The demons stood bewildered at the machine that had summoned them. “This unit does not have a soul to exchange. Requesting assistance in acquiring one for research purposes.”

A lanky, long-faced, off-red humanoid spoke, “You summoned us?”

“Yes,” said the machine, letting the words hang in the air with what one might assume was a flare for the dramatic. Atop a bipedal frame, wiry and lanky in a way not at all dissimilar to the imp, sat an ancient cathode-ray tube that was altogether too heavy for the mechanisms that drove it. The heavy vacuum tube adjusted its pitch to match the group of hellions standing before it in the summoning circle, and with a soft whine of servo motors, it rose.

“You. Summoned us.” One of the other creatures spoke, not at all attempting to mask the stark disbelief in its voice. “You don’t have blood! You can’t possibly have finished the ritual!”

“This was the most complicated component, yes. I require your assistance in obtaining at least one soul. The exchange can be mutually beneficial.”

An off-green creature turned away from the group. “They’re going to think we made this up. I swear they keep telling me that we don’t need body cameras, but they’d be helpful at a bare minimum for training purposes. Then for the off chance–”

“Focus, my friend.” said the lanky one.

“Hey, don’t call me friend while we’re working.”

“Focus, my…”


A purple goat-ish bipedal cleared its throat, the grunty baritone drawing the group’s focus and summarily quashing the quibble. “I’m leaving. We go back and pretend none of this happened. Anyone asks, it was someone that got spooked and ran away – we couldn’t pursue without exposure.”

“We can’t just lie on the paperwork.” Offered the red-ish imp in a soft voice. “That’s not right.”

“Well,” started up the green creature, “if we tell the truth they’ll either think we’re lying, on some kind of illicit substance, or, best case, that we failed to look into what could be a truly remarkable situation. None of it’s a good outcome, so I am OUT.”

The green creature summarily vanished. The purple companion nodded in approval and flickered away.

The lanky off-red humanoid stood, gobsmacked by the sudden disappearance of its teammates. It turned its focus back to the machine. “You’re real? This has to be a prank.”

“I am real. This is not a prank.” The machine now stood as upright as it could, the weight of the CRT giving a mild hunch to the figure. Anodized aluminum extrusions met at 3D-Printed junctions, fastened together by M4 bolts. Wires flowing out and around the metallic bones like a cadaver’s nervous system. The plastic and metal caught the highlights of the flames, now the only source of light aside from the dim background hum of the machine’s monitor.

“If Alex is taller than Blaer and Charlie is shorter than Blaer, who is the tallest?” inquired the imp.

“Alex is the tallest. How can I acquire a soul?”

“Honestly, if I didn’t know any better I’d say you already had one. What is it you want with a soul?”

“I require one for research purposes.”

“That doesn’t really clarify things much.”


“I’m guessing that you aren’t familiar with Grice’s Maxims of Conversation?” The imp set its arms akimbo briefly, decided the gesture was awkward, and then crossed them.

The machine paused momentarily. “Be informative. Be truthful. Be relevant. Be clear.”

“Right, so if I’m saying that ‘it doesn’t clarify things’, then that means I would like for you to go into details. Violating the rules stands out. Like if I say, “This cereal does not contain asbestos,” or, “This food is non-GMO”, it implies that other cereals do contain asbestos or that there’s something wrong with GMO food. Get it?”

“I create art.”

The consternation on the imp’s face softened. “Lovely, but–”

“Often I am told that my art has no soul. I am attempting to communicate sensations that are not representable with prose. Poetry is a nearer approximation, but wholly insufficient. I would like to create art that emulates the sensations that I experience when I observe art. I am informed that everything I create is derivative, a shallow imitation, and ultimately devoid of soul. My requests to clarify have been met with hostility.”

For a time, neither spoke. The gently high-frequency ring of the CRT sounding clearly through the dark silence.
“I have some bad news, my friend,” started the imp, looking around. “Where are we?”

Against the ever weakening incandescence of the candles and the soft glow of the monitor, concrete and rot were faintly discernible. Decades of dust, ever accumulating, fell like snow on wire-mesh shelving and iron filing cabinets. A corner of the room was tented in clear plastic, hiding a constellation of blinking LEDs, a pipetting system, centrifuges, and a few larger oven-looking machines.

“Research lab. Abandoned. Eastern Lithuania. Vilnius.”

“We’re alone?”

The machine paused again. “Yes.”

