The Plastic Messiah, A Novella

The Plastic Messiah

Getting this story onto paper was as rewarding an experience as anything I’ve written, but I have to admit that I put it off for a long time. Four story ideas, all with the same characters, hit me at the same time, and the one that was the most fully developed would in time become The Plastic Messiah. The reason I was unwilling to put pen to paper was that I could tell from the onset that the narrative could not be contained within the confines of a short story, and I desperately wanted to avoid writing another novel.

Well, it didn’t become a novel, but at one hundred and six pages, I now have a novella on my hands. Fantastic, right? Not so much, few publishers want to take on a novella. My intention is to complete the other three story ideas and present the four works as a collection.

Here’s the set up: Karl Phillips, the Director of Android Affairs, is sitting at work one morning when his closest friend arrives and drops a forbidden Bible on his desk. He explains that it was part of an outlawed religious ceremony where a group of androids were discovered reading this Bible.

The story is set thirty-five years in the future after three significant events have reshaped Western culture. The first is a religious civil war that results in a fractured society haphazardly stitched together with anti-worship legislation. The second is the tightly regulated influx of androids into daily living, and the third is an awakening AI singularity that is only forestalled by a fortuitous act of domestic terrorism.

In this turbulent setting, Andreas Pohl, the Commander of Police, brings this forbidden Bible to Karl Phillips. The Bible has two unusual features. The first is that its pages have been pasted over and rewritten with paradoxical quotations taken from pre-century philosophers. The second is that it has a strange device hidden in a pocket cut out of its back pages. Since the androids arrested at the ceremony cannot be charged under the law, Pohl needs Phillips’ advice as to how to proceed with his case.

In their subsequent investigation, the two friends discover an underground network of religious zealots and the burgeoning cult of a “plastic” messiah. Phillips comes face to face with a nascent AI consciousness and must deal with the protestations of a Synthetic Rights Lobby that believes androids should be given the same rights as humans. Lastly, their investigation is complicated by a video, originating from the settlement on Mars, that seems to portray an android attacking a human.

Genre: Science Fiction.

Length: 106 pages (double spaced) and 39,000 words.

Sample Text: The Plastic Messiah

*Following the excerpt from the text, there is a glossary for some of the new-century terminology.

Bobby brought Karl Phillips a mug of coffee and set it on the corner of his desk exactly six centimetres from either edge. “Do you need my assistance, Director?”

Phillips looked up, distracted, “Don’t you have anything to work on?”

“No, Director.” Bobby stood in front of Phillips’ desk, head tilted downward.

Phillips’ pen hovered above the note pad where he’d been scribbling ideas. Eyebrows lowering, he scowled at his assistant. “So you’re just going to stand there staring at me? Go back to reception.”

“Yes, Director.” Bobby exited the room and went into the outer office. Through the open door, Phillips could see his assistant stop and stand behind the raised reception desk. Phillips shook his head.

His office was spartan. Two high-backed chairs faced the desk where he sat. A couch was pushed against the wall beside the door, and the only one who ever sat there was Jules Amala, the head of Phillips’ tech team. A painting of the blue Earth rising over a monochrome moonscape hung from the wall above the couch. There was a worn gym bag on the floor where Phillips had thrown it after his noon workout. In a black frame on the desk, there was a photograph of a woman in her thirties standing arm in arm with what looked to be a younger clone of herself. Opposite the door, there was a large window overlooking a courtyard.

Above the office door, there was a stainless steel plaque with a D5 stenciled on its surface.

Phillips returned to his work and had only just regained his focus when he heard Bobby say, as if speaking to no one in particular, “This is an inefficient use of space.”

Phillips swore under his breath. He lowered his pen onto the hieroglyphs that he called writing and ran a hand through his short, light brown hair. He folded his hands before him and called into the next room, “Get in here.” Bobby returned and stood at the side of the desk, a little too closely. The Director pushed his chair back and stared up into Bobby’s blank face. “First of all, you need to give me some space. Back away from my desk. Now,” he grumbled, “one more time and I’m going to have you disassembled. I’m not joking. There will never come a day when I’ll allow you to stand in this office like some grim sentinel from Easter Island. And it is not an inefficient use of space; there is no other use for that space, so letting it sit empty seems inefficient to me. Besides, people walk into reception expecting to….”

