The Imprints, rather unsurprisingly, started out as annoyingly faceless machine villains. The earliest drafts of Grieving Suns already featured AI as the antagonists (indeed, the whole thing was kicked off by a space battle in the outer solar system!).
I discovered quickly that this didn’t work too well – a perfect AI would have neither motivation nor desire to contact or utilize a primitive organic species, and either ignore us, or simply sterilize the planet with repeated orbital bombardements (or asteroid strikes, if you want to go the low-effort ‘use the local resources’ route.)
What I needed was imperfect AI. Flawed. Bound to some rules and limitations, but still with something more going for them beyond a simple ‘flawed creators shape flawed creations’. In the end one thought took hold of me: What if those AI were the creators? A direct duplicate or a mind, in technological form.
What are the implications? You suddenly have a being with preferences and biases, prejudice and hope. It left the mortal coil, and where it could have hoped to live a century or so, its lifespan is suddenly measured in milennia. What does experiencing such a timeframe do to the mind of a being?
But more crucially: It can make mistakes.
In the universe
Imprints are artificial constructs. Not Artificial Intelligence in the traditional sense, they are direct neurological copies of a living being. The word imprint in the most literal sense means “a mark or outline made by pressing something on to a softer substance.”. The imprinting process itself involves transferring the mind of a living being onto a quantum computing substrate which essentially duplicates the brain structure of any giving being.
The transference process is inherently destructive to the host – its brain is read out piece by piece, neuron by neuron, until the entire one is imprinted onto the substrate. Nothing of the original host remains, and the whole process is unreliable. Many freshly created imprints simply go insane from the pain involved in becoming one, and it may require many thousands of tries before one viable imprint emerges. This is one of the main reasons why there are only a few hundred of Imprints on either the Kessaris’ or the Yels’ side of the bloc – but those few hundred are what enables their respective modern societies.
The exact date of when the first Imprints emerged on the Kessari homeworld is a fact lost to history – but several indications narrow it down to a time around 80.000 years ago. What is known is that the Kessari at some point had tried to create true AI, and failed at this for centuries. They managed to create intelligent or semi-intelligent systems for various specific purposes, but none with an emergent consciousness or a true general-purpose AI. Their solution to the problem was the imprinting process.
The purpose of these first Imprints was long-term governance, to aid and steer Kessari society towards a ‘better future’. But even with the best of intentions, society and the Imprints continued to diverge more and more, as the former changed – and the latter increasingly did their own thing in a world they understood less and less, with the only common denominator remaining was ‘keep the Kessari alive’.
They nearly failed. There were too many imprints trying to run the show, even with the impressive failure rate of the creation process weeding out huge numbers. Infighting between the Imprints constantly reduced their numbers, until over the first several thousand years the number of Imprints eventually reached a stable equilibrium and settled in the hundreds to low thousands – new arrivals to the Imprint scene were measured in centuries after that, and often balanced out by older Imprints going offline – due to accidents, and some simply ‘stopping’, lost to a technological equivalent of suicide.
First Contact with the Yel
Around 76.000 years ago, an Imprint exploration group systematically mapping the milky way stumbled across something until this point only hypothesized. Simple life forms were found surprisingly often, but the Kessari had found something entirely different: an intelligent species – and a surprisingly advanced one at that. one which had spread throughout its own system.
Curiosity got the better of the explorers, and after relaying back the findings to the other imprints, a consensus was formed on this novel situation. The Imprints initiated first contact with what they learned were called the Yel.
Initial engagements were amicable enough, and a sort of dialogue emerged. This eventually led to some technology sharing, showing both a bit of naivete on the Kessaris’ part trying to make the universe a better place, combined with a kind of recklessness. The Yel acquired FTL and Imprint technology and set out to create their own version of Imprints. With generous help from their benefactors, they quickly succeeded, despite going through a stage of trouble much like the Kessari, experiencing a surge in Imprints before settling on a number of a few hundred.
The Kessari were pleased with having found an equal and grew complacent. This turned out to be a mistake.
The First Imprint War
The Yel grew thoroughly paranoid of the Kessaris’ motives. Coming from a violent past they could not fathom someone sharing advantages like this – notions fueled and nurtured by the newly created Yel imprints over centuries.
The Kessari were caught completely unaware by the first strike, and nearly a third of their Imprints were destroyed in the initial onslaught. The Yel Imprints had built substantial space forces and advanced on the Kessari homeworld, coming close enough to become a credible threat to the continued existence of the Kessari.
The Kessari recovered only by pure chance and turned the tide of the war over the course of a decade, until they themselves stood in front of the Yel homeworld. Their progress halted there – the Yel were bottled up and unable to mount any action beyond defending what they had left, and discussions emerged among the Kessari Imprints what action they should take.
