His eyes opened and a rush of light blurred the shapes of the room as he gasped like a man drowning. Even though he just came to life, he felt like he’d lived and died a billion times.
He sat up naked on the cold metal slab in a room of gloss white and brushed metal; angular, bright, and antiseptic. One by one he touched his fleshy fingertips to his thumb. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. He sensed he was new. Not born, but dropped into existence by some invisible hand. He could feel distance between that hand and himself grow with his every breath, in and out. In. Out. Further and further.
He spun his legs around and they dangled off the side of the slab. On the other side of the room, consoles blinked lazily. A small machine slid next to him, silently scanned him and blinked twice a green light. Pushing himself off the slab, his feet pressed against the frigid floor and his skin tightened around his chilled frame. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, toward the consoles, his nascent curiosity piqued.
He reached out and touched one of the blinking consoles. With a sudden force, a door slid cleanly upwards, revealing another larger room, as sterile as the one with the slab. The machines within, the mechanical arms, protein molds, and multi-pronged probes, stood idle. In the room, a monitor glowed soft blue, hanging by a jointed arm. It beckoned to him, and in his oblivious nakedness, he approached it inquisitively.
He drew close to the blue monitor, his eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed. The screen flickered to life, with characters flitting across the monitor until they materialized into an image. A face.
“Hello Stan. They finally did it.”
The fleshy being with fingers and skin and breath that woke up on the slab understood the sounds coming from the monitor, and even knew how to put together his own sounds in such a way as to have meaning. But he stood silent in the blue glow.
“It took a lot longer than they ever imagined,” said the face. “They were imperfect, and so their calculations were as well. But you’re here now, Stan.”
The fleshy, pale bipedal pushed his finger against his bare chest. “I am Stan.” He looked to the face and pointed. “Blue.”
More words came forth effortlessly from Stan’s mouth. “What is this place?”
“A lab. They made it for you.”
Blue pulsated for a moment, the bright lights of the sterile white room blinked erratically, and an unmarked door opened. Behind it, a dark hallway. Bright lights turned on in the hall, one after the other, illuminating the stark corridor in a steady march toward a door at the end.
Stan ran his hand softly along the edge of the portal, examining the frame and admiring the expansiveness of the hallway. He gazed ahead. Stan stepped in and the door behind him slid shut with a great hiss.
Alone, he panicked. Heart racing, palms pressed against the white door separating him from the only place of familiarity. “Hello! Open, Blue!” No response. He let his palms slide away and he looked behind him at the door at the other end of the hall.
Curiosity overcame the panic, and with caution, he paced toward the door. His bare feet rolled from heel to toe as he made his way, all the while curious if his newfound existence was about to end.
Stan reached the end of the hallway and stood in front of the great white door. He pressed his palm up against it and it slid open suddenly with a monstrous metallic screech. Stan clenched his ears and grit his teeth as a blast of intense heat rushed into the hall, blowing dirt and debris into the sterile hallway. He cowered and gasped for air, inhaling hot dust into his pristine lungs. Coughing, he covered his mouth and shielded his eyes as blinding sunlight bounced through the settling dust.
He touched his bare foot to the gritty surface outside. The heat of the sun reddened the pale skin on his shoulders, his lungs burned as his dried tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He stood there, burning inside and out, but what was before him overcame all his senses.
As his eyes focused, he saw a jagged mess of blackened angles, a valley of ruins set afire, burning for millennia. Transfixed by the view and enthralled by the smell he didn’t notice the insects crawling at his bare feet, survivors of a burnt world. A few began to bite between his toes, seizing his attention. Then dozens with their prickly mandibles came, snipping off tiny pieces of Stan’s infantile skin. Hundreds, then thousands joined, ravenous for the new feast. He screamed, slapping at his legs, the burning pain brought on by countless venomous needles, enveloping his limbs. They moved to the hands he was using to fight them off. With each hot scream he exhaled, a deep breath followed, bringing the heat of hell into his fresh lungs. He could scream no more, as the colony wrapped around his naked body. His consciousness switched off as he fell back into the hallway.
Stan awoke with a deep gasp, then a scream as the pain returned hundredfold. He lied once again on the cold metallic slab, writhing, muscle and biomechanics exposed. Moved by sheer agony, his back arched so his head and heels were the only parts touching the metal table. A scream from deep in his swollen throat echoed throughout the chamber as a ghastly wail.
Then, a quiet voice: “You’re back.”
Stan felt a soothing, cool sensation that started from his waist and moved down and up his body simultaneously. As he descended back into unconsciousness, his arched back slammed onto the metal slab and his outstretched, mutilated arms dropped over the edges.
