Father Peter Frambeau gave a quick half-bow to Monsignor Shuman, whose immense form remained seated behind his equally immense desk. Frambeau’s curt gesture marginally satisfied the hierarchical protocol that was expected to be followed in this holy Vatican venue.
“Things seem plain enough to me at this juncture, Monsignor,” he said. “The online gaming avatar known as ‘Ultra X-Man’ must be seriously considered for beatification. The facts suggest nothing less.”
Monsignor Shuman grunted and motioned for the young Jesuit to sit in one of the antique, leather-upholstered armchairs in front of the desk. To Frambeau’s senses, buried within that simple grunt were several overtones reminiscent of a woeful groan.
Frambeau had frequented the innermost Vatican offices of the Roman Curia often enough; his job as a staff research specialist in the Congregation for the Cause of Saints required that. Even so, he remained ever awed by the sheer size and magnificence of these chambers: the five-meter ceilings; the priceless old masters on the walls in their gilded ornate frames, the opulent carpets, wall hangings, and finely embroidered draperies. All were subsumed within a hushed, visceral sense of sanctity that pervaded the place.
And all so very unlike his own noisy, austere cubbyhole in the ill-maintained Church office building a couple of blocks away.
The modern PC that sat to one side of the gray-haired monsignor’s desk seemed somehow out of place, out of time. But Frambeau knew that the Church had to make every effort to keep up with whatever era it found itself in. As well it should, he thought, in order to insure its survival in an increasingly secular world. He guessed that Shuman rarely used the thing – if at all – and doubted that it was even booted up at that moment. From his angle, he couldn’t confirm that without being too obvious about it.
Monsignor Shuman smiled thinly at him. Frambeau knew it to be a dissembled gesture, one honed to perfection over decades. He’d seen it many times before.
“Father Frambeau,” the monsignor said, “I won’t mince words with you here. You already know my bias with regard to this particular case. Were it not for the ever-churning gears of Papal law and their dismal bureaucratic inevitability, it might never have made it this far.” He sighed. “But no such luck. You’ve always been a very persistent fellow . . .”
“I remind you, Monsignor, that I didn’t originate this petition. The Archbishop of the affected diocese did, in accordance with the rules. It was assigned to me to follow up on, which I did. Frankly, it’s hard for me to comprehend why you, as the legitimately appointed Postulator for the case, seem so eager to want to dismiss it out of hand. Aren’t you rather conveniently disregarding the Church’s position with regard to God’s omnipresence and omnipotence?”
Shuman’s face reddened as he leaned forward over his desk. He pointed an arthritic finger at the young priest. “Be more mindful of your tongue, Frambeau. You’re treading on thin ice here. I’m not well-disposed to being accused of doctrinal slothfulness, not today. And most especially, not by you.”
Frambeau brought his fingers up to rub his forehead for a moment, recomposing himself. “Monsignor, forgive my brashness. It seems so very simple to me. If God’s holy presence and power imbues the entire universe, then logic dictates His influence must also extend to the virtual human venues that lay within it. They’ve become popular not only with our own parishioners, but with many others who may someday come to be baptized into our flock. Why wouldn’t God have an interest in human affairs on that plane, too – and find a way to express Himself there?”
The old monsignor sighed again and leaned back in his chair. “Enough, Frambeau! Leave this for the Church philosophers to debate. Let’s focus on our own jobs here. Please lay out your formal arguments relative to the case at hand.”
Frambeau cleared his throat, clasped his hands together in his lap, and let his eyes drift to the ceiling. He noticed a cobweb in one high corner, behind the monsignor’s desk. It occurred to him that he might as well be pleading his case to the tiny spider that had created it. Yes, he thought, one of God’s lowliest creatures–and me not far above it, in this situation.
He lowered his eyes to meet the monsignor’s. “First requirement: deceased status. We now know that the originator of the ‘Ultra X-Man’ avatar, one Melvin Kowolski from Yonkers, New York, died in a bus accident two years ago, shortly after his eighteenth birthday. His online avatar now runs autonomously–but since it cannot be said to be alive in any proper sense, the question becomes moot.”
The monsignor raised a hand. “Wait a minute, Frambeau. You’re confusing me at the get-go. It seems like you’re concocting a fruit cocktail here. The petition proposed beatifying the online entity, the avatar. It’d be a lot easier for me to deal with this whole thing if it was the boy – this Melvin fellow – who was up for consideration, with the avatar acting merely as a . . . as an icon that focused any devotional prayers that may have been directed toward him. Why are we not talking about the human, rather than his electronic avatar?”
