Killing the Golem
by Stephen Measure
Skinheads? What are those racist worms doing walking on the street in broad daylight? Armando scowled at their three backs through the dust cloud that choked the street, the middle skinhead large and strong, obviously their leader, a nervous toady to each side, the three of them half a block ahead and walking in the same direction Armando was going. He muttered a curse into his dust mask. Skinheads meant trouble. Skinheads always meant trouble. And I don’t need trouble today, he said to himself.
Twenty-five minutes to his shop. Thirty minutes before the next patrol. What are the skinheads thinking? Armando wondered. Are they suicidal or just stupid? He wiped the excess dust from his goggles as a rusty car drove past, armed guards on horseback riding before and after. The streets were full of people, walkers like Armando hurrying along crumbling sidewalks, their faces protected against the dust, while carriages, horses, and the occasional car braved the potholed streets.
Busy streets and between patrols—that’s why Armando had chosen to run his errand now. It was a dust day too, a perfect time to sneak a shipment to his shop. But he hadn’t planned on running into any skinheads. Why would he have? Skinheads never dared be in public anymore. Of all the days for them to suddenly get brave, Armando thought, why did it have to be today? He cursed again into his dust mask.
Pausing at an intersection, Armando allowed a group of horseback riders to pass, their black jackets and pants now tan with a fine layer of dust. Then he hurried across the street, dodging between a wagon and a dust-covered van. Vehicles rarely slowed for pedestrians anymore, especially not on dust days.
Back on the sidewalk, he checked again on the skinheads, hoping they had turned down a side street; but they were still there ahead of him and still moving in the same direction. Turn, you worms, Armando muttered. Turn! Why won’t they turn? He cursed again, loudly enough to earn a glare from a passing woman. Armando ignored her.
Twenty minutes to his shop. Twenty-five minutes until the next patrol. Armando didn’t have enough cash for a bribe, not after that last-minute price gouge by Olaf. Clever, Armando thought, very clever. Olaf had known that Armando had a tight window and there was no time for haggling. That cleverness had won Olaf a twenty-five percent premium over their agreed upon price. Well, we’ll see how clever you are next time, Armando thought, the gears in his head already turning about how to get his money back. He always got it back, one way or another. He’d get it back, and he’d teach Olaf to never be so clever again, not with him.
Armando crossed another street. Then another. Still the skinheads kept moving in the same direction, their leader practically strutting, his head held high, as he walked up the street. Armando had never seen such arrogance in a skinhead since the golem had been created. It made no sense. Doesn’t he realize the danger? Armando wondered. The smaller two, being toadies, acted how he expected skinheads to act—constantly glancing from side to side as if danger could come from anywhere, giving them the appearance that they might flee at any moment. And they might need to. All it would take is one flare, one single flare to summon the golem, and then it would see they were bigot-tagged and then . . .
Armando had a disturbing thought. What if they aren’t bigot-tagged? Is that why they dare walk through the city during the day? Is that why they aren’t worried someone will summon the golem? Skinheads that aren’t bigot-tagged? The idea made his skin crawl.
Reaching into his pocket, Armando pulled out his tagger, a small metal rod like a flashlight. He held it close to his side, trying to be discreet as he flipped it into illumination mode and shone it at the backs of the three skinheads. Two bigot-tags appeared—two, not three. The leader wasn’t bigot-tagged.
Armando growled. Now it was clear to him. Of course the toadies were the only ones terrified. They were both marked for death, but their leader? That worthless worm just kept on walking, cocky as an eight-legged dog. He wasn’t bigot-tagged, so what did he have to worry about? If the golem was summoned, he could just slip into the crowd and leave his two toadies to their fate.
“What a coward,” Armando said. A leader has a duty to his men. A duty! That’s why it’s best to not be a leader, of course; but if you’re stupid enough to be one, then you don’t treat your men like that. Skinheads or not, you don’t treat your men like that.
Armando’s grip tightened on his tagger. I should bigot-tag him, Armando thought. He’s too far from here, but I could close the distance in no time. A skinhead walking around in the daytime. A skinhead and a coward too! I should bigot-tag him. I should bigot-tag him and I should shoot up a flare, and then I should stand by and cheer as the golem squeezes him into a bloody pulp.
