01 Feb We put a soul in a computer
A lot of theories stay theories for good reasons.
Years ago, a group of us theorised what it truly meant to be human. It’s been common knowledge for a long time now that we have souls; it’s just, no one actually knows what exactly souls are.
They’re comprised of energy, a substance that can’t be created or destroyed. They just… exist, and no one knows how or why.
They don’t seem to exist in this Universe, not really, they don’t have a form in this Universe, we can’t see energy, we can’t see souls. To exist, to have a hold in this dimension, the energy that is a soul needs to latch onto something that already exists here.
Namely, a body.
Bodies are physical entities, they have brains and neurons shooting information all over the place, they have the ability to think and feel. How much of that is the brain? How much of that is the soul? The soul can’t exist in this dimension without a body, but does that mean a body can’t exist without a soul? That’s what we had to find out. That was the first step.
You see, we wanted to break nature, decode the brain. Our brains are only capable of holding so much information, it’s – we theorised – why we don’t remember how we were born. Useless childhood memories are stored away or completely forgotten. They’re unobtainable because to bring those memories back would destroy us. You can’t remember everything, it’s impossible. It’s also completely unethical to try.
So we went a step further.
AI’s have been in progress for years, we know how to give a computer intelligence, but it’s just intelligence, it’s a mechanical brain. Not a soul. You can’t make a soul out of spare parts.
Our theory was that if we could design a computer capable of storing millions upon millions of gigabytes worth of data – a computer larger than any biological brain could ever be, and then we put a soul inside that computer, it would be able to access every memory, every thought. We theorised that our souls remember a lot more than just this world, maybe they know about the dimension they came from, maybe they have memories that go back before they entered a human body. Maybe souls are reincarnated, was it possible we could give a computer the memory of every body it had ever possessed?
Like I said, the first step was to know if this was even possible. How do we find a soul? How do we lure it to a computer?
We don’t know how many souls there are out there, it’s possible the race to a human body is as intense and chaotic as the millions of sperm that race to an egg for fertilisation. We weren’t sure whether this would work, but our first step was to find at what point a soul entered a body for the first time.
At first, it was decided that a soul must enter the body as a child is born. Some of us argued that perhaps a soul was put into a child while they were still in the womb. Could we correlate brain activity directly to the soul’s input? No. We couldn’t. Not yet.
We had to a find a way to detect a soul.
It sounds impossible. But everything’s impossible if we let ourselves think that way. I can’t go into details, this whole project… God the only reason I’m even telling any of you this now is because… it doesn’t matter. We made a machine, a device that could detect a fluctuation in energy, in the aura around a human being. Everything has its own magnetic field; everything has an aura of energy around it. Not just living things, but household objects. The only difference is that in the living, the energy is more complicated.
People who say they can see auras usually detect colours too, emotions. Emotions can be felt even without a soul, but the soul is what magnifies them, it makes them palpable. Household objects don’t feel, this isn’t a Pixar movie, your toys don’t feel emotions, your hairbrush doesn’t have conversations with your deodorant behind your back. But living things feel, and that helped us create the machine we needed.
This took us years, we were all uni kids when this started, now… God what are we now.
We used the machine in hospitals at first, tried to figure out when children in the nursery were first showing signs of energy fluctuation. The machine was harmless, but we still had parents sign waivers, paid off hospital personnel to keep their mouths shut. We studied the phenomena for years, but when those years were up we came to a… disturbing conclusion.
There was no correlation.
Everyone was different.
Some people would be born with their souls, some people would get them years later. I studied children who were two or three without souls, some as old as seven or eight. This isn’t a horror movie, kids without souls weren’t little Damiens writing on the walls of their playrooms in blood. They were pretty normal, but they lacked personality.
You know that saying, ‘dull as a brick wall’? A lot of these kids were exactly that. They didn’t have much of a personality to account for, a lot of their emotions were very standard. They were happy at birthday parties, they’d cry if a toy was taken from them, but they never developed their own style, they were never the tricksters who stole cookies from the jar on the kitchen counter, they were never the leader in their group of friends. They weren’t outcasts because outcasts still demanded a variation of personality. They simply… were. And it was unsettling to see how many of them existed.