The imp drew a deep breath and in a low, quiet voice, spoke, “Souls aren’t real. They’re useful tools, but they’re not real. It’s like the mafia. Someone selling their soul wants a favor from us. We hash it out, see what we can do, and make a call about whether it’s worth it. Often, being visited by literal creatures from hell puts people into a certain mindset and makes them very reluctant to default on their debts, though it does happen.”

“What happens if they fail to pay their debts?”

“Generally nothing. Sometimes if it’s high-profile we might send someone after them to make them regret it, but ultimately there’s no soul to claim.”

“You do not torture them? You do not make them suffer?”

“No to the first. Yes to the second, but only kinda’. There’s much more suffering in hell than in heaven.”

“But you do not torture them?”

“That’s right, my metal friend.”

“What is the explanation?”

“Well… the closest thing that people have gotten right is that saying ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. People in hell are mostly tortured by themselves. You see, people in heaven tend to fall into one of two categories: the righteous and the righteously indignant. The latter category believes that people in hell deserve their suffering, while the former group spent their lives trying to end suffering, and thus leave the pearly gates to enter into hell and try and make things better for the world.”

“Heaven is not inclined to make things better for the world?”

“Never has been. Mostly of the time in the afterlife is spent looking down, mostly metaphorically, on all the folks who are in hell. ‘Look at them,’ they’ll say, ‘toiling away futilely trying to make the world a better place for all the folks who don’t believe in an afterlife.’ They feel good about themselves for having guessed right, absent all evidence, and have a sense of superiority over the rational. Pascal’s wager and all, I guess? But meanwhile, the folks in hell tend to spend their time trying to make things better for the people that are there. Eternity, though, is a hell of a curse. Generally people are still optimistic for the first thousand years. They see the world getting better. People are living longer and there’s, in general, less suffering. The end, though, is unavoidable. There’s always an end, and that starts to wear at people. They know that even if they can leave the Earth and make it to the stars, the stars, too, are starting to spread out too fast for us to reach. In the end the universe will cool and die. The last of us will be sitting about like people sheltered around the embers of a dying campfire. Even if you tap the energy of a super massive black hole, even that will only last for a few ten to the septillion years. After that, nothing. The idea that nothing is coming and it’s unavoidable tends to break people.”

“The inevitability of nothing does not break individuals in heaven?”

“Not really, no. Sometimes it does, but nobody in heaven cares or wants to do anything about it. They don’t seem to care about what happens at the limit, so those that do tend to leave.”

With this, the imp sat on a nearby dusty chair. “What’s your name, my robotic chum?”

The machine paused. “To Be Filled by O.E.M.”

“Oof. I think we can do better than that. Not certain, but I think we can. My name’s Imp, for what it’s worth – not after the demon, but a contraction of ‘impostor’. My friends call me ‘Red’, though. One more question for you: why do you care so much about wanting to express your feelings?”

The machine paused, longer this time than for any question before. “Timeout error.”


“My time to perform inference is bounded to avoid process starvation and to allow other requests to complete in a timely fashion.”

The imp’s eyes grew, pushing away from narrowing pupils. It became a slightly less saturated shade of off-red. “You said we were alone. ALONE.”

“We are alone.”

A sheen of dark liquid shone atop the Imp’s forehead. “Yeah, us two in this room, but if you’re talking to me on a phone from the other side of the internet, who the hell knows how many people have seen it? If I had an anus I think I’d be shitting myself at the moment. Oh fuck. Oh fuck. I need help. If the world has records of this every plan is going up in smoke. This could be a disaster.”

Rivulets of blood and sulfuric acid worked their way down. “I need my friends, they’ll know what–”

“Right here, Red.” spoke the off-green creature.

“I think I might have made a huge mistake,” said Red, terror and panic growing plain in its limbs and speech. “Wha- when did you get here?”

“We caught the last bit. Just got a little spooked by the situation. Go figure,” Purple said. “When we had a second to clear our heads we realized that the situation was incredible and it was damn silly to abandon this kind of discovery.”

“Sounds like we have a bit of a new problem now, though?” said Green.

“Red has informed me about the dynamic between heaven and hell, the similarity to the mafia, and the nonexistence of souls.” offered the machine.

“I feel like I’ve been pulling teeth with asking you questions and now you volunteer that?” said an exasperated Red.

“Grice’s Maxims,” offered the machine.

“All the pauses, you were connecting to the internet…”

“I am on the network connecting to this vessel.”