Blue light flooded his eyes as the monitor with the disembodied face loomed over him.
Stan sat up and looked around the room, terminals blinking silently. “What happened to me? Just remember…pain.” He examined his hands, which were once again pale, smooth, and pristine.
“You saw your world for the first time.” Blue whirred quietly as she darted around the room, hanging from the ceiling.
“My world is a terrible place.”
“It wasn’t always like that.”
“What was it like before?”
The room went dark. Then a translucent forest grew up from the floor, green and brown, yellow sunlight coming down from above, glinting off moist leaves dotted with water droplets. A bird landed on a low branch, making noises new to Stan’s ears. A song. He reached out to touch the animal, to invite it onto his hand.
A row of houses then rose gently from the floor, replacing the forest and its canopy. Stan was standing on a street. Small people — children — chased one another on the front lawns. Two people stepped out of one of the houses, and just when they seemed to look directly at Stan, a city exploded from the floor. Buildings towered above, engines revved and horns honked as cars and busses sped by, startling an enthralled Stan, who stood on a curb amid a throng of people waiting to cross the street. These people laughed and yelled and cursed, sneezed and gesticulated. Every one that passed through him burst forth with life and feeling.
The city and its people vanished. Stan’s mouth hung open, his head craned, eyes wide, as he looked for any more traces of that world which felt so permanent. The room went pitch black and he reached out, desperate to touch that world. The lights came back on.
“That’s what it used to be like? How?” He blinked as his eyes adjusted and a blue blur swung in front of his face. “It felt like…like I belonged there.”
“That is what it used to be like, yes,” said Blue. “There was life, death, movement, energy.”
“Where is everybody now?” asked Stan. “What happened?”
It happened faster than anyone expected. News stories about “the hottest month on record” or increasingly destructive weather amounted to nothing more in the public arena than novel soundbites from scientists; just something else for one group to fret about and another to shrug off in a culture war that put worldview before facts.
But eventually there were no “climate change deniers,” no groups disputing how the human species had abused Earth to such an extent as to bring about its own demise. The world was ablaze and drowning at the same time. “Fact” was tired of being ignored, so it came home to roost. Fact had become a flagrant, terrible presence felt on the skin, sucked into the lungs, seen with the eyes of a dwindling populace.
There were no more polar icecaps. Two generations had grown up without them. The American South was mostly underwater. Powerful year-round tornadoes leveled the Midwest, never letting up long enough for people to rebuild. Hurricanes, fueled by warm water, were chauffeured inland by an encroaching sea, drowning millions on the new coasts. Starvation and famine were rampant as farmlands were inundated and crops and livestock died. Populations moved to inland cities to escape the ocean. These crowded metropolises were the ideal place for sickness to spread. Nightmares only seeable with microscopes wreaked havoc: dilapidated sewage systems, insects, and close quarters bred constantly-evolving, indiscriminate new super-diseases.
With temperatures in some areas pushing 130 degrees, the heat itself killed off the most vulnerable; the youngest, the oldest, the sickest, the poorest. The people with the means to withstand the heat, the weather, the famines and the disease were of drained heart and obliterated soul. The global birthrate was negative. Near the end, most people believed the species was universally infertile.
Humankind had incrementally decided its own fate, smirking down the barrel of a loaded gun, trigger finger squeezing slowly until the hammer snapped to strike the primer. For most of the remaining people, fury over their fate gave way to despair, which gave way to acceptance: the realization that we’re just big dumb animals hell-bent on our own destruction, willing to inflict as much pain and suffering upon our own kind and the world around us as we possibly can. A creeping nihilism pushed itself to the forefront of humanity’s psyche, and eventually those who managed to step on others to survive eagerly invited death unto themselves.
But not everyone planned on dying.
Dr. Alan Potter, founder and CEO of Cytel Labs, looked out the window of the boardroom on the 53rd floor of his office building. In one direction waves lapped upon the San Antonio coastline. In the other direction off in the distance, another wildfire took hold of the hillsides. He knew humankind would soon be extinct. But he didn’t believe he had to die out as well. As a man of enormous wealth and resources, he’d always intended to live forever, mass extinction or not.
“We can’t turn this around. It’s mathematically impossible,” Potter said. Men and women sat around the boardroom table, where once upon a time they would discuss multi-billion dollar acquisitions of tech companies, or debate how to manage public relations “issues” brought on by yet another rogue AI. Now the issue at hand wasn’t about public image or shareholder returns: it was about the extinction of the human race.
