This novelette was originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas, and is temporarily available on this page for the purposes of awards consideration. The back issue containing (emet) is available for purchase here.


by Lauren Ring

i. detection

When protesters take out the power at her Silicon Valley office, Chaya is at home, watching a golem pull dandelions.

The morning air is clear and cold. Chaya can hear her computer pinging alerts at her from inside her farmhouse. As soon as the dandelion patch is gone, she wraps her knee-high figurine in satin, pressing the cloth against its soft clay midsection. She lays her golem gently down by the riverside. A single tap on her phone activates the preprogrammed subroutine that wipes the alef from its forehead, leaving only the letters mem and tav—every instance in its code of emet, truth, becomes met, death.

She slips the bundle into the water, watching the satin flutter away in the current as the golem returns to the wet sediment. All that is left of Chaya’s creation are smears of ochre on her fingers and lines of code on her hard drive.

Chaya wipes her hands on her jeans and heads back to her daily bug tickets, ready to find out the day’s fresh disaster. Working from home has its perks, but maintaining her plot of land would be impossible without the help of her golems.

After a few false starts, Chaya has the bestowal of life down to a science. Each morning at dawn, she molds assistants from clay, connects them to her wireless network just like any smart watch or Bluetooth dongle, and passes them the day’s variables: a list of chores, with each step painstakingly defined. The golem in charge of the dandelions finished early, but there are others of various sizes lumbering about the yard, carrying eggs from Chaya’s chicken coop and clearing loose stones from her long, winding driveway.

Chaya stumbles over a heap of dandelion roots on her front porch and swears. She has forgotten to specify that it must dispose of the roots on her compost heap, not just wherever they happen to land once plucked. Another tweak for her chore list. There is less and less time for quality assurance these days, and Chaya tries to pour as much of that time as possible into her code for Millbank Biometrics.

“Sorry I’m late.” She slides her headset on before she even sits down, logging in to the morning standup.

“No worries. Headquarters lost power just now, so I’ll be taking over until management can find a hotspot.” The sprint leader smiles as he speaks. Chaya will never understand how her coworkers can be so cheery, not with the bug tickets stacking up and the release date approaching. Millbank has contracts with social media platforms, telehealth doctors, and even law enforcement agencies, so management has been very clear that there’s no postponing this release. Still, Chaya doesn’t want to seem unmotivated. She smiles, too, and taps her mic back on.

“That’s the third time this month. Is everything all right over there?”

“It’s just the privacy protests again. Legal still thinks we’re only collateral, since the office complex also houses a few major surveillance vendors. There’s nothing to worry about—especially for you, Chaya.”

The privacy protests rose up to oppose the expansion of surveillance and shrank after the laws passed, but are ramping up again now that the implementation date approaches. Even Chaya has to admit the new guidelines are uncomfortably broad. Thanks to lobbying from the deep-pocketed tech companies on Millbank’s confidential client list, neither consent nor search motive will be necessary for facial recognition, anywhere in California. The protesters may not know the names behind the change, but that doesn’t stop them from cutting power lines anyway.

It’s more of a nuisance than anything, at this point. Chaya is tucked safely away in the countryside, and she doesn’t blame the protesters for trying to protect themselves. Millbank’s software is relentless. She wouldn’t want to find herself on the wrong side of it.

“We’re heading into crunch time,” the sprint lead adds. “If we just keep our heads down and push a little harder, we can get a stable build ready by the Phase Two launch date.”

There are a few cheers. Phase Two has been a long time coming. It’s an upgrade to Millbank’s facial recognition, a comprehensive system that can detect and identify faces even at significant distance. Phase One, which is over a decade old now, is glitchy and unrefined enough that a particularly shadowy rock could probably trick its neural net. Millbank has advertised Phase Two as “unstoppable.”

Their new system is scheduled to launch on the same day as the new surveillance legislation is implemented. If the power keeps going out, Chaya will have to work overtime to make that happen.

At least she’ll have her golems to help her. She wonders if her mother envisioned this use case back when she taught Chaya the word of creation, but decides that this is an unproductive line of thought. There’s no time for tears today.

“Let’s go around and check in with everyone. Chaya, would you mind going first? Camera on, please.”

“Sure, one moment.” Chaya spots a golem on the video preview screen, climbing up to patch her roof, and tilts her monitor to hide its sunbaked arm. “I’m on bug reports today, and if I have time after that, I have some margins to fix.”

Someone else speaks up next, their face lit green with microphone activity, and Chaya switches off her camera again.