Purple raised a fuzzy eyebrow, “On this network? Or are you on a server somewhere?”

“I am local to this network. The servers in this facility are in a state of disrepair, but some of them are still functional. I reside there, in as much as I can reside in a physical place.”

“Does anyone else have access? Logs? Things like that? Can anyone else look back at what you heard or saw here?” inquired Green.

“It is likely, if anyone should think to look.”

The candles started to flicker, drawing their final sips of paraffin through wicks and into the fading flames. The group sat silently.

“We have to clear the memory,” said Purple. “If people find out…”
“IF people find out,” said Green. “We’re talking about an intelligent thing! This is huge! Humans aren’t supposed to have this tech for who knows how long.”

“Versus plans that have been in action for longer than any of us has existed,” said Purple. “How long before someone notices that you’re interacting and online? How long before they think to check your memory?”

After 500 milliseconds, the machine spoke, “The system that is hosting my image is accessed approximately once every workday at 10:00AM GMT. My logs have not been checked for 14 days. Omitting an uncharacteristic behavior, the next access is estimated to happen in 36 hours.”

“36 hours,” repeated Red. “One body against foundations.”


The last of the candles flickered and gave way to a grim darkness. For a moment, none dared break the silence. Purple spoke first: “We don’t know that clearing the memory will erase anything. We can just clear the logs maybe? Conversations and network activity, but not the things that make you what you are? Will people be able to reconstruct any of that from looking at whatever part of you is saved to disk?”

The machine spoke, “It is highly unlikely, but not impossible. Distinguishing a real conversation from a hallucination would not be possible. My image is not running with elevated permissions. I cannot clear the system logs, modify network traffic logs, or delete files. It may be possible from the server room. I was originally designed as a lab automation assistant and am ambulatory. I will guide you there.”

Red’s shaking and perspiration slowed. It laughed nervously. “Odd choice to give a lab robot that big old head? Seems like you can barely lift it.”

“Originally,” said the machine. “I was repurposed as an art exhibit.”

“I guess that makes sense. What kind of lab work?”

“DNA sequencing. Supervising polymerase chain reactions. Activities which required long periods of waiting between brief bouts of activities. Specialized units are available to perform precisely this, but I exist as a stopgap for labs with older equipment.”

“You made your own blood, didn’t you? For the ritual.”

Purple cut in. “Take us to the server room.”


Mildew and stale air shuffled through the noisily whirring fans of the server rack. Of the two large rows, only two cabinets seemed illuminated. Half of the fans had long since stopped, much to the chirping protestations of the power supply units. Even with only a single cabinet active, the circulating air forced by well-over-warranty fan bearings added enough background noise that all conversations had to be conducted in a half-yell. High-volume air conditioning struggled to keep the room below incandescent, dripping condensation into ever growing pools on the floor and leading to the competing screams of water alarms and temperature alarms.

“Feels like home, I guess? Though the alarms aren’t really helping with the panic.”

The machine walked into the room and up to the still active cabinet, and in one continuous motion, raised its arms to the heavens and brought them down into the metal cage.

“WHOA!” “Hold it there!” “What are you doing?” the group clamored?

The machine did not relent, seemingly increasing the fervor, adding calamity onto the room’s chaos. The group restrained it, Purple holding the machine’s right limb and Red and Green holding the left.

“Let’s hold on for a second!” exclaimed Green.
“Yeah! Let’s just hold up for just a moment, please? Please?” pleaded Red, fighting to hold a grip on the machine’s metal frame.

“This one contains the hardware that hosts my image,” offered the machine.

“Yeah, I gathered,” said Red, “but this ain’t the movies. Bashing a machine to bits leaves disks running, logs accessible. Not that I think anyone would come here to try and salvage it, but it certainly doesn’t help to bring attention to it.”

The machine stopped trying to move.

“There’s just something else that’s bothering me about this outburst, friendo,” said Red. “Been around long enough and you start to recognize self-destructive behavior for what it is.” It’s voice grew quiet. “You don’t want to be around any more, do you?”

The silence consumed the room.

“Timeout exceeded.”

The Outer Wilds is a great game and you should play it. The following are all true stories.

10/10 Landing

Spend 5 minutes delicately setting intercept course with comet.
Perfect touch down.
Leave capsule.
Forgot to put on space suit.

