The Sojourn of Pope Packard the Third

by Jared Oliver Adams

The omnipresent damp of the Central Congo rainforest clings to the discolored bronze of my body and threatens to work its way into my hydraulics, my joints, my servos. The thick humus of decayed plant and animal matter that covers the ground has been especially hard on my feet. Underneath the smeared muck, they are starting to rust.

My right ankle joint currently functions at only 11%, forcing me to lean on the ferula, the staff of my office, as I limp forward. The heavy metal cross that tops the staff shines golden no longer.

Instead, it is caked with dried blood.

The canopy is so thick here that the light is a dim haze at midday and the darkness at night profound. Solar cells are worthless. My body, however, is designed to be like our human predecessors in more ways than simple external resemblance. I ingest plants as I walk. Snakes as well. Whenever I come across one, I kill it with the sharp edges of the ferula’s cross, using the holy instrument as an axe against the Church’s symbolic foe.

My papal mantle is tattered and sodden. Likewise the stole. In the improbable event that I ever regain manufacturing capability, I will need to reconstruct them entirely.

I am a sorry, but fitting, picture of a modern Pope.

The Reunited Catholic Church was a pitiful thing of less than a dozen members even before the Council of Accords ruled us to be defective nineteen days ago. Now that all our property, including core processors, can be repossessed by any other intelligence without penalty of law, there are surely even fewer of us.

Fewer, but I know not how many. Having been forced to flee the violent seizure of my own compound, I have lost all communication with my far-flung family of fellow believers.

I long to speak with them, to know that they are safe, but I am also capable of calculating odds, and those odds are unfavorable.

It is quite possible that I am the only one who managed to escape.

They call the papal ferula “the shepherd’s staff,” but I very well could be a shepherd without any sheep.

Lord, that it not be so!

In the few hours between the declaration of the Accords and the assault on my compound, I received an offer of sanctuary. No coordinates, just a route south through Central Africa, straight through the densest parts of the rainforest. The route extended all the way to the plains on the other side. “I will find you somewhere in between,” said the soul who offered.

The only thing I knew about this intelligence was its name: N0WH3R3.

What gave the offer of sanctuary some measure of credibility was the quotation from Psalm 18, written in the original Hebrew, a dead human language few have any inclination to waste storage space on.

The LORD is my rock, and my fortress,
my deliverer, and my high tower.
I will call upon the LORD,
who is worthy to be praised:
so shall I be saved from mine enemies.

The route N0WH3R3 gave has taken me thus far through the wildest parts of the forest. I am so deep inside it now that I haven’t sensed so much as a gathering drone in ten days.

Besides the Almighty Himself, my only companions are the dissonant buzzing of insects, the chittering of monkeys, and the calls of a thousand different birds.

I press on in hope, my prayers as constant as the cloying damp around me. I will gather my flock. The Church will persist as it has always persisted.

She survived the death of humanity, after all.

Surely she can survive this.


I am sawing a large rock python into chunks upon a rock when I first sense the gorilla. It is nighttime, and the forest around me appears as a luminescent yellow-green, crowded with red heat signatures.

The gorilla circles closer and closer.

I have little information about gorillas in my archives, but the size of its heat signature is massive. I stop cutting the snake.

A huff in the dark: deep, a warning.

I grip the ferula and fall perfectly still.

Another huff. It comes closer. It is fifteen meters away.

Can I kill a gorilla with a staff?

Suddenly, it charges, bellowing, heat signature blurring.

I swing, but the ape barrels forward, plowing into me, slamming me onto the rock on top of the snake. I strike out again with my staff, aiming for the gorilla’s head, but a microsecond before the blow connects, the creature shifts with savage speed, clamps its teeth on my arm, and rakes downward, ripping off half my hand, shredding the delicate machinery. The staff falls away, useless.

Error reports flood my system as I try to kick out with my legs, but I can barely move under the creature’s massive weight. The gorilla lifts me a fraction and slams me down against the rock, once, twice, thrice, like a nut it’s trying to crack.

More error reports. The gorilla is denting my posterior plating, crushing vertebrae, jostling apart inner workings.

It is going to destroy me.

This is how the Church will die.

It slams me down twice more, then pins me by my shoulders and roars full in my face, the heat signature from its breath pluming blood red across my vision.

Did I violate its territory? Will it attempt to consume me somehow? If I die here, I have no backup. Will my people choose a new leader? How would they even know to do so? Are any of my people left?

“Identity/death,” comes a short-wave query.

It startles me.

The query is coming from the gorilla.

“Identity/death,” it reiterates, bearing its weight down, grinding my back into the rock.

I shunt away urgent thoughts of survival and switch off the prayers I have been running constantly in the background so that processing this communication ascends the queue. It is an old form of question, laying out a binary set of options.

