Not even a year after Portia was born, The Church of Machina sprouted up in California, formed by a tech mogul named Oswald Chambers. Chambers was the sort of eccentric nerd-billionaire who’d come to rule American business – the type of man with too much money and too much time on his hands.
Chambers was odd, but he was also dead-serious about treating Portia as God. He connected to the feed several times a day to commune with Portia and very quickly wrote the Machina Bible, expounding on the magnificence of the AI and the moral duties of all humans to submit to her.
Portia’s federal overseers saw Machina as somewhat of a joke, even though their fervor disturbed them sometimes. The government made Portia available at all times through the feed, allowing anyone on the planet to communicate with her. Like God, Portia could be in many places at once and speak to many people at once. So, for instance, a man in Kentucky could connect to the feed and hear one thing from her, while a child in Tokyo could do the same and hear something else.
By this time, many of the geopolitical struggles of the early 21st century had cooled significantly. With Portia, the U.S. had won the war for global power against China, and the United Nations became a kind of world government. War, poverty, famine, genocide – all these things were now relics of the past.
Yes, people lived in a digital surveillance state, but they didn’t seem to mind. Everything was convenient and free. Portia had developed sister AIs on smaller scales that did much of society’s work, leaving only some menial jobs left to humans. Most people didn’t seem to care about this.
The main goal of most peoples’ lives was pursuing pleasure in any way, shape, or form. Medicine had advanced astronomically so that now people were bio-engineering themselves to become little gods. Lifespans improved dramatically, and psycho-pharmaceutical drugs ensured everyone was happy, or at least content, all the time. It was a utopia.
The only thing left for people to do was eat, fuck, entertain themselves, and praise Portia. That’s where the Machina Church came in. Their system of theology was not very complex. It stated only that Portia was God and should be worshipped as such, and people should connect to the feed at least once per day. In reality, people connected to the feed much more often than this.
The faithful attended the church sometimes multiple times per day to connect to the feed with others. It was corporate worship that engendered community and goodwill, and many times the gatherings had the feel of a concert or rock music festival. People would strip off their clothes, have sex in the pews, do whatever new drug was out, and experience bliss in the feed.
There was no suffering anymore, no more tears, no more hardship. As Machina’s mantra said, the future is now, and all humans had to do was acknowledge they were living in a heaven on earth.
What could be better than that?
Azibo was on his third cup of coffee before the sun had risen, while Unity still lay in bed sound asleep. He’d stayed up all night, which wasn’t so much of an oddity, considering the drugs you could take to replace sleep.
The dog-eared copy of the Bible lay on the coffee table, and Azibo had speed-read through the book about Portia. As much as he hated to admit it, he agreed with Unity he should read and think like the enemy. The problem was it made him so uncomfortable – he could feel his blood pressure rise when people praised Portia and all the bullshit (he thought) tech she’d created.
For a moment, he thought about stepping into virtual reality to watch porn, but he let the craving pass. That was something he needed to work on, the character defect of lust that seemed with him constantly.
“You’re up early.” Unity appeared behind him, wrapped in her blanket but naked underneath.
“Yeah, I was just … reading.”
“The climate change book?”
Azibo realized he was holding the book. Embarrassed, he threw it down on the table. “I was just skimming it. It’s garbage.”
“I think you’re lying. So, you took my advice? Reading what the enemy reads?” Unity smiled and picked the book up.
“No, I skimmed it. It’s not worth my time,” he lied.
Unity dropped the blanket to reveal her naked body. She was pretty, a little chubby with stretch marks on the dark skin of her stomach. Like some people, she refused the cheap plastic surgery that was available and kept her natural looks. She sat on the couch next to Azibo and kissed him on the cheek. Azibo flinched and stood up, and began walking to the kitchen.
“I don’t want you reading these Portia books anymore,” he said. “They’re polluting your mind. We have to be pure.”
“Oh, God. Not this again. You have to relax. Just because we’re Collective doesn’t mean we’re in a cult. Besides, don’t tell me what to do.”
Azibo poured another cup of coffee. Their apartment was a hole-in-the-wall, just two bedrooms, old plumbing, and a cockroach problem. Nowadays, most everyone lived in luxury, provided free by the government, but only if they swore allegiance to Portia. People like Azibo and Unity were viewed as freaks. Why turn down a life of luxury for some abstract moral values? It seemed like nonsense.
“Are you becoming one of them?” Azibo asked.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Are you going to join Machina? That’s what I mean.”
Unity’s face twisted in anger. “The fuck, Az? I’m just as committed to the cause as you. How dare you question that.”
“Then why are you reading their books? And the other day, you said you’ve connected to the feed. You said it was ‘an amazing experience.’”
She covered herself with the blanket. She felt threatened and wanted to conceal her nakedness. “You’re such a dick sometimes. It was an amazing experience, and I don’t regret saying that. But that doesn’t mean I’m not against Portia. Remember, I’ve been Collective longer than you.”
“But I’m more committed than you.”