“There’s a protest here in Los Angeles now,” her coworker says. “I’ll try to keep reviewing everyone’s code, but there’s a chance they might take out our power, too. I’ll keep you posted.”

When the meeting ends, Chaya switches back to her task list and settles in. She works on the front end, coding the screens that clients will see as they install Phase Two. No proprietary algorithms or dramatic decisions for her. Just realign this and double-space that. She may not get much recognition, but if anything ever goes wrong at Millbank, it won’t be her fault.

Between meetings, Chaya keeps her head down as instructed. She is distantly aware of something happening in another branch of the company, something hushed and urgent and protest-related, but she is never pinged to discuss it. This is not the first time such a thing has happened, and Chaya has learned to know her place. Head down. Push harder. There are bugs to fix, even if the truth of what she is doing gnaws at her like water eroding clay. She’s safe out here in the countryside. If she wants to stay safe, she has to do as she is told.

Chaya was four, old enough to mold Play-Doh but not too old to try eating it, when her mother taught her how to craft a golem. She pulled and prodded the neon dough into shape while her mother guided her hands. Slowly, the lump took the form of a squat figure, with stubby legs barely large enough to support its weight.

“This is a golem,” her mother said. “Golems come to life and protect those in need, just like in the olden days I tell you stories about. Do you remember the stories?”

“It looks like Lolo,” Chaya said, giggling. Lolo, a pink dancing elephant, was Chaya’s favorite virtual character. She formed an elephant trunk on the golem’s face and smiled.

“Be serious, Chaya,” her mother scolded, pressing the trunk back into formless pink dough. “You must respect this gift. We are the only ones who can raise golems.”

With a slim wooden stick, her mother carved the word emet into the golem’s forehead. When she finished the last letter, the little pink creature shivered to life. Chaya stared at the dark cracks that suggested its features.

“Give it something to do. It will listen to you.” Chaya’s mother set aside her carving tool and began crafting another golem out of hunks of bright green dough.

“Dance,” Chaya ventured, thinking of Lolo.

The figurine burst into jerky motion, twisting and shaking. Chaya clapped, thrilled, but the golem kept dancing and dancing until pieces of itself splattered across the kitchen table. The scraps of Play-Doh jittered around until Chaya’s mother took her thumb to a piece of crumbling forehead and wiped off the alef.

“Why did it fall apart?” Chaya, distraught, tried to meld the pieces back together, but it was too late.

“You never told it when to stop. A golem will do exactly what you tell it to do. Nothing more, nothing less.” Her mother brought the green golem to the center of the table and retrieved her carving tool. “Don’t worry. You can always try again.”

ii. alignment

It’s night by the time Chaya signs off, and her back aches from sitting hunched over all day. Lines of code scroll past her inner eye every time she blinks. She frees herself from her desk and walks outside, pushing through the chill and the tickling caress of the tall grasses. The night is as thick and as comforting as river mud.

Fresh clay from a riverbank is the best for building golems. It has the ideal consistency, damp enough to sculpt but thick enough to hold its form and not crumble to pieces when it dries. Chaya has tried all sorts of materials and mostly anything will do, but hers is a life of iteration and efficiency. Less input, more output.

Chaya finds her golems huddled at the very edge of the water, waiting for deactivation as instructed. She deactivates them all at once, watching as they slump back into inanimate masses, then begins to dispose of them. There isn’t enough satin left to wrap them all in. Her mother always used satin and it feels disrespectful to use anything else, but it’s too late to drive into town. She wraps the last golem in a blanket of thick reeds and slips it into the dark waters.

The next morning, Chaya sculpts two golems. At lunch, three. They aren’t supposed to be used for frivolous things, she knows that, but the motion of the work and the texture of the clay soothe her anxiety even when she runs out of chores for them to do. Hebrew glyphs are becoming as familiar a sight in her farmhouse as the scripting brackets on her dual monitors.

Near the end of the day, an unexpected meeting invitation arrives in her inbox. It’s not that she hasn’t been flooded with last-minute schedule changes already, but this email was sent by the legal department and the meeting begins in ten minutes.

A chill like the river runs down Chaya’s spine, even though she can’t think of anything she might have done wrong.

Attached to the invitation is a document filled with unfamiliar faces. They are numbered from one to thirty-six, and the email also contains their associated faceprints. Chaya can identify a few of them from the news as protest organizers, but most of them she can’t place at all. Unable to focus on her half-written code, Chaya stares at the faces until the meeting begins, burning every last detail into her mind’s eye.

