The ultimate outsource - Editor
by David Dalglish
The distorted figure on the opposite side of the confessional curtain remained silent while Devin Larnor chewed on his fingernails. Two minutes ago he had stepped inside the tiny booth, and in those two minutes, neither had said a word. So far, the priest didn't appear to mind in the slightest.
“Fine,” Devin said. “I've never been to confession. I don't know how this works.”
He jumped at the rapid response. The priest’s voice was warm and gentle. When he talked, his chin barely moved, and the rest of his head remained motionless.
“If need be, I can guide you with questions.”
Devin stopped chewing long enough to frown at his forefinger.
“Mind if I ask you a question first?”
“You may. I am here for your comfort.”
The thin curtain between the two was reinforced with a single sheet of clear plastic. There was no visible hole, but their conversation was not muffled. Through that curtain and plastic, Devin studied the shadowy shape.
“You,” he said. “You’re human, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Human. As in, you got a beating heart, lungs, blood. Born out of a woman's vagina, if you pardon my language.”
“You are pardoned.”
Devin sniffed. He could see the priest's hair was cut short, and that his chin and nose were stubby compared to the rest of his face. So far, he had not caught a glimpse of the man's eyes.
“So you're a robot, then?”
“Yes, I am.”
“God help me. I heard about you, but I couldn't believe it. Sounded too much like a joke. Pardon my language again, father, but what business does a goddamn machine have in a confessional?”
The voice on the other side of the curtain did not changed in the slightest.
“You are pardoned. And I have my role, as do you, and I perform that role to the best of my abilities.”
“That true? You're not alive. You're not spiritual in any sense in the word. Hell, most see you as the antithesis of spirituality. Why don't I just confess to the toaster at home, it would be just as useful?”
“We have found that not to be true.”
“Hold on now, bad enough I'm here supposed to confess to a robot, but now I got to sit here and have it correct me?”
The robot priest nodded its shadowy head in a movement meant to signify apology.
“Forgive me, sir, for I meant no disrespect. I merely wished to express the fact that our priests and scientists have compared physical and emotional states before and after confessions to a multitude of objects, and to your potential amusement, a toaster was one of many such objects tested. The data conclusively showed both man and robot confessions to be of highest value. The toaster, comparatively, was found possessing mild cathartic value.”
Devin blinked at the curtain. Had a robot just told him a joke?
“So,” he said, trying to change the subject. “What do I call you? Father? That doesn't seem right at all, since you can't, well, you know...”
“The Church has decided we go by the title Scepter for its multitude of symbolic relations to what we are.”
“We? How many of you are there?”
“To my knowledge, there are twenty-three robots of similar make.”
“Twenty-three, huh? Shouldn't be surprised, I guess. How many jobs you robots stolen? First the mines, then farms, retail, office…now you have to move into preaching?”
“I cannot say. I only deal with matters within the confessional.”
A fan whirred above Devin's head, and a soft chill floated down. He removed his jacket, realizing he was sweating. His body temperature must have triggered a sensor somewhere in the booth. He leaned an open palm against a wall, trying to plan his next move. So far, if the robot detected his intentions, it had kept that knowledge well-hidden.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
“Scepter Klaveer Wolsen.”
“Scepter Klaveer, if you would please,” the robot interrupted. “The Church is very insistent we be treated respectfully.”
“Given how much they spent on you, I can only imagine,” Devin muttered. “Well, Scepter, how exactly are you supposed to work as god's intermediary? Got a direct beam up to heaven?”
“All who request forgiveness are granted it,” Klaveer said. “And do you not believe that god is everywhere? If so, by confessing to me, you confess to god, and by confessing to god, you are forgiven. I am here to ease your confession, and give you verbal confirmation mankind tends to need when dealing with spiritual matters.”
“But what could you know of sin?” Devin asked. “You're just a bible-spouting comfort machine.”
“I do indeed know all 31,103 verses of the bible, and my primary role is for comfort. How do these things impede my ability as a confessional priest?”
“I stole a packet of rations yesterday,” Devin said. “I feel bad about it.”
“Fear not,” Klaveer said. “For those who hunger shall be filled. You are forgiven.”
“But I just lied,” Devin said, pushing his face closer toward the curtain. “A human would have realized that, based on my tone, my words, and context of our conversation.”
“I was well aware of your lie,” Klaveer said. “I am equipped with scanners to observe your mental patterns. However, I gave you the answer you wanted to hear.”
