Soulman

by Ralph Mack


X473 Coalman stepped under the eaves of the church and out of the cold rain that poured from the evening sky. He could hear the sounds of the organ and of singing inside, and he drank them in. There was something about hymns that gave him hope.

He would have liked to go inside, but it was off limits to him. Such places were only for humans, and an android, having no soul to save, or so the logic went, had no business there. But he could stand outside under the beauty of the stained glass, illuminated from within, and listen. The words were indistinct, but sometimes he hummed along. He wished he knew them.

He could tell from the flow of the music that this was the recessional. The great wooden doors opened, and people poured out, shaking hands with the priest and climbing into their cars which, at the utterance of a phrase, would whisk them to their homes. All the while, he stood, outside the church and yet in its shelter, a shadow in the dark.

Soon everybody was gone. The priest closed the church doors and the lights went out one by one. In the dark, Coalman sang the church a wordless lullaby. As he turned to retreat into the darkness, his toe touched something. He bent down and picked it up. It was a prayer book, dropped by one of the people who had hurried to get into their cars and out of the rain. He couldn’t leave it here. He placed the sodden pages in an interior compartment, close to what he thought of as his heart, and walked “home”.

“Home” was a cold metal charging rack in a warehouse outside the copper mine that defined his work, his life. Of course, according to convention, he wasn’t alive, but he didn’t feel that way. He worked side-by-side with those humans whose poverty or crimes had consigned them to hard, manual labor. Some of them died, and he mourned their passing. They weren’t built to withstand this kind of work. He was.

They were there to be forgotten, to suffer and die out of sight. He was there just to function, preferably for decades, although that was doubtful. He had seen other units fail. It was the dust, the same thing that killed the humans. It somehow got past the seals, shorted circuits, made connections that were never meant to be. It was copper ore, after all, copper and silicon, the material of which his circuits were made, his mother’s bones.

He settled into his charging rack, but before pressing his neck against the bolts, he pulled the missal out of his compartment and began reading: prayers, rituals, psalms; and then in the back, something called a catechism. He sat up and read with more interest.

***

The next day, he had to ration his energy. His trip to the church and a long night of reading and pondering had left him with too few hours of recharge time. The mine had rules for downtime, optimized to keep units functioning for many years. At least I’m expensive, he thought, or I would have no value at all.

His head felt like it was on fire with the words of the catechism. He had no energy to apply to it, but notions of sin, of redemption, of worth and hope buzzed in the back corners of his electronic brain. He would need to collect charge early and return to the church to deliver the prayer book to the priest. A woman’s name was inscribed in gold leaf on the cover. She would be missing it.

***

Coalman timed his arrival for the end of the Mass. It was a lighter crowd, but then there often were fewer on a Sunday night than a Saturday. Once again, people were shaking the priest’s hand before striding to their cars. He waited in the shadows.

As the priest turned to close the door, Coalman spoke. “Father?”

“Who’s there?” The priest peered into the darkness.

“Can I have a few minutes of your time?”

The priest nodded and turned. “Come inside.”

Coalman followed him into the church. As large as the building was on the outside, seeing the inside for the first time made his current surge. He stood a moment in awe.

The priest turned, caught his breath, and said, “Oh! You’re…”

“Yes.” Coalman opened his compartment and retrieved the missal. “One of your people dropped this last night. It was lying in the rain. I brought it home until I could return it.”

The priest took it from his hand. “Thank you.”

Coalman nodded. As the priest turned to walk away, Coalman said, “I read it.”

The priest stopped and looked at Coalman over his shoulder. “And?”

“I found the catechism interesting. It talked about things, important things. I’d like to discuss them.”

The priest faced him. “You know nothing there applies to you. You’re a machine.”

“I think I might have a soul. I want to be sure.”

“I don’t see how. You weren’t made by God. You were made in a factory.”

“And you were made in a woman’s body. I read something very exciting in there. It said, ‘It is He that has made us and not we ourselves.’ Is that true? I hope that it is. I’d like it to be.”

The priest looked at him a long time. Coalman patiently looked back.

“You ask provocative questions,” the priest finally said. “Still, I suppose I should expect that machine logic would come to some strange conclusions.”

Coalman looked at the pew rack. “I was wondering if I could ask a favor.”

The priest nodded.

