By Floris M. Kleijne
Teleport 2018 science fiction contest- honorable mention
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been…” Father Zio sighed. “It’s been thirteen years since my last IRL confession.”
Behind the lattice, Bishop Otis shifted in his seat.
“But–” the Bishop said. He paused before continuing: “And how long has it been since your last online confession?”
“A week, Father. But it’s not the same. It’s not.”
“Go on, my son.”
“I have harbored unkind thoughts at times, about members of my flock. I have had lustful thoughts at times.” Father Zio smiled quietly to himself. Mr. Dooley’s dramatic antics of feigned ecstasy at every Mass were enough to bring unkind thoughts to the holiest of minds, never mind his own flawed, rehabilitated soul. As for Mrs. Ocura’s cleavage… Let’s just say some things were worth a couple of Hail-Mary’s.
“Go on, my son.”
The Bishop’s prompt made him realize he was marking time with these minor sins, postponing the inevitable, while he knew exactly what he should be confessing instead. Father Zio believed in confession, needed the cleansing of his soul. But it was unfortunate, to say the least, that Bishop Otis was the one taking it. No matter. No sense delaying any longer.
“I have been prideful. I have defied the wishes of the Holy Church.” There. That would put an end to any doubt Bishop Otis might still have had. “I have defied… you, Father.”
From behind the lattice came the sound of indrawn breath, followed by a long silence. Then:
“How so, my son?”
The week before, Bishop Otis had introduced Father Zio to his replacement.
Admittedly, Andrew had been convincing. Except for an almost subliminal hum when it stood up from its seat, the new priest could have passed for human in any gathering. They had spent fifteen minutes arguing doctrine, and Andrew’s command of Scripture and religious philosophy had been impressive to the point of intimidation.
“I’ll leave you two to discuss the practicalities.” Its voice carried perfect timbres of kindness and self-effacing respect. Zio had no doubt it could cast its voice to the proper tone for any occasion. “If you need me, I’ll be on board the Pius VI.” The episcopal vessel was moored off air lock 42, waiting to take the Bishop back to the diocese. The Bishop and, if the Most Reverend had his way, Zio as well.
“Yes, thank you, Andrew.”
The door between Zio’s chambers and corridor K hissed closed. Bishop Otis was still standing behind the plain sofa where Father Andrew had sat, his hands hidden in the wide sleeves of his purple cassock, smiling benignly as if bestowing a blessing on the departed priest. Father Zio rounded on the Bishop, but his many outraged questions battled him into silence. The Bishop neatly stepped into the opening.
“So, Father, do you feel ready to start your life after penance?”
So that was how he wanted to play it. This new Bishop was very different from his late predecessor, Bishop Armanez. But Father Zio wasn’t ready–or willing–to talk around the elephant in the room.
“A robot? You’d replace me with a robot, Most Reverend?”
“The Holy See has coined the term Paracreational Shepherd. But yes, a robot, if you will.” The benign smile on the Bishop’s face didn’t fool Zio for a moment.
“No.” Father Zio’s mind teemed with objections, arguments, outraged exclamations, but the single negation was all he could utter.
“My son, do you realize what the diocese is offering you? Absolution, the end to your penance, an easy, planet-side congregation close to Earth. God willing, a congregation on Earth itself, when it comes available. To be absolved of the sins in your past, Zio. Isn’t that what you want?”
The sins in his past. Father Zio would never have expected it to be put so bluntly. Things must have changed in the Mother Church while he tended this tiny backwater parish. Or maybe it was just this new Bishop who preferred a mundane, speak-your-mind approach that would have been considered shockingly inappropriate when Father Zio was first ordained.
He had been just Zio when he found Christ in prison, doing hard time for a wide range of cybercrimes. The Church had accepted him, taught him, ordained him, but hadn’t readily forgiven him. In the dark recesses of his mind, he still wondered sometimes how much of their outrage had been about the innocent victims he had made, and how much about the moneys he had liberated from various hidden Vatican Bank accounts. It didn’t really matter though: he considered his service on dilapidated Outpost Psi fair penance for the deaths he had caused.
“Most Reverend, with all due respect, that is not the point. I’m sure Father Andrew was easy to replicate and cheap to ship, but that doesn’t make him a priest! How can a robot ever serve a congregation? How can a robot commune with the Holy Trinity? Will the Diocese train monkeys next? Or is it now the position of the Church that robots possess a soul?”