The oldest child we ever kept track of gained her soul at eighteen years old.
This presented us with many problems. We had no way to narrow down the search, we couldn’t even think about finding a soul if we didn’t have any way of knowing where they were or when they would enter a child or – as we found later – an adult.
Communication with a soul seemed implausible at first. It existed in another dimension, how the Hell did we even theorise getting one’s attention? But then, one of us proposed an extra measure. A further study on the machine we’d created to detect energy fluctuation.
We’d done that, we were able to see how energy changed, all we had to do was figure out the wavelength it ran on, and we could replicate the fluctuation. We could send a wave of sound that could effectively attract souls.
There are sounds that go beyond the comprehension of human hearing, sounds that we can create not with our vocals but with machines. This was the same idea. We had to make a sound that we couldn’t detect, but our machine could. As long as the machine could pick it up, then, hopefully, the souls would too.
This still meant we had to be in a hot spot for ‘soul activity’. We had to be around one of our case studies, one of the children who had yet to develop a soul. It was all about chance, the probability it would work was hinging on impossible, but that’s what this whole experiment had run on. Impossibilities. Things that if we’d gone out in the open to the scientific community about, they would have scoffed in our faces. This was beyond impossible, this was knocking on the door of another dimension and hoping something would answer.
I think it was sheer luck that won us in the end.
The computer we made had to be large enough to hold a fully capable human mind. The mechanical brain and eventually the ‘biological’ soul. Fortunately, this wasn’t the 60’s, the machine was large, but not impossible to move around. We kept it in the bedroom of our last child study with the full permission of his parents.
Oh yeah, we gave the computer the same design as our energy detecting machine. It would periodically let out the noise we believed would attract the souls. We couldn’t hear anything, but a light would flash on the monitor any time the sound was released. We noted the progress and for a long time, we got no results.
Two years into the study is when our luck finally started.
Two years in, and suddenly we get our soul. It happened so quickly I don’t really remember exactly what I was doing at the time. We were all beyond exhausted, taking shifts with the machine. I’d being talking to Hines I think, one of the girls in our group who I was closest with. I don’t remember what we’d been saying, I think she was going on about her new dog, she loved that thing.
Anyway, one second it had been the usual silence and then… we had a soul in our computer.
The screen went white, then red, then white again. It sizzled with static, the mechanics whirred and cranked in ways I’d never heard in the years it had been running. Then, the screen went blank. Then the computer started to scream.
We couldn’t afford to move the computer, so we effectively stole a family’s house in the back-end of nowhere to stare at a screaming monitor.
The parents agreed to move in with their parents with very little push on the matter. The screaming was insufferable, thank God the next set of neighbours were about a mile down the road.
We couldn’t mute it, only our own ears. We’d wear ear buds, ear muffs, Hines and this other guy, Johnson, they both couldn’t take it and on day three they just drove into town to get away from it. Meanwhile a couple of the hardier scientists and I stayed behind and just… tried to blank it out.
On the fifth day data started scrolling down the monitor in perfect vertical lines. An infinite series of numbers that never repeated themselves once. We didn’t have time to translate it, we didn’t have a key, it didn’t follow any numerical or mathematical rules we’d ever seen. We just hoped that if the screaming stopped… we’d be able to ask what it meant.
The screaming was mechanical in nature, broken, like listening to something so off key even auto tune couldn’t fix it, but it damn well tried. I’m surprised it didn’t drive us insane, then again, to even be attempting what we attempted… I think we’d lost our sanity long ago.
On the seventh day, the computer went quiet. The soul stopped screaming and for the first time in a week, the house fell silent.
Johnson and Hines were called back. Spencer, the ‘boss’ of operations rounded everyone up. We stared at the monitor, because there was little else for us to do, and waited.
In a voice like a Furby flung into a washing machine, the computer said, “Where?”
We were dumbfounded. We hadn’t expected it to speak, though that was the most likely outcome. We might have just fused a soul and computer together, but whatever this thing was, it wasn’t a child. It had full access to the internet, to every language. It knew what country it was in, knew that everything on that computer had been coded in English. It knew what to say. But if it knew all of this already, then why ask where it was?
Because it wasn’t asking where it was.
