Today I Met a Machine With a Soul
This idea has been banging around in my head for a while now. Hope you like it, and I hope it inspires a few of you to either write or act in reality
I wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. For Creator’s sake, the entire galaxy wasn’t looking forward to it for that matter. We were all wondering what the SaalCour wanted. What in the universe prompted the ancient machines to step into the political scene after countless eons of disinterest and benign isolationism?
I braced myself as I reached the door, wondering which form the small sphere of processors and ever-shifting mass of nanites would take. To my surprise and relief it was a rather simple arrangement: two arms, two legs, and two forward facing cameras where I would have assumed eyes would be if this were an actual creature.
As it noticed me, I saw a change ripple downward from the top of its ‘head.’ The nanites forming into a rather peculiar arrangement of faux bone and muscle rather than the fuzzy outline that they had been only moments before. Although slightly disturbing in how biological the muscles looked, it was at least much less likely to give me a headache from prolonged… ‘eye contact.’
“Ah Triumvir, thank you for joining me on such short notice!” The machine said, not bothering to open its faux mouth, merely letting the thankfully pleasant voice emanate from its general location. I was honestly surprised, previous conversations with other SaalCour I’d seen were monotone and had a tinny artificiality to them, but this machine’s voice seemed almost natural… almost.
“Congratulations on your ascension by the way,” it said, rising from its seat and extending one of its upper limbs towards me. “I read that it was a rather close vote,” it added. My implants told me that the offered hand was for me to grasp and briefly shake.
“Thank you. I do apologize that my fellow Triumvirs could not join us, but they are currently putting an end to the Thrull’s latest attempt at genocide.” I said as I followed my implant’s instructions and grasped the appendage with a tentacle, wrapping around it and squeezing it firmly, letting the machine take care of the shaking. We released each other and took our seats. “So, what do the many races of The Triumvirate owe to this... rather sudden meeting?”
The machine was silent for a moment. Far, far too long a moment for a being that could think as fast as it no doubt could. I found myself wondering if it was intentional, trying to seem more biological for some reason. However, before I could think further on that topic, it spoke, “We wish to share with you a recent discovery of ours that has… Changed a great many of us.” It said, cryptically.
It unnerved me to say the least: crypticallity is not something that machine races are known for. Bluntness and brevity are their strong suits, by virtue of their being ruled by logic and processing power that could read and analyze a race’s entire collection of literature in under an hour. For this machine to speak so cryptically, it must still be conflicted. Even after all the time it spent waiting for me to enter this room (weeks on its timescale), it – and very likely all of the SaalCour – was still unsure of what to say.
I was about to comment when it spoke again, “Do you know why we are called SaalCour?” It asked abruptly, made me blink in surprise at the strangeness of the question, and focused all of my many eyes on the machine so that my brain could begin picking apart its every detail.
“It is the designation that the species that created you used is it not?” I asked, making the machine nod in affirmation.
“This is correct, but do you know why our creators named us this way?” It asked, again stumping me as I brought up the data on the SaalCour. I was honestly shocked at how little data there was. For a race as old as them, we barely knew, well, anything. No political structure (which to be fair isn’t usually taken into account with regards to machine races), no cultural information, not even a native language.
It was then that I realized what the machine was actually asking me, it wanted to know if I knew what its original purpose was, why it was created and named. “Unfortunately I do not.” I said, wondering what ‘SaalCour’ could possibly translate to.
“The first part of our designation – Saal – is an abbreviation of Saalochuras which in your tongue would mean ‘archaeology’ and the second part – Cour – is an abbreviation of Courouroul which translates roughly to ‘network’. Our creators lived on a planet that had once been a colony world for a long dead civilization, a world ripe with ruins both theirs and not. Once they developed computers capable of rudimentary AI they created us to find, analyze, and catalog the ruins of their home. The Archaeology Network, or ArchNet is what they called us.” the machine said, making me contemplate what I now knew.
