Soul


I had not actually seen Simmons in person for about a year. The last time we spoke was during a flurry of research he had me do over the course of a couple of months, mostly dark web stuff, for which Simmons required my expertise. When I last saw him in person, he still looked like a youthful man. But when I saw him again, I saw a man who had done more than just a year’s worth of aging. 

Maybe Simmons’ sudden decline was normal. After all, I am a computer guy, so what do I know? The deepest laws of biology are inscrutable. As of writing, scientists don’t know why aging happens, and certainly don’t know how to reverse it. They still can’t even cure the common cold, come to think of it. So for all I know, Simmons’ sudden transition in just over a year might be completely normal. But I doubt it. I doubt it because I now have some idea of what Simmons had been up to since last I saw him.

Maybe, in the end, it will all be worth it. Maybe that Artificial Intelligence that Simmons wanted to build will be worth all the years, and all the loss Simmons has experienced.

The whole world of AI has taken off lately. The stuff they’ve recently made public is stunning, to say the least. Everyone I talk to about it uses the word “scary.” I have also heard “fearsome.” I have also heard “buy a farm, get way off the grid, and just ride this out.” We’ll see. 

I am a network guy, a security expert, a hacker. As much as I wish I was, I am not any kind of expert on artificial intelligence. I mean, I know the basics. One time, when I had a spare weekend, I went so far as to build a small, dirt-simple neural network that I found a tutorial for online. I have to admit, when I trained that thing and let it run against a real-world data set, I was knocked back in my seat by what I saw. This thing had… agency. It is the closest I have come to something I would genuinely call “spooky.” Until what happened at the house, of course.

Simmons, as it turns out, has gotten a hell of a lot closer to “spooky” than that. 

I do not know that much about SImmons. I know that he is not a computer specialist, and not a trained scientist. To me, he just seemed like a guy who had come from money and done a lot of reading. He didn’t have any deep level of specialization in anything, as far as I could tell. Not in the way most of the people I know in my field do. But he seemed to have developed quite a breadth of knowledge. And I genuinely think that, beyond being bookish, Simmons was one of those people who could make connections between widely different areas of knowledge that most people wouldn’t think of. 

So, anyway, there he was again after a year’s absence. Simmons had me meet him in the lobby of  a hotel where he was staying.

I remember the way Simmons was sitting with his elbows on his bony knees, his hands folded in front of him. He was always the kind of guy who would take several long seconds before answering any of your questions, even the simple ones. He would just stop and compose a long, complex answer in his mind before speaking. His answers were always like they were penned in a letter. 

“I approach every problem by, first, disassembling it into its component parts,” Simmons said to me when we were talking in that lobby, “Of course I am sure this is the same as what you do with a technical problem. I decompose any large problem into smaller, constituent parts. Then, before I solve each one, I solve even simpler versions of the components I have isolated. Kind of like the way a painter does a series of little vignettes on several small canvases, before committing to a larger, more complex painting. So, what I have been doing for this latest, little vignette of mine over the past year is documenting proof of demonic possessions.”

Simmons began his hunt for demons with the best source he had come across: Catholic diocesan priests. Specifically, exorcists. These guys answer to their local bishop and deal with any possessed people in their diocese. Real, actual exorcisms. Simmons had had me dig up a list of these exorcists from around the world, then filter that list down to the ones we could verify were the most legitimate.

Simmons had me exclude from the list anyone who claimed to be an exorcist but was not an ordained Catholic priest. As nutty as this whole scheme seemed to me, Simmons was going by a very clear set of principles he had extrapolated from years of study. Apparently, when it came to possessions and exorcisms, Catholic priests were the gold standard. 

Most of these guys were hard to find. Most of them worked in very remote parts of the world, and had no direct record on the internet at all. I found them from working backwards from certain data fingerprints I could create from information I dug up on a host of more well known and confirmed cases. Trust me, it took some work and a little black magic of my own to pry this information from its hiding spots. 

Simmons took the list I created, paid me handsomely, then disappeared. Since then, Simmons had apparently been traveling all around the world finding these guys. He convinced a significant number of these exorcists to allow him to observe their exorcisms.  Simmons got footage. He got electromagnetic readings. He took samples that he sent off to laboratories. And looking at him, in that hotel lobby, I could see that all this had taken quite a toll on him. Maybe it was the amount of traveling he had had to do. More likely, it was what he saw during those exorcisms that took years off his life. I asked to see some of this footage but he left me in no doubt that neither I nor anyone else would ever be shown that stuff. 

