Father Thomas Paloma stood off to one side as Father Sweeney led the congregation through the Mass. His mind was wandering, gathering wool as it often did during these rituals. He happened to glance towards the nave and found Sweeney frowning at him and subtly jerking his head. Thomas’s first reaction was to blush with guilt. He thought he was being reprimanded for not paying attention. Then he realized the message was more complicated. He stared at the elder priest, trying to interpret those strange head-twitches.
The low murmurs coming from the back of the pews finally completed the connection for him. A disturbance. He made his way along the nave until he came to the locus of the tumult. Several of the faithful were seething. At the center of this buzzing hive he found the object of their indignation.
It was a young man, wearing a dark suit and tie, sitting quietly, ignoring the commotion his presence seemed to arouse. But as Thomas got closer, he realized it was not a man, but one of them. An android. One of the latest models, in fact.
An older woman, prim in a navy-colored dress and a string of chunky pearls, leaned towards Thomas, exposed her uneven yellow dentures and hissed, “He doesn’t belong here.”
A distinguished-looking man in a tweed jacket, with gray hair and matching mustache, frowned menacingly. “This is most provocative. It should be reported.”
Thomas made placating gestures to quieten those inclined to disturb the Mass. The android watched the proceedings with an unreadable expression. He made no attempt to remove himself. Thomas gestured again, a half-shrug and an apologetic smile. At last the congregants, with varying degrees of indignation, turned back to listen to Father Sweeney as he concluded the Mass and invited those who wished to receive communion to come forward. A line formed, but other people felt no need, evidently. The pews quickly emptied.
Still, the android made no attempt to leave. Thomas decided to sit down next to him and offer a friendly ear. This may have been a mistake.
The crowd moved away as though repelled by a reverse magnet. When the two of them were effectively alone, Thomas considered what he should say. Is this your first visit to St. John’s? seemed hopelessly naïve, even to him. He finally stated the obvious. “You seemed to have caused quite a stir.”
“Yes. I am sorry my presence had that effect.”
Thomas wondered: shouldn’t the android have known how humans might react to seeing one of his kind in church? But something told him not to add to the provocation. Instead, he simply bowed his head and asked, “Is there something you seek?”
“Yes, Father. I seek to be shriven.”
Startled, Thomas sat up straight. Shriven was not a word one heard every day. It was the past participle or pluperfect-something-something of another unusual word, shrive. “You seek absolution? You wish to--confess your sins?”
Thomas could not speak for a moment. What sins might an android have committed? He did not feel it was his business to ask. He remained silent until inspiration struck. “Let me speak with Father Sweeney.”
. . .
“He wants what???” Father Patrick Sweeney glared at Thomas. “Never! Absolutely not! You’re far too accommodating in these matters. You listen to me, you idiot. You will not be hearing any fucking android confessions. None.”
Father Thomas hung his head. He wasn’t sure which he hated more: being called an idiot or enduring the senior priest’s foul mouth and foul attitude.
“What’s he doing here, anyway?” Sweeney demanded, his chubby, florid face reddening even more. “Trying to stir up shit? Is this some kind of publicity stunt? A jape, intended to embarrass the church? Who put him up to it? Zankel, I bet.”
“He’s waiting out there. What do I tell him?”
“Tell him whatever the fuck you want. I know, I know--you want to spare his feelings. Pah! As if a collection of electronic parts and plastic skin had feelings.” Father Sweeney, his yellow-white hair in disarray, busied himself at his desk, rummaging around until he found what he was looking for. A ham sandwich. As he gripped it in both hands and raised it for a bite, he feigned surprise that Thomas was still standing there. “Well? Go soothe him. It.”
Thomas walked slowly down the length of the nave. He sat in the pew next to Samuel Coleridge-Reshevsky. The android was designed to look like an average man. His nose was bent, his lips were unbalanced, his teeth were overcrowded and his chin receded. Yet he looked perfectly normal in his imperfection. No two of them looked alike, but they were all recognizable as androids by the discreet pair of silver antennae that rose two inches at the hairline--a requirement for them to confer with the cloud, where much of their software resided. Federal law also required this distinctive feature. It was one of the few pieces of legislation to pass congress, where perennial gridlock had morphed into petrification.
“Samuel, I’m afraid Father Sweeney is unwilling to-- that is, he feels it’s beyond his power to--to do what you ask.” Thomas felt his face heating up, no doubt turning as florid as Sweeney’s. He saw how disappointed the android was. Hastily, he added, “We, that is, not Father Sweeney, I can’t really speak for him, but maybe we ought to consult with a higher authority before reaching a decision.”
“Then you’ll be praying for guidance?” asked Samuel without a trace of guile.
Thomas couldn’t quite suppress a giggle. “I won’t be consulting at that high a level. I may have an opportunity to mention your request to Bishop McDonnell.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Thomas felt a wave of dismay. Going over the head of one’s senior priest was frowned upon. But he felt, deep down, that it was necessary. Besides, the bishop was a relative of sorts, which ought to excuse any Sweeney-skipping.
“I would love to meet him,” said Samuel Coleridge-Reshevsky. “You’ll arrange it?”
“Um, I uh. --I can only try. How do I--?”
The android extended a card with his contact information. Thomas slipped it into his pocket. And, with hollowness in the pit of his stomach, he watched the android make his way out of the church. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had stepped in something that would never come off his shoes.
“The bishop?? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“He’s my mother’s second cousin. We see him at--at family gatherings.”
Excerpted from "A Disturbance in the Church: A short story [Kindle Edition]" by David T. Wolf. Copyright © 0 by David T. Wolf. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.