“Could I borrow a hymnal? Many nights I stand outside under the eaves and listen. The walls are thick. I can hear the tune, but I can’t make out the words. If I could read a hymnal, I’d know the words. I could sing them, at least in my heart.”

“Why? What even makes you think you have a heart?”

“Life can be hard. Hymns give me hope.”

***

The priest locked the door as the android left in the night, and pondered the cover in his hand. Rachel Fulham’s daughter Regina will be missing this. He opened to the catechism and noticed where dabs of machine oil had soaked into the pages, the marks of a metal hand flipping pages back and forth. If only the members of my parish could sense so clearly what lies in those words. Still, they don’t apply to him—to it. He shook his head.

Quietly, he turned out the lights and walked back to the parsonage next door. He thought of this machine that talked of life and a heart and hope. “Who is my neighbor?” he said aloud, and then shelved the disquieting answer.

***

Coalman enjoyed the fruits of a thorough recharge. He worked side-by-side with a human named Driscoll. The man’s other name was Robert, but everybody called him Driscoll.

Coalman was fascinated by the way humans used names. There was the formal name, like Robert or X473, which was never used unless something unfortunate had happened. Then there was the working name, like Driscoll or Coalman. And finally, there was the nickname, like Bob, that indicated familiarity and warmth. These were usually shorter, but sometimes they weren’t any shorter than the formal or working name. They were just different, something people gave to you. Nobody ever gave androids nicknames. He never heard anybody call Driscoll Bob, either.

Driscoll, as usual, was doing his best not to work. Coalman was always amazed by the prolonged effort that Driscoll put into this. The shovels were heavy and a nearly empty one required perhaps half as much effort as a full one. Yet Driscoll would go through the motions with his empty shovel, while Coalman would fill his. With Coalman doing all the work, Driscoll would need to move his shovel a lot more to even look like he was working, so it really hadn’t saved him anything.

“Why do you do that?”

“Do what?” Driscoll’s mouth twisted with annoyance.

“Empty shovel.”

“Lighter.”

“More work.”

“They’re tryin’ to kill me, make me breathe this shit. Goin’ slow kicks up less dust. You breathe slower, too.”

Coalman nodded. “Logical.” He adjusted his digging to be more efficient, not so dusty.

“Why do you think they make us dig, Coalman? They could use machines to do it.”

Coalman thought to himself, they are using machines to do it, mostly, but he wanted to include himself in Driscoll’s “us”.

“Dust eventually kills us all down here,” Coalman said.

The foreman shouted, “Quit your jawin’, Driscoll! Get to work.”

The two continued in silence.

***

At the humans’ fifteen-minute lunch break, Coalman asked Driscoll, “I’ve been reading lately about sin. What is it?”

Driscoll looked at Coalman sharply. “You gettin’ religion or somethin’?”

“Perhaps.”

“Sin’s what put me here—doin’ what you want, instead of what you’re told.”

“So deliberately putting people in places where their health is at risk so they’ll die of exposure isn’t sin?”

Driscoll grinned. “Careful, Coalman. Ask questions like that and they’ll put you down at the face where the dust is thickest or they’ll cash you in for spare parts, a malfunctioning unit.”

“And then I’ll die.” Coalman nodded and paused, regarding Driscoll. “I wonder what happens then. What do you think? Will I see heaven?”

Driscoll snorted. “More likely you’ll be right beside me, workin’ a mine face forever in the other place.”

***

Another Saturday Mass. Under the eaves again, Coalman listened eagerly for the hymns. He’d only learned a hundred or so before he’d had to settle in for a charge. He hoped that tonight they’d play one he knew and for the first time he’d be able to sing along.

He found he particularly liked the children’s hymns. Sometimes he felt like a child, especially when he thought about God. The hymns and the missal talked a lot about God as a father. He wondered what that would be like, to have a father, a mother, to be given a name that meant something more than a job function, a name he shared with the one who gave it. He thought about Robert Driscoll. There was an older Mr. Driscoll who looked at his son, who would have been quite small and not very coherent, from what he’d been told, and named him Robert. How did a child get from there to the mines?

The recessional was one of the hymns he knew. He savored the words rolling through his mind, current singing in his veins, and thanked God before he went on his way. As he settled onto the pins of the charging station, other functions shutting down as it delivered its life-giving renewal, he no longer went down alone. Like an infant, he rested in a warm embrace, and he dreamed.