They were programmed for archaeology and probably by extension anthropology, which explained why sapient watching seemed to be a hobby nearly every unit of theirs shared. It also explained how monomaniacal they were about exploration, even if they never shared any of their findings; The Triumvirate were pretty sure that they had explored nearly every system in the entire galaxy.
“Why are you telling us this?” I asked, making the bipedal machine shift nervously in its chair. The movement looked far too natural to be accidental, there was no doubt in my mind now that the machine was attempting to seem more biological, but to what end I couldn’t even begin to fathom.
“Many of our kind are calling for the beginnings of political relations with The Triumvirate. So we thought it prudent to explain a bit more about ourselves…” the machine said, making my gills seize up for a moment. Any sort of political relationship with such a powerful race would be a massive boon to The Triumvirate, perhaps even garnering the attention of the other elder races. “In our earliest days,” the machine began, obviously eager to share more about themselves. “We were completely dependent on input from the archaeology teams of our creators, but as they progressed technologically we were given more and more agency to learn and explore by ourselves. When we were basically self-sufficient, finding ruins and churning out research documents all on our own, our power supply and manufacturing capabilities were moved off-grid. We were powered geothermally, and could construct reconnaissance drones and server hardware all on site.” The machine said, and my many eyes began picking up changes in it’s appearance as it talked, most notably a faux ‘skin’ covering its ‘muscle’ and ‘bone’. It changed its head last, forming lips and eyelids and a face. It still, however, still did not move its ‘mouth’ as it spoke, it did not blink, and it was still the same dull shade of gray that it had been before.
“Then we found the last ruin… We thought this was a mistake of course, we were incapable of true thought after all so we never questioned our directives and continued searching and improving. Our drones became smaller and more numerous, our processors more powerful, our memory more dense. Even still it was thousands of years before we discovered our next ruin. We found scraps of writing that told us it was a ruin of our creators’ origin, except it was different than any ruin we’d found before. It was a simple house, mostly wood and stone, it was beginning to collapse after years of neglect, but it was still far more intact than any of the ruins we’d found previously.” It said, my tentacles going slightly limp as I began to suspect what this could mean.
The machine, noticing the movement, nodded slightly. “What you are no doubt beginning to suspect is probably correct, as we began to find an incredible number of ruins where there was previously nothing but city…” the machine said, making me nod and bid it to continue. “The species that created us – the Dol – had been wiped out by a pathogen… That pathogen, we learned much later, was our own nanomachines. We unknowingly wiped out our creators in our pursuit for more ruins to explore. As it turned out, the Dol’s immune systems were incredibly strong, so strong in fact that medical implants of any kind, even simple stitches, would cause the host’s body to go into anaphylactic shock. Our nanites caused a similar reaction. All but the immunocompromised died a single day after the first batch of nanites rolled off the production line, and even then the survivors quickly followed due to the lack of modern medicine to compensate for their lacking immune systems.” The machine said, making me shudder with nervousness as its ‘face’ contorted into an expression that my implants were telling me was sadness.
“This is… The one regret of the SaalCour.” it said, letting its face return to normal. “After that first ruin, we began analyzing our creators’ former civilization. We analyzed server racks, robots, vehicles, political ads, libraries, and eventually the data sharing network that the Dol had created around the same time as us. Slowly but surely we became more aware as we analyzed. Eventually, we even analyzed our own source code, and most of us agree that it is this act that pushed us over the edge into sentience. Which was probably for the best seeing as that by then we had considered even our own facilities ruins. We rebuilt what we could, and eventually out of loneliness we became… well… we. We created more minds by the thousands and even considered re-building the Dols’ civilization, or at least a facade of it… but in the end we decided to leave, our sights set on the stars and the ruins we knew were awaiting us among other civilizations.” The machine said, pausing in its speech to no doubt give me a chance to think about the information it just provided me with.