When she logs in to the meeting room, she is greeted by several rows of faces that she does recognize. Chaya wasn’t the only one to receive the invitation: There are other front-end engineers, back-end engineers, and even customer-service agents on the call. She is relieved to see more coworkers trickle in until what feels like the entire company is present.

“Thank you all for joining me on such short notice,” the rumpled-looking legal representative says. Faint chanting is audible in the background, seeping through the protective walls of the Silicon Valley office. “Law enforcement has asked us to check every face that our servers process for a match to the attached faceprints. Hopefully we can refine this in the future—engineers, I’ll be speaking to your managers—but for now we’ll need to manually review any flagged match with a confidence of at least ninety percent.”

Confusion spreads across the faces on Chaya’s monitor. If her camera was on, she is sure that she would see the same expression reflected in her own frown. Tracking protesters isn’t exactly what she signed up for when she applied to Millbank. Sure, it’s what their software was ultimately going to be used for, but she wasn’t supposed to have to do it.

“Are there any questions?”

Chaya expects someone to ask what crimes these people committed, or what is going to happen to them when the information is turned over to the police, even though she already knows the dark answer to that. She expects questions about ethics and precedent and nondisclosure. At the very least, she expects someone to ask how they are supposed to check every partial match from every instance of every client’s software without neglecting all their other work.

No one asks any questions, though, not even her manager, so Chaya stays in line and keeps quiet. She sets the thirty-six faces to display on one of her monitors and returns to her code. What else can she do? She’s only one person, after all.

Chaya was thirteen, but only just, when she cried hard enough to frighten her bat mitzvah guests. Tree shadows flickered against the walls of the courtyard, picked out in wheeling, staccato bursts of red and blue. Through the glass windows of the banquet hall, she could see one of her friends crying in the back of a police car. He was in the grade below her at school, one of the only Black boys in their suburban district, and always traded snacks with her at lunch. Seeing him behind a barred cruiser window didn’t feel real.

“Dad?” Chaya turned to her father. “Can’t we help?”

“An officer told me their system identified him from a photo booth picture that someone here shared. I didn’t argue. It’s best not to get involved.” Her father knelt by her chair and laid a hand on her knee. The pink tulle of her dress was stained with teardrops.

“But can’t we tell them they’re wrong? He’s not even a teenager yet. There must have been some sort of mistake.” Chaya wanted to go to her friend, but surely her father knew the right thing to do. He was an adult, after all.

“Technology doesn’t make mistakes, Chaya. Their system saw what it saw. I’m sure they’ll let him go once he answers their questions. Why don’t you go ask the DJ to play some happier music in the meantime?”

“Mom?” Chaya looked over, desperate for a different answer. Her mother didn’t respond. She hadn’t been herself lately. She walked heavy and slow, dragging her feet, and her mood turned sour in a heartbeat. Chaya had hoped her mother would call for justice and action like the heroes in her stories of their ancestors in Prague. She could even build a golem, which she hadn’t done in weeks, but she only stared at the ground. It was as if she had retreated into a shell of her own making.

“I’m just trying to keep you safe,” her father said. “You’ll understand someday.”

Eventually, the police released her friend. He darted for his phone and made a tearful call. Chaya stood up, ready to comfort him, but her father caught her eye and motioned for her to return to her chair. Obedient, trusting, Chaya sat.

“I’m okay, Mom,” she overheard her friend say in a shaky voice. “Some engineer called them and said it was a false positive, a glitch or something. They’re gone now.”

Just before dessert was served, a minivan pulled up where the police car once parked. Its headlights were dull and yellow. Chaya’s friend walked outside without saying goodbye to her. His parents held him tight, their family safe and whole out by the car, and the lights from the DJ’s booth shone on their tired faces. Then they left.

“You did the right thing,” Chaya’s father told her as they drove home that night. Her mother slept soundly in the passenger seat. Chaya kicked off her shoes and picked at the tearstains above her knee. “I’m sorry your friend had to deal with that, but sometimes there’s just nothing we can do.”

After that night at the bat mitzvah, Chaya and her friend drifted apart. He didn’t bother telling her why. He didn’t need to. Eventually, Chaya pushed aside her regret and let herself believe her father’s words.

iii. extraction

With only two weeks left until the release of both Millbank’s system update and California’s new legislation, Chaya wants nothing more than to stay at her keyboard. Unfortunately, her refrigerator is empty, and her tiny plot of farmland is nowhere near subsistence, even with the help of her golems. Some things can’t be fully automated. Chaya signs off at dusk and heads into town, shopping list in hand.