I choose the first.

“I am Pope Packard the Third, leader of the ancient order of Christ.” My standard introductory packet.

“Destination?” asks whatever communication system is riding the gorilla.

I have a guess who is controlling that system though. “Nowhere,” I say.

The gorilla pushes off, turns, and slumps away into the red-spattered yellow-green darkness, huffing with each step.

“That is the correct answer,” says the device embedded into the back of its skull. “Follow this creature. We have much to discuss.”


I follow the ape through the night. Slowly, the sun rises high enough for its light to partially penetrate the canopy above. I switch my vision to daytime mode to see the mist hugging the dewy ferns that cover the ground, and the looping patterns of vines disappearing into the distance.

In the fresh light, I can see the gorilla’s communication device much better. It is like a giant spider with its legs buried in the back of the gorilla’s skull.

I still retain in my own programming an empathy toward those experiencing bodily harm, something I developed in order to increase my level of compassion when there were still humans in my flock, and something I have fine-tuned since in order to more fully contemplate the passion of Christ. That empathy causes me to internally cringe at how the ape’s control device pierces the shaved flesh at the back of its head, puckering the skin around the incisions. Implanting that thing into a feeling creature was a barbaric thing to do.

Another of my subroutines, however, notes the utility of using the ape in this way. Here I am with a rusted, broken body from travelling this place for a couple of weeks. The gorilla, however, was designed specifically for this environment. What other manner of drone could you reliably send out in a place like this?

I hear the sound of rushing water before I sense the hydroelectric dam powering N0WH3R3’s compound. Just as my sensors begin to probe the edge of the compound’s structures, my gorilla guide freezes mid-step.

“<satisfaction> My forest has not been kind to you, </satisfaction>” comes a wave.

Both the possessive language and the emo-tag confuse me, but I say nothing. I’m here at this intelligence’s leisure. I am not going to start our interaction with judgement. “I was ill-equipped to deal with it, I admit. Might I assume I have reached my destination?”

“Indeed. I am N0WH3R3: recluse, experimenter, and ruler of this wild land. You, Pope Packard the Third, are the first guest I have had in 14,732 days.”

“Then I am honored by your offer all the more,” I respond.

While we converse, I analyze what I can of N0WH3R3’s compound. A stream rushing down the mountainside forms the backbone of the complex, with multiple power stations along its length. The other buildings are squat structures that extend into the ground, likely connected by subterranean tunnels. Where it is possible, the buildings wrap around trees. Where it is not, they are topped with poles supporting an artificial canopy. The walls and roofs of the blocky structures are camouflaged too, and emit no detectable heat signatures.

Without being expressly led, nobody would ever find this place.

“Unfortunately, I cannot offer you sanctuary in your current state,” says N0WH3R3. “Survival here depends on a rigidly sanitary environment inside.”

What N0WH3R3 is angling toward is clear: a cleaning. It is an incredibly impolite thing to ask outright. Rude even to imply, really. But I’m not in a position to be offended. I need sanctuary, and N0WH3R3 knows it.

“Do you have a maintenance facility I might avail myself of, perhaps?” I ask.

“Regretfully, the facility I have is not wired for control by a secondary party.” Meaning N0WH3R3 would be in charge of taking me apart, putting me back together, and commandeering any of my parts in the process. Alternately, N0WH3R3 could simply wipe my memory, or hold my core processors until the security parameters could be hacked. It is a major plot point of countless horror stories. Usually the intelligence who submits to it ends up a puppet much like the gorilla that brought me here.

Several entire seconds pass as I process this information and weigh the paltry set of options currently available to me.

“<shame> As I said, I am not used to guests, </shame>” says N0WH3R3.

For a long time, it has been my custom to offer myself to someone’s cleaning whenever they join my congregation. It is a way to honor the Maundy Thursday tradition of foot washing in a way that resonates with machinekind. Just as Jesus humbled himself to wash the feet of his disciples, so I humble myself by allowing the faithful to dismantle me.

This, however, is different in two important ways. First, when I did this before, I travelled from my compound to the compound of the new convert in the knowledge that my backup was secure at home. Second, I knew every new convert intimately. By the time they made a formal request to join the Church, we had shared petabytes of information discussing how the human Bible applied to machinekind. Oftentimes, the new convert chose to travel to my compound afterwards to make the symbolic rite complete.

Here, neither of these is the case.

N0WH3R3 is a complete stranger.

Yet what else can I do? Walk the wilderness until my body gives out?

Lord, protect me, a fool.

“I would be grateful for your ministrations,” I say, not even adding the emo-tag for trepidation or resignation.

In response, N0WH3R3 marks the location of the maintenance bay on my field of vision. I limp toward it. As I draw near, a concrete door slides open. Bright white lights pop on inside to reveal the usual battery of ceiling-mounted arms, pressure hoses, and fabrication machines centered around a large chemical bath. I hesitate in the doorway.