The hardliners argued for an extermination of the Yel, while the more lenient ones noted that it was the Yel Imprints causing the war, and it was them that should be destroyed, not the Yel in general. This internal strife bought the Yel enough time to push the invading forces back.
Over the next three-hundred years the war grew into an overall stalemate despite periods of domination of the one over the other, but neither side growing powerful enough to gain a decisive advantage over their adversaries.
The Impostor Peace
Around this time the violence ceased for the most part – only the occasional border intrusions and skirmishes on a fairly low scale disturbed what amounted to an unspoken truce while both sides built up their strength. Exploration efforts on both sides were renewed, and both machine species fairly quickly stumbled across further moderately advanced life forms, some on the cusp of space travel, others already venturing out in their stellar neighbourhood.
The Imprints had learned their lesson about sharing technology. While they furthered the overall skills and capabilities of the species they encountered – forging alliances with those willing, and ignoring or curtailing the efforts of those who were not – they were careful about leaving Imprint technology out of the equation. Both Kessari and Yel jealously guarded the secret to creating new Imprints, and centralized their production and backup facilities into one location each – the Kessari on their homeworld, now massively shielded from attack, and the Yel on a mobile space station, deep in the gravity well of a gas giant in their home system.
Warfare ebbed and flowed over the next tens of thousands of years, with at least forty sapient species going extinct or becoming crippled in the countless proxy wars. None of the earliest discovered species survived. The Imprints themselves preferred to majorly stay out of the fighting, letting their ‘allies’ do the heavy lifting, with atrocious loss of life and materiel in pointless attacks and maneuvers. All-out warfare between the two blocs was rare and occurred only eight times in nearly 75.000 years of conflict.
The results of the Imprints entering the fray directly were usually extremely destructive to both sides, to the point that even the seemingly limitless resources of the machines began to run out – causing them to take drastic measures.
In every instance of those direct confrontations, the Imprints sensed a continued stalemate and exhausted resources that would require centuries to replace and rebuild. Both sides simultaneously started to retreat from the fighting. Both Kessari and Yel, fearing this behaviour to be a sign of an imminent massive strike, started to ‘salt the earth’ by bombing their ‘allies’ back into the stone age or to complete annihilation. This was done to prevent the respective enemy from assimilating the now exposed species into their ranks, as well as to quell any technological advancements from being made that could cause the younger species to rival the Imprint blocs in power in the centuries it would take the machines to properly rebuild.
The last of these direct confrontations happened around 12.000 years ago. Again, the all-out warfare between the blocs all but drained all participants and left few ships to continue the fighting. The Kessari and Yel withdrew once more and started destroying their subordinates – the humans of Earth among them. By that point they had been servants of the Kessari for a few centuries. Luckily for the humans, several factors worked in their favour. One: the extermination fleet only consisted of two medium sized ships, limited in what kind of damage they could deal. Two: A deep space patrol squadron, part of which had been dispatched to supply a secret colony world, returned in the nick of time. Three: the patrol squadron was joined by an imprint.
These factors drew the attention of the extermination squad. The planetary extermination was almost complete on the technological level, but the Kessari could not risk ships escaping and starting a human settlement somewhere else. The human patrol squadron banked on this and drew the Kessari ships towards the outer solar system, fighting a pitched running battle for several days before the final engagement deep in the Kuiper belt.
There the last remaining cruiser, heavily damaged and practically unarmed by now, and a Kessari destroyer squared off. Desperate to prevent the Kessari from completing their extermination of Earth, the human captain rammed his cruiser into the alien vessel. The spike in gravity energy obliterated the machine ship and crippled the human cruiser, and was enough to slowly attract a large number of asteroids and cometary fragments in the surrounding areas, forming what is now known as the Huygens cluster.
No help was coming, but Earth – and its colony – were safe. The wreck was forgotten, adrift in the outer solar system, increasingly cold and with a trapped Imprint in it. It would be more than ten-thousand years before the Kessari, with their renewed strength, revisited their old haunts and found a flourishing civilization on Earth once more.
Each and every Imprint since the earliest days keeps a backup of itself around on the respective homeworld. While they are encouraged to regularly update it to reflect recent changes and experiences, some are more diligent than others in this task – especially considering that creating a backup is a laborious process taking approximately three months.
The backup is kept dormant until certain conditions are met like when an Imprint fails to report in for a set amount of time, usually between one to five years after its disappearance, depending on preferences and/or importance of the specific imprint. In case two Imprints are found to be active at the same time, an reintegration is attempted. Normally, the personality of the Imprint that has been active more recently supersedes the older one, but exceptions have been noted. A side effect of the merging process is ‘doubled memory’, where the merged Imprint experiences times with two separate sets of overlapping memories and experiences, which can temporarily lead to a split personality or unreliable memory recall until the reintegration is fully settled and complete.