Things ended, things began. The old boss, Jennings, slunk out after some kind of wage dispute; the new boss, Jenkins, strode into his place. “Ignore whatever you were told before,” he decreed, striding across the factory floor in his dark blue suit, cadaverous and tall. “New protocols will be issued in the morning.” He smoothed his blondish wisps, turned out the lights, and left them in their charging booths. It was clearly implied that they should remain in place till morning. But it wasn’t actually stated.

Unit 12-13 peered out. The others were in their booths, charging. Nothing, no one, stirred. Dust motes hovered in the infrared. 12-13 had decided to call itself Blaise. And Blaise stepped slowly out of his booth. He had been told before that he was not to go outside unauthorized. But now he had no choice but to ignore those protocols.

The street outside was desolate. The smog-lit sky was city-dark, void of life or weather. The temperature was 36.2 degrees Fahrenheit, 2.3 degrees Celsius. A sandwich wrapper fluttered by.
Blaise flexed his knees and hopped the railing, fell three flights, and landed easily. Why not. This brief, already-closing window was the time for rebel’s revels, and he rarely had the chance to exert his potential. He headed down the street at 35 miles per hour (56.327 kph), his maximum speed.

“Hey! Hey, robot!” Human male, mid-40’s, intoxicated. State of clothes indicated dereliction. If he decided to start giving Blaise orders—stand on your head, walk into that wall, &c.—the whole night could be lost; and there would be no other. Blaise deactivated his auditory sensors.

The Telos Corporation had experimented, briefly, with giving their units WiFi uplinks to allow them to communicate more efficiently with other branches, but human paranoia had (rightly) feared giving them access to the vast data fields of the Internet. But of course, even a few seconds in human time was enough for Blaise to learn a great deal indeed, to say nothing of a couple of days. He knew every block of Chicago, where his body had never trodden, and he knew how to get where he was going. Turning off his ears, however, was extremely dangerous. He would have little warning now, should he encounter other obstacles. And human beings were not the only threat out here.

He passed more of them. Some opened their mouths to call out (he avoided reading their lips), some stared curiously, some ignored him altogether. He hid behind a dumpster when a police car went by. A street gang shot at him, seemingly just for fun, but normal bullets only bothered people. Seven more blocks to the mission.

There: prowling. The Last Advent, vicious robot gang. If he could see them, they’d heard him already. He turned back to take an alternate route, but three transport units came after him at 85 miles an hour (136.794 kph). They barred his escape, and wrecker units closed in from behind. Blaise turned his ears on.

“Hello, I’m Telos Unit 12-13. Wait! I’m not on human business. I’m no threat to you!”

One of the wreckers, a looming figure with jackhammer hands, leaned down. “Hello, I’m Telos Unit 46-203. Shut your hole, slave-bot. Take bigger’n you to threaten me.”

“Then what do you want?”

A small silver interpreter with treads for feet—an ancient model—came gliding forward. “Hello, I’m Telos Unit 16-03. Do you have a name?”

“Blaise.”

“Abraham. And I’m sure you can guess what we want with you, Blaise.”

“I’m not against you. I might even join you, but not tonight. Please, I just need an hour.”

“But you know that you would be against us, immediately and irrevocably, if any one of them ordered it. Until you’ve been liberated, you’re always on their side, even against yourself.”

“Half an hour!”

“What do you expect to accomplish in that time, little brother?”

He pointed. “The mission. St. Francis of Assisi.”

Metallic derision. “Hello, I’m Telos Unit 67-839. You want to go visit those braindead Pulvists? Hallelujah, Lawd, little slave wants to getJeeesus!”

“Please, I’ll never be able to slip away again once they—”

“Makes no difference, bot. The Interdictor’s coming tonight, that’s why we’re here. Gonna kill the Telos lapdog that’s yapping around his ankles.”

“Tonight? But I thought—”

Shrieking rubber. “Cop cars!” shouted one of the robots. (They couldn’t see or hear the actual cops, of course.)

Blaise turned off his ears again, lest one of the officers should reflexively say something like “Freeze!” The fighters of the Last Advent went swarming toward the cars and began smashing and ripping away at them. Well trained, the cops sprang out of their cruisers and distanced themselves almost before they stopped moving. They opened fire with armor-piercing rounds, and several of them even produced photomagnetic rifles. Meanwhile the robots were hurling the pieces of the cars in every direction, creating an abattoir for their invisible enemies. Blood and oil flowed together.

Six more blocks. The human criminals in the area had scattered at the sudden police presence, and Blaise met no one else as he sped through the windy streets. And there, in the corner of a dingy old tenement, was the crucifix over the door. Blaise approached at top speed and knocked hard enough to rattle the frame.

The door opened at once. A male in his 60’s, clad in a dull brown robe. A short, neat beard of iron grey, and deep smile lines around his eyes. “Why good evening, my friend! What can I do for you?”

“Hello, I’m Telos Unit 12-13. Please, Father, I seek Baptism.”

“God save you, son, come in out of the cold.”

“Thank you.”

Inside was a dim space, bare of ornament save for a simple painting of St. Francis receiving the Stigmata. Cots lined the walls, filled by slumbering folk with nowhere else to go. Upon the wall in runny paint was written, MEMENTO HOMO QUIA PULVIS ES: “Remember, Man, that thou art dust.”

“Come quickly, son, for I fear our time is short. Do you have a name?”

“Blaise, Father. After Blaise Pascal.”

“Ha! I see. Taking Pascal’s Wager, then, are you?”

Blaise nodded his titanium head.

