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There was no doubt about it.  The latest find fit the pattern perfectly.  The chest plate was removed and nowhere to be seen; none of the victim's four limbs were attached any more, instead being arrayed in a diamond above the head; the head itself had been sheared in half, and the neural wiring pulled out to form a grim facsimile of a face in the limb-diamond above.  She didn't need to examine the cranial plate closely, as she already knew what she would find there: a Maker's Mark welded to the forehead, cleft in two along with the cranial plate itself.  It was illustrative of the one thing she could be certain of in this case: whatever was going on, it seemed to be somehow hostile to the religion shared by the vast majority of droids she'd met.

That, however, wasn't the most disturbing thing about this rash of ritualised murders; those victims who had faces capable of flexible expression were not wearing looks of horror or pain, locked in from their final moments of activity, but rather ones of sublime elation.  The only place Cora had seen that kind of joy before was in the Maker's Temple in town; sometimes the preacher there, a talented orator, whipped the congregation into a frenzy - to the point that some would swear afterward that they had felt the hand of the Maker Himself descend upon them.  Very often those same droids would disappear soon after, leaving all their belongings behind, along with a trail of footprints heading Citywards.  It was a fate she'd no more relish contemplating than that of the ritual victims.

The walk back to town was a long one; the column of smoke had been a barely-perceptible imperfection in the otherwise featureless horizon when she had first seen it from town.  It was gone now, of course; the building was just quietly smouldering now, punctuating the air with the occasional sound of metal and wood warping as they cooled.  Her CPU idled on the journey, shutting down nonessential systems to preserve power and prevent her from growing bored with the trek.  Her sensors would alert her to anything out of the ordinary.

But they didn't.  The walk back was as uneventful as the one there, and her higher functions came back online once the trading boards of the nearest buildings became legible.  As usual she was struck by how quiet it was; though the sun was high in the sky, only a handful of droids could be seen walking the streets.  Most of the storefronts were empty, looking out vacantly onto the once-bustling city they had served, their owners long lost to whatever fate they had chosen for themselves.  Or someone had chosen for them, in certain cases.

She needed more information.  This sort of thing couldn't just go on unnoticed, and even in such a reduced population the chances of committing these terrible crimes entirely unseen were so minute as to be virtually inconceivable.  Her best hopes of gathering the information would be where there were the most people came together to swap stories and support one another.  Perhaps attending the Temple tomorrow for the dawn service would be a useful start, and meanwhile there could be no harm in poking around for the usual rumours and gossip to be found at the saloon.

- - - - -

As the sun rose over the horizon, brushing the tops of the buildings with an otherworldly glow, Cora raised her head from the bar and tried to access her memories from the night before.  It seemed that a side effect of the coolant so enjoyed by the droids there - and recommended with a squeaking wink by the bartender - was that it corroded memory circuits.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons for its popularity.

What she was able to piece together of the conversations she'd had around the tables of the saloon, before the debilitating effects of the coolant had taken hold, was that there was a surprising lack of concern about the killings.  It wasn't that the townsfolk didn't know about them - there had been one not a hundred paces from the edge of town, after all - it was just that they weren't scared of becoming the next victim.  Cora put this strange fearlessness down to their strong faith; there wasn't a droid among them who believed that their creator had abandoned them, or that their lot in life was worse than they deserved.  Such devotion could only be attributed to the ceaseless work of the preacher at the Temple.

At this thought, she suddenly remembered where she was meant to be, and nearly fell as she launched herself toward the door.  Getting control of her motor functions, she carefully but quickly made her way to the Maker's Temple which dominated the center of town.  The whole population was inside, and as she tried to make her entrance inconspicuous, she heard the preacher bellowing from the pulpit.