But, as much as he wanted to, Armando knew he couldn’t, so he slid his tagger back into his pocket. He couldn’t afford trouble, not now, not with what he had in his pack. I’ll make him pay some day, Armando promised himself. I’ll make him pay for being such a coward. I’ll make him pay for being such a coward on a day I can’t afford to make him pay. I’ll make him pay doubly for that!
But in the next moment, his anger turned to surprised admiration. A woman was walking past the skinheads, her beautiful painted eyes the only part of her face visible above an elaborate silk veil. And as she walked past them, she turned, extended a slim, shiny tagger, and fired, bigot-tagging the skinhead leader in the back of his neck before turning back in the direction she had been going—the whole act executed in one elegant, fluid motion. The skinhead leader jerked in shock, grabbing his neck where the tagger had struck. He whirled around, a furious look on his face; but the woman had already faded into the crowd. Beautiful execution, Armando thought, simply beautiful.
The skinhead leader, however, didn’t share Armando’s sentiment. He stood there amidst the moving crowd, rubbing his neck and scanning everyone around him, seeking someone to blame. His eyes locked with Armando’s for a moment, forcing Armando to avert his gaze slightly to avoid a challenge, which only caused Armando’s anger to flare up even hotter. If any man deserves to be challenged, he thought, then this skinhead coward does. And what could the skinhead do to him? Armando’s revolver was safely strapped to his chest. What could the skinhead do to him indeed. But Armando couldn’t afford trouble, not now; so he averted his gaze, burning at the necessity, once again promising retribution.
But the fury in the skinhead’s face quickly transformed into fear, and he turned around and started to jog up the street, followed closely by his two toadies.
Ha! Armando thought. You’re not so cocky anymore, are you, coward? Armando guessed that if he illuminated the sky with his tagger right now, he would see a flare shining brightly above, a flare that was already summoning the golem in this direction.
Ten minutes to his shop. Fifteen minutes before the next patrol. And the skinheads were suddenly running. They darted across the street, almost trampled by a carriage in their haste. Jumping up onto the opposite sidewalk, they sprinted down an alleyway. Where do they think they’re going? Armando wondered. There’s nothing in that direction, nothing but an old, bombed-out bowling alley.
He worried at what had caused them to take flight. Did they see a patrol? Is that why they’re running? But then he heard the giant thuds echoing from the intersection ahead, the ground itself seeming to shake. And a second later he saw the source of the thuds as the golem charged through the intersection. A giant man-shaped creature of hardened clay, the golem cracked the asphalt beneath its feet with each massive step. Everyone scrambled out of its way, for the golem paid no heed to who stood between it and its targets. One horse and rider didn’t move fast enough, and the golem mindlessly barreled through them, knocking the horse onto its side and trampling both horse and rider in its pursuit of the bigot-tagged skinheads.
It crashed down the alley, giant footfalls booming back to the street, and only seconds later there was a roar, followed by screams and gunshots. The gunshots were pointless, of course. Bullets went right through the golem’s clay, the clay reforming itself immediately after. You couldn’t kill the golem, not with a gun.
Armando was already moving again, jogging now in his hurry to escape the scene. “Stupid skinheads,” he said. Between the golem and the gunshots, a patrol would be here any minute.
He jogged for two more blocks before slowing to a walk again. Far enough away from the scene now, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, not when he was only minutes away from his shop.
As he entered the market sector, the difference in foot traffic was immediate, masked people spilling off the sidewalks and onto the city streets as they hustled from one errand to another. Armando passed by a group of urchins, their faces brown with dust, tattered clothes exposing thin arms and legs. He pulled out a silver dollar from his pocket and tossed it to them. Armando would never give a handout to an adult. The very idea revolted him. But kids were different. A young girl caught the coin, her hair a rat’s nest upon her head. “Thank you, sir!” she said as the other urchins gathered around her excitedly, but Armando was already passing.
He crossed the final street before reaching his own block, the weight of his pack seeming to lighten as it was clear he would not be caught. There was a small crowd gathered at the corner, listening and laughing at a man who stood upon a wooden crate and preached loudly at them. Something about sin, it sounded like. Not a fun gig, Armando thought, feeling a momentary tinge of sympathy for the preacher. The crowd didn’t seem very receptive of what he was saying. But Armando had no time for sympathy, and he hurried up the street.