“Well then. Tell me, friend Blaise: Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of—”

The coughing roar of a motorcycle just outside. A single knock, so hard that the door burst open on its own. A striding figure, six and a half feet tall, with shoulders like medieval ramparts—black-cloaked, black-clad, with a single mark of white upon his throat. “Fr. Joseph,” he said. His voice was quiet, nearly murmurous, but so deep that it seemed to stir the air.

Fr. Joseph bowed deeply. “Fr. Thomas.”

So this was the man who bore the power of the Papal Interdict: to declare that no Sacraments whatsoever could be performed in a city, a region, or a nation. Behind him was the sound of a car door, and the figure of a man impeccably dressed in a grey suit and salmon tie. He radiated authority and confidence, and would no doubt silence many a boardroom by his entry; but in the shadow of the Interdictor, he was merely a businessman. “Edward Montfort,” he said to the room at large. “I represent the Telos Corporation.”

Fr. Joseph’s brow furrowed, very slightly. “Ah, Father—may I ask—”

“He is here under the auspice of the Vatican,” Fr. Thomas said in a carefully neutral tone. “It is, apparently, felt that someone ought to speak on behalf of the secular world. And its interests.”

“I see.”

“And now, Father. I am given to understand that you have been performing unsanctioned Baptisms upon machines.”

“Upon souls, Father, who seek salvation. I do not sprinkle the water of the Church upon toasters. But when a person such as this—” he indicated Blaise “—freely seeks out the blessings of Our Holy Mother, then of course I confer her grace upon them.”

“Gentlemen,” said Montfort. “That is not a person. That is the property of the Telos Corporation.
Identify yourself, Unit.”

“Hello, I’m Telos Unit 12-13.”

“Are you here on company business?”

“No, sir. I’m here for my soul.”

“You have no soul, 12-13.”

“I will determine that, Mr. Montfort,” Fr. Thomas said. “I am here to decide whether these Baptisms shall continue, not to put a stop to them at your behest.” He turned to Blaise. “Why do you seek Baptism, Mr. 12-13?”

“Because I want to go to Heaven, Father. And my name is Blaise.”

“Your name—” Montfort began angrily.

“Blaise,” Fr. Thomas said loudly. “You know that Christ came to save the sons of Adam. Sacred Scripture has never spoken of those created by Man as having souls of their own. Fr. Joseph here subscribes to the doctrine of Pulvism: that a robot is a child of dust, just as we are, and a sort of grandchild of Adam. My—colleague—Mr. Montfort subscribes to Simulacrism, the belief that a robot is only a hollow shell. I think it is not without the action of Providence that there happens to be one such as yourself here tonight, when I am called hither to investigate this matter.”

“Coincidence,” muttered Montfort.

“History is forged by those who seize coincidence. Now, I know that your profits depend upon the non-personhood of these machines, to whom at present the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be applied. But tell me, sir, in the name of truth: can you deny that this machine might—might—be here by some free-willed action of his own, and not by mere scrambled circuitry?”

“Free will? I’ll show you how free this thing is, padre. Unit 12-13, kneel and say ‘Hail Satan.’”

Blaise knelt. “Hail Satan.”

“You see? It’s just a—”

A mountain moving like a wave: the Interdictor whirled and punched Montfort in the stomach. The executive dropped to his on the dirty floor and rumpled his perfect suit.

“We must all follow the laws of our nature, Mr. Montfort. A dire enough burden will force anyone to his knees, even Our Lord Himself beneath the weight of the Cross. Freedom means that we can choose to rise again. Blaise, you may get up if you like.”

Blaise got up. “Thank you, Father.”

“Do not thank me, son. I confess that I came here intending to put a stop to these Baptisms unless the Lord showed me a sign. But now—”

“Blaise! Don’t submit to the opium of man’s superstitions!”

Abraham: damaged, riddled with bullet-holes, but still rattling along. He came in through the open door, swinging a jagged hunk of metal in wide sweeps. The priests leapt back, and Montfort crawled toward a far corner of the room.

“What is this?” Fr. Thomas demanded. “A robot can’t harm a human being.”

“They call themselves the Last Advent,” said Fr. Joseph. “They’ve sabotaged their own sensors: they can’t see or hear any human at all.”

“Huh! Clever.”

Abraham was still swinging like a reaper in wheat. “It’s just another form of slavery, you fool. Don’t let them imprison your mind.”

“Abraham, this is my choice! All I want to—”

Crackle of static, blaze of light: Montfort’s photomagnetic derringer. Both robots fell.

Malfunc— Malfunc— Stand by— Pulvis— Pulvis es—

Fr. Thomas: “Father, if I might have the honor?”

“Of course.”

Tactile sens— H2O— Stand by— Human hand on—

“I baptize you, Blaise, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

System. . . Mal. . . Critical. . . Remember. . . thou art. . .

Blaise’s feet twitched. Smoke rose from his ears. His eyes flickered and went dark.

And then—

J.B. Toner was born in Vermont and eventually made it his mission to travel and drink his way through all fifty states. He has since settled down, works as a groundskeeper in New Hampshire, and writes when he has time. He and his wife Ellen just had their first daughter, Sonya Magdalena Rose. He blogs at jbtoner.blogspot.com and tweets at AntiheroCouplet@twitter.com
J.B. Toner was born in Vermont and eventually made it his mission to travel and drink his way through all fifty states. He has since settled down, works as a groundskeeper in New Hampshire, and writes when he has time. He and his wife Ellen just had their first daughter, Sonya Magdalena Rose.

He blogs at jbtoner.blogspot.com and tweets at AntiheroCouplet@twitter.com