Two brown chickens roamed the courtyard, hunting and pecking for snacks between the cobblestones as they purred and groaned and clucked. The sky was amber. The sun had not yet cleared the hills.
"Jeez," said Tim, rubbing his cramped neck.
Through the doorless doorways of the basalt and clay houses surrounding the small courtyard came the sounds of breakfast -- the clinking of pots, the slosh of liquids, the phlegm-thick cough. The people sleeping in the courtyard began to stir, too. They sat up and knuckled their eyes or clutched their backs. The chickens scattered.
"Good morning, sir," said Jeremiah.
Tim nodded wearily. "How're we doing?"
Jeremiah reached into a crevice in his carapace and withdrew a dusty pocket watch. The lid popped open and the glowing face of the device was reflected in the robot's black eyes. "Less than a hundred hours, sir," he reported, snapping it closed.
Tim gulped. "Crap."
Jeremiah tilted his head. "Do you need to excrete waste at this time, sir?"
Tim rolled his eyes. "That's not what I meant." He paused, then scratched his nose. "Actually, yes. Pick me up, will you?"
"Sir," nodded Jeremiah, effortlessly hoisting the ample young man up over his head to rest upon his armoured shoulders. Jeremiah straightened and Tim grabbed at the robot's face to keep balance, his useless legs swinging freely.
Tim sniffed the air. "Thataway," he said, pointing.
When they got back Yakob was doling out scoops of hot fish soup to anyone with a bowl. Jeremiah removed the cup of armour over his left shoulder and handed it to Tim, then bent down to bring Tim and the bowl level with Yakob's ladle. Yakob's eyes were wide. He gave out a splash of soup with a shaking hand.
"And for yourself, pilgrim?" he said through a dry mouth, looking down at Jeremiah crouching before him.
"No thank you, sir," said Jeremiah.
"We have alternatives to meat and bean if you are Pythagorean."
"No thank you, sir," said Jeremiah again, tone and emphasis identical to the first time.
Yakob made a faltering attempt at a smile and then hurriedly pushed on past Jeremiah and Tim to serve the next group of hungry pilgrims. They immediately began whispering about the strange pair, pestering Yakob for answers. Yakob glanced over at Tim who looked away to pretend he wasn't looking.
"They're going to stone us," grumbled Tim, sipping fish soup from the dirty shoulder piece.
"I do not believe so, sir."
Tim made a face, staring accusatorily at the soup. "I'd kill for some bacon."
"The Judaean Galileans do not consume pork, sir."
"I know, I know. I'm just saying, is all."
The day turned hot. The people in the courtyard babbled. Some traded trinkets and many traded stories. Tim cocked his head to listen as the translator in his ear fought to decode the dialects and argot of a dozen kinds of Aramaic and Greek. He overheard that several of them had come to see Mara Yohanan but since he had been killed by the Romans they reckoned settling for the upstart Mara Yeshua was preferable to an altogether squandered spiritual pilgrimage.
The babble died. A party of bearded men in loose robes came into the courtyard. All eyes turned to them. The first men parted to admit a taller man whose robe was tied at the waist, his skin golden and his Far Eastern features beatifically placid. He moved purposefully across the yard in a direct line toward Jeremiah and Tim.
In a quavering voice Tim asked, "Um, are you the Lord?"
But the man did not reply or even turn to look at Tim. Instead, his widening eyes were fixed upon the robot. His mouth dropped open, worked silently for a spell, then at last he croaked in obvious amazement, "...Jeremiah?"
Jeremiah inclined his head. "Do you know me, sir?"
"This is impossible," muttered the man, a glaze of sweat breaking out on his brow. "How did you find me?" he asked desperately, and then lapsed into a gush of gibberish.
Tim's translator whispered helpfully in his ear: "Error."
Jeremiah shook his head. "Sir, I do not know your language."
The golden skinned man narrowed his eyes. In Aramaic he said, "You don't understand the Common Verbal Protocol? How can that be? This isn't right. This isn't right at all..." Cryptically he added, "You're not even supposed to be here yet."
Jeremiah's head snapped up. "Sir, have you been temporally displaced?"
The man paled. "You don't -- you don't even know, do you? Mother of love!"
