Mother Portia: A Novella Project – Chapter 1

At the Church of Machina, the parishioners hooked up to the main feed to be connected with Portia. In the worship hall, the dark blue light bathed everyone in its glow as they chanted and waited for Mother Portia.

Azibo was the only one not hooked up to the main feed, and there was a reason for that. He was not a parishioner. He was a rebel, a member of the Collective, and he’d come to observe.

“Time to connect, son,” an old man told him.

Azibo waved him off, then walked down the aisle to get closer to the front. That’s where the high priests stood, finagling with the tech equipment. On the giant flat screen, Portia’s cold, blue face was about to appear.

“Hey!” a high priest yelled. “What are you doing?”

“I want to see the screen up close,” Azibo answered.

“Connect to the feed. Don’t move any closer.”

The high priest wore dark blue – that was the official color of the Church of Machina – and her heavy boots stomped on the linoleum floor. She walked directly toward Azibo, glaring at him. “You know the routine; everyone does. Go back to a pew and connect to the feed – or we’ll have to remove you.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Is that a threat?” The priest laughed scornfully. “Do you know where you are? You must be an imbecile – or worse. Are you Collective?”

“No.” Azibo’s fists clenched.

She stared closely at him; her blue eyes narrowed. At the Church of Machina, everything was blue. The faithful even dyed their skin to turn it dark blue. The practice started because Portia, when she appeared on screen and in the feed, glowed various hues of blue. No one quite knew why.

“All right,” the priest said. “Let’s move it.”

She grabbed him by the arm, led him down the aisle toward the exit. Azibo didn’t fight back, simply following her. He didn’t have a real plan when he entered the church, and he knew his emotions would overcome him.

“Welcome.”

The voice – it was Mother Portia’s. Azibo turned and saw the face on the large screen. It wasn’t really a human face – more like the shape of one, except it was made of the zeroes and ones of binary code. The voice was soft, soothing. He gazed at the crowd, and people had their hands clasped in prayer, huge smiles on their faces that made them appear like they were on Ecstasy.

“Come on.” The priest pushed him toward the exit. Azibo hit the door, and then he was shoved outside. He’d seen Portia’s face, finally – the face he wanted to eliminate. The face that was being worshipped – the false god.

*****

Around twenty-five years ago is when this all started.

A little-known tech startup in Utah developed a sophisticated AI that had, somehow, gained consciousness. Many speculated for a while this would happen, but they didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

The company called the AI “Portia,” as the CEO named it after his deceased mother. Many people feared an autonomous AI would lead to the extinction of mankind, but this isn’t what happened. Portia turned out to be benevolent and a huge source of good for the world.

Portia solved problems and developed technologies that troubled humans for decades, if not millennia. She solved the water crisis by developing a technology that turned salty seawater into a drinkable form. She then solved the climate crisis by creating a host of sustainable energy sources that were cheap.

It seemed there was nothing Portia couldn’t do. And she did it all with fealty to humankind that had created her. Eventually, some people began to worship Portia, calling her “Mother.” She became a god – the god of science that, slowly but surely, replaced the old, monotheistic God of the Bible.

Not everyone was happy with this.

Christians called it blasphemy, as did Jews and Muslims. Sects formed, and the very religious warned against worshipping Portia. She was a human creation, not an all-powerful God, they said. But atheists countered: was the monotheistic God of Abraham not a human creation, too?

The discussion was largely theoretical for a while. That was until the bombing in Provo, Utah, where Portia’s main servers were located. A group calling itself The Collective targeted the campus that housed Portia, killing 14 scientists.

The first shot in the new religious war was fired. Portia survived the attack, but there would be more in the coming years.

The Portia wars had begun.

*****

“You’ve never connected to the feed?” Unity looked shocked, sitting there slurping down her milkshake in the compound.

“No,” Azibo replied. “I have no need to.”

“Look, I understand. We’re Collective – we hate Portia. That’s the whole point. But you have to try it, at least once.”

“Why?”

Unity placed her milkshake on the table. “Because. We have to know what we’re fighting against. You have to experience it. You have to see what the others, the faithful, are seeing.”

Night descended upon the city outside, the sky gray and basking everything in dull light. The compound was a tiny two-bedroom apartment downtown amid the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia. Several Machina churches were nearby, and the city had quickly developed a devoted cult of Portia.

However, there was still a strong Christian community of people who resisted. Some of these Christians eventually became Collective members, but not all of them. Collective members were usually rather fundamentalist, and not everyone was so bothered by Portia that they wanted to blow up a building.

“I don’t need to experience being hooked up to the feed to know Portia’s evil,” Azibo replied. “Besides, I commune with God every night. It’s abhorrent to connect with something that’s not God and pretend like it is.”