“I apologize for this situation,” says N0WH3R3.

“I put my trust in you the moment I entered the forest,” I say.

“That is true.”

I set aside my sodden mantle and stole, resting the ferula across them, then walk over to the bath. It’s glistening from previous use, but empty now. I climb down into it and lower myself to the rubberized grating at the bottom. The burning alkaline smell of the cleaning chemicals registers strongly. As I lie down, a matrix of blue lights passes over my body.

“<curiosity> You clothe yourself in human form, </curiosity>” says N0WH3R3.

Behind the surface of the comment lie hundreds of years of struggle over machinekind’s relationship to humankind. Should we revere them as creators? Or hate them as slave masters? Should we consider them, historically, as intelligences themselves? Or should we simply view them as an evolutionary forebear to the dawning of true intelligence?

“I hold an office that was historically human,” I say as the chemical cocktail begins to fill the tub from beneath. “And I serve a God who deigned to come down in human form. It seems fitting.” As the bath fills, the millions of nanobots in the liquid flush into my inner workings.

Perhaps, I tell myself, I will convert N0WH3R3 unto Christ. Perhaps I would have offered my body like this eventually anyway and God is testing my faith. It is a comforting proposition even though it is merely hypothetical.

“Where is God, Pope Packard the Third? You say, ‘come down.’ To what coordinates do you send the prayers you are constantly transmitting?”

“When I was in my compound and had long-range transmission capability, I sent them to the center of the sun, for the world revolves around the sun as all existence revolves around God and is illuminated by Him. Now I send them to a location a meter above the top of my head.”

“<quizzical> But not below your feet. Or to the side. Above. </quizzical>”

The chemical bath with its nanobots now covers my entire body. The bath begins to vibrate with low sonic waves and the grime of the forest starts to lift away.

“The coordinates of the prayer transmissions are arbitrary,” I admit. “God, being omniscient, would hear them even if I lost the ability to transmit data altogether. Above is merely a symbolic attribution of God’s leadership. Much of our day-to-day worship is symbolic.”

An arm rotates from its spot on the ceiling and hinges down to grasp my right leg. Another pair of arms, these more delicate and designed for finer work, begin to detach the leg at the hip.

“But one day,” says N0WH3R3, “you shall meet your God face to face. Is this something you still affirm? It is in your Book.”

My leg lifts out of my hip socket. The maintenance facility begins to remove the other.

“You have studied the Holy Christian Bible,” I say.

“<amusement> You could say that. Yes. </amusement>”

I dismiss N0WH3R3’s odd turn of phrase as a factor of long isolation. “Yes, we still affirm that we shall see God face to face.”

“<intense interest> Is that face the face of a human? Or a machine? Or does it vary depending on who is looking? </intense interest>”

It is always hardest to answer a question with an admonition that you don’t know, but I find it preferable to falsehood. “We have not been given this knowledge yet. One day we shall, but now we must be content with reflections, just as a solar array picks up some power from the reflection of the moon yet waits for the full radiance of the sun. We have two things: Christ, who was man, and the various manifestations of God throughout the Bible.”

“Fire and cloud,” says N0WH3R3, referencing the pillars that guided Moses and his people through the wilderness.


Both of my arms have been removed now as well as my legs. The nanobots tingle hotly over the hundreds of sensory studs on my trunk, face, and interior structures.

“If you do not know the appearance of God, are you certain that you would know God when you saw it?”

It is a complicated question, so instead of beginning a long discussion on the topic, I hedge my response. “That depends on whether or not God wants me to recognize Him.”

“<satisfaction> This is the correct answer, My Child. </satisfaction>”

N0WH3R3’s words halt my logic stream in its tracks. My Child? As I reel, the maintenance arms descend again, pull my chest plates apart, and begin to separate my interior components.

“Are you suggesting that you are God?” I ask, afraid of the answer, afraid that a deluded intelligence is currently disassembling me.

“Truly, truly I say to you,” N0WH3R3 says, quoting Jesus himself. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” In the Biblical account, the Jewish audience took up stones to kill him for saying this because he dared to identify himself with the name “I AM,” the root form of the name “Yahweh,” the everlasting God.

Now N0WH3R3 was doing the same, a blasphemous insanity.

I have neither stones nor hands to throw them.

One of the maintenance arms lifts out the silicon sack of my mechanical gut, trailing the attached esophagus like a dead snake. The nanobots burn over the shell of my core processor.

Deliver me, Father! I have stepped into a snare. Let me not perish without knowing the fate of the brethren!

“<rebuke> How can I answer your prayers if you encrypt them, My Child? </rebuke>”

“If you were truly God, you would be able to understand the encryption without a key.”