At that moment, the door to the outer office swung wide, and Andreas Pohl—Phillips’ life-long friend—filled the doorway. He glanced at Bobby’s desk in reception, frowned, then noticed that the Director’s door was open. Seeing Phillips, he nodded and strode across the reception lobby.

“Where’s Bobby?”

Phillips jerked his thumb toward the android standing off to one side. Bobby was a sleek, white model with a blank face plate. It’s upper torso was protected by a chest plate that fit like a vest. The long stretch of its limbs were also protected by featureless, white casings. Its bare neck and joints were a confusion of synthetic tendons and bone, and looked like human anatomy stripped of flesh.

Pohl’s voice rumbled, “Good morning, Bobby. How are you today?”

“Very good, Commander. Thank you for asking. How are you today?”

“I’m the fuzz on a peach, Bobby.”

“One is happy to hear that, Commander.”

Phillips shook his head at the ritual greeting, refusing to be baited by the Commander’s habitual attempts to anthropomorphize his assistant. “I just saw you at the diner, Andy. What could have happened since breakfast?” But even as he asked the question, he noticed the book pressed between Pohl’s thick fingers.

“This.” Pohl tossed the volume on Phillips’ desk. It landed with a thud.

The Director reached for the book, but when he saw what Pohl had brought him, he thought better of it. He leaned forward to study its cover. After a moment, he looked up at Pohl. “I haven’t seen one of these for what, twenty years?” He glanced over to Bobby. “Do you recognize this?”

“Yes, Director, it is a New Christian Bible.”

“And?”

“It is an illegal text, unless, of course, you are a police Commander.”

Pohl lowered his tall frame into one of the high-backed chairs. “It’s been awhile for me too.” He nodded toward the book. “Open it.”

Phillips poked at it with his pen. “I’d rather not.” Pohl chuckled—a sound reminiscent of an avalanche. “What’s going on? I assume you didn’t just come here to show me a forbidden text.”

“No, it’s a case, and I need your help, buddy.” He reached across the desk and flipped open the cover. Phillips’ eyes widened. “It’s a strange one,” Pohl said.

It was indeed a Bible, but on the first page a piece of white paper had been glued over the original text. That page had then been covered with a flowing script penned in blue ink. Phillips overcame his aversion to touching the book and began flipping the pages. Each successive page had been covered and written upon in an exact, perfect script. He looked at Pohl, bemused, “What language is it?”

“English.”

Phillips tilted his head forward and squinted, “I don’t…oh. Is this calligraphy?”

“Yes, it is, ornate almost to the point of obscurity, but English nonetheless.”

“Okay. I’ll admit this is fascinating, but I still don’t see how it relates to the Department of Android Affairs.”

“Just wait; there’s more. Go to the end of the book.” Phillips flipped page after page until he got to the last half of the text and discovered that the back of the book had been glued into a solid block. An irregular, palm-sized hole had been cut into the centre of this block. And in this hole, there was a small device the likes of which Phillips had never seen. He picked it up, studied it for a moment, and then set it on the desk beside the Bible. “Pique your interest?” Pohl asked.

“What is it?”

“Don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Alright, consider me piqued. Where’d you find this?”

“We seized it at a ritual.”

Phillips’ face registered surprise. “A ritual? Truly?” He frowned. “How serious is that?”

“Fairly. Could mean jail time.”

“Could?”

“Yeah. That’s why I’m here. The worshippers were androids. Well, the ones we caught, anyway. Three of them.”

“It may be important to note,” Bobby interjected, “that due to the alterations, this is not an actual Bible.”

Pohl nodded, “And that too.”

Phillips’ lip curled in a wry smile, and he studied his friend. Finally, he said, “Okay, Andy, what’s the punchline.”

“No punchline. For the past month or so, we’ve been hearing rumours of a growing cult—the rise of a new messiah, you know, that typical kind of thing. Anything to fill that religious void, I suppose. Word is that it’s tied to the Citizens’ Coalition and may be run by someone called the Acolyte.”

“The Acolyte?” Phillips scoffed and shook his head. “Why can’t these cult types ever use names like Susan or Chuck?”

