The sermon was over, and the last strains of O Come, All Ye Faithful had faded away. All around, people were gathering up their hats, their coats, knotting into smiling conversations as they headed out the wide doors.
John, also, stood up from the pew where he’d sat all alone, and gathered up his hat and coat. But the people around him weren’t smiling. The mix of expressions on their faces was one he knew well: some confused, some offended, most just looking away. But the pain they caused had long dulled, and by now it felt muted and familiar.
With long, easy strides, he passed the stained glass images of the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, the Passion, all framed by demure oak paneling. The soft whirring of his motors and the silver sheen of his face secured him a wide berth as he moved through the crowds. But as he neared the frowning exit doors, the pastor ran up behind him. John turned.
“Mr. Robot,” said the pastor, “would you join me in my office for a moment?”
“Of course,” said John. His synthesized voice remained pleasant, but his stomach sank – or would’ve, if he’d had one. He hoped he was wrong about what came next. This was the third church he’d tried this month already.
The pastor was a young man, handsome but sloppily shaven, and he wore a suit and tie instead of the flowing robes John had seen at the other churches. His office was a small place – apparently an add-on to the main building, as it lacked the colorful glass and stately oak that dominated the nave. The shelves were crammed with books.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Robot.” The pastor indicated a chair as he took his own seat behind the desk.
“My last name isn’t Robot. I’m John Symanski.” He said it kindly, still clinging to hope. “I don’t believe I know your name, sir. It wasn’t in the pamphlet they handed me.”
“Martin Eaves. The senior pastor is sick today.” Martin shook his head, as if to refocus. “I’ll get right to the point, Mr…Symanski. I think it would be best for everyone if you didn’t come to our church in the future.” He raised a hand preemptively. “It’s not that I don’t like robots. I’ve heard the news about robotic riots on the West Coast, but those are isolated incidents, and most robots are law-abiding citizens. I realize that. It’s just that your presence can be disruptive. Our congregation should have their whole attention on the word of the Lord, not be distracted by…well, by you.”
John looked at his hands, a deliberate gesture, more deferential than he felt. “May I not also hear the word of the Lord?”
“Of course. Of course. But you could study privately, or – well, I think there’s a robotic church down in Dansfield – ”
Finally John let a little of his frustration come out. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” he said, less quietly than before. “The word of our Lord.”
Anger flashed in Martin’s eyes for a second. “Devils can quote scripture too,” he snapped. But he composed himself. “Look, John. You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought. You’re educated. I’ll just get right to the heart of it. You being here…there’s no point. Churches are about salvation, they’re about grace. And you – ” Now it was Martin who lowered his eyes. “Well, robots don’t have souls, John. There’s nothing to save. That’s not my choice, that’s a decision from God.”
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
“Jesus spoke those words to humans, John. There’s no salvation for a pocket calculator. I’m sorry.”
“There’s no salvation for a gerbil, either, but you and I are neither of those things.” John knew it was over, that he was only digging himself deeper, but he was too stubborn to leave.
“The point – ” Martin began again, but the words died on his lips. He looked up, past John, to something behind. John turned in his chair and saw a man in his fifties, hair already pale gray, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. The man sniffed. His nose was red, and he carried a tissue.
“Pastor Lanson,” said Martin. “I thought you’d be at home.”
“I would be if my wife had her way, but I needed some papers from the office.” He smiled at John, a warm, genuine smile. “I’d shake your hand, but I’d better spare you my germs.”
“I can’t get them,” said John, bemused.
“But you might shake someone else’s hand,” said Lanson, winking. “I won’t stay to talk, but I wanted to welcome you to our church. I do believe you will be our first chrome-skinned brother. Will you be joining us next week?”
Hope flared in John’s mind, but he didn’t dare trust it yet. Martin was behind him, so he couldn’t see the man’s reaction. “I have been told,” John said carefully, “that I do not have a soul.”
“Oh, well,” said Lanson. “Maybe you don’t and maybe you do, but that’s nothing too difficult either way. Jesus went to a party, once, and they didn’t have any wine. Come on back, and we’ll see what we can do.”
P.S. Remember, it’s AI week over at Ben’s blog too! You can read his own, rather different take on the Singularity in yesterday’s post, and today I believe he’s planning to write his own forty-minute story.