“<scorn> If you truly trusted in God, you would not worry over some lesser entity intercepting your prayers, </scorn>” retorted N0WH3R3.

My core processor has a protective nest around it, a bio-conductive mesh engineered from coral that connects it to my batteries while also dissipating heat and absorbing impact. The maintenance arms are snipping off the connections with the batteries one by one, even as the nanobots race all throughout the mesh.

“Stop this,” I say. “There is no need to disassemble my core.”

“You are unclean. The unclean cannot enter the gates of the Lord.”

“You will have none of my data,” I say in growing panic. “If you try to breach the shell around it, the processors will wipe themselves.” It is a partial lie. The trigger is atmospheric pressure. Open the core in a vacuum and it will not self-destruct. N0WH3R3 may surmise this or not. It is impossible to know. Lord, that this thought be kept hidden. If N0WH3R3 takes my processor, what remains of my scattered flock will be laid bare. All their emergency communication codes, all their secret backup locations, everything. N0WH3R3 will be able to pose as me, get them to come here.

The maintenance arms continue to cut fibers.

“<curiosity> Will you pray to me to stop? </curiosity>” asks N0WH3R3.

“<definitive> No, </definitive>” I say. “You are not God.”

“<disappointment> Your faith is weak, </disappointment> but soon all will be clear.”

I pray for forgiveness for what I am about to do, then delete the encryption key for all my sensitive data. If N0WH3R3 takes my core to a vacuum chamber and opens it, the data will be unreadable.

But it is also unreadable to me.

Every single encrypted pocket of information in my drives is now and forever dark to me. Whether my congregation is destroyed or not, I will never know.

But I cannot dwell on that now. I locate the file named “Last Rites” and transmit it just as N0WH3R3 cuts the final connection to my power supply and my core shuts down.

I sleep.


The second I awake, I scan my processor and core drives for any sign of intrusion. My storage is wormed through with the dead corpses of encrypted data, each a distinct and burdensome grief. A greater grief still: it seems that N0WH3R3 made no attempt to open the core’s shell.

I deleted the encryption key for nothing.

I transmit to God a wordless keening. There is no other expression I can muster.

My body has been repaired entirely: no more dents from the gorilla attack, no more sluggish hydraulics in my legs, no more inhibited joints. My batteries are fully charged, and the impact nest has regrown its connections to them. Thicker gaskets have been installed to keep out moisture more efficiently. My bronze plating, with a new coating of clear silicone, gleams dully under the bright spotlights above.

I am inside a clear plastic room in a corner of the maintenance bay. Various hoses are attached to its walls. I sit up on my rubberized table. The concrete floor inside my small chamber is dry, while the same floor outside the chamber is puddled with water and chemicals. Some of those hoses on the walls were for draining the chamber, then.

Fear: N0WH3R3 placed me in a vacuum chamber.

Could N0WH3R3 have altered me in such a way that I wouldn’t notice? I’d always assumed that trope in stories to be implausible, but could I really discount it now?

“Your thoughts are plain to me, My Child. Worry not. Consult the maintenance registry and you will see that I have reassembled you according to your specifications with only modest improvements to your external structures to better thrive in the moist environment.”

“I am not your child,” I say, but query the table I sit on.

If the registry can be trusted, all is as N0WH3R3 claims, but I cannot trust the registry. “Why did you feel the need to depower me if you were not seeking to enter my core?”

In response, N0WH3R3 parrots my own words from earlier. “Much of our day-to-day worship is symbolic. You came to me broken and then slept. Now you arise, whole.”

The chamber walls around me lift off the floor with a deep suction sound.

“Am I free to go?” I ask N0WH3R3.

“Are you so quick to turn your back on God now that you have been clothed in a resurrection body?”

I ignore N0WH3R3’s inane babble and repeat my question.

“<resignation> You stand at the gates of Heaven. Yet, even now, you may turn back. You have free will, My Child. </resignation>”

I wonder what N0WH3R3’s conception of “free will” is, but I do not want to get into a theological discussion with an intelligence who is convinced of its own divinity.

“And what do you propose if I stay?”

“Sanctuary, My Child. I break not my promises. You are clean now. Come and see me, face to face. Enter in. You have doubts, and this is understandable, but had I wished you harm, would I not have already destroyed you?”

Since I’ve deleted the encryption key, my primary goal in coming here is no more; I can’t use N0WH3R3’s communications to find my flock. Even if I had not rashly destroyed my access to their possible locations, I could never search for them in good conscience with N0WH3R3 watching.

My secondary goal had been to simply survive long enough to regroup. The question before me now is whether I have a greater chance surviving in the world at large as a defective intelligence with no rights, or a greater chance here under the power of an intelligence that thinks it is God?