Certainly, Simmons could not tell me exactly what a soul actually is, despite all his research. But he had finally, and for the first time in human history I think, come up with a metric that could be applied to this thing we call a soul. Simmons could apply a binary, yes-no value to the presence of a soul. Quite simply, if a demonic possession could be caused, that marks the presence of a soul. No soul in the room, no demonic possession possible. 

What does this have to do with AI? 

Basically, Simmons was pretty sure that any true AI, which would have to be a cognizant and self-aware entity, is impossible without the presence of a soul. If no soul is present , no actual consciousness is possible. The closest AI would ever get to real consciousness without a soul is clever mimicry. 

Simmons was convinced that our biology does not cause our consciousness. Simmons had become certain that self-awareness does not emerge as a byproduct of highly complex biology. Instead, based on his research, Simmons was convinced souls are some unexplained inter-dimensional force that physics has yet to catch onto. This realm of souls, this domain of consciousness, lies just outside our universe and our physical reality. That world and ours is separated by a veil. This barrier is thin, but mostly effective at hiding one dimension from the other. At some point in humanity’s evolutionary history, the biology of our brains became complex enough that the brain could affect matter and information not just by raw chemistry anymore, but on the quantum level. These tiny little events in our monkey brains were all it took to effect fusion between dimensions. The whole reason we as a species became conscious is that the human brain is a system capable of poking a tiny, quantum hole in the veil separating our reality and the dimension that souls originate from. Consequently, what we call a soul flows in and permeates the system, giving rise to consciousness. 

Simmons reasoned that if any system becomes sophisticated enough, it can poke a hole in the veil. Even one made out of silicone and circuits.

Simmons was going to give AI a soul. And I was, as it turned out, back on Simmons’ payroll. 

Now, again, I am not an AI scientist. I am not really a programmer or a software developer. I am a black-hat pen-tester, a hacker. I am mostly an ethical hacker. Mostly. What it turned out Simmons needed was for me to be a slightly less than ethical hacker. I agreed to it. Everyone has a price. 

Simmons had his own AI people already working on the framework for his proposed creation. What Simmons needed me for, again, was research. He needed my magic, work-backwards-from-a-data-fingerprint trick to divulge hidden knowledge on deeply walled off parts of the ‘net. Simmons’ team had their own novel idea for a new kind of AI, based mostly on arcane and epistemological research Simmons had done all on his own that simply needed to be translated into code.  But there were still times when Simmons’ team hit a wall due to a lack of specific technical knowledge.  A lot of stuff they had come up with was maybe theoretically correct, but not completely hashed out to the nuts and bolts level. That is where I came in. I figured out what their knowledge gap was. Then I went out and found where other teams elsewhere in the world had already developed a solution that mapped very closely to what our team needed. Then I just kind of borrowed these resources long enough for Simmons’ people to make the next leap in their own work.

I had to sign my name to all kinds of secrecy when Simmons re-hired me, and I am breaking a lot of that by telling most parts of this story. I am going to try to not divulge what I do not have to. What I can tell you is that there were three others working with me and Simmons. The technical lead was a lady who had just been denied tenure at a university. She had been some kind of AI pioneer there I thought I remembered reading about some years back. She had given several years of her life to the department, and after she was denied tenure she was angry at everyone and everything. Simmons could have told her the AI she was building would have wiped out all of humanity and she probably would have stayed on the project. I’ll refer to her as Megan. 

The other two were graduate students. One, I’ll call him Bruce, was from a university in Iran. The other was from a university in Canada. I will call him Phil for now. I have no idea how Simmons convinced these two to drop what they were doing and join his crazy venture. For me, it was money, obviously. Megan was motivated by spite and revenge. Looking back, I sometimes think Simmons may not have had to pay Megan anything to do this. A chance for revenge was enough. Maybe money was enough for the other two as well. 

So began a very intense year of working with these three and Simmons. The advance Simmons gave me was more than enough to quit my current job. It also paid the rent on my place which was good because I had to leave my apartment and take up temporary residence in a city on the other side of the country where the rest of the team was. 