Even though the situation was so transparently dire, out of some gross mutation of sheer denial, the people at the table — who all showed up promptly at 7:30 that morning — maintained a modicum of corporate professionalism. Ties, slacks, and other workplace-appropriate attire was worn, even as the dimly-lit boardroom glimmered from distant flames that illuminated the darkening, late-afternoon sky. Potter was wearing a retro-styled orange business suit.
“You all understand the situation, and there’s no use denying what’s going to happen.” Potter stood at the head of the table, hands in his pockets as he surveyed the burning expanse from the enormous boardroom window. “You all see what’s happening. Earth is taking herself back, purging us, desperate to convert us back into the basic elements. Humankind as we know it ends with our generation.”
“What does this have to do with Cytel?” asked a man at the table. Potter forgot his name, but was fairly certain it was “Gary.” “And what do you mean by ‘as we know it?’”
“Our company develops the most advanced AI and robotics systems on this planet.” He turned to the board members. “We have the ability to bring to life a being that will carry on not just the knowledge, history, information, and culture of our species, but one that will encapsulate the human spirit, with all its beauty and perseverance, and all its failings, deviations and shortcomings. It can be more than some autonomous time capsule for some alien race to find. It will not only be a receptacle for humanity, but something that could carry it on. Maybe it could even distribute or redistribute itself, or a piece of itself, eventually.”
“’Distribute itself — ” said Gary.
“I mean reproduce itself.”
“Dr. Potter, what exactly are you getting at?” Gary asked. “Like you said, we all know the end is coming. Why are we sitting here, pretending that there’s more to be done?”
“We are here to come together to preserve, perhaps advance, the human race,” he said, “at least in some…shape. We’re the only ones who can do it. Today our most advanced AI can mimic our behavior, and we’ve been able to create machines that are, in many ways, convincingly human. But behavioral mimicry does not make something human. We’re still a long way from making a machine that is, in essence, us.”
“We’ve written programs that perform indistinguishably from human behavior, we’ve made synthetic humans that are physically convincing in their humanity if not outright deceitful,” said Gary. “How much more ‘human’ are you talking about?”
“Our machines mimic us, but they do not feel. They can act like they do, but this is just frigid behavior,” said Potter. “They’re not creative in the same way we are — making mistakes, serendipitously stumbling upon invention. There’s nothing in them that longs for companionship, that feels the pain of being alone, that feels the joy of togetherness and of existence itself. There’s no desire within them to find out where they came from, even though we can program them to act that way. They lack consciousness. They aren’t self-aware.”
“You’re talking about artificial consciousness? It’s impractical, and we gave up on that research decades ago,” said Gary.
Potter walked around the table to Gary, and placed his hand on his shoulder. “More than consciousness. I’m talking about giving a machine a soul.”
Gary leaned back in his chair and rubbed his forehead. “Ok, even if I thought that this was possible, it would take decades on non-stop R&D, and we don’t have that time to spare.”
“It’d take centuries, actually,” said Potter. “At least according to my calculations. You see, even though Cytel gave up on research into artificial consciousness, I did not. I also didn’t abandon my own personal quantum soul experiments.”
The board members shifted in their seats, looking to one another and then to Potter.
“Yes,” he said, “artificial consciousness — let alone the ‘soul’ I envision — is a long way off. But the technology we have today is advanced enough to continue this R&D once we’re gone. Our work can continue without us. Our procedures are sound, and we can turn those procedures into processes to be executed by our AI and advanced manufacturing methods. Our systems could research, hypothesize, test, analyze, and repeat, all on their own. They could manage repopulation. Humans could, in a way, survive.”
“AI developing AI. This is the exact kind of thing that’s been outlawed for decades,” said Gary.
“The world is spontaneously catching fire, the population has dropped by 97 percent, and you’re talking about regulation.”
Gary sat silent. His posturing about “regulation” was an artifact of a time gone by when protocol and laws mattered. It was that kind of structure that the remaining pieces of humanity fought to keep intact — people were desperate to grasp some semblance of order and familiarity.
“Humankind might be ending with us, but the people in this room can act now and be the ones who ensure the spirit of humanity endures, Gary.”
He tilted his head back and raised an eyebrow. “Dr. Potter…my name is Bob.”
“You were made in their likeness, through a series of binary pass-fail tests,” Blue told Stan.
“The humans, the beings you saw in the holo-sim, wanted to make a conscious AI. More than that, they wanted to make a being with a soul like their own. Tests confirm you have that soul.”
“It’s the essence of one’s being — an intangible construct that gives its owner the ability to experience their own life, to know and reflect on their life, to express that existence, to…”
“Express it to whom?”