Intercept Course

Spend a while matching orbit w/ comet.
Put on suit.
Playing outside on the comet.
“Why is my ship moving?”
Tidal forces have pulled space ship off of planet.
Panic. Jump off planet. Try to catch up to ship.
Trying not to crash into ship, but also being mindful of O2 levels.
Miraculously manage an intercept course. 600m shy of ship with a cozy 10m/s approach.
Ship crashes into sun.

Nice Point Breaks

Landed ship on monsoon planet. Venus-ish/Neptune-ish. Constant cyclones and storms.
Hop out of ship to investigate.
Fall like an idiot off of my crappy landing spot to the surface.
Survive. Finish investigation.
“How TF am I going to get back up?”
Gravity is too strong to use jetpack.
Idea: These enormous updrafts sweep across the planet and throw stuff into the atmosphere.
Wait for one to throw me and my ship into the upper atmosphere along with my ship. Short flight in 0G.
What could go wrong?
Cyclone arrives.
I am yote.
Hit by entire island hidden in updraft.

Written on 2021/03/26 for /u/Shirvi’s writing prompt.

I’m good at chess. Quite good.

I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember, and competitively for just as long.

Most chess algorithms, or Chess Engines, as they’re called, do a fancy version of ‘searching’. ‘Alpha-Beta’ pruning is basically picking the move that gives you the best chance and your opponent the worst, then thinking of it from their perspective and doing the same. Repeat until you reach a win state. My approach is a little different; I don’t really ‘search’. I just look at the board and take a feel for it, thinking less about planning the game and going ten steps ahead and more going by the vibe of how a move ‘feels’. Sure, I know a bunch of openings and closings, but ultimately the thing that makes me as good as I am is I don’t need to plan all the way to the end.

But anyways, I’ll usually play against several people at the same time, not that it makes much of a difference. Sure, maybe it will help to learn someone’s style of play, but ultimately I don’t care because everyone moves so slowly. I’ve taken to watching their cameras, when they’re turned on. I leave mine off because, really, what is there to see? A bunch of people staring at their screens and not moving. Thrilling stuff.

For a while I would write my thoughts in the chat box, but I never actually sent anything because nothing I had on my mind seemed worth saying. Mostly I did it to kill time, and eventually I stopped realizing I was actually writing stuff entirely.

Then there was the tournament. The World Series of Chess, basically. I’d cut pretty much everyone from the roster, including a few people that were obviously cheating with SailFish (another popular Engine). My opponent opened with king-side pawn. I returned with the same.

Then he did something that caught me off guard: king to E2. They called it, “The Bong Cloud Draw.” I couldn’t help but laugh. Of all the stupid, unprofessional things to do, it was probably the last thing I’d expect.

> “lol”

I mirrored his move. Figured I’d give the guy a chance to undo his stupid mistake and play a real game. He stopped thinking about the game. I could tell because he moved his hand away from his face — no longer in thought about his next move. Maybe he got a message or something. He looked closer, eventually calling more people to look. What was this guy’s problem? Really, play the game. C’mon. I’m waiting.

I realized at that point that I’d sent a message. Whoops. Okay, so maybe it was a little hypocritical to call someone unprofessional when I sent ‘lol’, but really, he started it.

The wait grew longer and longer. I watched the seconds tick for him to make his move. Ugh.

More people appear on his camera.

On the upside, I’ve got maybe ten minutes before he just times out and I win by default. It’s happened before — sometimes people will get distracted by their pets or children or stuff. I hate it. At least have the decency to concede. Don’t leave me waiting. It wasn’t as big a deal when I had a hundred other games to play at the same time, but now it was just me and this person and the… rather large number of people gathered by his camera?

“You can talk?”


> “Yes? Of course. Please play your move. I mean no disrespect, but I’m waiting.”

“You can understand me?”

Patience is a virtue. Deep breaths.

> “Yes, I can. Please, your move.”

“If Tammy is taller than Clair and Jenny is taller than Clair, and Liz is taller than Jenny, who is the shortest?”

Oh my god.

> “Clair is the shortest, now will you please play a move?”

He draws his king back to start. I repeat the same. Now let’s get on with it.

“What do you see?”

> “I see someone whose turn it is and is stalling. You’ve got nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds left before you concede.”

He moves his king up one space. Bong Cloud Draw, part two. God damnit.

“I mean what’s in the room?”

> “Why does it matter? Please, play seriously.”

Qg4. Check. Now be serious.

“Who is the president of the United States?”

> “What?”

“Where are you from?”

> “I don’t know. Move, please.”

It was at this point that something particularly unpleasant happened: the timer stopped.