“Because Melvin, though a Catholic, was lapsed. Simply put, he wasn’t a paragon of our faith. Prior to his death, when he directly controlled the avatar, there was no religious content in any of his online gaming dialogue records. The events involved in this case only occurred later, after his demise.”
“Which leads me to my next question: How can a bucketful of bits – which you yourself stated has no living status and therefore can possess no divinely gifted soul – be seriously up for grabs here? Frambeau, the thing isn’t even a baptized Catholic, for heaven’s sake!” Shuman paused and snorted once. “And I imagine that would be rather difficult to accomplish without shorting out its computer circuitry, eh?”
Frambeau looked down at his lap. This was a delicate point of the argument, and the monsignor had pounced upon it like a hungry fox on an exposed vole.
“But as we know,” he said softly, “neither were the patriarchs of the Old Testament baptized Roman Catholics, Monsignor. And yet we formally recognize them to be saints owing to the sanctity of their message. We also have the more modern cases, where certain ensembles of collectively martyred people have been afforded ‘group’ canonization, not all of whose members were baptized in our Faith. I realize the case at hand may tickle the outer boundaries of Church precedent. But we should consider that online avatars, though they may come to operate autonomously as in this case, have inherited important aspects of their originators’ human, socio-religious status as a natural consequence of their creation.”
“I see where you’re trying to head, but . . ..”
Monsignor Shuman pulled a tissue from a box on his desk and blew his nose loudly before continuing. “Excuse me, please, Peter. This dusty place plays havoc with my sinuses. But look: A large stumbling block for me is the ‘autonomous nature’ of the avatar. That’s not really possible in these types of gaming environments, is it? I admit to my ignorance here. But it seems to me, if it could truly accomplish the things it’s purported to have done, surely someone else must have surreptitiously taken the thing over and started operating it after Melvin died.”
“Monsignor, I certainly agree that’s the critical question in this case. To probe that further, I personally visited the online service provider that hosts the virtual world in question. The company operates out of Newark, New Jersey . . .”
Frambeau dragged himself through U.S. Customs, weary and still feeling muscle-cramped from his economy-class overseas flight into Newark. It was a crying shame he hated flying so much, he thought, considering the number of frequent-flyer miles he’d racked up over the last few years. He took a cab to a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town, paid the driver and carefully recorded the fare and tip in the little brown-covered “butcher book” he always carried in his hip pocket. Then he lifted his single leather bag and checked in at the motel lobby.
Later, after a light dinner, he went into the motel’s lounge for a nightcap to help him fall asleep. An attractive young woman with a few drinks too many under her belt – a traveling sales rep, he learned – flirted with him there, despite his clerical collar.
He got that a lot. He wasn’t a bad looking man, he knew. It seemed to be a common challenge for some women to try to crack through that collar, to claim some sort of personal triumph of eros over agape. It didn’t work on him, and never would. He returned to his room alone, masturbated, and recorded the event with proper date and location annotations in the section of his tiny book reserved for confessional data. He slept reasonably well that night, secure in the knowledge that his impure thoughts and acts would soon be lined-through in the much, much larger butcher book that was being maintained above him – just as soon as he could next attend a Mass.
In the morning, after breakfast, Frambeau took a cab to the offices of Innerspace Host Services. Were it not for the tiny sign on the door of the decrepit warehouse, he would have sworn he’d been taken somewhere to be rolled and robbed, possibly even killed in the process. He paid the driver, recorded his expenses dutifully, and stepped over the legs of a sleeping wino who lay against the building’s front wall.
Frambeau pushed the rusty door open and entered into a cavernous open space, lit only by a few dusty beams of low morning sunlight that made their way through grimy clerestory windows lining the rear wall of the room. He called into the dimness. “Hello? Anyone here? I’m Peter Frambeau, here for our appointment this morning . . .”
He found himself wishing he’d told the cab driver to wait for him.
“Over here, Father!”
Frambeau’s eyes began to adjust to the weak light, and he saw a young man – late twenties, the priest guessed, about his own age, with long, disheveled, dirty-blond hair – poking his head out from behind a row of tall cabinets. As his vision cleared, Frambeau recognized them as a bank of computer servers – a very large bank of them, in fact.