“But the Church isn't supposed to just tell us what we want to hear,” Devin said, shaking his finger for emphasis. “You're supposed to be the wild prophet eating honey in the wilderness warning kings of their impending judgment, not some sycophantic storyteller.”
“I cannot say. I only deal with matters within the confessional.”
“Of course you do! But why should I bleed my heart out for one not able to feel compassion?”
“Vocal tonality can convey sympathy,” Klaveer said. “And Church studies showed the reduced fear of guilt and judgment increased likelihood of coming to confession.”
“Reduced guilt and judgment?”
“Precisely,” Klaveer said. “Being without emotions, I am lacking anger, judgment, jealousy, sadness, disappointment, and conflicting interests. Men and women find me safe. I listen, I tell them they are forgiven, and then they go on their way.”
“This is a joke,” Devin said. “What good are you? You can't just nod your head, say we’re forgiven, and then act like our souls are ready for heaven. That's ludicrous.”
“I am designed for increase comfort, and therefore increased confessions. Studies show the more often one goes to confession, the less likely of continuing repeated offenses against State and Church.”
“You ever offer advice?”
“After the third confession, if I compute a viable solution, I will instruct at the confessor’s permission.”
Devin bolted upright in his chair. A small black object fell from his pocket and onto the floor.
“You remember names?” he said, not yet bending down to retrieve the object.
“If I am given them,” Klaveer said. “Otherwise I use facial characteristics as a memory marker.”
“That explains this, then,” Devin said. He picked up the black object from the floor and pointed it at Klaveer. It was a small, single-shot blaster.
“Something troubling you?” the robot asked, again showing no apparent concern over the weapon aimed directly at its head.
“Someone once told me robots never forget a thing,” Devin said. With his free hand, he wiped his forehead. The pistol shook side to side. “You're a black sponge here, soaking up sins, crimes, and blunders. Someone told you something, Klaveer. Someone high up, someone that apparently regrets ever letting that slip.”
“You have been ordered to kill me,” Klaveer said. Not a question, just a mere statement.
“Your sensors tell you I'm capable of doing just that?”
The shadow head nodded.
“Good,” Devin continued. “But if you have sensors and scanners hidden in here, my gut says you have plenty of other gadgets. I'm being recorded right now, aren't I?”
“Just visually,” Klaveer said. “Not audibly.”
“Fantastic,” Devin said, glancing about as if he would be able to see them. “Should have known, damn it all!”
“May I speak?” the robot asked.
“Stalling until the police arrive, I take it?”
The robot shook its head.
“No police are en route. Clearly, you are in trouble, and if you would allow me, I want to help.”
Devin laughed, the sound shaky and wild in the cramped booth.
“Help? Sure. Going to quote me a few bible verses?”
“If it would help matters, yes,” Klaveer said. “But by what you have told me, this was not your idea, but that of another. Also, that another is in high standing, either socially or monetarily. By your mannerisms, wording, and involuntary physical reactions, I am convinced you are unhappy with this course of action. Are you being blackmailed, sir?”
“Call me Devin,” Devin said. “And yeah, you could say that.”
“Then whoever is blackmailing you never intended you to escape. Research into my confessional would reveal all the security devices set into place. For example, the moment I am inoperative, that door you entered will lock shut. That lock requires a locksmith approximately four minutes to open. Now, answer me this, if you would please. Is that your blaster, or was it given to you?”
Devin glanced at the blaster, then back up to the curtain.
“A single-shot blaster,” Klaveer said. “One shot is sufficient to kill me, but you would not have any others to shoot out the locks keeping you inside. I find it highly probable this was the reason you were given only one shot.”
Every few moments, Devin glanced over at the door, expecting it to shut and lock. He felt trapped. He wanted to put away the gun and run, but he knew what consequences that would entail.
“If you are being blackmailed,” Klaveer continued, “I would appreciate knowing the details, Mr. Devin.”
“Just Devin. And it’s my son. His lungs aren't the best, but the doctors treat him every other year, and when they do, he's just like any other kid. But if I don't do this, I'll be demoted. Most of my privileges, gone, just like that. Nothing as expensive as those treatments would ever be permitted for him. Either I shoot you, Klaveer, or I watch my son slowly die over a year. You're the bible expert. What's the right thing here?”
“I understand your situation,” Klaveer said. Devin clutched the gun tighter, hating how that soothing voice really did sound like it understood, and sympathized.