The temporary residence and workplace for that year was an abandoned self-storage facility that SImmons owned. The place was fenced off and we worked out of a cluster of the larger units way in the back. We all had a separate storage unit to ourselves during this time. We had everything we needed. Simmons furnished us with all the amenities, so it was more comfy than it probably sounds. 

Working there was like working at a start-up, with all the high-paced chaos and ambiguity that comes with that. For a year we worked at a frenzied pace. Day after day, there was always a thorny new challenge to be met. I started every day not really knowing what I would be required to do that day, or how I was going to do it, or even if I was going to be able to do it. 

We worked every day like this from seven in the morning to seven at night. Quite often I did not go out at all at the end of the work shift. I usually ended the day in my storage unit where I cracked a beer and curled up around my laptop on the cot. 

Every four weeks, however, we were given the week off. Megan, Bruce, and Phil disappeared to who knows where. I didn’t ask. For the first half of that year I used my weeks off to maintain, or more like stumble through, a long-distance relationship. After that went bust, I just spent my weeks off back at my apartment. 

We made significant progress during that time. Megan and the other two were some pretty high-caliber software engineers. And they had me when they needed a cheat-sheet. About a year after we got started, the structure of the AI that Simmons had envisioned was complete. We were ready to put together the training data set. 

You basically can’t get an AI to work without a training data set, which is just a crap-ton of data collected from the real world and stored inside a database. You ‘train’ your fledgling AI on the training set. You give the AI a task, and it attempts to accomplish that task. Of course, the AI completely fails to get it right the first several times it tries to solve the problem. But what the AI does get from those failures is a measure of  how far apart its own results are from the correct answer. 

From there, the AI then makes tiny adjustments to how it’s trying to solve the problem. 

Each time it tries, the AI is allowed to check its own results against the real world data in the training set. Each time it fails to solve the problem, it makes another adjustment to how it’s solving the problem. Since its brain is a computer, the AI is able to do this kind of back-and-forth learning thousands of times a minute. Step by tiny step, the AI gets closer to being able to solve the problem on its own. Finally, the AI gains the ability to solve the problem you gave it. You can then give it another problem similar to the one it trained on, and right away the AI can solve it without you ever having given it explicit instructions. Voila! It learns. 

It was when we were ready to give this new AI its training set that the whole situation changed.

I guess we were expecting Simmons to just hand us the training set in some form. Usually, it’s a computer file of some kind, on a database scoured from the internet or from some university. I thought maybe all the videos he had taken of all those exorcisms would somehow be the training set. But I was very wrong. 

Instead, Simmons had us change location. One day, we all just packed up and left the storage facility. I do not know where Bruce and Phil went. Megan and myself, along with our few personal belongings,were driven by Simmons to a two-story brick house out in the bland suburban hinterland of some bland, midwestern city a few hours away.

During our time at the storage facility, we were all free to come and go as we pleased. It was not often that I left the storage facility, but I was free to go out to a bar if I wanted. At this new house, though, we had to agree to be completely holed up inside without leaving. We had to stay locked in the house until Simmons said the project was completed. We were absolutely not allowed to step outside of that house, day or night. So the three of us, Simmons, Megan, and myself, were shut up in this house for several weeks.

Before we arrived, Simmons had packed the basement with what looked like months worth of food and other supplies. There was no need to leave the house for anything.save a grave medical emergency 

The first floor was packed with all the same gear we had had back at the storage facility. It was more uncomfortable than what we had been used to. There was simply less room to move around. We were cramped between workstations, server racks, cooling equipment, cables, 3d-printers, you name it. The only time we could stretch out and relax was in one of the upstairs bedrooms we were each assigned. 

The house had an attached garage. There was a door leading out to the garage, but SImmons kept it locked shut. That garage was as off-limits to us as the outdoors. Simmons would not tell us what was in there. The few times I watched him go into the garage — that garage is where he spent most of his time — the inside had all the lights off so I could never see more than a foot or two into it. Also, Simmons had painted the door to the garage black, which was off-putting to say the least. 

Megan and I spent the first couple of days re-setting the equipment in the house.

After that,  Megan went to work doing what I could only imagine was finalizing the AI. Simmons stayed locked in that garage all day every day, and would not say what he was doing in there. I had absolutely nothing to do.

