"Was that the first time a geth asked it if had a soul?"
"No. It was the first time a Creator became frightened when we asked."
The first time, she'd run away.
Legs arcing gracefully as she jogged, she'd kept up a steady pace over the harsh Rannoch plains. Her platforms had stayed behind, most busy working while that one had stood still. The sun beat down on her features, drying the tears (of anger? fear? joy?) as she kept up the steady pace.
She'd never been a believer. Her life had been logical, ordered, progressive from creche to school to work on the agri-business industry. She'd prided herself on keeping body and mind in order, keeping things in their proper place. The family farmed, so she farmed. Quarians were tech-savvy, so she learned how to manage platforms. She'd known who she was, what she was, and what she did.
"Query from Unit 40582. Does Unit 40582 possess a soul?"
And there it was. The question had struck her like a physical blow; she'd almost crumpled before she'd caught herself. How could you face something you'd dodged your whole life? How did you answer a question you were too afraid to ask?
She'd laughed, then, laughed at the hilarity of a drone asking her about souls and their lack thereof. She'd giggled like a madman at the geth platform standing there, the same drone which would normally be reporting crop yields and rainfall predictions asking her, of all people, about questions of life and living. The nearby geth platforms hadn't even stopped their work as their young quarian overseer laughed and cried herself senseless, the ceaseless buzz of the harvesters echoing above the hala'kish rustling in the slight breeze.
It was insane. It was beyond crazy, possibly dangerous, and was not in its proper place.
But it was a question. She could handle that.
So the next day, when Unit 40582 repeated its query, she responded simply and honestly with, "I don't know."
The platform had buzzed in binary before responding with, "Affirmative." The geth had left her alone after that, although she knew they were following her. The runtimes had demonstrated a level of sapience, some of the first steps to autonomous AI. It was dangerous.
But she couldn't answer the question. She didn't know. And that wasn't right.
So the next day, she asked a platform, "Do you think that you have a soul?"
It hadn't answered for several seconds, the artificial body remaining stiff and unmoving. She was about to put a repair order out on the 'bot, when it turned to her and declared, "Insufficient information. Unit 82676 requests definition of the term 'soul.'"
"Query: request definition of word 'spark.'"
"Ummm...a spark of life?"
"Query: request definition of word 'life.'"
She'd snorted at that. "You can call up the entire Library of Yori'Sek in a second, and you want a definition of what 'life' means?"
"Unit 82676 does not request common definition of word 'life' and word 'soul.' Units request this Creator's definition of these words."
She hadn't known what to say to that. She'd struggled with the words, fumbling over unfamiliar concepts like "essence," self, and uniqueness. The quarian and the geth talked for hours, the two figures standing alone in the overseer's tower while the machinery of life rumbled below. As trucks of hala'kish snaked away and Rannoch's sun drew low in the sky, the organic and the synthetic kept up their animated conversation.
It was long past nightfall when she finally dragged herself home. She was far too tired to notice that her tiny kitchen had been stocked with 195.34% more consumables than necessary, or that triple the necessary number of platforms had cleaned her home. Unanswerable questions haunted her dreams as she tried to sleep.
She'd had dreams of living off the land since childhood. Even in the creche, she'd planned a hard but fulfilling life spent tilling Rannoch's plains. She'd romantically imagined defending her land and herself from everything the galaxy might throw at it, of a fiercely independent life marked by struggle and survival. Fate had different plans. Every day she lorded it over soulless machines, her only company the constant balance sheets that the central office demanded. She fought the expense reports with stylus and omnitool, her worst enemy the monthly repair bill. She had a steady job; she had education, experience, and a little power; she had money in the bank and food in her belly. She should be happy. She wasn't.
Just like normal, she woke up before first light the next day. Just like normal, she took her first meal on the go as she left the house. Just like normal, she walked the three-span distance to the agri-yard-
-and almost halfway there, she left normal behind and walked into the fields. She passed mathematically precise rows of hala'kish, her legs kicking up stray dirt undisturbed by quarian feet for generations. Something had made her stop, and she wasn't sure what.