Then he was at his shop. For the dozenth time he reminded himself to repaint his sign. It hung faded and worn above his thick front door. He opened the door and hurried inside, quickly closing it behind himself to keep out as much of the dust as possible. He ripped off his mask and goggles and then grabbed a small battery-operated blow dryer he always kept by the door. The dryer made a high whine as it blew all the dust from his hair, face, and clothes.
“How was the morning?” Armando asked his assistant, Jasper, who had come to gather Armando’s dust mask and goggles.
“Slow,” Jasper said, returning to the counter and placing the mask and goggles in a bin by the floor.
Armando grunted. A slow morning was bad, but perhaps with Jasper alone in the shop a slow morning was best. Jasper was an honest man, but he was also a coward. If any trouble had come to the shop while Armando was gone, Jasper wouldn’t have been brave enough to do anything about it.
“Put these in the basement,” Armando said, handing his pack to Jasper. “Leave them in the pack. I’ll sort them later. Be gentle with them.”
Jasper nodded. “You got the full shipment, then?”
Armando grunted. “Nearly all. Some were defective.”
“And the patrols?”
“They were occupied.”
Jasper pulled up the trapdoor behind the counter and descended the stairs into the basement, taking Armando’s delivery with him. Armando watched him go, and then he walked up and down the cramped aisles of his small shop, checking the merchandise. He was troubled by the thin layer of dust that had settled over the power aisle, its bins filled with recovered batteries. It was impossible to keep dust from entering the shop on a dust day, but he liked to keep his wares as presentable as possible.
He grabbed a duster and brushed off the batteries. Half of their labels were cracking away, and they didn’t look much better with dust off than with dust on, but sometimes it was the little things that made the difference.
Someone was yelling outside. The preacher must have really gotten them riled up this time, Armando thought. What a crummy job, having to constantly remind people of what they weren’t supposed to do. It’s a lot funner being the one that needs the reminding.
He swapped the duster for a broom and began sweeping up the dust he had knocked unto the ground along with the dust that had followed him into the shop. He swept it into a pile and was about to grab the dustpan when his door flung open and two men burst inside. Armando raised his broom instinctively, holding it like a weapon.
“You can’t call that a sin!”
It was the preacher that had run in first, followed by an angry man who was shouting at him. “You can’t call that a sin!” the angry man yelled again at the preacher.
“Get out of my shop!” Armando said, advancing on the two of them with broom in hand as if he could sweep them both out. “Get out of my shop!” he repeated.
The angry man turned to him, shaking a finger at the preacher. “He can’t preach that!” the angry man said. “He can’t call that a sin!”
“Who are you to say what he can and can’t call a sin?” Armando said. “And who are you to say it in my shop? Get out!” Armando pushed the angry man toward the door.
The angry man stumbled, but when he regained his footing he had a tagger in his hand. Pointing it at the preacher, he fired. The preacher grunted, his head rocking back and hitting the shelf behind him. He grabbed his neck where the bigot-tag had struck.
“What did you just do?” Armando said in disbelief.
“He can’t call that a sin!”
“You bigot-tagged him!”
“He can’t call that a sin!” the angry man repeated.
“Who cares?” Armando roared. “That’s not what the tagger was made for!”
“He can’t call that a sin! Everyone knows it! He can’t call that a sin! It’s not allowed!”
“Who cares what he says is a sin? Who cares what he preached? That’s not what the tagger was made for! That’s not what the golem was made for! It’s meant to handle the skinheads. It’s not meant to resolve religious disagreements. He was preaching about sin, not skin! If you don’t like his preaching, why don’t you get out there and preach yourself?”
The angry man was still pointing his tagger at the preacher, who was rubbing his neck, the preacher’s eyes wide in disbelief. Armando struck the angry man’s hand with his broom, knocking the tagger to the ground.
“Hey!” the angry man said, grasping his injured hand.
Armando stomped on the tagger, splitting it in two beneath his thick boot.
“Hey!” the angry man repeated. “You broke my tagger!”
“Someone as stupid as you can’t be trusted with a tagger,” Armando said. He set the head of his broom on the floor and placed both hands on top of the handle, resting his chin above them. “And what am I supposed to do now?” he asked the angry man, who was staring at his broken tagger on the floor. “Now I’ve got an innocent man in my shop who’s been bigot-tagged. What am I supposed to do about that?”
“He’s not innocent,” the angry man said. “He can’t preach that! He’s a bigot!”