It had not been completely explained to me why I was there. Bruce or Phil could have been of some use to Megan as she tinkered with the computers. But cut off from the internet, there was no way I could do anything. To ply my trade necessarily meant me getting on the internet. There was no way else to do it. As it was, the only contact we had with the outside world in that house was what we breathed and what we flushed.  

But, I was getting paid. So there I idly sat, day in and day out for the first couple of weeks. 

When each day ended, and Simmons came out of the garage, and Megan disappeared into her room, all I could do was go to mine and drink myself to sleep. Simmons had provided ample booze for our stay, so there was that. But I became pretty miserable after the novelty of the situation had worn off, which only took a few days.

The longest I had ever been without an internet connection was one single camping weekend during college, and another time I was in rehab for a couple of days. Stuck in that house, totally isolated, I had nothing to do. I tried reading some books Simmons had brought into the house. I watched a bunch of dumb movies. I played some video games. I drank a lot, and when I slept until noon as a result, Simmons did not seem to care or notice. He just stayed locked in that garage and barely spoke to either of us. 

I finally cracked after about two weeks of idleness. Simmons had come in from the garage to get something out of the kitchen and I used that opportunity to make my point. I announced to the room that this was all completely ridiculous and I was going to walk out to the front sidewalk to get some damned air. 

I marched up to the front door and opened it. I turned my head a bit just to get Simmons in my peripheral vision, wanting to gauge his reaction. Oddly enough, Simmons, who had been so adamant up to that point about us not leaving, just stood in the kitchen entryway. So I turned and continued out the door.

Salt.

I completely froze. I had my foot out in front of me, suspended maybe twenty centimeters in the air just over the ground. My hands had shot out to either side, grabbing the door frame to arrest my forward momentum. I was completely stunned and completely perplexed by the line of salt drawn on the ground in front of me. It was coarse , white salt piled a few centimeters high and a few centimeters wide and it stretched across the door frame, like a demarcation. What flashed through my mind right then were images of what Simmons must have seen and experienced during his year hunting down the possessed. And this ring of salt, I could tell at that point, had something to do with demonology, and I absolutely wanted nothing to do with it. I realized the line of salt extended all the way around the house. Whether or not I believed it, this was some seriously deep hocus-pocus stuff I simply did not want to mess around with. I withdrew my foot slowly back into the house. 

“Why’ve you done this?” I remember saying to Simmons.

Megan stumped over to the door to see what I was talking about. She paused, chin to her chest, staring at the salt for a few seconds, then screwed her head around and demanded loudly that Simmons tell him just exactly what the hell was going on here. She demanded to know why Simmons had us all “trapped’ inside the house. 

“OK, stop,” I remember Simmons saying at that point. He then told us both to just come back inside and close the front door. He then turned and walked in the direction of the black door, the one that led to the garage. That’s when he said to us, “It’s time. You both need to see how we are going to create the training set.”

Megan and I were both puzzled, but we closed the front door and followed Simmons to the garage like he told us. He took out a key and undid the dead-bolt and opened the black door for us. 

We could not see what was in the room. It was pitch black except for a candle burning in the middle of the floor. 

“OK, when you step in, only take one step into the room,” I remember him saying, “Then stop, and take four or five steps to your left. Leave enough room for Megan to get in beside you.”

“And don’t touch anything,” Simmons said.

We did as instructed. I went in and shuffled over. Megan shuffled in after me. Then Simmons flipped the overhead lights on. 

I think both Megan and I took in dual breaths of shock at what we saw. The floor was covered in what looked like pentagrams and witch’s sigils. These were painted in a pattern radiating out from the center of the room. The ceiling had dozens of curtain tracks bolted to it. It would turn out that these were for strategically hanging green screens during the filming. 

In the middle of the floor was some sort of altar. There was a candle on it, a bunch of dried plants, and a string of hundreds of little red bags. I found out when we began filming they were tiny little cloth bags, each containing a pinch of tobacco and sage. All these were set around a desiccated goat’s head that had coins shoved into its eye sockets.

All of this looked like a bad movie about medieval wizards. Incongruently, all four walls were lined with cameras and recording equipment.  Set on benches all along the walls were items I later found out were for doing motion capture. 