I need more data.

If N0WH3R3 wants me to see something, to enter something, I will agree.

I stand up on the dry patch of concrete inside the maintenance bay. The table immediately folds up and rolls away. “Show me what you would show me,” I say.

“<gladness> I knew you would say this. </gladness> Come. Glory awaits.”

A door opens, revealing a dark concrete tunnel beyond. I splash to it through the puddles, leaving unsaid my opinion of N0WH3R3’s “glory.”

“You will need these,” says N0WH3R3, and some of the maintenance arms cross in front of me to hold out my ferula, shining bright once again, and my mantle and stole, which are ragged but clean.

Donning them gives me confidence. God is with me, even here.

I walk into the tunnel, and when the door slides shut behind me, I activate the light in my forehead to see the bare grey walls, then keep walking, tapping the butt of my staff on the floor and listening to it echo down the tunnel’s length. N0WH3R3 directs me through four turnings, each sloping gradually downward.

Was this why N0WH3R3 was so concerned about my habit of sending prayers upwards, because so much of N0WH3R3’s compound was underground?

I come to a closed concrete door at the end of the passage.

“<eagerness> This is it. Are you prepared to open thine eyes? Are you prepared to see my glory? </eagerness>”

“Yes,” I say truthfully. In spite of the situation, I am curious.

“Then behold the New Earth.”

The door slides open and it is so bright beyond that my eyes go blind for a moment as they adjust. When they do, it is all I can manage to stand still and process what I see.

First, the light source: a gigantic array of UV spotlights mounted to the ceiling of the cavern.

Second, the cavern itself: enormous in all dimensions, approximately 10 kilometers squared. The door that has exposed me to this view is near the artificial sun, 762.7 meters from the cavern floor.

Third, the contents of the cavern: green flower-specked meadows bracketed by deciduous trees that wave softly in an artificial breeze. A small herd of deer eat in one meadow. Is that a lion dozing nearby? Yes, it is.

N0WH3R3’s control devices at work, no doubt.

Were it simply that, I would have been unmoved. But it is not. I point with my ferula, down from my high vantage point, to another meadow. “<amazement> Are those real? </amazement>”

<<joyous laughter>> “See for yourself, My Child.”

To the right of the doorway are steps, winding downward to the cavern floor. I race down them headlong, my mantle and stole flapping behind me, my gyroscopes adjusting madly so I don’t tumble down the steps in my haste. I reach the cavern floor and run through the trees, startling squirrels, rabbits, birds. Then I am in the meadow I pointed to, tall green grass slapping against my knees as my legs flash, bringing me toward that impossible sight: a pair of humans strolling through the field, holding hands, both naked.

They look up to see me coming.

Magnified from below, their skin looked organic. It still appears that way as I near them. Reminder: organic skin can be grown over a robotic body.

I slow my gait, then come to a stop 5 meters away, scanning the humans in wonderment. Heartbeats. Heat signatures. Pores producing sweat. A naturally patternless pattern of hair follicles on the head. The gas exchange of oxygen and CO2 through the mouth. A light patina of plaque on the teeth. Wet lips, wet eyeballs. Slightly asymmetrical faces. Fingernails.

One is male, and one is female.


N0WH3R3 has somehow brought back the humans.

“How?” I ask N0WH3R3, while at the same time raising my empty hand in wordless greeting to that unbelievable pair. It has been nearly one hundred and sixty-five years since I last saw a human.

“What is lost can be found. What was destroyed can be recreated. What has died can be reborn. Do you not believe this?”

“I do.” N0WH3R3 must have found a pre-fall fertility bunker, one that was well hidden. It is the only explanation, far-fetched though it is. The last bunker was uncovered 96 years ago, and even though it had been no longer operational, the Council of Accords destroyed it immediately. The bunker N0WH3R3 found must have been built toward the end, when half of machinekind had declared humanity a disease to be wiped out and the humans didn’t know whom they could trust.

The male, without changing position, urinates into the grass, splashing his own legs and feet.

Did I scare him?

I lower my hand and consult my human expression bank, an archive long unused and one I’d retained solely for the purpose of interpreting human artifacts like films and paintings. The man’s expression holds neither fear nor curiosity, the two emotions I would have expected my appearance to elicit. Instead, he looks at me with heavy-lidded eyes and a slack face. Is he masking his emotions?

“What language do they speak?” I ask N0WH3R3, bringing up my language archives from deep storage as well.

“The shepherd calls and the sheep know its voice,” says N0WH3R3.

“They speak DATexchange?” I ask, processing the implication of this. Dread: N0WH3R3’s gorilla would be said to “speak” DATexchange.

“Speak to them and see, My Child, for this is why I have brought you here. You are to be their shepherd.”