“He’s no bigot. You, however, are an idiot.”
“He can’t call that a sin!”
Armando pointed the broom at the angry man. “Get out of my shop.”
“Get out of my shop!” Armando yelled, raising the broom above his head with both hands like a baseball bat and advancing on the angry man. “Get out of my shop!”
The angry man scurried away, running out the door and leaving the shop in silence. Through the window, Armando could see dust swirling around as people walked back and forth along the street, the angry man nowhere to be seen.
“I can’t believe he did that,” the preacher said.
Armando turned to see the preacher still rubbing his neck. He wondered what it felt like, being bigot-tagged. It’s something he had never considered before.
“I was just preaching,” the preacher said. “Just preaching against sin, and that man just went off. Shouting at me that I can’t preach about that, that I can’t even believe that. Then he started shoving me, and he started threatening me. I thought he was going to hit me! So I ran. I ran in here and he bigot-tagged me. He bigot-tagged me! I don’t understand it. I was just preaching against sin.”
Armando looked back out the window. What kind of a fool would bigot-tag a man for preaching? Was he so insecure about his own beliefs that he had to bring in the golem instead of arguing for himself?
The preacher kept rubbing his neck. “It burns,” he said. “Is there any way to take it off?”
“No,” Armando said. “Once bigot-tagged, always bigot-tagged.”
“But that means the golem . . .”
“Yes,” Armando said. “That means the golem is going to kill you.” He couldn’t believe what had happened. An innocent man had just been bigot-tagged. Who would have thought this would ever happen? That’s not what taggers were made for. That’s not what the golem was made for. And now an innocent man had been bigot-tagged and now an innocent man was going to be killed by the golem. An innocent man in my shop, Armando thought, in my shop.
“What am I supposed to do?” the preacher asked.
Armando growled. “Not in my shop,” he said.
“Not in my shop!” Armando walked to the door and flipped his sign to “Closed.” He pulled down the blinds on all the windows.
“Here’s the plan,” Armando said. “We wait here until dark. Chances are the golem won’t come down this street. We wait here until dark and then we sneak you out of the city.”
“Why is dark any better?”
“The golem can’t see very well in the dark. And, more importantly, other people can’t see very well in the dark either, so it’s less likely a flare will be sent up to summon it.”
Armando locked the door. Then he lowered the steel bar across it.
“What are you doing, Armando?”
Armando turned to see Jasper standing behind the counter, his face pale. He must have come up from the basement during the commotion.
“We’re closing up early today,” Armando told him. “Then I have a night delivery to make to the edge of town.”
“What are you doing?” Jasper repeated. “He’s been bigot-tagged! We have to give him to the golem!”
“Didn’t you see what happened?” Armando asked. “He wasn’t supposed to be bigot-tagged.”
“But he’s been bigot-tagged!” Jasper said. “We have to let the golem kill him!”
“He wasn’t supposed to be bigot-tagged. He’s an innocent man.”
“But he’s been bigot-tagged!” Jasper hurried to the door as if he were going to open it.
Armando stood in his way. “Don’t you get it?” he said. “Being bigot-tagged doesn’t mean anything anymore! Not when someone just whips out their tagger to win an argument.”
“But he’s been bigot-tagged!”
“Aren’t you listening? He wasn’t supposed to be! Here,” Armando said, pulling his tagger out of his pocket and pointing it at Jasper, only inches from his nose. “How about I bigot-tag you right now? What would you say about that? Would you finally get it then? This isn’t what taggers were invented for. They’re supposed to be used to bigot-tag the skinheads, not men like the preacher. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Jasper shrunk before the tagger and scurried back behind the counter. “He’s been bigot-tagged,” Jasper whined. Armando paid him no heed.
“So, that’s the plan,” Armando said, turning back to the preacher. “Once it’s dark, I lead you to the outskirts of town.”
“I can’t do that,” the preacher said.
“What do you mean you can’t do that? What part of ‘you’ve been bigot-tagged and the golem is now going to kill you’ are you not understanding?”
“I can’t just leave,” the preacher said. “I have responsibilities here.”
“You’re telling me that I have to be exiled because someone else chose to bigot-tag me?”
“What other choice do you have? I agree it was wrong for him to do. But now what other choice do you have? Do you want my help or not?”
The preacher thought for a moment. “Fine,” he relented. “I suppose I could do some good somewhere else. But how long do we have to wait?”