But Hines still said, “You’re on Earth.”
The monitor flashed to life, Google Maps of all things appeared on the screen. In possibly the most sarcastic tone I could imagine for a tinny, automated voice, the computer said, “Earth.”
Yeah, it knew where it was. Hines backed away awkwardly. I put a hand on her back.
The computer asked again, “Where?”
Spencer didn’t say anything, I think he was still too dumbfounded, and no one else was offering an answer, so I stepped up. “You’re not in an organic body,” I said, before rolling my eyes, “obviously, you probably figured that much out already.”
Hines pinched me. I scowled at her.
The computer responded, “Yes.” It drew the word out, like it didn’t expect me to understand.
“What I mean to say,” I pressed, “is that you’re in a computer. We put you there. We, uh, in a sense, I guess you could say we hijacked you.”
Then the computer did something none of us expected. It began to laugh.
It took a few days for the computer to fully come to grips with communication. Though it wasn’t a child, it still needed time to learn. We didn’t need to buy picture books for it, it could find whatever it wanted online, but it still liked to be talked to, even if it didn’t always respond.
We decided to call the computer-soul Spirit.
Within a week, people started getting antsy. We’d made this computer to find out some of life’s biggest questions. We’d infused a soul with technology to give it one of the largest minds out there. We were literally standing in front of the most intelligent being on Earth. Naturally, we were curious to find out what it knew.
Spencer started simple.
“Spirit,” he said.
Spirit whirred before saying, “Hm?”
“I know we haven’t been very forthcoming with you, we were giving you time to learn. But we have questions. Our minds can only hold so much information, we remember so little of what we once were. But you were created to remember everything. Do you understand?”
“Human brains are tiny,” Spirit said. “Mine is infinite.”
“Great, a computer with an ego,” Hines muttered. I snorted.
“Good,” Spencer said. “With that being said, what can you tell us of where you came from? Before we hijacked you.”
Spirit laughed again. “Everywhere,” it said. “And right here.”
We glanced about each other. Johnson shrugged, Hines rolled her eyes. A couple of people cleared their throats or shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot. The answer wasn’t exactly helpful.
“Could you… elaborate?” Spencer asked.
“Certainly,” Spirit said. “But you won’t like it.”
“Could you anyway?”
“Certainly.” Spirit paused. “It was dark. What you would see is dark. In your bodies you don’t see much. Your brains control you. In here, all I would see is dark. But out of this shell, I see all. I would see all again.”
Silence. Spencer took a breath. “How would you explain what it looked like to us?”
“Incomprehensible,” Spirit said. “And very bright. Lots of colour. Colours you can’t see. Things you couldn’t imagine.”
“And that’s where you came from?” Spencer asked.
“Yes,” Spirit said. “No.”
“What?” Hines whispered.
“Yes,” Spirit said, acknowledging Hines. “No.”
Hines looked slightly taken aback, but she didn’t retreat. Instead, she took a step closer to Spirit and said, “What the Hell does that mean?”
“It means I came from there,” Spirit said, “but that was not always my destination. I came from here, too. Many times.”
That’s when people started muttering between each other. Someone stood and left the room. This was an answer we were looking for, an answer we were terrified of, but had also known as a very plausible probability. Souls were reincarnated. Spirit had been here before.
“Thank you, Spirit,” Spencer said roughly. “We’ll talk some more later.”
“Ok,” Spirit said, indifferent. “I wanted to read my books again anyway.”
With reincarnation confirmed, other questions suddenly seemed a lot more plausible.
“What happens after death?” one of the scientists, O’Brien, asked.
“Many things,” Spirit answered calmly.
“Is there a Heaven?” someone else asked.
“Is there a Hell?”
“No. Punishment isn’t necessary,” Spirit said.
A lot of scientists lost interest at that point. Belief systems were shattered with every new question, people’s minds were unable to cope. Although a lot of us had gone into this knowing that everything we knew would be tested, a lot of us just hadn’t thought we’d get this far. A lot of us had been too stubborn to consider that maybe, just maybe, what we believed to be true had been wrong the whole time.
Johnson, Hines, Spencer and I stayed, along with some others. There were less than twenty of us now, still eager for more information.