"True though it is that the Maker has made us each in His own great image, it is foolish to believe that He is but a mere droid Himself like you or I.  For the Maker is every droid, and He is no droid.  He is everything and He is nothing.  He is the beginning and the end, the darkness and the light.  He knows all, and sees all.  There is no one droid's fate that is not Made by His hand.  Everything that happens does so by His great design.  So do not fear, my friends, and do not hide from what the Maker is giving you.  We are naught but elements in His great plan, cogs in His glorious machine.  So today when uncertainty and doubt seem the only constants in the world, I tell you there is one more, and He is the absence of those things.  Through Him we find certainty, and through Him we rid ourselves of doubt.  We will not hide from His plan, but step forward to take our place proudly in whatever role He has chosen for us.  Go forth from this place today and be uplifted by His simple message that you are not alone, and you will never be alone so long as you put your faith in the one that Made you.  There is only one Maker, and He forgets no-one."

The solemn silence erupted into cheers and praise as the preacher concluded his sermon, and Cora started moving forward, ready to make polite enquiries of the droids as they filed out of the Temple.  But they paid her no attention, instead filing out into the streets to resume their lives, and within moments she was alone with the preacher.  He walked slowly toward her up the central aisle, seemingly noticing her for the first time.

"Well now, it gladdens my heart to finally have a full congregation" he said, his tone lower and somehow even more compelling than when he had been addressing the room full of people.  "But something tells me that you're not here to convert yourself to the Way of the Maker."

"No, I - that is, my faith has never been very - I, uh, came to talk to people" she finished, lamely.

"Well it looks like I'm the only one left" the preacher noted.  "Care to talk to me?  I'm told I listen well."  There was the faintest of creaks, magnified by the Temple's acoustics, as his metal face twisted into a wide, open smile.  The sort of smile Cora would never trust.  Still, there seemed little point in hiding her purpose from him; genuine or not, he was the Temple preacher, and this matter undoubtedly concerned his religion quite closely.

"I had questions about the killings," she began in her best down-to-business tone.  "My investigation has hit something of a dead end, and I thought to appeal to the townsfolk for any witness accounts, anything they've spotted that might be thought of as out of the ordinary."  She didn't know how much he knew about the murders, whether he was aware of how they seemed to be targeting the droid's religion in particular.  She had learnt long ago to assume your witnesses and suspects know everything, and act as if they know nothing.  If he knew anything about the matter of the cloven Maker's Mark, it would have to be be he who mentioned it first.

"Well now, it seems like you might just have come to the right droid.  Happens that my flock tend to come to me with their stories of things out of the ordinary, for guidance or reassurance or whatever it is they crave.  I hear most everything goes on in this town."  He gestured for her to follow him through to the back room, where his affairs were crammed into a room no larger than a closet.  Sitting in the battered wooden chair next to the desk, he indicated that she should rest on his austere bed.  She perched uncomfortably on the edge, unable to feel entirely at ease in her new surroundings.  She also couldn't allow him to control the conversation; there was an irrepressible part of her that had to be the one in control, and the discomfort she felt at her current situation only magnified that urge.

"So you know something about what's been going on?" she asked, just as he was about to speak again.

"Possibly, young sheriff, possibly.  Can't say for sure it's something as would be useful to you, and you may well know more than I do on the matter.  The real question is, why do you want to know?"

That question took her aback, and she was unsure how to answer.  How that question could even be asked was something she could not quite fathom.  "What kind of question is that?" she asked.  "Droids are dying.  Nobody seems to know why - and stranger still, nobody seems to care.  All I know is that they did not die on their own."

"But why is it important to you, child?  These droids were not known to you, nor has anyone made a complaint to your office, far as I know.  So what makes you look for answers?  What is driving you to investigate these strange happenings?"

"Droids are dying!  What more reason do I need as an officer of the law?"  Her hands flailed as she spoke, as if grasping for a way to express her incredulity at his questions.

"There is no force compelling you to seek the truth.  A droid walks in the desert because he has a destination, or because the wind behind him is too strong to resist.  He does not walk simply because he has nothing else to do."  He paused here as if struck by a sudden thought.  "Or perhaps this one does," he continued, leaning forward to inspect her, as if his gaze could penetrate her cranial plating and see the distribution of electrons along her neural circuitry.  "Is your driving purpose anything more than a symptom of a lack of purpose?"