“The idea of destroying a single, expensive piece of property for the well-being of your son, in a sense destroying a non-life to preserve life, is perfectly rational to one under distress. However, I would like to propose an alternative.”
“Even mild research into robotics would have shown I must obey the law, and the law is very clear: what I hear in this booth is private and not permissible in any court. To breach this sanctity between man and god, I do harm to many millions who need this small booth, this dark curtain, and this eternal reassurance so they can continue on their lives. That, again, is something I cannot do.”
“What if someone kidnapped you,” Devin ventured. “Couldn't they stick a few wires in your head and get what they wanted?”
“I believe anyone seeking to kidnap me would find the matter impossibly difficult,” Klaveer said. “And no, you cannot stick a few wires into my head. You vastly underestimate the complexity of a robot brain.”
“So maybe they're just being irrational. Scared people do stupid things all the time. Hell, look at me. I'm holding a blaster at a robot priest.”
“I would not classify you as stupid, nor this a stupid act,” Klaveer said. “However, I believe instead of being irrational, whoever is blackmailing you is very rational. If I am killed, and you arrested, there will be a trial. Given what I know of human spectacle, this would be a long, well-publicized trial. The Church has not widely promoted this Scepter experiment. Furthermore, anti-robot sentiment could be further stoked by widespread discussion over a robot, to use your words, moving into preaching.”
“Terrorism,” Devin said. At the very sound of the word, his entire face paled. “I'm just a martyr for Uriah's fanatical terrorism.”
“May I ask who Uriah is?”
“The son of a bitch who set me up to this,” Devin said. “He's my boss. I'm just a simple technician, Klaveer. I make sure every building is meeting maximum efficiency. But Uriah, he helps plan the entire power grid for southeast New York. He could demote me, and then my son, he'd...”
He couldn't go on.
“I wish to help,” Klaveer said.
“How?” Devin asked. “Forget this confessional. You're a robot. No one would ever let you testify in court.”
“Never mind that. Please, if you would, tell me your boss’s entire name.”
“Uriah Reid. How does that help you?”
“If you would please, wait one moment for your questions. Now, when did Uriah discuss your killing me?”
“Two days ago,” Devin said. “He said I needed to kill a robot priest named Klaveer. You were a danger to us all, an encyclopedia of our sins. I just assumed in that encyclopedia was one of his sins as well.”
“A safe assumption,” Klaveer said. “Though it now appears to be incorrect. One last question, if you please. Where did Uriah hold this discussion with you?”
“His office. He told me he wanted to discuss a promotion for me. He was right too. I fly up a whole rank by busting your head wide open.”
Klaveer closed his eyes and went silent. Devin felt his jitters fire up and down his arms. Was this a trick? Would the robot use this against him? Devin's legs tensed, and he was ready to make a run for it when Klaveer opened his eyes and started talking.
“Very well. There are a few things you should know, Devin. First, although conversations between confessor and priest are sacred, that sacredness is broken by a criminal act. By holding up that blaster to me, you ended all right to privacy. Since then, a two-way screen from here to Police Station 54 has monitored our entire conversation. I did not lie when I said there were no auditory recording devices in this booth. Instead, two police officers were listening, and it would be rude to consider them a device.”
Devin's instinct to run was in full assault on his senses. Only Klaveer's calm, smoothly consistent voice kept him planted where he was.
“You should also be pleased to know that considering the importance of city power, all rooms are carefully monitored. Your conversation with Uriah was recorded, and although I have not been sent a copy, I have been assured he is quite blatant with his language.”
Devin let the blaster rest next to him on the seat. He leaned back, thumped his head against the carpeted wall.
“So you're saying I'm not in trouble?”
“Given your full cooperation with this investigation, I find it highly unlikely you will be charged.”
It all seemed too good to be true.
“Didn't Uriah know this?” Devin asked. “Couldn't he have known this might have happened?”
“Since you knew I was a robot, my best hypothesis is that he found it incredibly unlikely that you would bother to talk with me. Now if you would please set the blaster beside you so the Church can come and collect that for evidence.”
He did as he was told. He stood up, staring through the curtain with a sudden, wonderful sensation of relief.
“Thank you,” he said. Klaveer nodded, his face still locked in that same relaxed expression. As Devin stepped out, he heard the robot call out to him.
“I am pleased you are comforted, Devin. As for threatening to kill me, you are forgiven. Go, and sin no more!”