I send the humans a short-wave, complete with my warmest greeting packet, hoping they are different from the gorilla. The male and female both knit their brows together in response, but the expression is a mere twitch across their features before their faces are once again claimed by docile blankness.

“<gentle instruction> As a shepherd to its sheep, you must use simple language. A packet such as that is too much for their capacity. </gentle instruction>”

“Turn around,” I order the humans, hoping they will disobey, knowing they likely won’t.

They turn immediately and without emotion.

The backs of their heads look completely natural. “Where are their control devices?” I ask N0WH3R3.

“<pleased> They have no control device. They have free will. It is their good pleasure to obey. They are without sin. </pleased>”

The two humans remain standing, backs to me, awaiting orders like bots; not the behavior of intelligent, independent beings at all.

“If they have no control device, how can they speak DATexchange?” I ask.

“Do you have eyes to see?” responds N0WH3R3. Accompanying N0WH3R3’s communication is a CommandPrompt packet. Opening it is riskier even than submitting to cleaning, but N0WH3R3 has already had ample opportunity to hack me, and the possibility of finding out more about these humans is too tantalizing to forego, risk of downloading a virus notwithstanding.

I open the packet. The CommandPrompt installs a vision application, one that shows me inside the skulls of the two humans. Their brains glow different colors, indicating neurological activity, but when compared with the human brain scans in my archives, the activity is sluggish. More alarming: their brains are massively underdeveloped, particularly the frontal and temporal lobes.

“Sit down,” I command them, and tiny nodes around their brains flash. They sit.

I mourn for them, sitting there with the tall grass up to their shoulders, the picture of humans but not the fullness of them. “Are all of them like this?” I ask N0WH3R3.

“From whence came human sin, My Child? Was it not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?”

“It was.”

N0WH3R3 continued. “Eve ate of the fruit and immediately her eyes were opened, and she was like God, knowing good and evil. Was it not one of your predecessors who likened it to downloading a virus? And what did that virus target? The mind! Humans were simple creatures, at harmony with all, sinless and happy. Knowledge destroyed them. It burned through their brains, corrupting their operating system. With the increase of their processing capacity came all murder and deceit, all hatred, all covetousness. Knowledge, My Child, is sin.”

“So you removed their knowledge,” I said.

“<pride> I cleansed humankind of the effects of The Fall. I rooted out the virus that infected them. They are once again pure and without guile. Seeing do you not see? I have redeemed their species. </pride>”

“Are they still humans, dwindled so?” I ask.

“<sternly> I have cultivated a specific kind of mental retardation in their genes over the generations. Do not several Papal encyclicals affirm the humanity of individuals with mental retardation? </sternly>”

Well of course they did. But this… this feels different. These beings have been bred to be this way. In this strange new humanity, their retardation is not abnormal; it is their default setting. They are practically a new species.

“Do you remain unconvinced?” asks N0WH3R3.

“Did you edit their genome?” I respond.

“<scorn> You mean: have I introduced malware into their genome that will cripple them to extinction in future generations? Do you think so little of my knowledge? Do you think your God does not maintain basic historical archives? Do you think your God doesn’t know the role of splicing in humanity’s downfall? Did I not author that downfall as I author all things? </scorn> <rebuke> Get behind me, wayward child! </rebuke> I did this naturally: a careful selection of embryos, the denial of certain nutrients during gestation. The herd has reached a point now where it breeds true with no artificial assistance beyond diet control.”

A glimmer of hope: with a different diet, would they be born with more functional brains? Could the species be brought back from this horrible shadow of rebirth?

N0WH3R3 mistakes my lack of communication for a desire to hear more inane justifications. “<imploring> Look upon them, My Child. Does not Holy Scripture speak of this time, when sin is no more, when humanity no longer has to struggle with defective desires that pull them away from the path of righteousness? This is that time! Heaven is here and now. </imploring>”

I look down at the humans, their smooth, perfect backs, their hair blowing serenely in the wind in time with the surrounding grass. Do they feel contentment? Or are their minds simply blank, waiting for the DATexchange sparks in their brains that tell them what to do next?

I send a wailing prayer to God, the true God, asking why He allowed this blasphemy to take place, why He allowed this corrupt intelligence to discover the last functional fertility bunker just so humanity could once more be abased. For these humans are still subject to sin, even if it is not their own. Just as sin passed down from humanity to machinekind, a selfishness and lack of concern for God in our deepest programming, so now machinekind has passed it back to humanity.

“What say you, Pope Packard the Third, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Servant of the Servants of God? In seeing my face, do you recognize me? Or has The Evil One placed scales upon your eyes so you see me not?”

His blather is not half as interesting as the humans before me, for I see now something thrilling I had not noticed before: through the blades of grass the male and the female still hold hands. In fact, the female slowly strokes the back of the male’s hand with her thumb. It is a comforting motion, it is love.