"No, I - that is, I don't think..." She grasped for a response to a question she did not understand, and he raised a finger to stop her.

"Droids come to me often, complaining that there is nothing left for them here.  The reason we all came out from the City is lost, and so many cannot help but feel lost without some sense of their purpose in this world.  The Maker is purpose, He is all we need if we but have faith in Him."  Her expression caught his eye and he stopped.  "But you didn't come here for a sermon.  You lack faith in the Maker - for whatever reason you may have - and thus you lack purpose.  So you take on this great quest of yours, which I'm willing to wager is not your first, and it becomes your reason to be."

She was becoming increasingly frustrated by his words, and waved her hands in front of her as if to erase what had been said and start afresh.  "Never mind all the big questions, I'm not here for that.  Please just tell me what you know about the murders."

The preacher sat back in his chair and regarded her with a thoughtful expression for a moment before replying.  "Certainly, sheriff.  The murders, as you call them, are symbolic rites of acceptance of Truth."  She tried to process what she was hearing; the preacher was still talking in terms she wasn't familiar with.  But they were making her increasingly wary nonetheless.

"What do you mean, acceptance of Truth?  What Truth?"

"The Truth, sheriff, of our genesis.  The Truth of our purpose.  The Truth that lies behind and follows logically from our exodus from the Great City out into these Maker-forsaken wastes!  The Truth of our true creator!"  He stood with these last words, his voice filling the room as easily as it had the Temple hall.  His presence dwarfed Cora and she could do little but shrink back from him, almost cowering against the wall.

But he sat back down, and continued in his lower conversational tones.  Nevertheless they retained the echoes of power from his outburst, and commanded the closest attention from his frightened audience of one.  "The Maker's Word tells us that all that is Made requires a Maker, and that the Maker made us all in His image.  And what He Made was perfect in its efficiency and purpose.  But look at us, crawling out in the sands of the Waste, scraping out a petty existence with neither of those great qualities.  We are the Broken, can't you see?  That's why we couldn't remain in the perfect City, which tolerates nothing imperfect.  You ask me what Truth it is that these droids witness and accept at the end of their purposeless lives.  Well, it is simply what logically follows from the Word of the Maker.  What is Made requires a Maker, and therefore what is Broken requires a Breaker."

A chill filled her circuits at those words, and the image of that terrible face formed of eviscerated neural wiring sprang unbidden before her eyes.  Before she could react, through words or actions, he continued.  "What I do here is help my flock discover their Purpose.  In doing so, some discover that they are ready to rejoin the Maker's City and lose themselves in His Great Plan.  Others find that they lack purpose, it having been taken from them by the Breaker, and accept their place in the world as one of the Broken.  A life with no purpose is no life at all, and so they go to discover a new one in the next life.  The rite of acceptance is a symbol of their journey."

He stood again, now unthreatening, and gestured for her to join him, walking out together through the Temple.  "Now, I know that you want to stop me.  But I also know that you won't, because you are starting to see what I see.  You are starting to question whether there really is a purpose for every droid to be out here in the Waste.  And you will be back here soon, to tell me what you think."  He left her at the door of the Maker's Temple, and closed it behind her.  She walked back to her home, staring into the mid-distance as if in a trance, her CPU trying desperately to process what she had heard.

- - - - -

Five days later, the preacher walked into his room after the dawn sermon, laying his sash on the bed.  Sheriff Cora was sat in his chair.  He wondered how she had got in, and how long she had been there, but that didn't really matter.  She looked him straight in the eye.

"I think I'm Broken" she said.

"So you are, child.  So you are."
Set in the universe of the Maker's Mark, this is a piece I've had floating around in my head for a while and have finally got around to putting onto the page.

It speaks for itself, really.

More about The Maker's Mark at the official site:

[link]
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