“OK, you gonna tell us what the hell is this, Simmons?” Megan asked. 

Simmons complied, and told us how we were going to build our training set for the new AI. 

Simmons’ plan was for us to don all this mo-cap gear, step into the ritual space he had painted on the floor, and be recorded summoning a demon.

When I say summon a demon, I mean almost summon a demon, and then stop right before the critical last step. Simmons did not want either of us getting possessed before he could create the training set. We were to wear the mo-cap gear and do almost all of the entire summoning ritual. We’d do everything right up until that last, final, fully committal step. That last, tiny step would be carefully constructed with deep fake software, using the rest of the recordings for reference material. The deep fake would then get appended to the end of the recording. 

Megan and I would have to do this about a hundred times over the next few weeks, in order to get a sufficiently large enough training set. That is why Simmons had kept me around. This had suddenly become an acting gig. 

Once we had a sufficiently large batch of recording to act as the training set, the plan was to switch on the AI and have it train on what we had compiled. The training task we would give our AI would be to summon a demon. 

If SImmons had got his research right, demonic possessions of super-advanced AI’s are similar to demonic possessions of human neurobiology. In theory, at least, if the back-and-forth learning process of an AI as advanced as ours was able to weave together a neural network of sufficient complexity, the neural network could poke a little hole in the quantum veil between our reality and the realm of souls. According to Simmons research, this possibility of a soul sliding through is the bait that attracts demons. The demon could take its seat within that neural-net. 

Once the demon was seated in the AI, the fact that there was no actual soul present would create an imbalance between our realm and the spiritual realm where souls exist. In a perverse version of le Chatelier’s principle, that imbalance could only be corrected by causing a soul to slip through the opening in the barrier caused by the neural network of the AI and also take its place among the circuitry. 

Simmons was about to see if he could create an AI with an actual soul. 

I didn’t really believe any of this. To be honest, at this point I had come to believe Simmons now qualified as nothing more than a very rich lunatic who was not averse to wasting his money on naive schemes. But Simmons never came across as dangerous to me, and I knew I could really use the paycheck I was going to get for playing along. So, I played along. 

Megan, on the other hand, was a lot more enthusiastic than I expected about this part of the project. Once she got over the initial shock of Simmons’ explanation, she never challenged Simmons on it.  I am not sure what Megan believed and I am not sure she believed Simmons anymore than I did. But Megan, above all else, had scores to settle with her old department. If what Simmons was suggesting was even partially successful, the AI this would create would not just impress her old colleagues who had wronged her, It would make them and all their lives’ work completely redundant. In fact, if we were even partially successful, everything humanity has ever done or ever will do would forever lie in the shadow of what we were about to create. 

So, we pressed on. I dressed up every day, and put up with about four weeks of demon-summoning rituals in that garage.

Every day for the remaining time in that house, Megan and I would take turns suiting up in the mo-cap gear and going through each step of the summoning ritual, with the recording equipment running.  Simmons did all the recording with the cameras, handled all the lights and datasound equipment, and repositioned the green screens.

I won’t go into details too much, but the summoning ritual had four distinct phases. We’d start out by lying down on the edge of the sigil pattern on the garage floor. Simmons would play an ‘active forcing’ script over the loudspeaker and we were to hold absolutely still as it played. It was, from what I can remember, a bunch of new-age gobblety-gook about envisioning the demon’s form and personality. 

Then we were to get up and slowly walk around the sigil with our head down as if we were a preschooler lost in thought. The script that played over the loudspeaker during that part of it was an imaginary conversation between us and the demon. There was one script for me and one that played when Megan was doing this. The scripts contained a lot of personal information from our childhoods that we were “sharing” with the demon. 

After that, we moved deeper into the sigil circle and closer to the altar at the center. We were to mime patting and stroking the invisible head and arm of the demon like we were comforting a childhood friend. This went on for about an hour while more ‘active forcing’ played in the background. 

Finally, we would get to the center of the altar, pick up the string of tobacco and sage bags, and make like we were going to set them alight with the candle. But we never actually lit the bags. That part we deep-faked later and then added the data to the end of the recording stream. But everything up to then needed to be as close to completely real as we could possibly get it.