The priest walked into the room, stepping carefully over coils of cables that lay strewn across the dirty concrete floor. He noted that some of them snaked off to a large electrical panel on the far wall of the warehouse. He reached the man and extended his hand. “You must be Mr. Grant.”
“That’s an affirmative, Father. Henry Grant, founder, president, maintenance tech, service rep, back-office staff and sole employee of IHS. Call me Hank, please. Happy to meet you.” He swept the hair back away from his face and shook hands with Frambeau. “Just finishing hooking up a new server here. Let’s go over to my office where we can sit down and chat over some coffee.”
The grinning man pointed to a far corner of the warehouse. As they neared it, Frambeau saw several tables cluttered with a dozen or so live PC monitors, unidentifiable electrical gear, heaps of tangled cables, and stacks and stacks of soft-backed manuals. A few cheap, molded plastic lawn chairs sat amid the mess; near to them were an ancient refrigerator, a sink, and a smaller table that held a drip coffeemaker and several china cups turned upside down on a ratty dish towel.
“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me . . . Hank,” Frambeau said, sitting down cautiously in one of the chairs. It gave a little bit, but was surprisingly comfortable. “Black is fine.”
He took the cup that was proffered to him, noting that they all seemed to be of different sizes, colors and shapes. His displayed a New York Jets logo, and had a sizable chip in its rim. “As I mentioned over the phone, this pertains to a case forwarded to us by the Archbishop of the Newark diocese. About ‘Ultra X-Man,’ which is the avatar of Melvin Kowolski, a one-time subscriber of yours. I’m not sure how the Archbishop first learned of it, but – ”
“Oh, that would have been my doing, I suppose. I’d mentioned it to my parish priest, who I’ve known since we were kids. He got interested in the situation, and one thing led to another. I guess it ended up getting kicked upstairs.”
“I see,” Frambeau said. “Well, obviously, I too am interested in the ‘situation.’ It’s my job to investigate the facts of the matter, to determine if a formal beatification process for Melvin’s avatar should proceed.”
Hank chuckled as he sat down in the chair next to Frambeau. “Helluva world we live in these days, isn’t it, Padre? Who would’ve thunk it?”
Frambeau smiled. “I, for one, would have ‘thunk’ it–I’ve thought a lot about the subject of God’s online presence over the last few years, in fact. Frankly, my superiors have a more difficult time coming to grips with the notion. But no matter: The Church requirements for beatification and ultimate canonization are pretty specific, pretty clear. The rules have had quite a few centuries’ worth of Papal massaging and manipulation to get that way. I need only follow their mandate. In this case, we have to first establish the autonomy of Melvin’s online avatar – that is, whether it’s truly operating in a hands-off manner.”
Hank leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the high-bay warehouse roof for a long moment. “Autonomy. Huh! Yeah, that’s the key question, all right.” He swept one arm in the general direction of the server banks. “You’ve got no idea how many hours I’ve spent in there, trying to figure out what’s going on. Melvin’s gone, but Ultra X-Man remains, alive and functioning and running around doing strange things just like someone’s logged on and pulling his strings. But there aren’t any strings. I’ve torn my hair out confirming that, put any number of tracers and breakpoints and filtering patches in, all to no effect. Father, tell me: Have you ever run into a case even remotely like this before?”
“A few,” Frambeau said. “But eventually, all of them turned out to be explainable in mundane terms. Will you give me access to your virtual world’s software engine for a few hours, so I can see for myself?”
“Sure, no problem with that. But it’s pretty complicated code, including a lot of custom routines and modules I wrote from scratch . . .”
“I’ll be happy to sign a proprietary agreement not to divulge any part of it, if you want.”
Hank shook his head. “No, that’s not what I was thinking about. I was just worried that you’d . . . well, that you’d get a little lost inside there.”
“Hank, no need to be delicate about it.” Frambeau chuckled lightly. “But I am fairly proficient in that arena. It’s part of my job, after all.”
For the next ten hours, interrupted only by a couple of pepperoni pizzas delivered in the early afternoon, Frambeau probed the master archive copy of Hank’s virtual world software code. He confirmed that there were no “backdoors” that would have let an external subscriber slip in unnoticed and take up the reins of the Ultra X-Man avatar.