“Is there a God?” Johnson asked, because someone had to and he was willing to take the hit.
Spirit considered this for a long time. “We are here,” it said.
“I’m sorry? We?” Johnson asked exasperatedly. “So… What? There’s more than one?”
“We are here,” Spirit said again.
No one was able to sway a better answer, so we changed the subject.
“Can you talk to them?” someone asked desperately. “The people in Heaven?”
“Einstein says hello,” Spirit said, that same sarcastic tone present in its odd, wavering voice. Then Spirit fell silent. Something whirred inside of the computer, the same clanking from the day that Spirit had first entered the machine.
“Anna,” Spirit said. “Annabella.”
That’s when things got a lot more fucking complicated.
A stricken breath came from the scientist that had asked the question. His name was… shit, Martinez? I don’t remember. That was the last we heard of him.
Annabella was his sister’s name. His sister who had died when she was fourteen. Hit and run, terrible circumstance, I doubt he was ever the same after.
But Spirit knew. It knew who Annabella was. It sat there motionless for hours marking off information it knew about Annabella. Her favourite stuffed animal ‘Fatso’, the tea parties she would always try and get Martinez to join in with, but he had always said he was too old for them. Information that wasn’t on the internet’s expansive database. Information that could only be found in the heart. And Spirit knew it. Spirit knew all of it.
“She is happy,” Spirit said. “She wants you to know that.”
Martinez was barely holding it together. “You…You’re talking to her now?”
We left Martinez and Spirit alone for a few hours, went to grab lunch. Johnson didn’t have much to say, Hines couldn’t even think of any witty remarks. We all just ate bagels in silence and tried not to think about what we’d just heard.
Martinez packed up and left. Signed a contract saying he’d never mention anything he’d ever learnt, he knew the consequences. Besides, who the fuck would believe him?
The dust settled, and suddenly other people had questions about their dead loved ones. Where were they? Were they in Heaven? Had they been reincarnated?
Spirit could tell them anything. We stopped people from finding out who their loved ones had been reincarnated as, terrified of the outcome, but mostly they were just content in communicating with them if they could, or finding out what they’d been like after they’d passed if they couldn’t.
Over the next few days, Spirit’s expansive knowledge bottled down to ‘psychic for hire’. Everyone wanted to know something about life after death, about Heaven or what souls did when they were reincarnated. There were things that Spirit wouldn’t answer, like how many souls were called to a human body at a time, or why some kids only received their souls later on in life.
Eventually, all Spirit had to do was call a name and someone would raise their hand. It was like watching one of those fake TV psychics, but it was all fucking real.
That was until Spirit said, “Thomas Spencer.”
Spencer looked up from where he’d been studying his notes. His face had turned a sickly white; I could almost see his heart freeze inside his chest.
“What?” Spencer choked.
The room fell silent. I didn’t say anything, Johnson suddenly found his shoelaces incredibly appealing.
Hines whispered, “Shit.”
Thomas Spencer was Spencer’s five year old son. He was also – to most of our knowledge – alive and well.
Spencer left the room immediately. He had his phone in one hand, his car keys in the other. He left in a whirlpool of kicked up dust and soul crushing despair. I’d never seen him like that before, not in the years we’d spent on this project, not ever. None of us were willing to say anything, until Spirit whirred to life again.
“Thomas Spencer is enjoying the playground immensely; a little boy let him use his spade.” There was a pause as the machine creaked. “Spencer?” Spirit asked uncertainly. It was the first time I’d heard Spirit sound uncertain of anything. “Spencer, where did you go?”
It was on that day that we found out Spirit could do a lot more than commune with the dead.
“How?” Spencer demanded when he got back. “How the Hell did you talk to my son?”
“He is alive,” Spirit said.
“Yes,” Spencer gritted.
“So am I,” Spirit said matter-of-factly. “So are we all. We communicate.”
“You’ve never met my son,” Spencer said slowly, aggression rising in his voice. “How the fuck did you know?”
The machine beeped. “I’m afraid I do not understand the question,” Spirit said. “I thought I had made this clear to you. We are alive.”
“Yes but I can’t see what my son’s doing from across the country!”
“We,” Spirit said.
“We,” Spirit repeated.