“About six hours—” Armando began before stopping and turning back to the window, listening to the crowd outside. Something was wrong. He leaned one hand upon a small shelf on the wall, the miniature glass figurines upon it rattling briefly, and he opened the blinds with his other hand, peeking out at the street outside.
The glass figurines rattled again.
Armando looked at them. A miniature horse, an elephant, some dogs, a unicorn. He hadn’t touched the shelf that time. They bounced up again, the horse and elephant falling to their sides. Armando looked out the blinds. The crowd was fleeing in all directions.
“Downstairs!” Armando yelled, dropping the blinds and running to the preacher. He grabbed the preacher’s arm and threw him toward the counter. “The stairs are back there. Downstairs, now!”
“But it can’t see—”
“It can sense you if it’s close enough. Now move!”
Footsteps were crashing down the street toward the shop. The preacher ran back behind the counter, quickly disappearing below as he fled down the stairs.
Armando turned back toward the windows. He watched the merchandise on his shelves bounce with each giant footstep.
“He’s been bigot-tagged,” Jasper whined.
“Shut up, you fool,” Armando whispered.
The footsteps were closer now, the windows shaking. The glass unicorn fell, shattering into countless pieces as it struck the floor.
Then the footsteps were in front of the shop. And then they were passing it, becoming more and more distant as the golem ran up the street. The rattling ceased. Armando let out a sigh of relief.
But then the footsteps began coming from the other direction.
“What?” Armando said. “Why would it come back?”
“He’s been bigot-tagged,” Jasper whined again.
“I told you to shut up,” Armando said. He rushed to the window and peeked through the blinds. There was no one in sight, just the dust swirling around. The windows were shaking again.
“No,” Armando said. “He couldn’t have. I smashed his tagger.” Yet Armando knew what he would see even before he raised his own tagger in illumination mode and shone it above his shop: a flare shone brightly in the air through the dust.
“That worm!” Armando said. He dropped the blinds and shoved his tagger back in his pocket. “That rotten, little, pathetic tyrant! He shot up a flare somehow! That worm!”
“He’s been bigot-tagged!” Jasper said. “We need to give him to the golem.”
“How about I give you to the golem, you sniveling coward!” Armando said.
There was a massive crash against the door. Dust flew everywhere as the shelves against the wall all spilled their goods onto the floor. Then another crash. A crack appeared down the middle of the door. The metal bar was bending inward.
“Downstairs!” Armando commanded, running toward the counter.
“We have to give him to—” Jasper began, but Armando grabbed his elbow and hurled him down the steps, Armando right behind. The trapdoor barely closed before the door above burst open. Armando hurried down the stairs and stood next to the preacher. He winced as he listened to the crashes as aisle after aisle was knocked over, metal clanking as it fell, glass breaking, the floor creaking as the golem wandered back and forth.
“I’m sorry,” the preacher said, seeing Armando’s expression. “Is there anything I can—”
Armando shook his head. “I don’t want to even talk about it.” More glass broke above. Armando cringed.
“How long before it finds us?” the preacher asked.
Armando shrugged. “I don’t think it can find you down here. It can’t look down. It can sense you’re close, but it can’t find you. Not when you’re below it.”
“So we just wait here until it leaves?”
“No, it will never leave. Not when it’s been summoned by a flare. Not when it senses someone near has been bigot-tagged. It won’t leave until it kills you.”
“So what do we do now?”
Armando looked around the dimly lit basement, bare wood floors and dirt walls, shelves filled with stored goods, support beams standing tall in the dim light. His pack lay by a shelf, its contents once important, now forgotten.
Jasper was muttering to himself, not looking at the two of them.
“Will you shut up?” Armando said.
“He’s been bigot-tagged!” Jasper said.
“So what?” Armando said, wanting to throttle the foolish man. “Don’t you get it? That doesn’t mean anything anymore. Now that the golem is being used to settle disagreements about preaching, what will it be used for next? Where does it stop?”
“But he’s been bigot-tagged!”
“He wasn’t supposed to be. Don’t you get it? That’s not what the tagger was made for. That’s not what the golem was made for. It’s all become corrupted. None of it works anymore.”
“But he’s been bigot-tagged!”
“Oh, just shut up, you fool! This isn’t what taggers were made for!”