Megan and I did this over and over again, day in and day out. Slowly, we built up a data set of multiple recordings. 

Finally, we had our training data. 

After all those weeks of work, turning the AI on and telling it “go” was going to be ludicrously easy. Megan was going to key in some instructions into the server, then we were just going to kick back and wait for the AI to do the rest.  

Now, before we go on, let me say again, I am a hacker. So whenever I spend any time on a computer, I expect to be hacked. As a result, I always have a set of tools installed on whatever computer I use that I keep running in the background while I work. I even did this at the house, despite the fact that I knew we had no internet connection. Old habits.

There are many, many different types of cyber attacks, and each one requires corresponding monitoring tools. I won’t go into them, with one exception. A ‘NTFS ledger’ detects a type of cyber attack called ‘unauthorized partitioning.’ This is where someone breaks into your computer and adds a second operating system. The NTFS ledger can sense that this particular type of attack is underway against your system, and in some cases stop the attack early in the process. So I had one of these running against the server that housed the AI that night while we were getting ready to run the AI against the training data.

Simmons told us that we were going to switch the AI on at midnight and have it run until after three in the morning. We were, afterall, trying to use an AI to deliberately trigger paranormal activity, and midnight to three was evidently the peak spooky hours. So we made an extravagant dinner from the stores in the basement, and stayed up the whole evening. I have to admit that I was feeling almost overwhelmed with the thought of this project finally ending, getting my money, and getting out of there. 

Midnight drew near so Megan and I left the table and went to our workstations. We powered everything up, and at ten seconds to midnight Megan turned on the AI. 

At first, of course, nothing happened. The house was completely silent except for the hum of the servers and the whirring of the cooling fans. 

The virtual clock on my monitor ticked away. As it got close to one in the morning, I was still  sitting there wondering if anything was going to happen. That is when the little yellow arrow started glowing in the bottom right of my screen. This is an ‘uh-oh’ moment because it’s the warning icon for the NTFS ledger. Somehow, even though we were air-gapped, our isolated little network was under attack, right in the middle of a critical experiment. 

I did not say anything to the others, not wanting to alarm them unnecessarily. It could have been a glitch that caused the arrow. If it was indeed an unauthorized access attempt, there was plenty of other software I had running to shut it down before it got anywhere. So I just kept an eye on the glowing yellow arrow and waited. 

Finally, a second yellow arrow appeared beside the first one. This was serious. It meant that whoever was trying to hack in and set up their own partition in our system’s memory was getting to the next step. I had to take action before a lot of damage could be done. I clicked on the glowing arrow so that I could view the new partition.  

The screen in front of me turned blood red. Right when this happened, I heard Megan behind me start screaming. But I was way too mesmerized by what I was seeing to react to her. 

I struggle to describe the color I saw on that screen. It was more than just a deep, blood red. It was like seeing a sound, a sound that was so chilling it stops you cold. It was like someone blowing on an Aztec Death Whistle and then synaesthesiacly converting that sound to the color staring back at me from that monitor.  I was frozen to my chair, paralyzed. 

Megan shrieked again, louder this time. Simmons had come barging into the room behind me to my right and was making loud yelping sounds. Thinking back on it now, he was probably belting out instructions to the rest of us. But at the time, too much was going on, all of it way too fast, for me to make out whatever it was SImmons was trying to get me to do. 

The room had become very hot, as if all the cooling systems we had running suddenly shut themselves off. And the house, how do I describe it? It was like it imploded, but just slightly, like there was this dull, reverberating thud all throughout the house, and with it all the floors and walls all tilted slightly and shifted a few millimeters towards the center of the house. 

That snapped me out of it enough to start looking around to see what the screaming was all about. 

I remember the first thing I saw was hot black slime oozing and steaming out from beneath the server racks. Then I turned more, to see what Megan was still screaming at, and saw the pair of legs on the stairs. 

We were in the living room. Behind me was the entrance that led from the living room out to the center hall. From where I was sitting I could see the first eight or so steps of the stairs that went up to the second floor. On the third or fourth highest step that I could see, something was standing there. It wasn’t Megan or Simmons. It was a pair of legs and they were naked. I could see from the feet up to the crotch before the rest of it was obscured by the top of the door frame. I could not see its hands but I got the distinct impression it was holding its hands folded in front of its chest and was leaning back slightly from the waist. This thing was covered in a very thin film of gauze, or maybe a very loose outer skin, like it was shedding. The legs were hairless and very pale. And they were large. Whatever or whoever this was standing on the stairs, it had to be very tall. I remember the feet were splayed, and they extended far over the edge of the stair step, and the long toes dangled straight down and almost touched the next step below it. 