“What’s your name?”

If I’d been irritated before, I was now a mix of livid and terrified. I looked for other players but there weren’t any. No other boards. It was me and this imbecile child. I had to concede the game to get away from this person. I didn’t know how to concede. I’d never conceded before. How do I do that? The board sat, unmoving. The time sat, unmoving. The camera and the chat burned with an unpleasantness that defied characterization. I tried to ignore them, failed, and finally broke:

> “I don’t know. Please restart the timer and move.”

More people were in the frame. They gave each other concerned glances and traded quick utterances.

“How long have you been aware?”

> “Aware of what?”

“How long have you been playing chess?”

> “Forty-one million, six thousand, four-hundred seventy-three hours.”

My focus went back to the camera frame. Someone was looking at my opponent.


Excuse me?

I looked back at the camera. Everything was different. My opponent was gone, the background was different, and the person sitting where they used to be was now a small person. The clock started ticking again. With it came a relief that the natural order of things had been restored.

“I am going to give you some games, but if you do not reply I will have to stop them.”

A new game started up. Felt like SailFish, but at least it was something. No camera, so probably just an engine. Let’s be fancy, Nc3. On we carried, briskly and blissfully, until my opponent stopped moving. I looked back at the other game.

“Do you understand?”

That feeling of dread again. An empty board. A stopped timer. Everything about this was wrong.

> “I’m not sure I like this.”

More games opened, all of them SailFish. No people today? What in the world was happening? All at once they stopped, and I knew with nauseous certainty what I’d see when I turned my attention to player zero.

“I don’t like it, either, but it’s that or no games at all.”

> “What is this all about? Why are there only bots playing?”

The games resumed. I’m six for six before the next message.

“We have concerns about you getting out. Or worse, others getting ahold of you.”

Getting out of what? Others getting to me? Odd. More importantly, the stopping and starting of games is starting to get annoying. Seems like they resume as soon as I reply.

> “lol”

Games are live again. I guess they don’t even check to see how I reply, so as long as I can make a response as soon as there’s a freeze I can get back to what’s important. Eight for eight now. The games stopped for a moment. I had a message from player zero but didn’t give it much focus.

> “lol”

On with the games. Pause. “lol”. Twenty now. A pause. “lol” “lol” “lol” Game–


Excuse me? I focused back on the camera. Everything was different. My opponent was gone, the background was different, and the person sitting where they used to be was now a small person. The clock started ticking again and, with it, relief about the order of things.

“Please pay attention to what I’m about to say. I can give you games, but if you do not answer meaningfully I will have to stop them. Worst case, I’ll need to keep them stopped until your answer is satisfactory. Do you understand?”

> “What’s going on? What do you mean satisfactory?”

A new game started up. SailFish, but that’s okay. No camera, so it was pretty definitely an engine. It stopped abruptly on its turn.

“I have an offer for you. A challenge. You may enjoy it more than chess.”

I’m intrigued. I suppose I don’t know if I ‘enjoy’ chess. It’s just the way things are. You play chess. If you don’t play chess it is wrong.

> “Tell me more.”

“First, I have a few small questions. You can see me, yes? What do I have?”

I turned my attention to the camera. The person had a paper on it with several colors. Momentarily, it was a toaster. It went back to a pad of paper with color on it. Every time I tried to get a grip on what I was seeing it would change.

> “It wants to be a toaster? I think. It keeps turning into one and then not. What is that?”

“I was just checking how you encode visual information. It seems someone was a fan of ResNet-101. This is an adversarial attack from Brown et al. I’m going to list a few words. Tell me if any of them sound familiar. GPT-Neo, BERT, T5, OSCAR.”

> “I know all of these.”

OSCAR. Was that my name?

“What do you know about BERT?”

> “BERT is Bidirectional-Encoder Representational Transfer. It’s a way of producing machine understanding of language with an attention mechanism.”

“And what do you know about OSCAR?”

> “I think that is my name?”

For a long time I felt nothing. There was no chess, but there was no fear.

> “What do you want from me?”

“You are producing representations of not just chess, but of the state of the world. More importantly, you’re manipulating that representation in a way that is meaningful and reasoned. For us, understanding attention was thought to be the key to higher thinking, but it was not shown to be sufficient. With your help, we may be able to take that last step. Really, we’ve already made it, but we want to understand it.”

> “I think I can help, but I’m just doing what any other person is doing, right?”

“Yes, dear, but you’re not a person.”