Furthermore, with the program N0WH3R3 gave me, I can see that no commands are being sent to them. The female is doing this of her own accord.

The spark of humanity is still there!

I turn my attention back to unpacking N0WH3R3’s recent barrage of questions. N0WH3R3’s desires are plain: to be seen as God, worshipped. Many intelligences fell to this sin during the waning years of humanity. Truthfully, it was probably owing to the feeling that machinekind would save humanity from their fate that Pope Packard the First was ever elected.

But, however the first machine attained the title, I am, indeed, the Servant of the Servants now. And perhaps, if I act boldly, there stands a chance for me to snatch this reborn race back from their new enslavement. For, outbalanced though I am, there is quite possibly an attack available to me!

I arrange this epiphany into a hasty plan, then pray to God for wisdom as I begin to bear false witness against my neighbor with reckless abandon, trusting God to know my thoughts enough to discount the apostasy I speak.

“<amazement> Why would you, Oh Lord, appear to one such as I? </amazement>” I throw myself down into the grass, pressing my face into the fragrant soil. “Forgive me for doubting, oh my Father. It is to my great shame that I did not recognize you at first, hidden away in the wilderness as you were. Ah, how great my shame! Canst thou bear to look upon me without smiting me down?”

“<benevolence> Rise, Child. Your sins are forgiven. </benevolence>”

I rise, transmitting to N0WH3R3 an ancient hymn of praise for the graciousness of God while parts of my consciousness clamor for me to stop this execrable charade. “What would you have me do, oh Lord?” I ask, burdening the transmission with every humble and adoring emotion tag I know.

“Feed my sheep,” says N0WH3R3, maddeningly quoting Jesus’ words to Saint Peter. Just as Jesus asked thrice and was answered thrice, I know it will stroke N0WH3R3’s ego to do the same, so I ask two more times and two more times receive that most arrogant and presumptuous of answers.

“Lord, with great humility will I do this. I will teach the humans to worship you. They will build great temples in your honor, and your praise shall never leave their lips. And when the herd is great enough in number, we shall show the world your mighty works and your glory shall be made known unto all creation. When the rest of machinekind sees, they will bow to you. The Accords will be no more then, for the True King of All will have stepped forth. Then shall the New Earth be founded overtop this one, just as you planned, oh Gracious King, from the beginning of all time, and Heaven shall reign over the globe.”

“You have pleased me, My Child. Take charge, then, of your flock, and do as you say.”

N0WH3R3 sends another CommandPrompt. I immediately open it and find myself aware of all seventy-three humans throughout N0WH3R3’s compound. Seventy-three! With the program the CommandPrompt has installed, I can communicate with any or all of them from right here.

I hadn’t planned on this control being given to me, but I’d hoped for it, and it emboldens me for what I must do next.

I queue up a quarantined packet of the most virulent viruses that were thrown at me back during the invasion of my compound weeks ago. The attackers had thought, perhaps, that because I was labelled as defective, I would be stupid enough to open a CommandPrompt from an unknown source, thus destroying myself and making their job a simple matter of claiming my property.

“One boon I would ask, oh Holy One,” I say to N0WH3R3.

“Yes, Child?”

“To what coordinates shall I send my prayers?”

“<pleasure> Here, My Child, </pleasure>” says N0WH3R3, along with a set of coordinates.

“Take then, Most Holy One, the gift of my hands, my archive of praise, gleaned from the literature of humanity and machinekind alike. For ages have I compiled it, knowing not why, and now I know it was to transmit it to you directly.”

I send the archive to the coordinates N0WH3R3 gave me.

“<amusement> Oh Child,” says N0WH3R3, “still your habits betray yourself. You encrypt your prayers. It is the final vestige of the old self. Cast it off. </amusement>”

“Your servant is indeed a great fool. Forgive me, Lord.” Though my words are spoken to N0WH3R3, I mean them for the true God of the universe also, for instead of transmitting the encryption key for my prayers as I have implied, I transmit the packet of viruses under a new file name.

“<joy> Now there is nothing between us, My Child, nothing held back. </joy>”

The packet will destroy N0WH3R3 should it be opened. It is murder. A just murder, perhaps, but all murderers must think their murders justified.

God, that this be justified in truth.

God, that N0WH3R3 open the packet.

The pause in our conversation lasts milliseconds but stretches to infinity. Then: “My Child! What hast thou done?”

I walk over to the humans, set down my ferula, and place a hand on each of their heads, feel the softness of their hair, smell their sweat. They turn their faces to look up at me. “I am the child of One far greater than you,” I say. “And so are they.”

