A short story by Roger Zelazny, set well after the end of human life. It explores the difference between man and machine. My copy is from the textbook Thought Probes

Humans created their robotic assistants, and set them to building up the world for them. After they had all died, the robots continued to develop the world. Man had placed Solcom in the sky, and the Alternate, Divcom, beneath the ground. Divcom was to be activated only if Solcom was unable to function. After a stray atomic missile (during the final annihilation of the humans) damaged Solcom, Divcom began to work. Solcom managed to repair itself, and the strife began. Neither would accept the other's rule of the world. This set up a system of good-versus-evil, though neither were "good" or "evil", more like two brothers arguing.

Two agents of Solcom were named Frost and Beta. Frost controlled the northern hemisphere, and Beta the southern. Frost was curious about humans, as he had never seen them. He began searching for what was left of the human civilization, and one day met Mordel. Mordel was a servent of Divcom, but brought Frost books written by the humans, and discussed what he knew.

Frost ends up making a deal with Mordel (and subsequently Divcom) that Divcom would provide resources for Frost to try to become human. If Frost failed, he would join Divcom forever (kinda like selling your soul). The rest is a journey of discovery about what makes a human human. (apologies for previously giving away the ending, to both those new and familiar with the story)


The title (and some decent quotes) come from A. E. Housman's poem A Shropshire Lad. Here is the bit from the story:

From far, from eve and morning and yon twelve-winded sky,
the stuff of life to knit me blew hither: here am I

...Now -- for a breath I tarry
nor yet disperse apart -- take my hand quick and tell me
what you have in your heart.
Thanks to tardibear for the link to the poem! The link was http:\\www.bartleby.com/123/32.html. Check it out for the rest. If someone (or I do) writes it up, I'll include that link here.
This is probably my absolute favorite short story/novella ever. I have it in the collection of Zelazny works entitled The Last Defender of Camelot. Mordel has already given a wonderful summary, I just wanted to add my wholehearted recommendation!

A couple more trivial points: Frost was created by Solcom. During his construction, there was a solar flare; Solcom can't remember what happened (he's orbital, so was affected) but when he came out of it, there was Frost, complete. This is why Frost has a name instead of a designation (like the Beta-machine).

Also, the last refuge of humanity was apparently in a South American town named Bright Defile.

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.

 

Plot summary

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.

 

Miscalleny

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, but you can find it online. 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.

Edit: Someone messaged me and informed me that the text is also published in the story collection The Last Defender of Camelot, which seems to be much more easy to get your hands on.

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