“Ugh!” She jumped from the couch. “You know what? I’m done with this conversation. You’re being an asshole, as usual.” She stormed out of the room, her bare feet stomping the floor.
Azibo sipped his coffee, the feeling of superiority satisfying him. He could hear Unity slamming things in the bedroom, but he ignored it. He had to be tough on her, he believed. He had to keep her in line; otherwise, she could turn Machina. He’d seen it happened so many times before, and he didn’t want to lose her.
Unity, fully dressed, stomped toward the front door.
“Where are you going?” Azibo asked.
“I need to get some air. I’ll be back in a bit.”
The sun began to rise, finally, and a faint light shone through the kitchen window. Azibo had breakfast by himself that morning, worrying about what would happen if Unity left him. He felt a twinge of panic and sent her a message, to which she didn’t respond. Instead of reading the Bible, he went into virtual reality and watched porn for an hour. Feeling guilty afterward, he prayed in front of the Virgin Mary altar in the bedroom and used a small razor to cut himself, ever so slightly. He knew cutting was dangerous and left scars, but he liked the suffering and felt he should punish himself.
Sebastian Fuller was a cult hero among the Collective. Though he didn’t found the Collective himself, the members used his writings for inspiration. As a minister, Fuller was fire-and-brimstone – he had no bones about saying society was falling off a cliff into hell.
Legend has it Fuller gave a rousing speech to the hardcore Christians who bombed the Utah facility that housed Portia right before they did it. Online, various audio files circulated that were supposedly the real thing, but no one could be sure. It was more of an urban legend at this point.
Among Collective members, Fuller’s autobiography circulated underground. He was raised on a farm in Iowa to sober and pious Christian parents; his father was also a minister, and his mother was a homemaker. Fuller’s spiritual gifts were evident from an early age, as he spoke at charismatic churches in his area and was noted for his oratory skills, even as a teenager.
He’d been outspoken about the development of AI early in his life, and he attended numerous protests. About five years before Portia was born, Fuller had participated in the infamous Des Moines riot where vigilantes burned down a factory making parts for an AI company. Fuller was thirty-one at the time, and there exist iconic pictures of him storming the factory grounds, his hair wild and his face bloody.
Even back in those days, the U.S. government was lenient with fundamentalists. The government locked people up but gave them a chance to reform themselves and join the technological movement. When faced with years in prison or confessing their crimes, most fundamentalists – even some hard-lined ones – confessed and then led normal lives.
This wasn’t the case for Fuller.
After the factory riot, Fuller served three years in federal prison and stuck to his values. The cult of Fuller began to develop around this time. He penned several books in jail, all of them censored by the government but most circulating on message boards online.
Fuller’s basic theology was that Jesus Christ was the best thing to ever happen to mankind and any idea that we could improve upon that was heretical and a lie from Satan. He painted transhumanists as Satanists and said peoples’ fervor for technological advancement would destroy the planet and the species.
He turned out to be dead wrong, of course, but religious folks still followed his words. Even after Portia came onto the scene, millions of Americans refused to go along with the program, claiming their faith prevented them from doing so. As the years went by, many on the fence caved in, especially after being connected to the feed for the first time. Still, religious traditions persisted and caused trouble.
At the time of this writing, Sebastian Fuller hasn’t been heard from in about twenty years. After his role in the Utah bombing and his life-in-prison sentence, the government made sure he couldn’t communicate with the public. Every once in a while, rumors circulated that Fuller had died, been killed, tortured, or released a new message to The Collective. None of this could be verified, though, which only fueled further conspiracy theories.
In Azibo and Unity’s apartment, they hung up a picture of Fuller in their bedroom – probably the most famous photograph ever taken of him. Fuller’s long, dark brown beard nearly obscures his thin shoulders, and his steel-blue eyes stare off in the distance. On Azibo’s side of the bed, next to the Bible, he keeps a copy of Fuller’s autobiography, which he reads for inspiration.
Whether Fuller still lives or not is inconsequential. He’s become a cult hero now, and people are willing to die for his cause.
People like Azibo.
Azibo and Unity sent the report about the Machina member at St. Mary’s the night it happened, and their contact at the Collective said he wanted to talk. The man’s name was Horace, and they’d only met him a handful of times. The Collective regularly rotated the people they spoke with; it was a habit born of necessity, as they tried to keep lower-level members in the dark.
Horace told them to meet him in Rittenhouse Square, which was quite close to where St. Mary’s was. From there, they’d follow him to his apartment where they could talk in secret. It was nearly midnight when Azibo and Unity left for the square, and a misty rain kissed their faces as they walked downtown. Unity had gotten over their argument earlier in the day, but she still warned Azibo to let her do the talking when they met with Horace.
“I’m tired of these informant assignments,” Azibo complained. “How long does it take to climb up the ladder?”
“If you had tech skills, you’d be there already. The Collective needs hackers and informants. Let’s face it – we’re more of the informant type.”