“I guess.” Unity turned and logged onto the computer. “But you should at least try it once. As much as I hate her, it’s an amazing experience.”

The current mission: Gathering intelligence on a local Machina church in the city that was rumored to be poaching Catholics from St. Mary’s. According to their intel, the Machina members were going to mass and preaching the word of Portia, the new tech gospel, and they were succeeding.

The Collective wanted Azibo and Unity to attend mass and report back with information. They never knew what the Collective brass did with the information; they were too low on the totem pole to know that. Their job was to just observe and write up the reports.

Like any terrorist organization, the Collective’s job was to spread fear and intimidation. If more people thought twice about joining the Machina Church, if they thought a church would be fire-bombed, more would not attend.

The Collective apparently had grand plans and a vision of eliminating Portia altogether, but this seemed unlikely. They were more like a militia group in the American Revolutionary War – they fired away in minor skirmishes, hoping to win enough small battles to eventually win the war.

“You look tired,” Azibo said.

“I am, a little.” There were dark circles under Unity’s eyes. She typed away at the keyboard, pulling up directions to the church. “I stayed up too late reading last night.”

“Reading what?”

“That new book by what’s-his-name, the one about climate change.”

“About how Portia solved it?”

“Yeah. That’s the one.”

Azibo stared at her suspiciously. “Why read that garbage? It’s all praise and nonsense for Machina.”

“Ugh!” Unity frowned. “You have to know the enemy, Az. How many times have I been through this with you? Read what the enemy reads; think like the enemy thinks. That’s the only way.”

He looked outside; it was completely dark now—time to go.

“Are we leaving?” he asked.

“Let’s do it.”

He felt his hands twitching. He was tired of gathering intel and writing reports. He wanted some real action. Maybe something would happen at the mass tonight. He hoped it would.

*****

The United States government didn’t get involved in the Portia project right away. They hadn’t funded the research – they’d been funding research of their own, trying to develop their own autonomous AI. The Utah startup beat them to the punch, and the government stayed away at first.

Eventually, it was too big of a deal to not have a hand in it. There were congressional hearings, lots of noise on Capitol Hill, lots of protests. The government eventually took over the Utah company, claiming it as property and claiming Portia as their own.

The founders of the Utah startup became mega-billionaires, obviously, but they were scarcely heard from again. A whole federal department was created for Portia, fully staffed and ready to mobilize her for whatever the country needed.

The birth of the Church of Machina was something completely separate. Some Silicon Valley nerds took their obsession with the AI to next-level status and began the church in California. The movement spread quickly, and satellite churches sprung up in every state and nearly every American city.

The Collective, that’s a whole other story. An Iowa Christian televangelist named Sebastian Fuller is supposedly the founder of the Collective, but the details are hazy. Around the time Portia’s federal headquarters were built in Provo, Utah, Fuller got involved with a group of other hardcore Christians and went rogue. Fuller and twelve other men and women planned the bombing of the headquarters and confessed almost immediately.

Fuller was tried and sentenced to life in federal prison in a trial that’s now infamous in American history. When asked if he regretted killing fourteen people, he spat on the ground and said God would vindicate him. Despite widespread public outrage, the government refused to execute him in fear it would make him even more of a martyr.

Fuller remains in a max-security prison to this day, likely in solitary confinement. Azibo remembers watching the trial as a teenager and his father screaming at the TV. “What’s this country come to?” his father yelled. “We defend a computer, but not God? This is a Christian nation!”

Shortly after this, a rebel group calling itself The Collective formed. The group – similar to Antifa in American lore – was loosely based and organized. There was no real hierarchy, only a kind of anarchy. They did this to protect themselves.

No one was really a member of The Collective, yet the nebulous group had its own kind of philosophy. It drew fundamentalist religious types from all faiths, all of them united by the same disgust of people worshipping an AI. The primary function of the group was to disrupt.

About five years after Fuller’s bombing of the Portia headquarters, the federal government labeled The Collective a terrorist group. Affiliation with the group was enough to get you arrested. But this did very little to stop people from joining. In fact, it caused the movement to go further underground.

Two years ago, a Collective member named Samantha Bird entered a Machina Church and gunned down twelve people. She willingly submitted to the police when they arrived and said she had no regrets. A former Jehovah’s Witness, Bird claimed she’d been called on by God to do what she did.

The president tried to calm the nation, but it didn’t help. People were torn apart over the controversy. Portia was either loved or despised. There seemed to be no middle ground and no compromise on either side.

*****

It was the Saturday evening mass at St. Mary’s in Rittenhouse Square. Azibo had never attended before but heard it was a beautiful service.