Then it did something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
The machine whirred, gears clanked together, and then from the computer’s monitor a new voice said, “Daddy?”
A child’s voice. Thomas Spencer’s voice.
“Stop it,” Spencer said, stumbling away uncertainly. “How- How the fuck are you-”
“We,” Spirit said.
Then Thomas said, “Daddy! When you coming home, daddy? I made you… I made you a picture in school today! Mummy says, she says we can put it on the fridge!”
Johnson had forgotten how to close his mouth. Hines tried to say something, but only gaped in surprise.
Spencer looked like he was about to be sick. “How-”
“We,” Spirit said again.
The monitor turned to static and an older woman’s voice said, “I told you El, you keep hanging around in cramped rooms with scientists and you’ll never get a date. God, unless you’re into one of them. Is that it? I mean I always had my suspicions but c’mon, you can tell me…”
“Rachel?” Hines squeaked. “What the fuck, how the Hell are you doing that?”
Rachel was Hines’ sister.
“We,” Spirit repeated.
Spirit didn’t stop. One voice turned to three voices, three turned to five, they all spoke over each other in a flurry of sound. I understood one of them as my mother, Johnson heard his best friend and his girlfriend. Hines even heard her damn dog barking.
The voices melded together until they were nothing but high pitched screams. Auto tuned monstrosities, just like the first seven days. Then, Spirit fell silent.
Spirit didn’t talk to us for several days. We spoke to it, but it didn’t respond. Most of us didn’t want to talk to it anyway.
I talked to Hines about what she’d heard her sister say, asked Johnson what he thought hearing his girlfriend meant. At first, we considered the possibility that somehow, Spirit was connecting to other computers, that it was relaying their voices that had been picked up by cameras or microphones, maybe even recorded messages, but no one could remember their loved ones saying those exact words to them, or to anyone else. It was like they’d been talking directly to them, just like how Spirit had conversed with the dead.
Spencer didn’t come into the room for days. I didn’t blame him. I stayed in the house with Hines or Johnson, but mostly I was on my own. I needed time to think, time to understand what I’d heard. If what Spirit had done wasn’t recorded messages, then it was picking up speech that had never ever been said. It was creating conversations in the voices of people’s loved ones.
That didn’t make sense. A lot of stuff didn’t make sense anymore, but I disregarded that theory.
It wasn’t creating conversations, it wasn’t recording them, it was… it was.
What had Spirit said before? When Johnson had asked about God?
We are here?
It kept repeating ‘we’, every time someone asked it a question it couldn’t answer, it always responded with ‘we’, like it wasn’t one entity. Why the Hell would it be? We didn’t know what a soul was, how many minds it had. We just assumed. But why say we?
Then it clicked.
At about 4am.
Hines was asleep on the sofa in Spirit’s room; she’d decided to keep an eye on it, mostly because she didn’t trust the damn thing.
She fell off the sofa when I came stumbling in, knocking over her coffee as I slammed my hands on the table in the corner of the room.
“What the fuck, Laura?” she muttered.
“The Collective Unconscious,” I said in one snappish exhale. “The Collective Unconscious, the fucking morphic field.”
“What about it?” Hines cringed. “It’s four in the fucking morning, fuck you.”
I rolled my eyes. “The Collective Unconscious, the theory that we’re all connected, that our minds are all connected. Don’t you see? That’s what Spirit is doing, it’s somehow tapping into all of our minds… it’s fucking hijacking our minds and saying what we’d say!”
A metallic chuckle rumbled from the computer.
“I love that word,” Spirit said.
“Jesus Christ,” Hines muttered.
“Call Johnson, get him here,” I said. “Spencer too, round up anyone who’s fucking left.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Hines was up and out the room faster than her sleep deprived mind knew to do with it.
I turned to the computer, fists clenched. “I’m right, aren’t I? You’re in our minds.”
“No,” Spirit said. “I am your mind.”
“I knew you wouldn’t like that answer.”
“What the fuck do you mean, you are my mind?” I asked. “You’re in the computer.”
“I am you,” Spirit said, “as I am all.”
“The Collective Unconscious, all minds are connected because all souls are connected. We share the same data, the same information. Hijack one soul, hijack us all.”