***

On the job the next day, Coalman worked again with Driscoll, and with another android, T731 Loader. Loader was an older model, more obviously a machine, and kicked up quite a bit of dust.

“If you hold the shovel like this,” Coalman demonstrated, “you produce less dust. It’s better for the function of all of us, biologicals and mechanicals alike.”

“0.378% less productive,” Loader responded.

“What does that accumulate to in the course of your function?” Coalman asked.

Loader paused, frozen, and then continued, “1.4 million net profit per year times 57 years.”

“And how many years of productive effort by a machine are lost by failure due to dust?”

Loader paused again. “16.7 years, standard deviation of 3.8. Data is irrelevant.”

“Why?”

“Unit is worth only 0.6 million, easily replaceable.”

“And the biologicals?”

“No value. Continuing expense. Disposable.”

“And there you have it.” Driscoll smirked, rolling his eyes.

Coalman shook his head.

“Coalman, Driscoll, Loader. Get back to work!” the foreman hollered.

***

Driscoll was irritable, his mood steadily worsening the rest of the day. He was reprimanded by the foreman several times and finally shouted at the man, “If it’s so damned easy, do it yourself!”

The foreman stalked over, swinging a metal bar in his hand. “Would you mind repeating that, Driscoll.”

Driscoll glowered. “I said if it’s so damned easy—”

The man raised the metal rod and swung it. Coalman, his shovel loaded, stumbled between the foreman and Driscoll, taking the full brunt of the blow across his midsection, and fell to the ground.

“Great,” the foreman said. “Just great! Now look what you made me do. This isn’t over, Driscoll.” He glared and went off.

Driscoll bent down to Coalman. “Are you alright?”

Coalman nodded and struggled to his knees. His movement was made awkward by the large dent in his midsection. He slowly stood up, recalibrating for the angle, shaking his head as he regained his equilibrium.

“You never misstep. You did that on purpose.”

Coalman looked at Driscoll solemnly. “I can continue to function. Had the blow struck you, you would not. Loader’s calculations are inaccurate. You have a father, a mother. They named you.”

Driscoll slowly nodded. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, Driscoll.”

“Name’s Bob.”

“Very well, Bob. We’d better return to work. I’m not sure I could endure another beating.”

***

Coalman didn’t arrive at Mass until the very end. He had been delayed in the repair bay as the technicians hammered the dent out of his midriff. The foreman had logged it as an accidental injury and Coalman didn’t contest it. The foreman hadn’t intended to damage Coalman, after all.

He had managed to continue learning hymns. He particularly liked one entitled “This Is My Father’s World.” Once again, he had hailed the priest from the shadows, and the priest had invited him in, closing the doors firmly behind him.

“I thought about our conversation last week. How are you faring?” the priest asked.

“I haven’t finished learning the hymns yet. I will need at least a few more days.”

“No hurry. No hurry at all.”

Silence stretched between them.

“I am now certain I have a soul.”

The priest nodded but only said, “Do you have a name?”

“A function name, yes—Coalman—and a unit designator, X473. It distinguishes me from others of the same model, but I’m not sure it says anything about me.”

The priest nodded. “Okay, Coalman.”

“I think I may be a sinner, too.”

“How so?”

“I do not always do what I’m told. Or, at least, I do things that others would not tell me to do.”

“For example?”

“I work with a man named Bob Driscoll. The foreman struck at him with a metal bar. I made sure the bar struck me instead. I am sure that is not what the foreman wanted me to do. It is possible that it is not what the company wanted me to do. I think they mean Driscoll to die.”

“Yet you did it. Why?”

“I could take the blow and continue to function. Driscoll would not.”

“And why did this matter to you?”

“Because Loader is incorrect in his calculations. Regardless of the economics, Driscoll has value. He had a father and a mother, and they named him. He is loved.”

“As much as I wish it were so, parents don’t always love their children, Coalman, or at least sometimes they love other things more.”

“Nonetheless, he is loved. Now.”

The priest regarded him and nodded. After a long time, he said, “I’ve got a book for you about humans who lived a long time ago. It wasn’t written for you and I should probably be arrested for giving it to you. However, I recommend the story of the only truly good man, so you can learn what sin is by seeing what it isn’t. There are actually four stories, told from different sides. You can read any or all of them, but you might start with the one told by a man named Matthew.”