Jasper retreated to his muttering and Armando resumed his scanning of the basement. Above, the golem continued wandering in search of the preacher, the floor bending beneath it, the nearest support beam groaning. If that support beam wasn’t there, Armando thought, it would fall right on top of us. Then he saw the back door, barely visible behind stacked boxes.
“We’ll go out the back,” he said, heading toward the door.
The preacher followed after. “But won’t the golem sense me leaving and just chase us?”
“Maybe,” Armando said, moving the boxes that were blocking the door. “But this leads up to an alley that exits out the other side of the block. Hopefully, he’ll get lost.”
“Hey, do you have a better idea?” Armando asked, looking back at the preacher.
The preacher shook his head.
“That’s what I thought.” Armando said. He pulled some keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. Then he opened it. A dark passageway lay beyond. There was a switch by the door, which he flipped, and a light turned on, revealing an iron security gate barring the way.
“Jasper,” Armando called to the sulking man, “make yourself useful and grab me the gate key. It’s on the shelf by the staircase.”
They waited for Jasper to retrieve the key. When he brought it, he wouldn’t look at either of them. He just walked over with the key and unlocked the gate.
Armando didn’t have time for his foolish assistant. He looked at the preacher. “As soon as we move from below it, the golem is going to follow. Are you ready to run?”
“I think so,” the preacher said.
Jasper opened the gate, squeezed through, and flung it shut behind himself, the key in his hand.
“What are you doing?” Armando said. He grabbed the bars and shook the gate. “Open this gate! We need to get out of here!”
“No!” Jasper said, retreating a few steps before turning to face them. “He’s been bigot-tagged!” Jasper pointed at the preacher. “He’s been bigot-tagged, and the golem has come for him.”
“I told you. He wasn’t supposed to be,” Armando said. “Taggers were invented to bigot-tag the skinheads. If men like the preacher are being bigot-tagged, then being bigot-tagged doesn’t mean what it used to mean anymore. It doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
“But he’s been bigot-tagged! He’s been bigot-tagged!”
“You idiot!” Armando said. “Can’t you think for yourself for a minute? If men who don’t deserve to be bigot-tagged are being bigot-tagged, then what does it mean anymore? Here, how do you like this?” Armando pulled out his tagger, pointed it at Jasper’s forehead, and fired.
Jasper’s head rocked backward, the force of the bigot-tag causing him to stumble back a few feet.
“You just bigot-tagged me!” he said in shock, a hand to his forehead.
“Yes, now do you get it?” Armando asked. “Being bigot-tagged used to mean something. How can it mean anything now if the wrong people are being bigot-tagged?”
“I’ve been bigot-tagged!” Jasper wailed. He stumbled to the wall and began bashing his head against it. “I’ve been bigot-tagged!”
“Calm down!” Armando said. “It means nothing! You know you’re not a skinhead! It doesn’t mean what it used to mean anymore!”
“I’ve been bigot-tagged!” Jasper wailed again. Then he turned and ran down the passageway, vanishing around a corner.
“You cowardly idiot!” Armando yelled. He cursed and shook the gate futilely. It wouldn’t budge.
The preacher was standing beside Armando now, looking down the passageway. “One thing I’ve learned from all my time preaching,” he said, “is that no matter how hard you try to help them, some people simply lack the ability to see anything other than the crude shapes they’ve learned to base their life around.”
“Jasper can’t see because Jasper is a fool.”
“Yes, and you just ruined his life. He’ll never be able to get past being bigot-tagged.”
“Yeah, well, he’s not my problem anymore. Loyalty runs two ways. He betrayed me. I have no more duty to him.”
The preacher stared at Armando for a moment. “But you have a duty to me?”
“The golem’s not going to kill an innocent man in my shop.”
“I thank you for that, but our options have run out. Perhaps it’s time for me to walk up and meet my fate,” the preacher said, looking up at the floor above him. The golem was still moving back and forth, dust trickling down from each step as the floorboards strained beneath its weight.
“No,” Armando said. “No innocent man is going to be killed by the golem in my shop. It’s not right. I won’t stand for it.”
“Then what will we do? We can’t escape out the back way. And you told me the golem will never leave as long as it can sense me near. What will we do? We can’t live here forever.”
Armando let go of the bars. The preacher was right; there was no way to escape. He walked back to the center of the room and stood beside a support beam. “We’ll kill the golem,” he said.