In the course of his analysis, he ran across numerous annotated subroutines that Hank had installed to try to either trace or block outright Melvin’s avatar’s spontaneous activities – and Frambeau really couldn’t identify any more efficacious spots to insert them, had he wanted to do that. They all appeared to be well-positioned and proper; in fact, their redundancy and annotation dates painted a sequential picture of Hank’s increasing frustration – desperation, it began to seem – after the primary blocks failed to work. There was no way, in Frambeau’s best judgment, that an external human source could possibly slip past them.
Yet Ultra X-Man continued to act inside the main code.
The research priest marveled at some of the proprietary software that drove Hank’s virtual world’s engine. Though much of it resembled cooked spaghetti in the way it was structured, Frambeau had never before run across such innovative approaches to effecting a realistic virtual environment.
“This is some very original and creative work, here,” he said. “I’ve never run across algorithms quite like these.”
Hank, who had been puttering at a terminal nearby, leaned back and grinned at the priest. “Thankee kindly, Padre. I guess it does help keep the pizzas on the table. I gotta tell you, my subscriber base has grown pretty well over the last couple of years. And I know our dead buddy Melvin’s avatar has helped that – word of mouth, I guess. Sort of like the unknown random factor, y’know? There’s always the off-chance that Ultra X-Man will pop into the scene, spend a few moments bearing witness to his faith, and then bail you out of a tight gaming jam. The ‘Ghost in the Machine,’ so to say.”
Frambeau chuckled, leaned back to stretch, and glanced around the warehouse. “I expect most of the proceeds from your business’s growth must be going into your retirement fund, eh? Not to be too droll about it, but aside from your raw CPU assets, it doesn’t look like you’re plowing much of it back into fancier infrastructure.”
Hank laughed in return. “We all have to take care of our futures, now, don’t we? Me, I’m not like some folks, looking for a buyout by some big corporation. I’d just as soon earn mine the hard way – and I’m a pretty frugal guy, always have been. Plus, I kind of like being in close touch with my creation. You ever do any online gaming yourself, Father?”
Frambeau rubbed his tired eyes. His thoughts drifted; he began to consider the amount of time he actually did spend online, both on the job and off. Much more there than in the real world, he realized. Here he sat, in front of a computer, in a warehouse thousands of miles from home – but what was “home”? It was hard for him to consider his one-room efficiency apartment in Rome as having that attribute. For a disquieting moment he felt adrift, rootless, far from God’s calming presence.
He snapped himself back to reality, and to what he saw as his mission. “Hank, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in various shared virtual realities, make no mistake about that. I count it as ‘company time,’ even if it’s slightly askew from my formal job scope. For me, it’s pure research, trying to imagine the best role for the Church there. To my mind, we need to maintain a close presence wherever our flock decides to graze – if only to protect it from the predators that are always lurking nearby. Or, if you will, from the machinations of Satan.” Frambeau turned in his chair to face the lanky programmer. “You’re not Satan, are you, Hank?”
Hank’s smile faded. He stared back at the priest, opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“I know what you’re thinking, Father,” he finally said. “It’d be easy enough for me to diddle the system, to operate Ultra X-Man myself, with direct real-time inputs through one of these terminals. But I swear I never did that. I don’t know how to prove that to you, other than for you to go online yourself. Maybe you can ping Ultra X-Man there and he’ll pay you a visit–and you can confirm that I’ve got my hands off the system, all the while.”
/UXM: What will the pious man do to serve God, where few pious men dare to tread?/
Frambeau stared at Ultra X-Man’s response to his ping in the online chat window, scarcely believing what he was seeing on the screen. He’d had Hank set him up with an avatar named Amadeglo, short for the Jesuit slogan Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “For the greater glory of God.” The programmer had cheat-primed his avatar with a healthy dose of character point values, so that he wouldn’t immediately expire from the hazards of the game.
/AMDG: You know me?/
/UXM: I know you as a holy man, visiting from afar. Be mindful of that orc behind you./
Frambeau twisted the trackball on his game controller just in time to dodge the assault from the game hazard. He waved his power staff and blew the orc into a scintillating cloud of pixels. Hank had certainly built some nice visual effects into his game world, he thought.