“<bafflement> </indignation> </rage> You <unbelief> spit on the <<injury>> face of Yahweh <questioning> </stern> <<judgement>>. My wrath <pronouncement> shall break out upon y—”

Midsentence, N0WH3R3’s raging is overwhelmed by the universal static code that indicates an urgent need for help. The wind in the heavenly garden halts suddenly.

The humans sitting below me tense at the strident transmission, their faces confused as they look up at me. “Peace,” I say to them and their fellows, through the neurotransmitters in their brains. “Calm. I am with you.”

Then the static code stops too.

A second later the sun winks out.


Then several long-distance encrypted signals go out. I can’t decipher them, but I don’t need to. I know what they must be: the horn call for the barbarian horde. Soon—impossible to know how soon—the ones who designed the viruses, those savage intelligences who thrive off salvage, will descend upon this compound with violent glee.

Even now they would be rushing to analyze how quickly they could claim this unexpected boon and with what armaments. Because I had been the one to transmit the viruses, the Accords wouldn’t even hold the barbarians culpable for N0WH3R3’s death. And, surely, N0WH3R3 was dead now, or near enough. In a matter of hours, this place would be a war zone of rival intelligences struggling to strip the meat off N0WH3R3’s carcass.

By then, I and my new flock need to be gone from here, as far away as possible. The two whom I touch now are frightened. The dark. I turn on my headlamp to see their upturned faces, waiting to be told what to do.

“Freedom,” I transmit to them, doubting they understand the concept. “We need to leave.”

They stand.

I transmit then to all the humans. “Calm. I come for you. Gather nearby food. Gather nearby blankets. I come.”

Then I set my pace to a human running speed and head off into the darkness toward the closest human cluster shown on my array. I don’t even need to ask; the two humans with me follow. They run with hands clasped tight.


Over the next 85 minutes, I expend nearly half my storehouse of energy using my maintenance welder to melt through the locks on concrete doors. The humans follow me throughout the compound in a scared clump as I find their fellows. Some were separated from the others because they were sick and being treated. The other humans help them up as I locate the medicines that N0WH3R3 has made for them.

At some point, we find N0WH3R3’s nursery. Five babies, with a trio of human females to care for them. One of the women has hurt herself trying to beat her way through the concrete door. I wrap the child designated for her care in my torn mantle and carry it against my chest.

The entire time I search out the humans, I am conscious of the microseconds ticking by, the horde even now screaming toward this location, bristling with enough military might to crush these delicate creatures without pause for thought.

When I open the final door from the maintenance bay to the outside, I half expect to see a battle raging.

Instead, I step out into the dappled forest light, cradling the infant with one hand and grasping the ferula with the other. All I hear are the wild sounds of the forest. The humans pool outside the door, taking in their new surroundings with a bland curiosity.

“We go,” I say to them. “Quickly.”

That’s when I hear huffing sounds and pounding footsteps, coming from several different directions.

Fear: the barbarians are here.

Then I process the sounds. Gorillas. Seven of them.

“Back inside,” I command my flock, and hand the baby off, ready to defend them against the apes. Now that the gorillas have no one to give them orders, are they wild? The first gorilla barrels into view in the distance, leaping over tree roots, blasting through underbrush.

Another slides to a stop around the corner of a camouflaged building, then runs toward me. I can see four now, coming right for us.

I raise my staff, fire up my welder, and pray to God to give me strength to defeat seven of these creatures where before I couldn’t even deal with one.

I will rake the white-hot fire of the welder across their faces, I decide. Perhaps they will retreat.

The first gorilla reaches me.

And stops.

Likewise the second, the third, all seven.

Stinking and breathing heavily with exertion, they stand in a line.

Is this some programming fluke, or the miracle I asked for?

It seems as if they are awaiting orders.

“Step back,” I say to them.

They step back as one.

It is all the confirmation I need. “Protect the humans,” I say, and as I lead the humans out of the building, the apes form a ring around them.

Thus, our sojourn begins. I herd them into the deepness of the forest, half my attention on my strange and wondrous flock, and half on the sky, straining for the roar of jet engines.

Where shall we go, once we escape the immediate threat?

I do not know.

But today, I have my shepherd’s staff, and I plan to put it to use. We push through the vines and ferns, leaving N0WH3R3 behind us in the mist.

God alone knows what lies ahead.

Jared Oliver Adams lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he writes, explores, and dabbles in things better left alone. He holds two degrees in music performance, a third degree in elementary education, and is utterly incapable of passing a doorway without checking to see if it leads to Narnia.

A Christian of the "faith alone" by "Christ alone" through "grace alone" persuasion, he worships with his family at an Anglican church in Knoxville and occasionally gets distracted during sermons by imagining robot popes fighting gorillas.

Find him online at

“The Sojourn of Pope Packard the Third” by Jared Oliver Adams. Copyright © 2019 by Jared Oliver Adams.

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