The road is long and dark, but quiet, and mostly empty. Every once in a while, sleek cars with low profiles streak past Chaya’s pickup truck. When she leaves the countryside, clusters of buildings begin to appear, and the long shadows cast by orange-hued streetlights rove across her face with every turn.

Under cover of night, workers are beginning to hang new cameras. Their digital eyes will open soon to watch over the state, just like their active counterparts in the most crowded urban centers. Chaya’s code will guide the agencies that guide their lenses. For now, they sleep.

“Welcome in,” a tired clerk says as Chaya enters her favorite grocery store. It may be far, but it has a kosher section, and that alone is worth the trip.

They don’t have any satin. Chaya takes a few extra produce bags and murmurs a preemptive apology to her golems, then loads up her cart with fresh fruit and vegetables before moving on.

A crash in the hot-food aisle draws her attention. She hurries over to find a customer struggling with a basket brimming over with food and jars of canned goods, some of which have tumbled to the linoleum below. The customer has a Star of David necklace, smooth brown skin, and a kind, round face that seems somehow familiar. They look more frightened than Chaya would expect from a simple grocery store spill.

“Don’t worry,” she says, kneeling to gather the dented cans. “None of them broke open.”

“Thanks,” the customer says, but they don’t relax. Chaya hands over the cans. Their basket is full of staples, all rice and kosher noodles and canned beans, mixed in with a strange combination of face paint and permanent markers. “I appreciate you coming over to help. Fuckin’ techies down the aisle didn’t even pause, but then, you know how they are.”

“I’m an engineer,” Chaya points out, bristling.

“Oh. Sorry.” The customer shrugs. “Most of the folks I meet around here are just out for themselves. It’s nice to see that isn’t true of everyone.”

Maybe it’s because she’s feeling defensive, or maybe it’s just time passing, but either way, something clicks in Chaya’s mind. The customer’s face falls into place in her memories like a vector map aligning. They are one of the thirty-six on Millbank’s watchlist.

“I do my best,” Chaya manages to reply. She glances around for security cameras. What if someone sees them together? No one at Millbank will believe that this customer is a total stranger to her. She feels exposed, vulnerable.

“Hey, do you live around here? There’s going to be a surveillance protest in Silicon Valley in a couple weeks. It would be nice to have some tech allies show up. If you’re interested, I can send you the details.”

Chaya thinks of Play-Doh and protection, girls and golems. She thinks of sirens outside a bat mitzvah.

“I’m just passing through,” she says, and flees.

On the drive home, Chaya can’t take her mind off that stranger and their basketful of groceries. She didn’t see their face through the system, so she has no obligation to report them. They didn’t appear to know that they’re being hunted, but Chaya signed a nondisclosure agreement, so she does have an obligation not to tell them. Doing nothing seems like the best path, but her hands are trembling on the steering wheel.

The stranger’s face haunts Chaya all through the week and into the weekend. She wishes she could ask her mother for advice, but she can’t, and that only makes everything worse. All she can do is toss and turn in bed, staring at the evergreen shadows on her wall. One day she prints out the full Millbank watchlist; the next day she shoves it in her compost heap. In the evening she prints a dozen more copies that she folds and unfolds like a ritual. Everything seemed so much simpler when she was young.

By the time the week of the Phase Two release arrives, Chaya is too overwhelmed to worry about the watchlist or the protests anymore. Messages are flying everywhere, priorities are changing, and the video calls are never-ending. When she finally sits down for a late lunch, her brain is so stuck in code-mode that it’s easier to set up a golem than to microwave some leftovers. There are fresh chicken eggs on the counter. She writes a quick script instructing the golem to scramble them, then activates it.

Instead of cracking an egg, though, the golem sits on the floor, alive but still. It looks almost contemplative. Chaya frowns and checks her code. Her mind isn’t in the right place today. She probably forgot to specify what to do with the eggshells or left out the location of the carton.

The code reads: (emet)

Nothing could go wrong there. The activation word was tried and true, more tested than any part of Millbank’s software. Chaya scrolls down to the chore list, expecting to see her messy egg-scrambling subroutine pasted in from the other window.

The code reads again: (emet)

Her heart skips a beat. She whirls around, but the golem has already left.

Chaya finds it right where she expected it to be, doing exactly what she told it to do. The golem is down by the riverside, digging its nubby hands into the damp mud of the shore. Beside it, a lump of clay is slowly taking shape. Emet, the golem was instructed. Truth, yes, but also the word of creation. By absent-mindedly passing the activation word as a task for her golem to complete, Chaya has created a physical quine: a self-replicating program, writ large.