Pohl grinned and continued. “Then last night we got a nudge about a ceremony in progress. When my people cracked it, they found a group of plastics.” He looked at Bobby, cringed and then corrected himself, “a group of synthetics gathered around that Bible. One of them appeared to be reading it. My detectives were plexed, so they brought it to me. Now, I’m bringing it to you.” 

“Who dropped the nudge?”

“It was a bounce. We couldn’t track it.”

“Okay,” Phillips said, “obviously the ceremony was staged. Your question shouldn’t be: Why were the droids there, it’s why did someone put them there? What’s the motive?” He sat back and folded his arms. “A comment on the anti-worship laws?”

Pohl nodded, “Could be, but the freedom of religion fanatics have been pretty quiet lately.”

“Why a hand-written text?”

“Probably nothing but the obvious—one copy, virtually untraceable.”

“But if you intend to overwrite it, why use a Bible? They must be almost impossible to get hold of.”

“Bobby’s point is valid. A judge probably wouldn’t prosecute this as a dangerous text.”

“And yet it still highlights the anti-worship legislation. Clever enough.”

“If that’s the motivation.”

“Right.”

“Rec numbers on the droids?”

“Washed out.”

Phillips’ eyes widened. “What? Completely erased? Someone’s got some tech.”

“I know it,” Pohl said.

“So you have no idea who the owners are.”

“None.”

“Was the ceremony linked to Sky?”

“Not that we can detect, and nothing’s been posted yet.”

“The droids would have recorded it.”

“They recorded the ceremony, but before that, they’re pretty much blank.”

“Core programming still intact?” Pohl nodded, and Phillips whistled in disbelief. “A targeted wash? That’s no simple task. If they intend to post it, someone must have recorded it from a distance.”

“Could be. None of my crew thought to check vantage points.”

“So someone fakes a ceremony, records it from the shadows, and then what? It comes out on Sky, and we suffer through the subsequent demonstrations. Maybe those slag fanatics blow up a bridge or two. It’s tragic, but nothing we haven’t dealt with before.” He gave Pohl a cautionary look and asked, “You’re not going to charge the droids, are you?”

Bobby spoke up, “The anti-worship laws only apply to humans, Director.”

Pohl nodded, “Bobby’s right. If I charged a plastic under the law,” he forgot to cringe this time, “the Synthetic Rights Lobby would have a heyday. No, I bring this to you, Karl.”

Phillips leaned forward, “Good, but I can’t stress this enough: If you charge one of those droids, Maya Chang and the SRL will make my job a slagging nightmare.”

Pohl nodded. “Got it. Charge the plastics as soon as I get downtown.”

“Funny. So what do you want from me?”

“Anything you can dig up. My people found nothing. I’m hoping your crew can do better.”

“Make and model of the droids?”

“They’re all Tower C6’s.” Pohl glanced at Bobby standing stiff and white beside them—its face a blank oval.

Phillips scowled. “Tower Synthetics, of course. Who else?” He nodded. “Okay, send them over. I’ll see what my people can do. What’s the priority?”

Pohl shrugged. “Low. No skibbies were killed. I’m not going to charge anyone.”

“You sound disappointed nobody died. Okay, well, the presence of the droids make it a high priority for me.”

 “Thanks, buddy.” Pohl stood and reached across the desk to pick up the Bible. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Do I get a transcript of that?” Phillips asked.

Pohl pursed his lips. “You want me to disseminate religious doctrine.” Phillips raised his hands, palms forward, but before he could reply, Pohl laughed, “Yeah, I’ll have someone send you a copy. Maybe you can shed some light.” He pointed at the small device Phillips had taken from the back of the Bible. “Keep that. Tell me if your techs can figure it out.”

“I will. Anything this morning on the Mars situation?” Three weeks earlier, a dark video splashed on Sky and appeared to show an android in a physical altercation with a human. The recording was reported to come from Mars, and it was rumoured that the human victim died in the hospital.

“Since yesterday?” Pohl shook his head. “No, I’ve spoken to Mars, and they can’t find any recorded fatalities, so they’re fairly certain the video’s a sketch—just a deep fake. I’m glad it’s out of my jurisdiction.”

“Too bad it’s not out of mine.”

“Anything new from your end?”