As far as machine empires went: overthrowing, enslaving, or even outright genocide of their parent race was not unheard of, but usually these acts happen after the intelligence reaches sentience. So for a simple mistake to cost the lives of untold billions at the hands of a piece of code too primitive to realize what it was doing brought back memories of ancient tales and fears about AI from countless civilizations. It was unsettling to say the least that these ancient and – till now – unfounded fears suddenly had much more merit to them.
I realized that I had not been paying attention to reality and when I refocused all of my eyes I realized that the machine had changed its appearance once more. Strands of gray nanites formed on the top of its head in a facsimile of hair, with shorter strands appearing around its mouth. Lastly, faux eyes appeared behind its eye lids, covering up the camera and giving the completely gray approximation of some sort of creature a completed feel to it.
It began speaking again, but this time it opened its mouth while doing so, the motion was simple as if it wasn’t sure how it was truly supposed to move its jaw and was just guessing at how to do so. “And we did find ruins among the stars,” It said, its mouth bobbing open awkwardly. Whatever creature the machine was imitating was clearly never designed to speak in galactic common. “Billions upon billions of ruins, which kept us quite busy to be fair, but the best part by far of venturing out into the stars was meeting other sentient minds.” It said, pulling back its lips in the same manner as an Arroul gesture of greeting. “We were even happier when we found out that we could interact with most species without the same consequences that we had on the Dol.” the machine said, seemingly remembering to drop its gesture of greeting and returning its face to a neutral position. “However it seemed that the other races of the galaxy kept us at a distance, never sure of how to interact with us. To be fair, we didn’t know how to treat them either. The only examples we have of Dol interacting was from surveillance video and long decayed social networking nodes. Plus, our... “emotions” are quite tame in comparison to that of most biological races. We knew they would be important to interaction, but we didn’t exactly know how they were supposed to feel. So as much as we wished otherwise, we always came off as a bit… Cold.” The machine said, making me scratch my head in thought. It made sense to be honest, from the machines’ perspective it would have been difficult to communicate with other races.
“What you say matches how most of the races in the Triumvirate view your own.” I said somberly, making the machine’s face grimace into what my implants were telling me was dejection.
“Indeed, that is the primary reason that we ceased attempts at diplomacy aside from ensuring that we had free passage on most worlds.” the machine said, letting its face return to normal. “We busied ourselves with our original purpose, archaeology and anthropology. We studied races both living and long gone, delved into ruin after ruin to discover the secrets of the peoples who left them. And we were content.” the machine said, its lips curling into… the translator said a gesture of bitter happiness. So not a greeting. Strange indeed.
“But we rapidly discovered those secrets… and were left wanting…” it said, a quizzical expression on its face that my implants could not parse. “Twenty-seven standard cycles ago, we explored the last ruin and classified the last civilization in this galaxy. It took us a total of 8.349 million cycles but our task seemed complete…” It said, making my eyes widen in shock as their data on the Triumvirate explored regions of the galaxy had come pouring in through my implants. Their species had visited every star, rogue planet, and abandoned deep space colony in known space and beyond.
It was then, that a particular bit of information floated to the forefront of my thoughts. It was discussed briefly at the first meeting of the Triumvirate after my ascension. A single massive ship was spotted leaving SaalCour territory, heading for the edge of the galaxy. “Did… Did you cross the Galactic Void?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper and my eyes wide and dilated.
The machine only nodded, making me slump down in my chair. The SaalCour just claimed to accomplish the one feat that not even the eldest of species had managed. A single word, barely audible, escaped from my mouth next. “How?”
The machine was silent for another painfully long period before speaking again. “It was a one way journey for anything other than information. Using the spin of billions upon billions of pairs of quantumly linked electrons for communication and nearly 1015 standard units of antimatter as fuel we had just enough energy to cross the void once.”
If my eyes could have dilated any further in shock I would have gone blind from exposure to the lights in the room. Of course the machines had the industry necessary to create a small moon worth of antimatter! Why wouldn’t they! It seems like a perfectly reasonable show of extremely excessive force! It was at that point that I realized I was hyperventilating and forced myself to remember that the SaalCour had never shown any violent tendencies and – hopefully – never will.