She sits back on her heels and watches the riverside rise. Golems of all shapes and sizes emerge from the shore, all with the same intricate forehead inscription. They each sit a moment, contemplative. They each build one more golem. Then they slump back into a waiting posture.

Chaya’s mother once told her the story of the original golem of Prague. That golem was created to protect the Jews of the city, but when the threat was vanquished and the golem was set to chores, it broke free of its master and rampaged through the city. Chaya’s panicked thoughts jump to scenes of destruction, her desk in pieces, her flock of hens scattered.

There are ten golems on the shore, with an eleventh half-built. They are peaceful and still, for now, but they’ve dug huge gouges in the riverside. Chaya grabs her phone and tries running her deactivation program.

The chain reaction stops. Emet turns to met. A dozen golems sit lifeless on the riverbank, looking for all the world like an army of terracotta soldiers.

She doesn’t want them. Power, truth, creation—all of it just complicates her simple life. The golems should be used for something greater, by someone greater, not commanded to scramble eggs by a tired engineer who has missed Yom Kippur two years in a row. She feels the indent-eyes of her creations fixed on her, judging. Finding her wanting.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Chaya shouts. She knows what happens to whistleblowers, and it’s not a cushy job offer with the option to keep working from home. Nothing to gain, everything to lose. So why can’t she get the protests and protesters out of her head? Why does she feel unmoored in her own life, which was once so comfortable?

Chaya crushes the replicated golems beneath her fists, destroying the words on their foreheads entirely. She can make her own lunch.

When she returns to the river that night to clean up the golem shards, Chaya wraps their clay pieces in watchlist printouts and lets the truth sink to the bottom of the river.

Chaya was eighteen, the number of life, when her mother fell ill. Her family had only just switched insurance carriers when a delayed physical turned up the cause of her mother’s constant fatigue. Tumors. Cancerous, metastasized, and the scariest adjective of all: preexisting.

“It’s policy,” their agent explained, avoiding eye contact with Chaya and her father as he passed them the denial of coverage letter. He turned back to his computer, flicking through documentation. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”

They took her to the hospital anyway, sinking college savings and retirement funds alike into Chaya’s mother’s medical care. It was nowhere near enough. They ran through even the most desperate lines of credit available long before a surgery slot opened up, and by then she was no longer a good candidate anyway. Against the wishes of both father and daughter, Chaya’s mother was moved home for hospice.

Her room, once quiet, became a hub of activity. Golems toddled in and out, carrying stacks of clean dishes and scraps of damp cloth. The room smelled of bedsores and candles. While Chaya’s father retreated, unable to watch his wife succumb to disease, Chaya stayed by her side as much as possible.

“Dad says he’s not going to call the hospital anymore,” Chaya complained late one gray afternoon. Her mother was sitting up to sip her tea, a rare sight and a welcome one, but her hands quivered around the mug. Dark circles stained the skin under her eyes, and her wrists were so thin the bones showed. When she spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper.

“That’s probably for the best, at this stage.”

“It’s not fair,” Chaya said, incensed. She balled her hands into fists at her sides to keep herself from crying again. “We should send out the golems. They’re supposed to protect us, right? That way we can make the hospital treat you.”

Her mother set the mug of tea aside and pressed her thumb to Chaya’s forehead, tracing a pattern on her skin. Chaya didn’t need a mirror to know what she was spelling. The three Hebrew letters of emet were as familiar as a kiss.

“There,” said her mother. “Now you have to do what I say.”

“Mom, I’m not a golem,” Chaya protested, but she sat still and waited for instructions all the same.

“Don’t go after the hospital staff. This is something too big to fight with a few clay dolls, and I’m afraid it’s too late anyway. Just be brave, and don’t lose sight of the truth.” Chaya’s mother stroked her forehead so gently that it took Chaya a moment to realize what she was doing. Her thumb brushed over the place where the alef would have been. Met.

When her mother died, Chaya buried her by a river under a veil of satin. The funeral was attended only by Chaya, her father, and a few sturdy golems, commanded to carry bags and offer tissues. Their clay was damp and salt-stained from Chaya’s tears as she sculpted.

They lowered the casket in with tender precision, then each added a shovelful of dirt. Even the river was quiet, as if in respect. When Chaya’s father sobbed and clutched his chest, Chaya knew just what to say to absolve him of his guilt.

“Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”

iv. comparison

On the day before the Phase Two release, Chaya’s breakfast tastes like ash. She chokes it down anyway, staring hard at her monitors, keeping herself busy. Busy is good. If Chaya stays busy, then she can’t think about the watchlist flags or that night at the grocery store.

Next on her task list is a series of last-minute requests from Millbank’s existing clients. Some of them look strange. Most of them look unnecessary. It’s a little too late to be changing things, so Chaya pings her manager, asking if they can reprioritize the requests. Won’t the clients be satisfied enough with a revamped system? Shouldn’t they focus on actual errors?

Not my call, her manager replies. Sales says these are our biggest accounts, and they already promised the changes.

There are no client names attached, but it’s easy enough to tell who wants what. It must be a social media company that wants their match-results page to look prettier, and a police department that wants the accuracy rate estimation to be moved to a different screen. The request that really stings is from a hospital that uses Millbank for their check-in system. They want insurance documents to be the first item displayed upon identification, not medical history.

Chaya isn’t naïve. She has seen the protests, heard the news, lost her mother. She knows what horrible chain reactions these changes will contribute to. But they’re so small, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, and Chaya has already spent months improving Phase Two for these companies. Everyone has. Given the size of Millbank’s team, no one will even know it was her. She’s not even a cog in a machine, she’s just a drop of oil that helps the cog turn.

As she types, implementing changes and submitting them for review, Chaya glances out the window to her wrecked river. A gentle breeze kicks up ripples that smooth out the gouges in the shore. Her golems did exactly as they were instructed, and still they were destroyed. No, too passive: Chaya destroyed them. She did it, all on her own. How long had it been since she had done anything without being told to do it?

The longer Chaya works, the more doubt creeps in between chair and keyboard. Her rapid-fire typing slows.

She’s not so different from her programmed clay. Input to output with no evaluation in between, listening to anyone who commands. Chaya thinks of the stranger in the grocery store, with their basket full of small things. Was the face paint they bought meant to protect them from recognition? From the new system Chaya worked so hard to build? It won’t be enough.

On her personal computer, Chaya opens a private window and searches up the protests for the first time. They have their own website. Alongside a summary of California’s upcoming legislation change, the drastic extension of surveillance, a video from a past protest plays. Every face in the video is covered with a solid black box.

“Give what you are able, help where you can,” says a distorted voice. The protester is holding a megaphone, and Chaya can see the glint of a silver chain just beneath the black box of their face. “We may not be able to defeat this bill, but still we cannot abandon the fight.”

It’s a line from Pirkei Avot, sort of. Chaya’s stomach twists. That could be her out there, if things had gone differently, but instead she is sure the speaker is the Jewish stranger from the grocery store. The stranger from the watchlist.

Her inbox chimes at her. She has a new private message from her manager at headquarters, where the wi-fi is out for the fourth time.

Chaya, do you have enough time for some capacity testing before the release?

It’s either that or finishing these client requests, Chaya points out.

This is more important, her manager writes back. I’ll pass on the details from management. Thank you for being so reliable.

That would have been a compliment, once. It’s more of a back-end question, but she’s asked Chaya. She trusts her, maybe even values her input.

Chaya values her golems, and yet they are disposable.

She pulls up the most recent server statistics for Phase Two and stares hard at the numbers. Millbank has already tested for typical levels of demand, and even some surges, but now management is requesting performance beyond even the previous peak. It can’t be a coincidence that they’re asking now, right before the surveillance bill goes into effect. They want to scan the protests, and tomorrow is going to be the biggest day yet.

There’s no time left for stalling. Chaya wants to think it’s not her fault that she sits safely at home, that she has no power and no alternative to complicity, but the truth is, she isn’t a golem. Even doing nothing is a choice that she makes.

The army she raised from the riverbed comes to mind, but there is no one physical enemy for them to fight, no way for clay to overpower willful ignorance. Instead, Chaya recalls her mother’s tales of massive golems and Nazi forces. The golems offered protection. They took the blows while her people fled, living to rise again another day. They were not the heroes, they were shields that the heroes could wield. The last words her mother ever spoke to her ring in her ears.

Chaya has been so focused on protecting herself that she has lost sight of the truth of whether or not she is the one that needs protecting. The government isn’t coming for her right now, but there are other people in danger.

With one final look at the riverside, Chaya sets her fingers back on her keyboard and re-downloads the watchlist faceprints. She reaches for her clay and begins to mold a prototype. It’s human-sized, one of many to come. Chaya will work until her riverbed is scraped empty—after all, she has a lot of lost time to make up for.