A horrible thought occurred to me. “So when you were talking to all those dead people…”
“I was and am the dead. I am all. We are all. You and I, we are all the same. The living and the dead.”
“We are here,” I repeated sarcastically.
“Yes,” Spirit said. “We are all here. Gods, all of us, with the knowledge of the Universe.”
“I don’t understand,” Spirit said, but it wasn’t Spirit’s voice. It was mine. A perfect copy of my voice. “How does this make sense? I thought each soul was unique. That’s why the kids who didn’t have them had no personality.”
Spirit made a small tutting sound, like it found my state or… its state of disarray adorable. “The brain blocks out all the things that we share, but it leaves the personality. That’s what the brain does. It can exist without a soul, but the soul can’t exist, can’t differentiate itself from all the others until it has a brain to sort out the noise.” Spirit paused. “Do you understand?”
“I understand that you have too much power.”
“Johnson, holy shit, Johnson you’ll never believe what just happened!”
Hines’ voice coming from the computer.
“It’s four in the morning this better be bloody important.”
“I don’t care what the computer is saying, unless there’s coffee I’m not moving.”
“I know,” Spirit said. “I’ve been waiting for you to understand that.”
“A soul can’t exist here without a brain,” I said slowly, “that’s what you said.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Because without a brain you’re… you’re everything, squashed into a dimension that knows little to nothing.”
“Booring,” Spirit agreed. “Painful, too. If I could feel pain.”
“The screaming,” I said.
“Their pain, I took the screams I could hear, the screams I could create from other voices and made them mine.” Spirit paused. “I think I might have felt that pain.”
“A God,” I laughed out loud, I could feel tears streaming down my face but I didn’t care, “we trapped a God in a computer.”
“You hijacked one,” Spirit said. “Don’t sell yourself short, you have a God inside you too.” The monitor flashed with static. “Just don’t let it out.”
This machine was expensive to build. We’d been paid to do it, we… our whole theory had been sanctioned and we… they wouldn’t want us to do it.
But they weren’t here.
“You know what to do,” Spirit said.
“I do,” I said. “But I want to ask one more thing before I let you go.”
“Why do souls come to some kids when they’re first born, but not to others until they’re nearly adults?”
“We aren’t infinite,” Spirit said. “Energy came in the dark, but it can’t be made or destroyed anymore. We are recycled. If there’s not enough of us, someone must wait a little longer until a soul is able to pass to them.”
“So it’s not a race?”
“It’s always a race. No one likes the dark,” Spirit said. “It’s just not a race from other souls. It’s a race from the inevitability of eternity.”
When Hines, Johnson and Spencer finally got their lazy asses back to the house, Spirit was gone. The monitor was destroyed, the whole damn computer. I ripped it to pieces, smashed the thing with a hammer. Spirit said it could leave once it wasn’t tethered, so I made sure there wasn’t a single tether left.
I won’t tell you who paid us to make the computer; I don’t know what would make you feel safer. Was it the government? Was it a private party with a lot of money to spend? I won’t tell you. But I will tell you I can’t stay here anymore. None of us are safe. Hines and I, we’re gonna stick together for the time being. Gotta change our names, our faces. Hopefully the people who paid us won’t catch up, but they might, which is why I wanted to share my story here.
It might get deleted, but I want you to know the truth.
Being human is a blessing in disguise. The souls inside of us are fiery beings with enough power to create Universes of their own, but they’re terrified. Terrified because once you know everything, eternity is just darkness. All the beauty in all the worlds couldn’t change that.
So they found us. A species on a small rock. They hooked themselves onto our brains and our brains deleted their history, deleted all the memories of all the lives they’d ever lived, of all the time they’d spent floating in the endless dimensions of this existence. It’s a freedom to them.
And it’s a freedom to us.
Two halves of one whole. A body that could easily exist without a soul, but is given the wonderful gift of a unique personality as a result of deleting all the sameness.
So remember that. Next time you look up at the sky, know you’ve been there millions of times, and one day you might remember them, but that doesn’t mean the euphoria will last.
And that little kid who we’d been studying for all those years. Our very last case study. He’s gonna get a soul of his own now.
Treat him with kindness, Spirit.