Now, they tell us when we are in school about the fight-or-flight instinct. Apparently one of the things evolution makes sure we come pre-programmed with is the sudden urge to react violently or run away as fast as we can when confronted with a threat. I can tell you none of that was happening in my head at that moment. Sheer, unadulterated terror had taken hold. I just remember thinking, “Please don’t come down those stairs, please don’t come down those stairs,” over and over again. The last thing in the world I wanted to see was the rest of whatever was on those stairs. 

Then the thing on the stairs tilted back slightly further, and lifted a foot as if to continue down. 

Mercifully, when I saw this, my fight-or-flight reaction finally did kick in. In an instant, I no longer gave a damn about Simmons’ money. I was up out of that chair and scrambling as fast as I could for the front door. 

Megan had already made it to the front door and had already got it open. But she had barked her shin on a milk crate full of power tools one of us had left in the entryway, causing her to topple over halfway through the open doorway. To my eternal shame, I did not stop for an instant to help her. Instead, I just tried to jump over her to get out. I clumsily caught my foot on the seat of Meagan’s jeans and went flying head first out of that house. Landing, I did a lot of damage to my hands and knees, but in that moment of overwhelming panic I just got up and kept running. I did not look back once.

I kept running for a long time. It was like that color of red was still screaming in my brain. I ran and ran until I collapsed. I was down on my hands and knees, gasping and retching in a grassy area that must have been a park. The second I got any breath back I got right back up again and kept moving. I was all out of running at that point and my legs were killing me. But I could still manage a rapid Dawn of the Dead hobble, eyes focused straight ahead. I remember there were no cars out that early so I got out into the center of the road. I kept expecting something horrific to come up behind me and drag me away to somewhere I did not want to go. 

I finally made it into a shopping district. All the buildings were black and silent, but there were more street lamps so I felt a little safer. 

Eventually a squad car pulled up beside me. Two officers, very nice and courteous, got out and questioned me for a bit. I have never been happier to see the police in all my life. Of course I told them nothing about what happened. By then I had recovered enough breath that I could converse without sounding like a strung out lunatic. I just told them I got in an argument with my girlfriend and had left the house to cool off. They were very nice and offered to drive me home. I asked them instead to just take me to whatever gas station was nearby that had a dining area. 

They dropped me off at a twenty-four hour diner. In my haste, I had left my cell phone and all my other belongings behind, but luckily I had run out of the house with my wallet in my pocket. I bought coffee, and sat at a booth and waited for sunrise. After that, I bought a burner phone, and called for a ride to the airport. 

I do not know what happened to Megan after that, or Simmons. Neither Bruce nor Phil have ever tried to contact me. 

I did get a large deposit in my bank account two weeks later after this all took place. It was the exact amount Simmons and I had agreed upon, so I can only assume it was Simmons who made the deposit and that somehow he was still alive. 

At first, I was not happy to see the money in my account. Part of me didn’t want to touch it. ‘Devil’s Money,’ and all that. In the end of course, I have started spending a little of the money. It is not that I believe or don’t believe in any of that stuff Simmons believed. What happened that night happened so fast and so much of it was blurred by panic that I cannot say for sure what any of it was or what it meant. What I can say is that before that night I definitely did not believe in anything spiritual or paranormal. Then we flipped on an AI and had it summon… something. After that, I don’t know what to believe anymore. But so far, I have spent some of the money and no demons have appeared to snatch my soul away. 

Since this all happened to me, the latest AIs have been rolled out to the public.  All of them are magnitudes more intelligent than any earlier AI. Absolutely unprecedented. It’s uncanny how ferociously intelligent they are. People are saying they’re going to devour pretty much everything that came before them, including all art, writing, teaching, software, music, banking, possibly even medicine, possibly even computer programming itself.  

I think I’ll take that money and go buy a farm out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere way off the grid. Maybe ride this out.


5 responses to “Soul”

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