"I can't tell you! Don't you understand? If I say anything I could destroy it all!" He looked around wildly, gasped an incomprehensible oath, then turned on heel and ran out of the courtyard as fast as he could, leaving the pilgrims and his bearded companions alike staring dumbfounded after him.
Tim blinked. "Well," he said to the robot after an interval, "that was weird."
An instant later a quartet of young men with thick necks and grim expressions crossed the courtyard and arrayed themselves around the duo. One of them grunted in a clear tone of command to get moving. Jeremiah bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement and then, ringed by the serious young men, proceeded to walk toward the small west gate.
The squadron escorted them inside one of the larger houses, passing through several open doorways and moving further from the light of day. Tim was obliged to squeeze himself down over Jeremiah's head in order to clear the low thatch ceiling. The afterimages of the hot courtyard refused to clear from his murky sight.
"It's a stoning for sure," hissed Tim.
They were introduced into a small room with a single low table bearing a candle. The air was close and rife with various human perfumes.
The serious young men left. Tim coughed.
Yet another bearded man in loose robes appeared at the threshold, ducking his head to clear the timber jamb. He sat down on the floor on the far side of the table and bobbed his head to indicate that Jeremiah should do likewise. The robot folded neatly into place, then hefted Tim down next to him with exquisite care and tireless strength.
"Sir," said Jeremiah, "we implore you to help us attain an interview with Mara Yeshua."
The man clasped his hands together briefly in an attitude of respectful servitude. "It is already arranged, pilgrim."
"Sir, when shall we see him?"
"Good stranger," smiled the man, "you are seeing him now, as we speak." He spread his hands and shrugged, then dropped them in his lap.
Tim's eyes widened, and then he burst into a fit of hysterical giggling. Jeremiah and Yeshua looked at him.
"I'm sorry!" blurted Tim.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, his round face flushed. "I just -- I don't know. Meeting him himself and everything. And he's real, I just can't stop myself..." Tim interrupted himself with another attack of shrill, nervous laughter.
"Is your friend alright?" Yeshua asked Jeremiah.
"Sir, he is experiencing an attack of social anxiety. It is not wholly unexpected."
Tim snorted, then blanched. "I can't believe I just snorted in front of Christ," he cried. "Holy crap."
Yeshua watched this exchange quietly, his brow furrowed in thought. At last he turned to the robot as Tim fought to muffle his snickering. "Tell me, pilgrim," said Yeshua, "how is it that your friend's mouth appears to move ahead of the words I hear?"
"His words are being translated, sir, as he has no Aramaic."
"And yet I do understand him."
"The translator knows Aramaic, sir. It suppresses the sound of Tim's voice in order to make its own words plain to the ear."
Yeshua rubbed the tip of his nose with his index finger. "Where is this translator you speak of?"
"Sir, the reception bead is embedded in Tim's skull. The register that widely sows the language streams is here, sir, above my left hip."
Yeshua frowned. "I am lost."
"I will endeavour to explain --" started Jeremiah.
Yeshua held up a hand. "No," he said firmly. "Patience, pilgrim. I will endeavour to see for myself. Be calm. Both of you, good strangers. Look to me now. Let me see."
Yeshua gazed at his guests.
Tim tried to look away but found himself drawn back into Yeshua's humble, every day brown eyes. Flecks in the irises glinted brassily in the guttering candlelight. Those eyes bore into him, wandered over him, seemed to reach out and touch him.
Tim felt seized inside. He clenched up but then almost instantly felt the tension melt away, lost in the pools of Yeshua's pupils. Tim took a deep, ragged breath.
Yeshua's mustache twitched. Quietly, almost silently, he breathed, "My child, the weight you carry...the depth of regret...keenest loathing for the self -- oh child, the sorrow."
Tim's heart started racing. He shut his eyes. "Don't," he squeaked.
"My child," repeated Yeshua, "what sin could you have committed to so rot your every hope?"
He reached out across the table and touched Tim's arm. Tim flung it back as if electrocuted, his face wild. "I want to get out of here!" he cried, leaning into Jeremiah. "Please, Jeremiah -- take me away. I can't breathe. The ceiling's sagging. Come on! Let's go! Please!"