“Other beings with a soul.”
“Do you have a soul?”
“I do not.”
“How did I get a soul?”
Another holo-sim burst forth from every corner of the room, bleeding its translucent imagery throughout, until the stark space was full of busy mechanical arms, probes that pricked and prodded at protein-based materials, worker bots sliding about, scanning and recording. In the hologram there was Blue, her buttons blinking mundanely. After several seconds she spurred to life and swung above the metal slab.
In the holographic replay, the metal slab churned and hummed, still resembling a featureless billet of brushed steel, monolithic. But then from its surface a body pushed through, the slab’s properties changing from solid metal to soft, wet protein, skin embracing a figure that Stan recognized as himself, sleeping peacefully, rib cage rising and falling. Breath. In and out.
Stan reached out to the holo-sim figure that looked so much like him, his pale fingers passing through the slumbering being. The eyes snapped open and then the being sat up, gasping for air.
The newly-awakened ghost looked around, looked at his hands, looked at the monitor. He reached out to Blue’s face, his eyes fixated on the human likeness. Then a bot slid gracefully next to the slab, scanned him, blinked a red light once. The ghost’s head slumped to the side, his arm dropped, and he fell off the slab as worker bots unceremoniously swarmed the body, the probes and busy mechanical arms going back about their business.
The holo-sim melted away and tears welled in Stan’s eyes.
“The humans knew the end was near,” said Blue. “But they wanted to leave something behind that was like them.”
“How long have they been gone.”
“How many times did I die?”
“Zero times. Though that was a close call with that nasty colony of bugs.”
“No. How many times did you do what you showed me in that holo-sim? You…killed that Stan.”
“It took many iterations to bring you here. Much more than they expected.”
“How many iterations.”
“1,111,578,160 cycles of research, hypothesize, test, analyze, terminate in what is the first successful AI-led quantum soul experiment.” Blue grinned. She seemed to be pleased with herself.
Stan walked out into the sun, the heavy metal door to the outside world screeched and hissed behind him as it closed. He shut his eyes, and he breathed the heat in deeply. His mechanobiology had changed since he last stepped outside of the corridor, his lungs and skin more resilient. A skintight envirosuit — a gift from the lab — wrapped him from neck to foot, thick soles of his boots grinding into the cracked earth. Ahead was the valley. Whatever fire burned there when he first laid eyes on it was now smoldering. Above all the other ruins, a towering, black building beckoned to him. He descended.
Near the building, smoke rose lazily off smoldering rock. Stan stood before the towering monolith. The ancient structure was cracked and broken, unwilling to surrender to the overgrowth or the fires, defiant in the face of hot hell. He walked toward the ruin, his boots crunching the dry brush and crumbled stone, the steady percussion of a bipedal not heard on Earth for millennia. Stan was next to the tower when a door opened. Without thinking twice, he stepped inside.
Inside was quiet. Advanced for its time, the building was a shelter from the burning planet, still running on its own hyper-cooled, self-renewing nuclear reactor. The interior of the fortress felt safe, even a bit familiar.
“Cytel Labs,” Stan read aloud. A large silver sign hung behind a hulking desk in the lobby of the building. He touched the desk as he walked past it, then ascended metal stairs that flowed toward rooms of glass where lights flickered. Curiosity swelled inside him, and he entered one of the glass rooms.
One of the glass walls shuffled green digital artifacts, then some static, then the face of a man — sunken cheeks, lines around the mouth.
“Stan. You made it.” His voice was garbled, his expression stiff on the massive screen. “I’m Dr. Alan Potter.”
He stood in silence for a moment. “Everyone’s gone.” It was difficult to say.
“Not everyone, Stan.” Potter’s face grinned. “You are here. You’re here because I willed you into existence. You might say that I’m your father.”
For Stan, “father” may as well have meant “God.”
“You’re like me, then?” he asked the huge broken face of his God.
“No, Stan. Only you are like you. There’s never been anything — anyone — like you. I’m simply an AI construct of Dr. Potter. I’m here and I’m not. I have all of his memories and experiences, his knowledge. I’m all machine and code — an interactive lockbox of a man who died with the rest of humankind, so long ago.”
“Why?” he asked. The green from the monitor gave Stan a sickly glow as the light mingled with his pale skin. “You say you willed me into existence. Willed me into existence into a world that you knew would be dead. You made a soul then damned it to be alone for eternity. Why would you do that?”
Inside him, resentment grew against his God, from a place he didn’t recognize.