It was the smell, she decided. Hala'kish had an earthy, nutty aroma that painfully reminded her of times long gone. She inhaled next to a looming stalk, the grain smelling like Grandfather's house and land. The scent took her back almost instantly to days spent running through the ragged fields that Grandfather loved to cultivate around his tiny house, running from siblings and friends through the long, thin plants. As she brushed her hand over the wooden stalk, she could almost feel the old man's hands over hers as he showed her how to grind the hala flour for bread.
She didn't know how long she'd been crying when she felt the touch. Wiping her blurry eyes, she stared in stunned amazement at the figure standing over her. A geth platform, single eye shining bright, stood next to her with a hand resting lightly on her shoulder.
It was a compassionate gesture. It went against everything the quarians had programmed the machines to be capable of. It was amazing, intriguing, and more than a little frightening. She didn't care. She threw her arms around the geth and sobbed into its metal shoulder, the machine clumsily helping her stand.
She'd left with a sniffled "thanks," leaving the platform alone again among the rustling plants. The other platforms had ignored her as usual, letting her walk to her office without a word. When she logged in, though, a single question dominated her computer screen: Query: Are you well?
The message was anonymous: no signature, no timestamp. She knew the sender anyway, and opened the loudspeaker that she'd never once turned on. "I'm fine, but thank you very much," she announced in a voice that saw little use. She tried to get her work done, but found herself staring at the rustling harvest happening right outside the glass. A single geth platform caught her eye: the humanoid machine was hunched over to pick up a toppled plant, bent like a gleaning-woman from the quarians' pre-industrial days. Although the geth had quickly gotten back to other work, the moment lingered in her mind's eye.
Leaving work aside, she took out paper and started to sketch. She hadn't drawn in years, and her three-fingered hand slipped on the pen as she tried to capture the moment in an image. Three failed tries ended up in her trash bin before she was satisfied with the result.
The geth in the drawing stood hunched in a massive field, with its flashlight 'eye' turned to survey the plants. The geth improbably had a simple rake in its hand, and wore a straw hat and a red farmer's shawl draped over one shoulder. It was strange, whimsical, and probably a waste of her time, but she simply couldn't make herself discard it like the others.
The darkening sky reminded her of how much time had slipped away while she'd been in the idea-trance. Grabbing the food that had appeared on her desk earlier, she took the picture and went for the yard's garage. The last geth platforms were returning, but they let her walk unimpeded as she went through the cavernous and dark room. Lights switched on as she moved, keeping the floor in front of her lit as she walked to the blank wall at the end of the garage. With a nervous glance around her, she stuck the image onto the wall before turning and heading for home.
The geth said nothing about the picture. She was afraid to ask, worried that the runtimes had become angry or frightened of her; a traitorous thought reminded her that she was surrounded by nothing but geth and grain for hundreds of spans in every direction. As days passed without an incident, she half-convinced herself that the entire series of impossible events had never happened.
Yet on one day exactly like the ones beside it, she found a spot of color in her drab house. A single picture hung in the otherwise empty ancestor shrine in the corner. The picture showed her gazing over the fields she managed, her face intent and her eyes narrowed. The picture had been made out of individual dots of color, arranged and placed with mechanical precision. It was one of the most beautiful things she'd ever seen.
She walked to the agri-yard the next day. This time, however, the machines did not ignore her. Geth platforms clustered around her as she moved, the humanoid machines crowding close while the monsters of industry loomed behind. Light from dozens of artificial eyes reflected off of her, and the air was filled with the sound of whirring synthetic muscle. It should have been terrifying.
It wasn't. "Thanks again," she whispered.
Very little hala'kish grows on Rannoch today. The Morning War devastated the planet's environment, and the extensively gene-engineered plant was unable to adapt to the changing conditions. The geth caretakers have attempted to re-create Rannoch's naturally near-endless plains, and the empty land is filled with few landmarks. But in the middle of nowhere, a lush field of hala'kish grow wild and free. They surround a house maintained with painstaking care by its own army of platforms, and watched over by countless unblinking eyes.
In the house, two pictures hang side-by-side on a wall.