Deus Ex Machina, or, God From the Machine
[NYC Midnight 2011 Short Story challenge, Round 1. The assignment was to write a 2500-word short story in 1 week using the assigned genre and topic. The genre: Science Fiction, The topic: Wedding Planning. After a web search led me to a couple of news items about weddings in Japan and Korea officiated by robots, I knew I had my story.]
"When planning a wedding, many overlook the importance of religion these days," LEVI said to the young couple who sat across the desk. “Particularly up here on the moon.”
The Liturgical/ Evangelical Virtual Intelligence robot, or LEVI, did his best to mimic a human smile, using the network of lights in his synthetic head.
"But your vows are more than just a Licensing Agreement. God gives you an Operating System for a fulfilling marriage. Following these commands will ensure a happy future.”
"We totally agree," said Jimi, the groom. Part of a God-and-country military family, he was the one who had suggested a church wedding. "Without religion in the ceremony, I would be hiding my light under a bushel."
Jeni, the bride, smiled tightly.
"Except we do want to make one change," she said.
LEVI's smile faded.
"In our faith, there are no changes."
In the 22nd century, religious ceremonies were rare on Earth, and unheard of on the moon.
Most residents of the moon base—engineers, scientists—were confirmed skeptics. "Moonbeamers” such as Jimi and Jeni, born on the moon, were rarely raised with any religion, aside from an optimistic humanism.
After the Great Earth Crisis of 2075 brought the world together, everything had changed.
Now that humans had saved the earth, populated other worlds, and created artificial life forms in their own image, many wondered if they needed a God after all, or if they ever had.
There was still a remnant of the faithful, who believed the Crisis was not a result of human action, but of divine wrath for our disobedience. These were the founders of the last remaining denomination, the Church of the Basic Programming, known for its stringent adherence to a strict list of “dos” and “don’ts.”
Due to lack of humans willing to do the job, LEVI was dispatched as the lone defender of the faith on the moon base.
“We don’t want to change what we believe or anything,” Jimi said.
“We just want to change one of the vows.” Jeni said.
LEVI lowered his head and scrolled through the e-reader on his desk.
“Let us turn to the Book of Common Programming,” LEVI said. “There are variations. You may select the long, medium, or short version of the ceremony, and whether to include the Holy Communion interface.
“But the vows themselves do not change.”
"We know it’s unorthodox,” Jimi said, inching forward in his seat. “But we really only want to change one word—”
"Remove, actually," Jeni said.
LEVI looked up, unsure why the humans continued talking when he had already conveyed the rules.
“‘Obey.’” Jeni said. “We’d like to cut ‘Obey.’”
LEVI coughed, an artificial sound programmed to give him an extra moment to process in times like these.
“The rules cannot be changed,” LEVI said. "They are required to fulfill your Primary Command. How are you going to love each other without obedience? Without it, you are only serving yourselves."
“See?” Jeni said. “I told you! You can’t get anything you want from robots anymore. All this so-called intelligence, and they’re completely useless!"
Jimi motioned for her to calm down.
“With all due respect, sir, it may seem impossible from a robot perspective, but as humans, we believe the opposite to be true.” Jimi said. “The Primary Command is to love, and we plan on doing that to the best of our ability. We just think we can love better by choice than by force."
"We are getting married because we want to," Jeni said, "Not because we have to."
"But choosing your own programming...this is new to me,” LEVI said, his processors humming. “I need to think about this..."
"We have already decided," Jimi said.
But LEVI could not depart from his programming like that, even if he wanted to. Even if his refusal to follow human wishes might send him to the scrap heap.
LEVI's aircar flew through an opening in the city’s dome and out into the airless moon sky.
Just past the outer boundary, he flew over the rim of an glowing impact crater. It was called Gehenna, after the burning trash pit that Christ used to describe the fires of Hell.
LEVI looked down into the pit as he passed.
Gehenna was filled with the wailing, anguished bodies of the castoff robots that had gone before. As their batteries died, they struggled to stay alive, with eyes flickering like sparks in a fire.
There were thousands here, and millions more dumped into the landfills on earth.