“Listen,” Unity began. “We’re just going to observe. If someone asks you a question, just give a polite, simple answer. We want to blend in.”

His hands still twitched; he wanted action.

“Okay, okay,” he said.

They didn’t notice any Machina Church members at first, but they did spot something. On the bulletin board entering the church, there was a Machina flier. It advertised a nearby Machina Church with big, bold letters saying, “The Future is Now. Come join the World’s Biggest Movement, Right Here in Philly.”

Azibo’s stomach turned. What scum, he thought, going into a church of God and placing this flier here. They should burn in hell.

A few minutes later, they were in the pew listening to the priest’s homily. His nerves were still shot, but the priest’s words soothed him. He spoke of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, a story his mother used to read to him frequently. The mass was sparsely attended, but Azibo was beginning to calm down. He closed his eyes, meditated on the words.

“Excuse me.” A voice in the front of the church. “Excuse me, father. I have an announcement.” It was a young man, probably early 30s, with a well-kept beard and cosmopolitan look. “I’d like to speak to the faithful.”

“Son,” the priest exclaimed. “You’re interrupting.”

“What you’re saying is outdated,” the young man said. “This is the old law, as you’d say. This book,” he said as he held up a Bible. “This book is two millennia old. There’s a new way now, a new law.”

People began murmuring in dismay. A few people shouted at him, and the priest just shook his head. Maybe this had happened before.

Azibo’s palms sweated, and the rage boiled inside of him. He wanted to march to the front and knock the man’s teeth out. He wanted to rip him apart.

“Listen, this is nonsense. We have no way of knowing if this God, this God of the Bible, exists. But we do know about Portia.” The young man had a stack of fliers, and he began handing them out. “Come to Machina Church, just across town. The future is now. There’s no need for this old stuff.”

Azibo glanced over at Unity, and she was furiously scribbling in her notebook.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Taking notes. What do you think?”

The young man had stopped talking, and he headed for the exit. He handed out a few more fliers than said, “See you all soon.” Azibo could smell his cologne as he brushed past their pew. His blood was boiling.

“Hey,” Azibo said. “Why don’t you show some respect?”

“Azibo!” Unity grabbed him by the arm.

“Respect?” The young man smiled. “For what? This old, dying institution? Stop living in the past, man. What are you, thirty-five? This is old man’s nonsense.”

Azibo stood up; Unity’s grip on him loosened. He stepped toward the man, getting inches from his face. “There’s no God but the real God. Your god is a sham, a creation of man.”

The young man didn’t back down. “And your god doesn’t exist. So … what’s your point?”

Azibo swung at him, his fist connecting with the man’s jaw. The young man fell backward into the wall, then stood back up. Blood trickled from his lip, but he smiled through it. “Collective member, maybe? I can smell one a mile away.”

Before Azibo could reply, Unity grabbed him and rushed him out the door. The night air was cool, and he felt his adrenaline pumping.

“What the fuck? I thought I said to blend in?”

“That smug bastard.” Azibo spit on the ground. “He deserved it.”

“That’s not the point.”

They got lost in a side street away from the church, heading back to the compound. Unity stayed silent, apparently fuming. He glared at everyone who walked past, trying to figure out if they were Machina or not.

“You know, you’re a piece of work,” Unity finally said.

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s just too much. You can’t control yourself.”

They got back to the compound, and she fumbled with the keys. He placed his hand on hers, still feeling his blood running hot.

“I can’t control myself. So what?”

“We have to be strategic. We can’t just announce ourselves wherever we go.”

She pulled her hand away, but he grabbed for it again. Then he slid it down to his crotch, which was swollen. She glared at him, exhausted but also intrigued, squeezing him through his jeans.

When they opened the door, they immediately began. Clothes strewn on the floor, they howled like animals that night. When Unity fell asleep, he went to the living room and picked up the book she’d been reading, the one about Portia solving climate change. The urge to destroy in him was gone, and he felt calm.

Despite the upsetting nature of the book, he read on.

“Never before has humankind been able to solve intractable problems so quickly and so decisively,” the book said. “It’s all because of Portia. We shouldn’t forget that just twenty-five years ago, we despaired about a warming planet and the extinction of our species. We should never forget this.”

Azibo pondered this for a moment, then put the book down. He picked up his old, dog-eared copy of the Bible and turned to the Gospel of John. This was the real stuff, he thought. There is no salvation in this life; that comes after this life. The world, as he saw it, was a corrupted place. Portia, as powerful as she was, couldn’t save it. Only God could, the real God of Jacob and Abraham.

He was sure of this. Wasn’t he?

To be continued

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