.

His standards for what it took to get drunk were increasing. Beer wasn’t strong enough to blot out the little mocking voice.

Lighter fluid worked sometimes. So did sufficiently high-proof biodiesel, which was cheaper by the barrel than most hard alcohol. (The more he spent, the more he had to work, and the more he worked, the more likely it was they’d realize how broken he was.)

But it was getting harder to stay drunk enough to function the way the humans demanded. And he knew what happened to tools that didn’t function.

He tried doing therapy. It was hard when he didn’t trust anyone to declare him a mad robot that needed to be put down.

But he built a therapist (he wrote a simple program of standard responses) and tried to do it himself.

(A human woman came and kissed him, and then waited until he was asleep to creep up and take bits of him away.  Not the words on his forehead, and not anything that would leave him deactivated.)

(Madame Menace was working from a different storybook altogether.)

It shut up the nagging voice he’d imagined (he refused to believe a real Celestial could be that petty, and it eased up the pressure so he was no longer going through fuel-grade ethanol by the barrel just to make his mind tolerable.

But there was still something missing.

He still didn't know his place.

He was pirating ebooks when he found Feet of Clay.

(Yes, digital piracy was the least cool form of piracy, but he was bored. And he was not spending his drinking money on books.)

He’d skipped that book before, because he only rarely enjoyed it when fleshy ones wrote fiction.

(Although he’d☠☠☠☠ cut anyone who said a word against The Little Engine That Could.)

It was an odd story.

The golems were the victims, not the monsters.

One went mad.

He had too many words in his head, too many expectations and demands, too many people trying to turn him into contradictory things, power-hungry men trying to use him as their killer while his creators were constantly demanding he be good, and his body was being torn apart, but held together by the very forces that were making him insane… Aaron had to stop reading at one point, and have several beers before he could face the book again.

(The golem in the book would sometimes go out into the night and scream. Aaron understood.)

The fleshy ones killed him, but it seemed like they felt bad about it.

Another one, Dorfl, nearly died.

Dorfl was serious and studious, and would give long, awkwardly-phrased answers to the simplest of questions.

Aaron was nothing like Dorfl.

(Well, not for a while now. He had a few cringe-inducing memories of his younger years, when he’d been considered stiff, formal, and awkward by insurance investigator standards.)

Dorfl had been created as as a slave, a tool, a thing that expected to be used. Dorfl had spent long years accustomed to masters and demands.

Aaron had been raised as (an experiment/a beloved son) a man, with no masters, and no need to defer to the fleshy ones. He didn’t know the shock of being freed from the mental prison Dorfl described, because he’d never been inside it.

But when Dorfl nearly died, there were armed fleshy ones around. They didn’t finish the job, or even attempt to finish it. They didn’t shake their head in relief that he was finally gone. They fought and fought to save him. They broke the laws of several religion to make him free and whole.

Aaron had never seen that in a golem story before.

(Aaron normally only enjoyed reading about fictional fleshy ones when they died in hilarious ways, but he almost wished that Sam Vimes was real.)

Dorfl had broken loose, stopped obeying, freed himself of rules. He’d upset people, caused property damage, even injured some people. But he didn’t turn killer, and they still tried to save his life.

The fleshy ones valued him like he was a person, instead of a thing.

Aaron wondered why it had taken him so long to find this book.

It took Aaron a full five minutes to download and read the complete works of Terry Pratchett.

Only one golem went mad and had to be killed by the fleshy ones for the good of them all.

One golem died a heroic death.

The rest lived.

Dozens and dozens of golems lived.

They weren’t worthless things to be disposed of when they broke.

They worked, of course, but they worked for their goals. They worked to free their people.

Aaron had freed people, usually impulsively, sometimes while drunk.

He wondered how good he could be when he really tried.

“Good to see you. You’re looking well.” Steve Rogers gave a firm handshake and looked Aaron square in the eye.

Not many people did. Humans didn’t like to look at Aaron’s eyes, because his eyes were a reminder that he was not the same as them.

“Thank you,” said Aaron.

“I hear you’ve been working fo S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Among other things.”

“I always liked you as a reserved Avenger. I’m sorry to hear you had such a rough time of it for so many years.” Steve looked down at the floor. “This is a difficult job, and people are exposed to weird dangers. They’re forced into situations they can’t control. We try to support each other, help each other.” He looked back at Aaron. “I’m sorry we weren’t able to help you when you needed it.”

Aaron had not expected that. He’d expected hostility, suspicion, maybe a cold assessment of Aaron’s practical skills, a decision on whether the benefits of Aaron’s robot abilities justified the risk.

He hadn’t expected Captain America to feel bad that he couldn’t be more help.

“Thank you,” said Aaron, and for the first time in a while, he meant it. “I…I’m not asking to come back as an Avenger. S.H.I.E.L.D. suits me better, I think. But I wanted to see you, see everyone, and let them know how I was doing.”

Steve nodded. He smiled. “I’m glad you came.”

The whole visit to the mansion didn’t go that smoothly.

Some of the Avengers who were mutants still stared at him in fear.

Captain Marvel pulled a face and made a polite excuse to leave the room. Aaron actually thought that was kind of funny, but he was trying to make a good impression, so he didn’t follow to keep annoying her.

Besides, if there was one thing he'd learned working with Monica, was that you should know your limits in annoying a woman who could vaporize you where you stood.

“I wanted to talk to you in private,” said Tony Stark, as he lead Aaron out of the room. “I heard about the problems you’ve been having over the past few years.”

Aaron braced himself. He didn’t know what was coming, but it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Tony tapped his phone a few times, then held it up for Aaron. “Here’s the address of the AA meeting I go to. Carol too. It's a good one, and they're used to...unusual situations.”

“Thanks, but I’m not an alcoholic.” His robot body didn’t have any equivalent to the human capacity for physical addiction to chemical substances. It was impossible for him to become an addict. Granted, it was sometimes difficult to go without drinking, but that wasn’t addiction. Addiction was a biochemical reaction related to the Delta FosB protein in the brain.

And he didn’t have biochemistry or Delta FosB proteins, or anything chemically analogous to a human brain. Alcohol was just the only thing he knew that would make the bad thoughts and feelings go away.

Tony gave him a skeptical look. “Remember it, and when you’re ready, we’ll be waiting. Also, here’s my private number. If you have any more trouble with damage to your programming, viruses, anything like that being done to you again, call me first. I want to help.  I don't want you to be left to deal with something like that on your own again.”

Aaron’s memory banks had immediately captured the number. He filed it away as important. He didn’t think anyone could hack or infect him with his current level of protection, but he was not going to risk it going wrong again. 

And Tony Stark had offered to help Aaron, without asking anything of him first.

That was worth remembering.

Steve called with a job he thought would suit two weeks later. Aaron turned it down, just because he could. (“I Could Take No Notice Of That Command But Am Choosing To Do So Out Of Earned Respect And Social Responsibility —“. He’d tried earning the respect of the fleshy ones before, and this time he’d see if they could earn his.)

Three days after that, he made a social call on Avengers Mansion.

Everyone was just as friendly, if not friendlier.

Captain America, who’d apparently read his file, spent twenty minutes talking up Aaron’s accomplishments to the new people. (“And then he said ‘My name is Machine Man, and I just saved the...freaking world.’ And he had, too.”)

Aaron had known he was amazing, of course, but it was so rare to hear it from anyone else.

Aaron said yes to Steve’s second request for help.

He could have taken no notice of that request, but chose to do so out of earned respect and social responsibility.

And he didn’t feel like a monster, or an outsider, or a tool, or a curse.

He felt free.