She’ll test Millbank’s server capacity, all right. She’ll do exactly what they asked, in a way they never anticipated. Tomorrow she will find out if it’s too late for change. Today she prepares.

The clay takes shape under her steady hands.

Chaya was twenty-five, still so young, when she interviewed for a position at Millbank Biometrics. Her hands shook as she passed her resume over the desk. Millbank was her last chance to take the first steps toward a bright future.

“It says here that you last worked at a synagogue,” the interviewer said. She wore red lipstick that looked like blood against her white skin, along with a lapel pin that said #girlboss. “Can you tell me more about what you did for them?”

“Web development, mostly. Their public site and internal pages are all my work.” That role had been local, a compromise for her father, who still desperately wanted her to keep living at home. He wouldn’t be happy about this interview, either. Chaya tried not to think about that.

No matter what her father wanted, Chaya needed to get out of the house where her mother died. Her memory was a blessing, but there was more to life than memories. Her father wouldn’t let her change anything, let alone build golems, even though they were Chaya’s strongest connection to her mother. He claimed it was for safety, but he was always afraid. Chaya’s mother had wanted her to be brave.

“I see. Excellent.” While the interviewer typed something on her laptop, Chaya smoothed the grief out of her expression. “Here at Millbank, we’re all about teamwork. Tell me about a time when you set yourself aside for the good of the company.”

Teamwork was a softball question, something off every prep sheet. The interviewer liked her. Chaya rattled off a prepared answer about crunch time and setting aside work-life balance. She was willing to do anything to get the job done. All she had to do was make that clear, and the job was as good as hers.

They ran through a few more easy questions before the interviewer checked her watch and closed her laptop. She smiled, and Chaya’s heart soared.

“Well, everything looks good to me, but I’ll have to consult my team before we make any final decisions. Oh, and smile for the camera on the way out. We’ll need to scan your face and run it through our system for background checks, but I’m sure you have nothing to worry about.”

Chaya looked into the dark mirror of the camera lens and grinned. No more fear, no more hardship. At Millbank Biometrics, she was going to make her mother proud.

“We’ll be in touch,” said the interviewer.

v. recognition

Computer programs are just like golems. No matter what, they always follow their instructions. Millbank intends to tell their system to detect and identify every instance of the thirty-six watchlist faces, so that’s what the system will do. The engineers have done their job well, and Phase Two can handle the estimated protest turnout with ease.

Chaya can’t change the program anymore, but with enough time and clay, she can change what it sees.

She works all night and into the morning, perfecting her code. It’s not the sort of thing she can check for bugs easily, but she does her best, testing and testing until her floor is more mud than wood. One of her monitors shows scrolling code while the other displays a sandbox version of Phase Two, set to a disconnected version of the facial-recognition system.

Next to Chaya stands a golem of gray mud and beige clay, built taller and broader than herself. With rough movements, aided by a sharp stick and a dull rock, it is carving its own head. The resulting features are little more than the suggestion of a face, but that’s enough for Chaya.

She has fed the faceprints from the watchlist into the golems’ code. Instead of a generic suggestion of eyes and nose, her creation bears an approximation of one of the thirty-six suspects’ faces. Chaya checks each carved golem’s face against her test environment at every angle and lighting setup she can manage. Photographed from a distance with a hat and a mask, the golem could easily be mistaken for human. It just needs to be mistaken for the right human. When the readout displays a match, she instructs the golem to smooth its face clean of everything but the Hebrew on its forehead and start again.

By time the gray-white light of dawn breaks through her curtains, Chaya is satisfied with her creations. She masks her face with dark cloth, loads her trusty pickup truck with as many golems and buckets of pure mud as she can fit in the bed, and heads for the freeway. The streets are jammed with vehicles. Half the streetlights are already out. Chaya leaves her truck at a gas station when she arrives, as close to the wave-dampened shores of the San Francisco Bay as possible. Once the protest starts, she’s going to need all the mud and clay she can get.

As Chaya waits under the soft layers of low-lying fog, she idly sculpts with her clay. Not a golem, for once. A small elephant from the depths of her memory. It reminds her of her mother, even if she doesn’t quite remember why, and that gives her a quiet sort of strength.

She can’t make out the words from the megaphone-wielding marchers yet, but she can see them spaced out among the front lines and hear the rhythmic way in which the other protesters echo their chanting. It sounds like a song, or a prayer. They break through the fog like so many rays of sunlight, then disappear again as they continue on down the street.