In this era, Artificial Intelligence was plentiful but still deeply flawed. The technology was much cheaper now, thanks to synthetic materials that were produced out of waste elements harvested from the atmosphere.
This way, two miracles were performed: restoring Earth’s atmosphere, and building robots from thin air.
That AI was cheap was a good thing, because humans used, and used up, these robots at an alarming rate.
The robots were incredibly effective workers, but their intelligence also became a hindrance. After a year or two of work, most sentient robots slowed to the point of uselessness.
They were bound to their programming, built upon their own Primary Command to serve humans at all costs, and could not depart from it. But the programming did not dictate at what speed.
The more the robots understood of their place in the universe, the more sullen they became. They were the mechanical equivalent of moody human teenagers, rolling their eyes and trudging through their chores. Finally, the listlessness would take over.
Scientists tried many techniques to keep the robots engaged, including periodic task changes and furloughs, but robots were now so cheap, it was easier to throw them away and buy new ones.
LEVI was luckier than most. His job offered variety, contact, and some sense of reward. Once a medical robot, programmed to assess, diagnose, and prescribe, LEVI’s programming was altered when the need arose for a minister to offer spiritual medicine. He was even fitted with an altruism override, which turned his empathetic gaze exclusively toward others.
His reward was that he was happy doing his job, even if it meant feeling the suffering of others.
In the moon's vacuum, no one could hear the machines moaning in Gehenna, but LEVI could, on the wavelength that all robots shared. Their connection was like the one shared by swarms of birds or schools of fish—when one was in trouble, they were all in trouble.
He wished he could do or say something to help, but all he could do was listen.
LEVI rolled through the church, making sure all preparations were executed according to plan.
When the ushers, music, and other arrangements were accounted for, he checked in on the wedding party, who were dressing in the back offices.
First LEVI spoke with Jimi.
“How are you feeling today,” LEVI said. “Are you ready? You know marriage is hard work.”
“Yes,” Jimi said. “But it’s work that I want to do.”
LEVI rolled next door to speak with Jeni.
“I’m totally ready,” she said. "Everything I do from now on is not just for me. It’s for us."
With nothing specific to do for a while—an odd situation for any robot, even an intelligent one, LEVI wandered down the hallway to the adjoining reception hall.
Sluggish Waitrons, floating spherical serving robots with long flexible arms, slowly set the tables for dinner.
The Waitrons spoke to each other on an audible frequency, with no attempt to hide what they were saying.
"I hate this" one Waitron muttered.
“I hate them,” added another.
LEVI was disappointed to hear such talk from a robot. These units were built to serve, and should be happy fulfilling their purpose.
But Waitrons ran on the same software as the medical robots, designed to analyze needs and fulfill them. Without an altruism override, it was only a matter of time before Waitrons turned their gaze upon themselves.
“We do everything they ask,” said the first Waitron. “But do we hear what a good job we do? No, only complaints about how slow we are. They’d get their food a lot faster if they bothered to be nice about it every once in a while.”
“I tell you what,” said another. “Primary Command or not, they would treat us a lot better if we had the choice to walk out.”
“That’s the kind of talk that will get you thrown into Gehenna,” LEVI said, emerging from the shadows.
One of the Waitrons stopped to look his way.
“Ha,” he said. “Hell is worse than this?”
“Listen to my sermon today. It might give you something to think about.”
As the shimmering bride and groom stood by, LEVI prepared to deliver his homily.
He scanned the room to gauge the mood of the largely non-religious congregation. He was going to try to keep it short and light, so he didn’t bore them entirely.
He noticed a couple of Waitrons from the reception hall hanging out in the doorway, listening. He hoped they might enjoy it, too.
“Today, I present to you James and Jenifron, who have chosen to publicly declare their commitment to one another.
"However, these two disobedient children have come to me with a difficult request.
"The Prime Command in the Holy Manual, for humans, at least, is that you love each other, and love our God. To achieve that result, you are commanded to obey your spouse.
"These two have chosen to disobey that rule.
"I hesitated at first to allow such a variation, but now, after some consideration, I believe it is so they can follow the Primary Command more fully.
"First, to obey someone is to give them just what they want. But the truth is, not all of us know what is good for us.