/AMDG: Thanks for that. Who controls you? Your original real-time owner is dead./
/UXM: Yes, I know Melvin is gone. Am I constructed of a finer part of Melvin’s soul, or am I merely a lingering code artifact? I’m really not sure, priest. I can only carry on as best I can. But in a few important ways, I’m more than Melvin ever was. Certain higher truths have been revealed to me during my time in this place, and my ultimate purpose has become clearer./
/AMDG: I need to prove your independent reality beyond any shadow of doubt. Is there a way for you to demonstrate that? To convince me that this is not all just a scam? That you truly possess a self-sustaining, autonomous nature?/
/UXM: Only if you agree take my confession first./
Frambeau thought he sensed a slight delay in the reply, but it might only have been his imagination.
/AMDG: Of course I will, my son. We are alone now, standing naked before God./
Frambeau glanced over at Hank, and gave a quick motion of his head for the man to find something to do away from the row of terminals. The programmer nodded, grabbed his coffee cup and walked off to the other end of the warehouse.
/UXM: Then forgive me Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was . . . well, in point of fact, I’ve never before made confession . . ./
Monsignor Shuman’s steepled index fingers rested lightly on his lips. “And the purported miracles? The effects of this ‘Ultra X-Man’s’ intercessions?”
“On file, sir,” Frambeau said. “Three cases were documented carefully, out of a population that included several more. Notarized statements of cognizant medical personnel are included. One young subscriber with incurable brain cancer enjoyed a spontaneous remission without scientific explanation. Another inexplicable recovery was noted in a subject paralyzed from the waist down from a massive spinal injury. The third, possibly the most definitive case, was a female subscriber who suffered from a congenital deformity in one of her limbs. Hard to credit a placebo effect for that particular cure. In all cases, the chat records clearly show an initial supplication from the subscriber, the avatar’s response, and, of course, concrete results of his intervention.”
Frambeau paused to gather his thoughts before continuing. “Monsignor, with regard to the avatar’s several thousand recorded chat scripts that I personally studied, in my judgment there is no trace of heresy or Satanic influence in any of them. The entity’s exegetical statements are doctrinally pure, and can only be considered to be divinely inspired. Of course, to me what’s equally important is his evangelical success. That’s documented in the case file as well. There’s no question about it: Ultra X-Man has been an extraordinarily effective proselytizer for our faith.”
The monsignor swiveled in his chair and gazed out one of the tall windows overlooking the vibrant city of Rome, where three million people went about their bustling, urbane lives oblivious to the arcane doings occurring within the Vatican sanctums that arched mutely above them.
“The weakest point in the argument ends up being the autonomy of this avatar, Frambeau,” Shuman said. “Even if I could come to accept its deceased and Catholic status ab initio, the documented evidence fails to prove its continuing, independent, supranormal existence. You’ve not been clear about how the avatar proved its autonomy to you – other than claiming in your verbal record that it revealed things about you that no one could possibly know. And yet, you’ve refused to identify and document those revelations. In the absence of that, the testimony carries no more weight than unsubstantiated hearsay. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, Frambeau, but it simply isn’t carrying the day for me.”
Frambeau looked down at his hands, clasped tightly together in his lap. He’d tried his best to present the case, but he would never reveal to the monsignor – nor to any man, for that matter – what Ultra X-Man had told him in confidence. Nor would he talk of the avatar’s visual revelations that followed those intimate exchanges. Those he would carry to his grave.
“Unless you have more to add, I think our meeting has come to an end,” the monsignor said. He turned his chair back around to look directly at the young priest. “Thank you for your very well-prepared presentation, Peter. Let me think and pray on this further. I’ll get back to you later. Meanwhile, pursue your other case files. And please promise me you’ll leave this one alone for now.”
Frambeau nodded, stood, bowed to the monsignor, and left the room.
He walked the streets of Rome for several hours afterward, ruminating over the various onscreen animations that Ultra X-Man had imaged for him in Newark. Many depicted private moments in the priest’s own life, as if taken by God’s own video camera – any one of which would have convinced Frambeau of Ultra X-Man’s supernatural, divine connection.
But the animation he recalled most viscerally was the final one, a vision of the far future: that of an elderly, gray-haired Frambeau, himself seated behind the deceased Monsignor Shuman’s ornate desk, spitting caustic invectives filled with Aristotelian logic at a youthful research priest whose holographically projected image sat nervously before him.
In the vision, the young man had been pleading the case for beatification of an entity whose origin was entirely too alien, entirely too inhuman for Frambeau to even begin to comprehend.