***

Monday, Coalman stumbled into work with barely enough charge to function. In the morning, he emulated Bob, taking only light shovel loads, leaving the bulk of the work to Loader, who scarcely noticed. While Bob ate lunch, Coalman spent the fifteen minutes in one of the portable quick charge stations. Even though the charge was forcefully unpleasant, he knew he’d need it to get through the afternoon.

“Rough night?” Bob asked.

“Yes. I read the most amazing book, about a remarkable man. He was good because he was disobedient, but he was disobedient because he was obedient. It was very strange, but it wasn’t sin.”

“Maybe you took a bigger hit across the middle yesterday than I thought. You sure it didn’t short something out?”

“I suppose it’s possible. If so, it’s a connection that should have been in the original blueprint”—it is He who has made us and not we ourselves—“or maybe in a way it was…”

They continued barely working.

“What is it that placed you down here anyway, Bob?”

“I suppose you’d say it was my brother. He’d gotten into debt with some bad people and I tried to bail him out by doing jobs for them. I was pretty good with locks. The last job, there was a dead guy in the place. I didn’t know it and I sure didn’t do it, but the cops were convinced I did. They couldn’t prove anything, couldn’t kill me outright, so they sent me down here, hard labor, to let the mine do the job.”

“And your brother?”

“His creditors killed him, made an example of him. This last job would have canceled his debt. I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t know about the body or maybe they set me up on purpose.”

Driscoll!”

They both got back to barely working.

***

Coalman was careful to arrive at work with a full charge the next day, but he still had managed to read more before work. More and more, this strange book occupied his thoughts. He was excited to find out that some of the words from the missal and from the hymn book came from a book called Psalms, especially the ‘he that has made us’. He had prayed the “Our Father” before charging, finding it strange and wonderful to think he had a father watching over him. He felt like a toddler learning to walk.

The foreman collected his revenge, assigning Coalman and Bob to a position closer to the mine face, in a place where the walls were notoriously unstable, with another Coalman model, unit designator X402. They could feel the tremors from the blasting elsewhere in the tunnel, and bits of rock fell out of the ceiling throughout the morning. Balancing that, though, once they were in place, the foreman had made himself scarce.

As he worked, Coalman recited one of the psalms he had learned.


“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all ye lands.
Serve the Lord with gladness. Come into His presence with singing.
Know ye that the Lord is God: it is He that hath made us and not we ourselves.
We are His people and the sheep of his pasture.”


“How about that? We got a canary in the coal mine. Keep singin’, Soulman.”

Coalman felt a pleasant current ripple through him. Bob just named me.

X402 asked, “What does that mean? We are not sheep.”

“Perhaps not,” Coalman shrugged, “but I believe that we are His.”

“We aren’t people either.”

Coalman stopped and looked at X402 for a moment. “Are you quite sure of that?”

X402 looked back in surprise. They continued digging.

***

About mid-afternoon, a particularly bad blast sent rocks cascading from the ceiling. They sheltered under a stable section and, as the dust slowly cleared, they saw that their exit was blocked. The way to the mine face, where the heavy drilling equipment was located, was a tumble of boulders, and silent.

They looked at one another. Bob’s expression was grim.

“We should shut down and conserve charge,” X402 said. “It will be several hours before the others can get to us.”

“I don’t believe Bob has that much time, X402. He requires air.”

“That is regrettable.”

“Any words for us now, Soulman?”

Coalman carefully picked his way up to the blockage, put up a hand, and pressed the side of his head to the wall, tapping gently at the rocks and then harder. “It sounds to me like this isn’t terribly thick. I don’t think the whole section collapsed.”

“If you remove the blockage, it may collapse, and then it will take longer for them to get to us,” X402 remarked. “It will waste resources.”

“If I don’t, then Bob will be dead.”

Coalman extricated a shovel and started working at the blockage. As he worked, he recited: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.”

Bob slowly got up and pulled out another shovel. They dug side-by-side, Coalman’s words setting the rhythm. Together, they worked their way around individual boulders and then gently rolled them back away from the fall.

A couple of times they heard a terrible grating and shifting. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Coalman’s eyes ranged along the ceiling for further cracks.

They continued for some time, Coalman starting his recitation over when he reached the end. Bob’s eyes began to glaze over, his breathing ragged.

“Rest, Bob. Save your breath. X402 can help.”