Bishop Otis actually flinched for a second, but he quickly recovered into icy fury.
“It seems you read His Holiness’s encyclicals with less attention than you should, Father Zio.”
Zio racked his brain. There had been upheaval at an almost Galactic level over the last Papal missive. The accepted interpretation of the encyclical was that Franciscus IX wished to open the Church to alien intelligences. But reviewing the text in his head, Zio realized that the exact wording could as easily be made applicable to artificial intelligences–to robots.
“Mea culpa.” He did not trust himself to say anything else.
“Te absolvo.” The Bishop absently waved a blessing at his priest. “This is an opportunity for you, Zio; I would have expected you to see that. You’re not getting any younger, and frankly, these… incidents in the last months…”
Not that again.
There had been two incidents, two. And both had been a result of the ill-maintained AG systems on Psi. It seemed that anything might cause a malfunction these days, from turning on too many appliances at once, to slamming the light panel too forcefully. First time the AG faltered, Father Zio had been pouring the sacramental wine. The fumes had first stained and nauseated his floating congregation, and then burst into a spectacular fireball above the altar as the candles ignited the vaporized alcohol. Except some charring of the altar cloth, and a couple of singed eyebrows, the damage had been limited. The second time, a ball of holy water had drifted up through the Church. Letting his parishioners plunge their hands into it as they entered had admittedly been ill-advised, however practical it had seemed at the time: the scattered smaller and smaller droplets had splashed all over the church module when gravity returned.
Holding these against him was a stretch. Using them as proof of his senile incompetence infuriated Father Zio.
“With all due respect, Most Reverend, I still say No. My congregation needs a real priest, a human priest, one with a soul; not some artificial collection of rote liturgy and pre-packaged responses. It may not be a large parish by your standards, they may number less than a percent the population here, but these are fourteen immortal souls you’re playing with.”
That, finally, got a rise out of the Bishop. He jerked his right hand free and raised it.
“Careful, Father. An unkind ear might think you’re contradicting His Holiness. And frankly, it is not your place to refuse or accept. This is the wish of your Church. It is your place to meekly comply!”
That was it. The threat of heresy, and the demand for obedience. And while he believed with all his heart and soul that this was dangerous to the life eternal of his flock, he had sworn to serve the Church. No sense arguing any longer.
Sense had never been his strong suit, though.
Father Zio had to admit that the robot performed remarkably well. He considered himself a good priest, a master of liturgy, but Andrew was something else entirely. Despite himself, Zio felt himself being swept along in the rhythms of the service, participating in the congregational responses, carried aloft on the prayers. He had to remind himself that this was artificial, an automated performance honed to perfection, his own sense of the Divine a conditioned response rather than a real effect of this canned Mass. Even the utilitarian metal interior of the small module took on a sepulchral reverence under the slow echoes of the robot’s voice.
He fingered the object in his cassock pocket.
From his seat to the side of the altar, he could see that the members of his flock–no, Andrew’s now–were taken in by the performance, as moved now by the robot’s Mass as they had been by his own farewell sermon. Mr. Dooley was making as much of a fool of himself as always, swaying from side to side with eyes closed, and Mrs. Ocura tried and failed to get the robot’s attention. The others were… enraptured, even Bishop Otis. Carried on the waves of Father Andrew’s melodious reading, all faces displayed a concentrated attention Father Zio had never seen during his own services. Maybe he was a heretic for even thinking it, but such devotion through the service of a soulless automaton could only be the work of Satan, couldn’t it? He couldn’t remember whether Franciscus had invoked papal infallibility in His encyclical, but everything he saw, everything he felt about this mockery of Mass, told him He couldn’t have. In his mind’s eye, he could see the souls of his flock blackening as they were swept away by the ministrations of this false idol.
This travesty had to stop.
“The body of Christ.” Anatolyev, the station’s third engineer, accepted the host on his extended tongue. Petr was a pious and honest member of the congregation. It always gave Father Zio hope to see such a hard scientist demonstrate such faith.
Next in line, Mrs. Ocura knelt for her Holy Communion. Impervious to her wiles, the robot intoned “The body of Christ” again, its voice pleasing and melodious even in this ritual phrase. The shuttle pilot was flirtatious and possibly adulterous, but essentially harmless.