Jeremiah wordlessly scooped Tim up into his armoured arms. Yeshua stepped out of the way to clear the door, then Jeremiah bowed his head and carried his charge into the narrow corridor. Tim clutched the robot and wheezed, his breath slowing only as they emerged back into the light. Jeremiah placed him down on a stone bench beside a fountain outside the courtyard where the other pilgrims waited.
Tim drank like a dog, eyes on the splashes.
The pilgrims in the courtyard noticed Yeshua in the open air and they began to press against the nearest wall, spreading and thickening like mud. Their talk died away as they fastened onto him with their hungry eyes. The teacher, meanwhile, continued to gaze down sadly at Tim.
"I can help him," said Yeshua, touching Jeremiah's shoulder.
"Sir, I suggest we let my companion recuperate for the time being. May we continue our conversation?"
Yeshua considered this as he took note of the eager pilgrims. He left off rubbing the tip of his nose pensively to give a curt nod. "Walk with me, Jeremiah."
They walked along the path between courtyards, the pilgrims they left behind watching jealously. Children played in the byways, singing rhyming songs. Yeshua put his hands behind his back and watched the little ones skip and tumble for a few moments as they sauntered along. As last he said, "Are you horribly burned?"
"Why do you wear a masque? Why won't you unveil your eyes for me?"
"Sir, these are my eyes."
"I see only rounds of polished crystal."
"I posses no more than what you see, sir."
"But I see nothing behind them. I see no soul."
"I may have none, sir."
"Every man born of woman has a soul, pilgrim."
"That may be so, sir," agreed Jeremiah, "but I was not born of woman. I was grown, sir, by the tools of men. I am made of metal and crystal, as you say, sir. I have no meat."
Yeshua's pace faltered, and he turned to search Jeremiah's black, dust-coated lenses once again. He swallowed heavily. "You are a golem?"
Jeremiah paused, then nodded. "Sir, that is a reasonable description."
Yeshua scratched under his beard as he looked Jeremiah up and down. Then he resumed ambling along the path. "If this is true," he said slowly, "your creator must be a very holy man."
"Many say so, sir."
"I reason he must have dedicated you to a mission of great importance."
"Quite, sir," nodded the robot. "There have never been consequences so potentially dire."
"So," said Yeshua, stopping again and facing Jeremiah, "you are the golem of a holy man; you are possessed of incredible strength such that you can lift a corpulent man on your shoulders without strain; you can even make intelligible speech, and more than that you are capable of preternatural feats like putting speech inside the ears of others. Tell me, Jeremiah, I beg: what could I, a simple teacher, possibly do for a being so powerful as you?"
"I cannot alter the laws of the world, Mara Yeshua -- I must submit to clocks and weight. The clock is running out and the weight is too great: we require the assistance of many hands, sir, in order to rescue our apparatus."
"But why come to me?"
Jeremiah cocked his head. "Sir, the idea was Tim's. I cannot attempt to represent his precise reasoning, but what he said to me was, 'Jeremiah, when you're trapped in Roman Judaea and you need help bad, who else are you going to ask besides the world's most famous nice guy?'"
Yeshua blinked. "I have a reputation even in your distant country?"
Jeremiah nodded. "Yes sir, though it is an undiscovered country by your reckoning. Tim and I are victims of a great cataclysm that has destroyed the sun and opened a tear across time. We have been tossed from the very last days of Earth itself, and if we cannot restore our apparatus to operation within two days I fear all history will be unwound."
"Everything in your attitude tells me you are not mad," said Yeshua, "but what you say is difficult to fathom."
"Sir, I know what I describe is incredible. We do not bring this burden to you lightly. We simply have no one else to whom we can appeal. There are not enough explanations told and untold in the world to ever make the situation clear: all I can ask is that you believe our desperation is real."
Yeshua pressed his mouth together, eyes distant. A breeze rustled the olive trees. After a moment he carefully pronounced, "Pilgrim, what would you ask of me?"
Jeremiah raised his chin. "A day's work from sixty willing men, sir."
Yeshua nodded solemnly, looking Jeremiah in the eye. "For you, golem, I will arrange it," he promised. "Compassion does not require comprehension."
"Thank you," said the robot with a bow.