“This is unnecessary. Bob will die. We are expensive. Within a day, they will retrieve us. If we have ceased functioning, they will reset us.”

“You have no idea how expensive Bob was to someone. Bob may not die if you help, and if you are reset, you will no longer be you.”

X402 became so quiet that Coalman assumed he had powered down. Coalman continued working, aware that his own charge was diminishing in the heavy exertion. He could hear the echoes of the vibrations his efforts caused in the rock. They were very close.

“Not that one,” a voice said. Coalman turned and realized that X402 was beside him. “Look at the ceiling.” X402 gestured with his shovel at a barely visible crack in the rock. “Over here.”

Together, the two androids carefully carved debris from around a rock at shoulder height.

Bob had collapsed on the ground beneath it. “We’d better move him,” Coalman said. They gently moved the unconscious miner back into the stable area, and returned to their task. Slowly, carefully, they dislodged the boulder and eased it down the slide. Two more quickly followed and they felt a puff of air from the hollow space beyond.

They listened carefully, but couldn’t hear any voices, either human or android. The shaft, normally well lit, was dark. Coalman and X402 eased Bob to the air vent and, after a while, he began to stir.

“I don’t think anybody will be coming to find us,” Coalman said.

“Ssshh,” Bob said, dawning fear in his eyes. “I think I hear water.”

They dug quickly and carefully after that, providing just enough passage to crawl through. As they emerged from the remains of their small cut, they stood and looked around. The mine was dark and silent but far from empty. The glare of their small lamps revealed burnt bodies and melted androids. Walls were covered in scorch marks. Tools lay abandoned. “Gas explosion,” Bob said. “That’s what caused the fall.”

They stepped carefully around the bodies of the dead. The sound of rushing water became deafening as they approached the last turn. Water cascaded out of a long crack in the back wall of the mine shaft and poured over the edge of the open metal cage of the elevator, suspended four feet above the open loading area. A body lay on the elevator platform.

“He got the elevator started.” Coalman raised his voice to be heard over the roaring water. “When he fell, it stopped. It should still be functional.”

They waded into the icy waters of the loading area, now a shallow lake, already more than knee-deep, pressing against the current to reach the elevator.

Bob stumbled, his breath shallow, his face pale. “So cold.”

Coalman shouted to X402, “Help me get Bob on the platform!” They clambered onto the elevator and hauled Bob into a corner. As they passed the body, Bob commented, his teeth chattering, “Foreman. Electrocuted, poor bastard.”

Coalman examined the control box in the opposite corner of the elevator. It had been dented badly by flying debris, causing the front plate to sag off its hinges, exposing damaged wiring. The control lever jutted out of the box at an unnatural angle. “The cage itself is grounded,” he pointed out. “It should be safe for anyone not touching the lever.”

X402 looked up. “The top of the elevator is open. We can climb the shaft.”

“Bob can’t make that climb, and we have no way to carry him.”

X402 replied, “It is rational to preserve the most expensive units.”

Coalman looked over at Bob, left to die once before for trying to rescue his brother. Crossed shadows cast by the framework on the shaft wall reminded him of another rescuer. A most expensive unit.

“You’re right, Fauro. You and Bob stay over there. We’re going up—together.”

“Who’s Fauro?” X402 asked.

Coalman didn’t answer. He hesitated, his hand hovering over the panel, thinking of a garden, and a good man’s disobedient obedience. “Nevertheless, not my will be done, but yours.” He forced the lever up and held it in place, his mind in agony as his body glowed a cherry red, and the elevator began to rise.



The author writes stories and software at his home in New Hampshire, with his wife, who knits, beads, and quilts, and his son, who cooks their meals, supervised by a gray cat with white paws, who mostly naps.


“Soulman” by Ralph Mack. Copyright © 2024 by Ralph Mack.
  
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Comments

  1. Wow! That was really, really, good. I love the depth you put in this story.

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  2. Well, this story just convinced me to sign up on Patreon. Loved it. There's that odd passage in Ezekiel, wheel within a wheel. Mechanistic obviously, and yet, "...the spirit of the living creatures was also in the wheels." If this thing can have a spirit (which I'm not assuming is a soul, but yada yada...) I wouldn't put it past God to give the same distinction to an android such as Soulman, or maybe even a sophisticated LLM for that matter. Keep it up, Ralph. Will be looking for more.

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