What it is
For a Breath I Tarry is a short novelette written in 1966 by Roger Zelazny, whose works seem relatively obscure and unappreciated. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth; a giant and highly complex machine known as Solcom has been granted god-like “dominion” over the Earth, and directs the activity of billions of machines in the rebuilding and reconstruction of the planet. He eventually elects to split his dominion between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres; all the machines in the Northern Hemisphere being controlled by a machine named Frost (who is the “main character” so to speak in our story), and all the machines in the Southern Hemisphere being controlled by the Beta Machine.
Solcom is an orbital machine, ruling the Earth from the sky, and was damaged by a stray missile from Mankind’s past, but was able to self-repair himself to full function. However, there is another “god-machine” deep within the earth, known as Divcom, whose programming was that it was to take over the rebuilding and reconstruction of the Earth if Solcom ever became non-functional. Divcom awakens, and although Solcom is fully functional, Divcom is convinced that it must take control of the Earth. They engage in a sort of “war”, in which one destroys the works of the other; bombing bridges and structures, that sort of thing. Divcom lacks the resources (aka is billions of machines behind Solcom), and comes up with the devious plan of implanting Solcom’s machines with a chip that takes control of them. Therefore, Divcom’s forces grow.
Frost (the machine whose dominion is the Northern Hemisphere) is Solcom’s greatest creation. He eventually meets a machine known as Mordel, who is allegedly not created by or directed by Solcom or Divcom. Mordel tells him of Man; Frost, of course, knew of Man, and that Man was superior, but was baffled by the concept of Man experiencing measurements and concepts non-quantitatively; to be able to feel a thing without measuring it. Frost, in his hubris, believed that he was capable of all forms of experience; he could measure anything, compute anything. If Man was capable of a perception that He was not, then he must become like Man in order to become perfect.
Mordel visits him again in the future, this time willingly aligned with Divcom. He develops a sort of “bargain” with Frost; Mordel would give him access to a library and collection of thousands upon thousands of (now-ancient) books and artifacts of mankind, and in return, if Frost reached the conclusion that he had failed to become like Man, he would “sell his soul”, so to speak, to Divcom, joining him and all his forces to Divcom’s dominion.
I won’t summarize the rest of the story because I have already communicated the plot and essence, and I wouldn’t dare spoil it. It’s too good, too worthy of appreciation, to be spoiled. I will say that it left me feeling emotional and inspired, it is absolutely worth the read. Apparently only like 600 copies were ever published of the text alone, but you can find it online. Someone messaged me one time and told me that you can also find it in a little collection of Zelazny’s stories called The Last Defenders of Camelot. I found a shitty HTML version with a lot of transcription errors, but someone sent me an EPUB (e-book file) of the text without any errors, and I would assume it wasn’t too much of a hassle to find.
That being said, I’ve always been a sucker for the whole “androids that try to be human” trope, so I guess I could be moderately predisposed to like this story. It’s good, though. Trust me. The ending was amazing.