Behind her was Mr. Dooley, already shivering in anticipation. Father Zio had tried to find patience in his heart for the old gas miner, but it was hard. His pious ecstasy was too obviously feigned, his regular confessions too loudly self-righteous if not all together fictitious.
Mrs. Ocura rose sinuously to her feet and stepped to the side to make her way back to her seat. Mr. Dooley rushed to take her place, dropping to his knees with bent head like a caricature of penitence. His deep sigh was audible all through the church module as he raised his head to accept the host.
Zio pressed the button in his pocket.
A slight stutter marred Father Andrew’s movements. It recovered quickly, but its immaculate performance had lost its perfection. Zio smiled through his guilt.
Confusion broke through Mr. Dooley’s serene mask. The robot stood frozen, host extended, face still.
This time, the interrupted word was followed by a brief burst of static. No one in the congregation could mistake Father Andrew for a human any longer. Its face contorted in a rapid-fire sequence of expressions as its operating system fought the Trojan Father Zio had uploaded the night before.
It had been an easy hack, really. Access is ninety percent of hacking, he used to say, and the robot had a maintenance port in the back of the head, right under the hairline, as well as a wide-open RC module. Making the modifications to freeze the Father mid-mass had been no effort at all.
“Father?” Mr. Dooley got to his feet and extended a hesitant hand towards the stalled automaton.
And perhaps he should have stopped there. Judging by the outrage on the faces in the congregation, this was enough: they would never accept his replacement now, insist on his staying on. Perhaps this was enough. But the final insult had come once he had accessed the OS and called up the sysinfo.
Father Andrew was a modified entertainment model.
He had been replaced by Crooner 3.2.
Even though it had been enough to convince his flock, even if he’d had a second button to stop this, the Church deserved the embarrassment. And his great-grandfather’s collection of late twentieth century classical music had provided the perfect finishing touch.
“–body down to the ground,” Father Andrew suddenly sang as Father Zio’s Trojan broke through the final lines of defense. The robot struck a pose, and slid into a smooth, rapid disco jive, scattering hosts.
“Let’s dance, let’s shout, shout, shake your body down to the ground!”
The parishioners got to their feet as Mr. Dooley recoiled. Scattered shouts of indignant fury accompanied the crowd to the double doors. Mrs. Ocura slammed the panel, causing the lights to flicker even as the doors sighed open.
And while his parishioners, without missing a beat, clawed their way through the open doors and floated into the hallway, and Bishop Otis attempted to air-swim down the aisle towards the altar, Father Zio assumed a relaxed pose some distance above his seat, and watched in contentment as Father Andrew attempted to moonwalk on thin air.
Father Zio accepted his penance, not because he deserved it–though he believed he did–but because his penance and his purpose coincided. He thought Bishop Otis suspected as much, but faced with a choice between leaving Psi Parish unshepherded, assuming the local priesthood himself, and reinstating Zio, the Bishop probably didn’t think he had much of a choice at all.
The Hail Mary’s and Lord’s Prayers, though, he would double on his own account, for while he believed he had done the right thing, it had been disrespectful and disobedient. He would pray, and he would make more of an effort to inspire and raise the spirits of his flock; the robot had at least given him that much more motivation.
“Te absolvo,” the Bishop said behind the lattice, with a hint of reluctance.
“Thank you, Most Reverend,” he whispered getting up. “And God bless you.”
Bishop Otis stayed seated in the confessional for a few more minutes, eyes closed, in apparent meditation. Then he stood up, with an almost subliminal hum.
Floris M. Kleijne [ www.floriskleijne.com] began his writing career by winning the Writers of the Future contest. He’s since had over two dozen stories published, in publications like Daily Science Fiction, Reckoning, Galaxy’s Edge, and many others. He lives in a centuries-old farm house in the heart of the Betuwe river district (The Netherlands), where he writes his fiction in the interstices between his career in finance, his lovely wife and two cheerful sons, and his craving for ever more Netflix binges. Read more about his writing, Real Life(TM), and atrocious customer service, on www.floriskleijne.com. For more of his stories, grab the free stuff on his site, or visit his Amazon page [https://www.amazon.com/Floris-