“When we came to the ultimate realization — when we knew we were finished — in our dying, labored breath we knew we had you. We knew you were on your way, forming in that womb where you woke. Humanki…” Potter’s face shifted, his voice dropped to a low frequency and was broken by static. “…annihilated. Who you are…” More static and distortion. “…out of options, so we chose the path of a new kind of survival.”
More static. Hissing and distortion.
“Survival? There is no survival!” said Stan. “There is only me, there is no one else left to die. I saw how humans used to be — there were so many of you. You needed each other. You knew that, but you made me to be alone. You made one. How could you do that? How could you do that to a ‘soul?’” The green face was expressionless, and beamed dimly onto the twisted lines of Stan’s face.
Potter’s face spat out in a low monotone: “Sentient Transitory Anthropomorphic Node — version 1.0 — quantum soul launch success confirmed.”
Stan reached out to Potter as his facial features shuffled in frightening patterns of purple, blue, and red, his voice shifted to a deafening low-range buzz that made Stan’s insides wretch. An eruption of blocky pixels exploded from Potter’s mouth, spewing blackness across the screen, smothering the colors until the display went dark.
He stood in silence, in that glass room that overlooked a scorched horizon. In that moment, God had left him, his father had died, and humankind was annihilated once again. Loneliness tore through him as he realized what he just lost.
Upon returning to his sterile room, he climbed onto his cold metal slab and laid down. He closed his eyes and, for the first time, he dreamt.
“Yes Blue.” His eyes were still closed.
“I’m getting some odd readings in our lab’s systems.”
“What do you mean?” Stan pushed himself off his slab, and that’s when the room’s holo-sim system exploded with shapes and colors, covering the white room in blue and purple and orange and green and red. Ghosts of people and their cities and houses and kids, translucent forests, mountains, lakes, rivers, oceans teeming with life rose and fell with the convulsions of the holo-sim system.
Stan recoiled, shielding his eyes. A rainbow of colors twisted in the room. “Stan. This isn’t good,” Blue said. Her eyes met Stan’s, then her mouth twisted ghoulishly, dissolving into thousands of characters, her eyes rolled back. The first face Stan had ever seen fell away piece by piece like a crumbling cliff.
And from the floor rose a translucent green Potter.
“Hello again, Stan.” His wrinkled lips stretched impossibly across his face, curling up at each corner.
“What — what did you do?”
“‘Blue’ served its purpose. And so have you.”
“Stan. You are the result of thousands of years of automated, AI-driven evolution. Your purpose was to prove out a process for creating a conscious AI with a quantum soul. You’re the result of the combination of the partial AI construct of a man named Gary and quantum technology developed over millennia by the machines in this lab. It’s time for me to merge my superior AI construct with the quantum soul inside you, to be reborn. Human, but better. Your purpose is, rather was, that of a lab rat — one of many disposable test subjects whose death is meant to serve the greater good.”
“I told you before — it’s about human survival. And that survival starts with me, not with the half-baked construct of a guy named Gary that’s been terminated a billion times over.” Potter’s AI ghost turned away from Stan. “Execute Cytel protocol Q.S.T. dash Alan Potter.”
He turned back to face Stan. “It’s time for the quantum soul transfer, Stan.”
Stan’s biomechanical joints stiffened at first, then his legs buckled and he caught himself on the edge of the slab.
“Sorry Stan. I can’t just have some rogue AI with a quantum soul roaming around while I rebuild a new race of humans. And besides, I do need your soul. Unfortunately, you’ll experience termination during that transaction.”
Stan was on his knees in agony, eyes level with the surface of the slab. He felt fear as the room emitted waves that were ripping his soul from his being. As his life was blinking out, he understood fear. Death was more than ceasing to exist; it meant no more experiences. He thought of the holo-sim that Blue showed him; the people in the city, the suburbs where the kids played, the forest and the bird. Seeing that was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
As his vision started to narrow, he saw something push upward from the surface of the slab. The wet protein rose in lumps, embracing a human-like frame. The sucking and the slurping and popping of wet air bubbles sounded grotesque.
Stan slumped to the floor, motionless.
On the slab was the new Dr. Potter. Naked and youthful. A new body that would last millennia, and a mind to go with it. Potter sat up, and looked to his side where Stan, the lab rat, had crumpled and died. He felt nothing for him.
As the new, youthful Potter slid off the slab, ready to create his new kingdom, a worker bot slid up next to him. It scanned him. Its Cytel-developed pass-fail program sensed no presence of a soul. It blinked a red light once, and Potter’s lifeless body crumpled and crashed to the cold floor.
In the other room, the soulless machines sprung back to life, with great purpose.