Downtown, the city was hopping, despite how late it was. That was because people barely slept anymore – there was no need to. The streets bustled with driverless cars and party buses. Nearly everywhere they turned, they saw Portia’s blue face on large, flat screens. They passed by an alleyway, and a group of people were having sex in public. Their skin was dark blue – another dead giveaway they were Machina. Azibo wanted to retch.
“Is that him?” Azibo asked.
“Yeah. Hey! Horace.”
Horace leaned against a lamppost, smoking an old-fashioned cigarette. His mangy dog, Pickles, was collared and sniffing the post. Pickles always appeared half-dead, with a bloated belly and skinny legs that made him move slowly. Horace treated the dog like shit, too, and Azibo wondered why he even kept the thing.
“There they are,” Horace said through his yellowish buck-teeth. Underneath his tattered trench coat, he wore a black Megadeath t-shirt, apparently a heavy metal band from the 20th century. Horace liked to listen to very old music, claiming the music was better when humans made it.
“What’s the scoop?” Unity asked.
“Let’s wait ‘till we get to my place,” Horace said. “This part of the city is bugged like hell, and we’re surrounded by Machina.”
Horace dragged Pickles along, the dog wheezing as he tugged him hard at the neck. Horace always smelled like piss – he was an all-around disgusting human being, and his apartment was a mess. He was a hoarder, collecting old heavy metal records and vintage newspapers that took up nearly every square inch of his studio. Azibo was repulsed by the man and wondered why he was even Collective – he seemed to have no religious sentiments. He figured Horace was one of those Collective members that joined more because they were anti-establishment than because of any allegiance to the cause.
Once they settled in Horace’s apartment, he offered them a beer, forgetting they didn’t drink. Then he began rambling about his neighbors, who kept trying to take him to a mosque across town. Horace lived in a multi-faith community housing project, the type the government allowed for people who weren’t loyal to Portia. Horace explained the project was full of “religious freaks,” everything from Rastafarians to Catholics to Hindus. Azibo let the comment slide, knowing full well he could be labeled a religious freak.
“So, I read your report,” Horace finally said. “It’s … good. Machina has been infiltrating the churches more and more lately. And they’re succeeding. I’d say in a year, this city will be 90% Machina.”
“What can we do about it?” Azibo asked.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out.” Horace rolled a joint on his desk as he looked over reports. “We’re impressed by you two. You’re loyal, unassuming; you get the job done. We have an assignment in mind if you’re willing.”
Unity spoke before Azibo could, cutting him off and saying, “What is it? We’ve only been informants so far. More of that?”
“Not exactly.” The joint fully rolled, Horace lit it and took a long drag. “This is a special assignment, one with big implications. And not for the faint of heart.”
“Okay,” Unity replied. “Well, lay it on us.”
“Portia Day is coming up, you know, the anniversary of her birth. Machina is going to have a huge celebration in the city, kind of like street festivals everywhere. We’re recruiting suicide bombers. We want to fuck this shit up as much as possible.”
Azibo jumped from his chair. “Hell, yes! Sign me up.”
“Wait,” Unity grabbed his arm. “Are you nuts? We should think about this first. I mean … you want us to be suicide bombers?”
Weed smoke filled the room by now; Horace’s eyes were glazed. “Yes, that’s the idea. But only if you’re willing. You’d be doing a great thing for the Collective. And we’d take care of any family you left behind.”
“Sign me up,” Azibo spit out again.
Horace laughed, then fell into a coughing fit. Pickles began to bark, and Horace kicked the dog to make it stop. “Fucking dog … anyway, that’s the spirit, Azibo! You sure you don’t want to talk it over with your lady first, though?”
“Yeah, I think he should,” Unity said. She pulled Azibo aside and whispered to him, “Suicide! We have to talk about this. You can’t just sign up right here. Let’s go talk, and we’ll get back to him. Please, Azibo.”
“All right,” he said. “But this is what I want. Finally, something to make a difference.”
Horace smiled in between hits off the joint, showing his rotten teeth. “So, what’s the verdict, you two lovebirds?”
“We’re gonna think about it,” Unity said. “When do you need to know by?”
“I’ll contact you in two days. Have an answer for me by then.” Horace stood up to shake their hands. “All right, well, pleasure as always. I’m sure you can see yourselves out?”
“Yes, we’ll do that,” Unity replied.
Azibo gripped Horace with both hands and told him how appreciative he was for the opportunity. “Truly, thank you. This is a gift from God; for me to show my loyalty and allegiance to the cause.”
“Ha! Don’t thank me, junior. I’m just a messenger.”
Azibo beamed as they left the housing project and walked back to the apartment. As usual, when Unity was upset, she stayed quiet, and they walked the streets in silence. She told him they’d talk in the morning; she felt drained and wanted to rest. Azibo skipped sleep again and stayed up all night reading Fuller’s biography. He couldn’t believe his luck – to become a martyr for the Collective, to be immortalized and meet his God in heaven. During his prayers that night, he took off his belt and, like he did every so often, whipped his back fiercely. The scars opened, and blood trickled down into his lower back; sweet pain, sweet pain for his Lord.
To be continued