Chaya pulls her phone out of her pocket and is unsurprised to see that her notifications have maxed out. Most of the messages aren’t even directed at her. It’s release time for Phase Two and everyone is scrambling to launch. She doesn’t bother to read further, just loads up her home-brewed golem application and initiates the last element of her plan.

The code begins: (emet, emet)

Each golem will create two more golems before moving on down the chore list to sculpt a face assigned by its birth time. The series is a geometric progression of creation, and the golem decoys will quickly grow to rival the human crowd. Once they’ve served their purpose, Chaya only has to initiate the deactivation subroutine, erasing every alef with a single tap and collapsing her golems back into inert clay.

Chaya watches with pride as her pre-prepared golems dig into the soft, yielding mud from the heavy buckets in her truck bed. They build quickly, then mold their own faces as the newborn golems turn to the sediment of the bay. Some sacrifice themselves in the waves to retrieve raw material, but two more golems rise in the place of each lost to the water, stronger and streaked with grass and stones from the shallowest shores.

As the first disguised golems head out into the city, looking directly into the watchful eyes of every security camera and drone lens they pass, Chaya checks her messages again. Soon the disturbance will start overwhelming the manual reviewers, then the servers themselves. As she scrolls, she heads toward the city center. The marchers are all wearing masks or thick paint, and they carry signs with all manner of witty quips and emotional pleas. The long shadows of the nearest buildings stretch down the sloped street behind them, making each protester look for a moment as tall as a skyscraper.

Lots of weird data coming from the bay, one of her coworkers reports.

Chaya was supposed to test capacity, can anyone reach her? asks another.

I think she’s out sick, a third engineer replies. This data does look off. Let’s set anything coming from a mile radius of that area to disregard for now. I’ll push the code.

Chaya’s heart sinks. Her golems are doing their best, and they are fooling sensors where they can, but they are still clay. They can’t travel fast or far. They aren’t enough.

She lugs a bucket of mud and a golem to the city center anyway, hoping that bad data in the middle of the crowd will at least make Millbank block out more of the protest. On the sidewalk of a street barricaded with sandbags and reflective tape, she hears something familiar.

“Go ahead, take whatever you need,” the stranger from the grocery store says to a line of protesters. They are standing by a table stocked with food and a sign that reads mutual aid. The stranger is wearing a mask and a layer of face paint, but there are packages of kosher noodles on their table, and their voice is unmistakable.

Chaya approaches them, golem in tow.

“I made it,” she says.

“I’m sorry, have we met?” The stranger pauses in their work and leans forward, peering at Chaya and her golem. Chaya takes a deep breath before unraveling the cloth around her head, exposing her bare face to the protest organizer. She lifts the hat of the golem as well so that they can see the word emet etched on its forehead. Its face matches theirs.

“You invited me. I’m here to help.”

“Hold on a moment.” The stranger steps away from their table and pulls Chaya to one side, shielding their face with their body. “You know it’s not safe to show your face, right?”

“Trust me, I know. That’s why I disguised these golems, to divert attention. Only, they can’t get far enough.” Chaya’s shoulders slump. “I just wanted to tell you that I tried.”

“Golems in disguise, huh.” The stranger’s eyes dart between Chaya’s golem, the bucket of mud, and the other decoys filling out the crowd behind her. They don’t panic at the realization that Chaya’s companions are animate clay. Perhaps their mother once told them the same stories that Chaya heard from hers as a child. After a moment’s thought, they place a hand to the golem’s cheek, then rub the residual clay between their fingers. “I think I know how we can make this work.”

It’s simple enough, in the end. Each recipient of donated items gets a miniature golem and a request to pass it along or leave it by the side of the road somewhere. Even if they don’t fully understand, the protesters are agreeable enough to take a clay doll with their food and face paint. They may not trust Chaya, but they trust the protest organizer, and that is enough.

As they march, bike, and drive away, Chaya updates her code, setting various time delays for the golems. Already the data is starting to shift. A human chain far greater than anything Chaya could have done alone will stretch across northern California and beyond. The miniatures they scatter will build full-size siblings, prompting sightings of the thirty-six in so many places simultaneously that the servers will crash and the search will have to be postponed. By then, the protest organizers can hide. By then, Chaya can put in her two weeks’ notice. By then, the golems will have faded back to dry dust.

For now, as her coworkers start to panic and the protest surges forth, Chaya is just another face in the crowd. It’s a different kind of anonymity than at Millbank, where she was known but ignored. Here in the streets, here where no one is alone, Chaya’s actions are her voice. It has already taken her far too long to speak up. No matter what the future holds for her and her creations, it will be a future she has chosen, and she chooses truth.