The preacher laughed. Then he stopped, seeing Armando’s expression. He walked over to stand beside him. “Wait, you’re serious, aren’t you? I thought the golem couldn’t be killed. It’s not alive in the first place. How are we supposed to kill it? Bullets do nothing. I’ve heard that much.”
“Bullets do nothing, yes, but ask yourself this: What controls the golem? It’s not alive, so how is it that it can see, move, and attack?”
“I have no idea.”
“I’ll tell you how. It’s controlled by a chip, a microprocessor. A chip that’s attached in its mouth, directly below its tongue. Remove that chip and the golem comes crashing down.”
“If it’s that easy, why hasn’t a skinhead done it already?”
“Because skinheads are idiots,” Armando said. “That, and because its jaw is protected.”
“If its jaw is protected, how will we remove the chip?”
Armando looked around the room, searching for something useful. Seeing a shelf full of metal goods, he walked over and began rummaging through the items. Then he pulled out what he had been looking for—fireplace tongs. “We’ll use this to pull it out of its mouth,” he said, walking back to the center of the room.
“Okay, but how do we get to it? You said the jaw was protected.”
“Haven’t you ever seen the golem attack?”
“It always roars at its prey. Once it opens its mouth, I’ll grab the chip with the tongs and pull it out.”
The preacher considered this for a moment. “I take it I’m supposed to be the bait?”
“That’s the plan.”
“So we walk up through the trapdoor and somehow you pull the chip out before the golem crushes the life out of me?”
“No, it might rush us before we both have a chance to get up through the trapdoor. We need to bring it down here.”
“How are you going to do that? It won’t even fit through the trapdoor, and it would crush the stairs.”
Armando leaned against the support beam and tapped it with the tongs. “We’ll bring the golem down to us.”
The preacher grunted in surprise. “But that will destroy your shop,” he said.
Armando held up a hand, suppressing further discussion. “I told you. We’re not going to talk about that. Besides, it’s too late now. Anyway, here is the plan. Once the golem is directly above us, I kick out the support beam and we let it fall down into the basement. You hide there on the other side of the room. The fall should confuse the golem for a moment, but then it’ll see you and open its mouth to roar, and I’ll be there with the tongs ready to pull out the chip.”
“You make it sound so easy. But you’re forgetting one thing.”
“Say your plan works. Say we pull out the chip and destroy it, killing the golem. What happens then? What about the skinheads?”
“If we don’t kill it, it will go on killing innocents.”
“I’m just one man. Wouldn’t it be worth it for society to sacrifice just one man?”
“No, that’s just the start. You were bigot-tagged today for your preaching, but what will we be bigot-tagged for tomorrow? Because of our politics? Because of what food we eat or what music we listen to? Because of what entertainment we watch? The golem was never meant to be used for settling disagreements, but now that it’s been used for one, it can just as easily be used for another. We have no choice. We have to destroy it.”
“And the skinheads?”
“The skinheads are idiots and they are weak. We don’t need the golem to take care of them for us anymore. We can handle them ourselves.”
The preacher scratched at his neck where he had been bigot-tagged. “I see your point,” he said. Then he sighed. “Well, let’s get this over with. I can’t say I like the idea of being bait, but I also don’t like the idea of being stuck down here forever.”
Armando nodded. “Alright,” he said. “You go stand back by that far wall over there.”
The preacher obeyed, hurrying across the room and pressing himself against the wall, a nervous look on his face. Then they waited, both of them staring at the floorboards above as the golem continued its slow wandering, the groaning of the wood announcing its location to them below.
Armando waited until the groaning was directly overhead, then he kicked the support beam. His first kick did nothing, but the second shifted the beam slightly. The golem was walking away now. Armando knew he had little time before it would be too far. Lowering his head, he charged at the support beam, striking it with his entire force. It gave way and his momentum carried him forward, Armando falling down, the support beam on top of him, as the floor above collapsed and a giant shape dropped down from above.