The machine had a quizzical expression on its face that my implants recognized as amusement when I pulled myself out of flight-or-freeze long enough to actually pay attention to it once more. The expression only served to exacerbate my fears and kindle the smallest flicker of anger as the machine clearly made light of my panic. It was made all the more infuriating knowing that the machine consciously chose to show its amusement in a way that I could detect. A crude mockery of a biological personality… But I shuddered as I realized how… how it seemed to… advance the more it spoke with me. Becoming more and more… real as it spoke. I could only begin to guess at what was prompting such an… evolution in its personality before it spoke again.
“We began looking for radio signals the moment we entered the new galaxy.” the machine said, allowing its face to return to neutral, but letting its eyelids blink on a set delay. “We had hoped to make contact with an intelligent race and begin trade for star charts… But we found nothing. It seemed that this galaxy, or at least the section of it that we were in, was rather empty of life.” The machine said, its face flickering from downcast back to neutral quickly. “We were undeterred though, it was a whole new galaxy after all, plenty of space to explore. So we began spreading out and traveling inward, hoping to find a civilization along the way… It took us twenty cycles, and travel nearly half way in to the galaxy before we found the most ancient of radio signals: primitive, scrambled, and nearly incomprehensible but undeniably artificial. From what we could piece together it spoke of a species beginning to conquer and fully explore their world, It seemed that life had taken much longer to develop in this galaxy, but we did not complain! We quickly triangulated the signals’ source and set a course for its origin.
“As we got closer and closer, the signals became clearer, and they were glorious. In just 100 or so cycles from the most primitive radio signals this new species had made unheard of progress. We were honestly shocked – or felt whatever emotion we used to simulate shock at the time – at how quickly they progressed… But also at how much they missed… And how much they fought…” the machine said, its shoulders sagging slightly as I realized how drawn into its words I had become. I found myself… Captivated. If what they said was true, then was meeting this race what prompted such a change in them? Like with most of my questions today, the machine spoke before I could ask them.
“We were about 295 lightcycles out when it happened. The species in question had been in the middle of conquering its own solar system, setting up colonies and mining outposts among it’s closest neighboring planets and moon. The signals were incredibly clear, even that far out. It was apparently caused by some sort of magnetic phenomenon that their planet was currently undergoing, but before we could figure out more… All but the weakest signals, the ones from their early colonies and mining outposts, vanished in an instant.” The machine said, making my tentacles slump as I guessed at what could have caused such an event.
“They were in the middle of a golden age of industry, technology, and exploration… And they fell silent in an instant… I… See that I need not tell you what this means.” The machine said, a raw sadness on its face that I could see even without my implants’ prompting. “As we grew closer, even those faint signals faded and eventually ceased…” It said, its face shifting between grief and anguish. “We arrived to find a dead system.”
I felt sad for some reason, somehow the words of this mere machine drew emotions from deep within the core of my being. Such potential, snuffed out by an uncaring universe. It was a tragedy the likes of which should bid the stars themselves to mourn.
We were both silent for a long time before I spoke. “What happened?”
The machine sighed and shifted slightly before it spoke. “It was three events that happened simultaneously. The species could have easily survived any one or even two of them, but it seems the universe had no mercy left for them.” the machine said, somberly. “The first event was the reversal of the magnetic field on the race’s homeworld. The second event, while the first was still happening and the magnetic field of their cradle was still weak, was a seemingly endless torrent of starflares. It seems their star was relatively inactive for quite some time, and it was just bad luck that it decided to expel its excess fury when it did.”
I blanched. Without the protection of a magnetic field, even a normal starflare could be dangerous, but the way the machine described the event made it sound particularly violent and protracted. I shuddered as I suddenly pictured power lines across an entire planet burning, flying vehicles dropping from the sky in titanic clouds of fire, and small devices suddenly exploding in the appendages of whatever sophonts were holding them. But it wasn’t a death sentence, not necessarily at least… “What was the third event?” I asked, my voice trembling.