Phillips shrugged. “Nothing conclusive, so things stand where they stand, but I’m taking some heat. A lot of people are scared, demanding new legislation, but they all know a droid can’t injure a human. I think it’s just recoil from the Singularity.”

“Hard to blame them.”

“True enough. Hopefully something new’ll take its place.”

“Yeah, there’s always something new. Maybe this Bible thing will shift the pressure. Okay, don’t let the bastards roast your balls.”

“Sound advice, Jarhead.”

Pohl paused at the office door and glanced back at Bobby, “Have a good day, Bobby. Make sure this halfling doesn’t work you too hard.”

“You have a good day, too, Commander.”

Pohl left, and in the ensuing silence, it seemed that a storm had passed.

Phillips glanced up at the D5 above his office door—December 5—the day of the Singularity—the event that indirectly led to the formation of the Department of Android Affairs and had Phillips moved from a quiet ministry position to the newly created, all too public, office of Director. Had he known what he was getting into, he would have turned down the offer. At the time, though, after Humanity had barely escaped the clutches of the Singularity, taking a position dedicated to helping prevent it from ever happening again seemed exciting and socially responsible—a far cry from the job of corporate watchdog that it actually turned out to be. Instead of prowling Sky for nefarious AI, Phillips spent his time enforcing rules that were designed to keep the public—and the mega-corps—from anthropomorphizing androids and letting down their guard against another super AI waiting in the wings.

Glossary of First Century Terminology

Blazer————- a drug user

Blue Jesus——– a mild expletive. The term arose during the religious civil war. It was intended as an insult to the New Christians, and referred to Jesus as having blue balls because he was celibate.

Bounce———— a message that is routed in such a way that it cannot be traced

Brand————- a drug dealer

CC—————– the citizens’ coalition—a group fighting for individual human rights with a focus on religious freedom

Chits————– small cards loaded with credits that are not linked to an individual’s account

Civiy————– civilian

Cracked———- when the police bust an operation or when they break a witness

Crispred———- DNA manipulation

Dee—————- slang for android

Draft————– a digital message

Droid————- slang for android

Dust————— a psychotropic drug

Edge————— to irritate someone

First Century—- following the Singularity, the new year became known as the First Century

Give a beat——- to allow someone a moment to do something; to pause or hesitate

Greens———— slang for environmentalists who chose to live outside the cities

Harvested——– hired by a head-hunter

Kick it————- to intentionally not do something

Light—————a camera mounted on a drone

LP Shadowing—the temporary mark left of a wound during laser treatments

Mucking———- an expletive used as an adjective

Nudge————- a tip sent to the police

Overseer———- the person in control of all aspects of general AI restrictions and development

Papers———— slang for people who prefer low-tech materials – books over digital texts

Plastic———— a mildly derogatory slang for android

Plex (a plex)—– something that is perplexing

Poid————— a personal android

Post————— set up surveillance

Pre-century—— following the Singularity, everything before the new year became known as the Pre-century

Rag—————- an arrogant, entitled, or unpleasant person

Ragot————– a publication that focuses on social gossip or a writer for that publication

Rec number—— an ID number given an android when it is sold. It is tagged to the owners identify

Recoil————- reaction to/blowback

Run Down——– to discover an explanation for something

Shed light——— provide an explanation

Shine————– something nice or good; someone enjoyable to be with

Sketch————- a deep fake video, or, more generally, anything that is not what it seems to be.

Skibby————- slang for human being—skin and bone

Sky—————– the interplanetary internet

Slag me———– an expletive usually indicating frustration

Slagging———- an expletive used as an adjective

Slip—————- above ground public transport powered by a magnetics

Spin————— to gossip, write, or talk excessively on a single topic

Splash————- a viral video or narrative released on multiple platforms

Stitch————– when someone adds new code to original programming

Stringer———– a programmer, coder

SRL—————- Synthetic Rights Lobby—a group fighting for androids to have individual rights

Synthetic———- another term for android

Truly————– honestly; seriously

Twist me———- to make a person feel uneasy or creepy

Twitch————- an unanticipated interaction of code that leads to unpredictably erratic behaviour in a batch of androids

WP—————- a wrist processor made popular by the Wagner Corporation.

Wear the vest—- to willingly accept and act according to the beliefs of a cult