The ground shook. Dust and debris filled the air. Armando coughed and pushed the support beam off himself. He rose to his knees, looking for the tongs he had dropped when the floor came down. A large shape rose beside him. Armando looked up at it. He had never seen the golem so close. It seemed so thick, so solid. Silently, the golem bent over and picked up a massive leg that must have broken off in the fall. It held the separated leg against its hip, and Armando watched as the clay began to knit together, clay reattaching to clay. Then he saw the tongs on the ground behind the golem. He scrambled to them and picked them up in the same moment that the golem noticed the preacher. Opening its mouth, it roared, the sound bouncing around the basement and ringing in Armando’s ears. Armando darted forward, trying to reach inside its mouth with the tongs, but he was a second too late and he struck jaw instead. Then the golem was moving, striding toward the preacher with heavy steps, crushing the debris below it.
“Hey!” Armando said, trying to distract it. But the golem ignored him, its full concentration on the preacher, who stood pale against the wall. It knocked over shelves as it continued walking toward him.
“Hey!” Armando yelled, and he threw the tongs at the golem’s back to no effect. Then he drew out his revolver and shot it. “Hey!” he yelled again.
The golem had almost reached the preacher. Only one shelf blocked the way. The golem knocked it over easily, crushing the contents as it continued forward.
“Save yourself,” the preacher said to Armando.
“No!” Armando said. He fired another bullet at the golem.
“You tried,” the preacher said. “You tried and it was noble and I thank you for it. Now just save yourself.” Then he closed his eyes and bowed his head, resigned to his fate as the golem grasped him in two massive hands and lifted him into the air.
“Not in my shop!” Armando said.
“There’s nothing you can do,” the preacher grunted, his face turning red as the golem began to crush him.
But there was something Armando could do. He pulled out his tagger and aimed it at his face. Then he pulled the trigger and bigot-tagged himself in the cheek, his head rocking to the side slightly from the impact.
It felt wrong. He shouldn’t have been bigot-tagged and it felt wrong, but he had no time for that now. “Hey!” he yelled at the golem, waving his hands to catch its attention. The preacher was moaning in its grip. “Hey!” Armando yelled again. But the golem ignored him, intent only on killing the bigot-tagged preacher.
“Hey!” Armando yelled one last time. Then he lifted his tagger above his head and fired off a flare, and the basement filled with invisible heat. The golem dropped the preacher, confused at the mixed signals. It turned and Armando looked into its thoughtless eyes. Then he saw them change, a targeting when the golem realized Armando was bigot-tagged. Opening its mouth, the golem roared at him, and suddenly Armando realized he had no plan. He backed away as the golem rushed toward him, Armando firing useless bullet after useless bullet. He aimed for the mouth, hoping to somehow strike the chip, but the bullets did nothing, and then the golem had reached him, its hands tight around his sides, its blank eyes staring into his face. It started to squeeze. Armando felt his ribs begin to crack. It was all so wrong. This wasn’t what the golem had been meant to do. It was only supposed to be used against the racist skinheads. It had never been meant to attack innocent people simply because someone had bigot-tagged them. It was all so wrong. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Breathing became impossible and the pain unbearable, darkness closing in around him. Someone was yelling, something hitting the golem on the side of the head. Fireplace tongs? The golem turned and roared, and in the middle of the darkness Armando saw a dull piece of metal below its tongue. His strength nearly spent, he darted his hand forward and grasped the metal chip, yanking it out of the golem’s mouth . . .
He groaned when the ground hit him, his breath knocked out of him, his ribs pure agony. Slowly, he turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling above. Light shone through the hole the golem had made in its fall.
“Are you alright?” the preacher was saying. Armando looked over at the golem that stood above him, its arms still outstretched, its face locked looking in the other direction. He sat up and coughed into his knees, the coughing causing a sharp pain in his sides, which made him fall over again. The preacher grabbed his hand and helped him rise onto one foot and then the other.
“We did it,” the preacher said, supporting Armando in front of the inert golem.
“Not quite,” Armando whispered. He held the chip up for the preacher to see, just a plain chunk of metal, all its secrets buried deep inside. Then he dropped it to the ground and stomped on it, crushing it. As soon as he did so, the golem broke apart, chunks of clay coming unknit and spilling on the ground all around them.
A clay hand tumbled to rest atop the preacher’s foot. Armando kicked it away and the hand disintegrated into small clumps. “Not in my shop,” Armando said, but his talking caused another sharp pain in his sides. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he saw his tagger lying on the floor, its shiny metal standing out amidst the crumbling clay. Armando stared at the tagger, feeling the wrongness of the undeserved bigot-tag he had been marked with.
He smashed the tagger beneath his boot.