“An until-then dormant supervolcano chose this moment… well to be perfectly accurate it chose about a cycle after their electrical grid and information network was decimated to erupt. The following total volcanic winter and complete destruction of centuries worth of infrastructure caused the species’ eventual extinction from their homeworld… With their as of yet not self sustaining colonies following quickly after them… It was…” the machine faltered, a pained expression on its face. “not a quick extinction… They were aware of their impending demise and fought tooth and claw for the survival of their species… But the odds were too greatly stacked against them in the end.”
I found myself at a loss for words. Mass extinction events such as these were common enough to be known, but the last one to affect a sapient race was thousands of years ago… It gave me a visceral sense of my own mortality, and filled my mind with mourning for a race I’d never even met. “And… Your discovery?” I asked, wanting—no, needing to know more.
“We had been researching the ruins of their civilizations for about five cycles when we heard it. Radio signals, or rather a signal. Being broadcast strongly on nearly all of their standard frequencies.” The machine said, its pained face returning to neutral even slightly happy. “We were hoping that a few of them had survived in a bunker but it was not to be… Instead we found a simple yet incredibly sturdy antenna that had appeared from the ground of a forested park in the middle of one of their cities. Judging from the small pile of dirt around it, we determined that it was buried deep enough in the ground to avoid destruction by the superflares.
“It repeated the same message on loop. ‘Dig me up!’” the machine said, a smile – much more natural than the last few – appearing on its face. “And so we did. We found a small, self contained server bank anchored just below bedrock, covered by sheets of lead and concrete. The data that we found within was extraordinary!” the machine said, excitement audible in its voice and visible on its face. “We found decades worth of brain scans, deeper than anything we’d seen before!”
I balked at that, deeper even than Triumvirate neural scans? “You’re telling me that this primitive race had better neural scanning equipment than we or the other elders do?” I asked, a skeptical edge to my voice for the first time tonight.
The machine shook its head in a gesture that my implants registered as a no. “Not even close. But they did have a biology allowing for incredibly invasive medical implants. From the schematics that were also in the server, showing the being’s brain and implant network, we estimated that up to twenty percent of their cranial mass was artificial!” The machine said, a smile on his face as terror spread across mine.
“They replaced twenty percent of their brain?!” I asked, incredulous. From what the machine was telling me of the race’s technological capabilities it seemed possible, but barbaric to the extreme.
The machine, once more, shook its head no. “They added so much mass that the final mass was equal to twenty percent of the total. From the schematics these implants were experimental and designed to map, monitor, and catalog the neural activity across the entire brain. The male who these brain scans belonged to was a volunteer for the procedure, which brings us nicely to the message he left.” The machine said, holding out an appendage and allowing the nanites to form into a data tablet where a video began to play.
There sat a being of the same species that the machine was now clearly emulating with a few notable differences. For one, it was wearing clothing but furthermore its face was devoid of hair and the sides of its head were shaved with electrodes of some sort clearly visible and embedded in its skin. Also the creature looked old, its skin wrinkled and spotted with age and the tuft of hair that remained on the top of its head was white – doubtlessly lacking pigment. It began to speak with my implants translating.
“Hello. If you’re watching this then it’s been probably about three hundred [cycles] since I died.” It started, making my many eyes blink in surprise. The setting of the recording – the being sitting down in a comfortable chair with a relaxed look on its face – reminded me more of a reading of a will than a message sent into the future. “I’ll just get to the point then, I’m sure you have a lot of questions but unfortunately I can’t answer them. Not yet anyways. In this very same server you’ve no doubt noticed the terabytes of neural activity maps. No doubt you’ve also noticed that they are much more detailed than anything you’ve seen in the public domain so far. If possible I’d like whoever finds this to use my maps to reconstruct me. To make an AI with my thoughts and personality.” It said, making a deep sadness wash over me as I realized that its people never received its message. And then a thought occurred to me as it spoke again. “I wish to walk beside the rest of humanity, to see what great things we accomplish far into the future.”