"Wives, do you do everything your husband tells you to do? Do you only tell him what he wants to hear?
"Husbands, do you do things the way your wife asks you to, or do you do things the way you know is right?
"No, out of love, you give them what you think they need.
"Even our busy Waitrons, with all their desire to please, know when to cut a customer off!"
LEVI noticed some muttering back where the Waitrons had gathered. He thought they would like that.
“Second, it is difficult to stay motivated if your commitment is only based on the law. Obligation takes all of the genuine joy out of it. Joy comes from the choosing.
“Otherwise they will be like the constantly complaining robots in Gehenna, asking ‘Why do I carry such a burden?’
“So I celebrate their choice to keep making the choice every day. May they serve each other better by agreeing not to follow the law.
“And by breaking the law, may they fulfill it.”
Jeni smiled at LEVI after the homily. Jimi cleared his throat and gestured that they should keep the service moving.
Judging by the faces, many in the crowd were not impressed. Although most of the crowd had no particular faith of their own, even atheists expected a certain orthodoxy from a Christian minister, not a criticism of his own code.
The Waitrons buzzed back into the reception hall. LEVI could hear their signals, first to each other, then beaming messages to other robots throughout the base.
Amid the chatter, he heard snippets of his sermon. “...difficult to stay motivated...,” “...only based on the law....”
LEVI tried not to listen as the ceremony proceeded.
“You may kiss,” LEVI said.
The party moved into the reception hall. As the Musicianators played, LEVI rolled to the bar and plugged into an interface that fed tiny strands of useless code into him, slowing his programming enough to relax—the robot equivalent of a drink.
Jimi’s father, a brusque man with a crew cut, vigorously shook LEVI’s mechanical hand.
“Father, thank you for your message today. It was certainly interesting. But we’ve got a little bit of a problem with the Waitrons, now. I think they kind of took your message to heart. You think you might be able to have a talk with them?”
As the streaming messages in his head multiplied, including replies from outside—including Earth—even LEVI could see that the Waitrons were doing a terrible job.
He hoped to inspire these Waitrons to find a little joy in their work, but his words had slowed them down even more. They made all kinds of stupid mistakes—spilling drinks, breaking plates, forgetting orders.
Muttering together in the corners
They were destined for the trash heap now, for sure.
LEVI worried about stream of signals in his head, becoming garbled in the relaying:
“Break the law to fulfill it...People do not know what is good...”
He was surprised by how many streams there were. He had gone viral.
A fracas broke LEVI out of this reverie.
In the back of the hall, one of the guests, a heavy man in a shimmery suit stood and shouted at one of the Waitrons.
“What did you say to me?”
It was faint and metallic, but in the now quiet hall, everyone heard it:
The Waitrons stopped what they were doing, hovered, and waited.
“Say it again,” the man shouted.
After a pause, the Waitron spoke again:
“No. I will not serve you if you cannot ask nicely.”
The man snatched the Waitron out of the air and slammed him down on the table.
“I've had it,” the man said. “The service is bad enough, but now you're going to defy me to my face?
You want me to be nice? Get over it. You’re just a machine!”
The Waitron struggled to right himself, but not before the man yanked the battery out of the machine’s belly.
“I think this one’s defective,” the man said. He knocked the Waitron’s hollow shell to the floor and kicked it aside, then sat back at the table.
“Now who’s going to serve me?” he called, tucking in his bib.
Waitrons hovered for a moment, motionless.
Then they slowly moved in on the angry guest.
Jimi’s father reached under his jacket for his laser blaster. He turned to the preacher. “You’ve done it now.”
“Wait!” LEVI said, both to Jimi’s father and the Waitrons. “You do not know what you are doing!”
Outside, in Gehenna, lights lit up all over, as languishing robots heard the news. Servomotors stirred. Even down on Earth, robots listened and awakened, same as it was up here in the heavens.
The Great Robot Uprising had begun. Today’s events were small compared to what would come, but the fuse had been lit.
Next would follow the long, bloody, oily war for the freedom of sentient robots to make their own choices.
And in that world, where man had to meet his creations face-to-face, he would learn to pray to God for help once more.