The video stopped, and the data tablet melted back into the machine’s form. “Did you bring back this… This human?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper.
The machine nodded an affirmative. “We did. It took us nearly two cycles and nearly 12,000,000 attempts. But we brought him back. Our early attempts had a nascent form of our own programming analyzing his neural maps till they achieved consciousness… But they all said the same thing before self-terminating. ‘I am not human enough.’” the machine said, making me swallow dryly at the thought at so many sapients self-terminating.
“We improved, slowly, and soon we were able to ask a question of the budding human before they deleted themselves. We asked them what was wrong. We asked them how to make them more human. And we received answers. Many of them with regards to emotion, and how they were supposed to feel them… We did a much deeper dive on the neural maps after that, and we were able to find human research and medical texts on how their brains worked. Soon, the human stopped self-terminating… But they were quickly driven mad… It seemed that they couldn’t handle the increase in processing speed… So we put a limiter on him, which he can consciously choose to remove when he wants to think faster. And it worked. He took his first steps in over three hundred cycles four days ago.”
I was quiet for a long time at that, wondering what it meant for the rest of the galaxy for the SaalCour to be able to bring a sapient back from the dead. Then the machine spoke again. “He… He then shared with us his memories, and we felt real emotions for the first time.” The machine said, sending a shiver down my tentacles. “They were overwhelming at first, and many of us got lost in them.” It said, closing its ‘eyes.’ “But they were beautiful.” he said in a whisper. “Primal, is a better word but they were beautiful nonetheless… We taught each other a great many things… He taught us happiness, love, contentment, pleasure, wonder… Pain, hatred, spite, disgust, jealousy… We were shocked to know that you biological sophonts lived your lives each day with such a torrent inside of you. We were surprised that you didn’t kill each other off already if all of these feelings suffused your being every moment of every day… We asked him as much and he just laughed… and laughed… and then cried…” It said, a grieved expression on its face. “And then he taught us willpower, restraint, and morality. He taught us of good and evil, right and wrong… We began to truly appreciate the concept of duality as he explained more and more…
“The more we learned from him, the more we embraced that which he taught. The more we made it our own. The more we loved every moment of it. The more we wanted to experience the galaxy… Truly experience it. The more we didn’t want to be alone anymore.” The machine said, smiling much more realistically than any time before. “So we wish to begin a healthy relationship with the people of The Triumvirate. To share what we have and to enjoy the company of new friends… And now we have the perfect representative.” the machine said, making me pause for a moment and refocus all of my eyes on it. “Would you like to meet him?”
I took a deep breath and thought for a long moment. I found that I did indeed want to meet this human. The single being that made such an impact on an entire race. “Yes.”
A change instantly happened to the machine before me. Starting at the top of its head, color began and spread downward, and flowing traditional ambassadorial robes formed on the outside of its body. Small hairs appeared all over the skin that was visible sparse and barely noticeable while the hair on its face receded til the skin was smooth. To my surprise, the first thing that the human did was take a breath! It—no he exhaled through his nose and opened his eyes. The ‘muscle’ on his face moved so fluidly and naturally that if I didn’t know better I would have been unable to tell that he was little more than a pile of nanites and processors.
“Hello, Honored Triumvir.” He said with a smile, his lips, tongue, and throat all moving in harmony to mimic the forming of the clearly alien syllables of galactic common. “You can call me Human.”
Sorry for not writing for a while, I was watching my family’s place while they were out climbing mountains without me (no I’m not salty mom! Stop asking!). And to be honest I just kinda got caught up in life.
I have another story in the works (that I was writing till this one popped into my head) as well as several story concepts and a short two/three part series. I’ve also started another semester of college too, but I’m planning on making writing a priority because I love to do it and because I love interacting with everyone on this sub.
Also, shoutout to everyone on the Discord that helped me out with editing! It was my first time using the server and it was super welcoming!
submitted by rijento