What a Piece of Work Is Man by Edward M. Lerner

What a Piece of Work Is Man by Edward M. Lerner

What a Piece of Work Is Man by Edward M. Lerner

Why do you hate your mother?

Dr. Kevin Waterman was used to asking that question, but—for once—knew it couldn’t possibly apply. Misfiring reflexes weren’t the psychiatrist’s only cause of discomfort, either. Here he lay, his short, roly-poly self draped across the office couch, while the patient paced about the room. Waterman’s notepad was distressingly uncluttered. Whatever had possessed him to accept this case?

He sat up, running pudgy fingers through the residual fringe of black hair, while Acey prattled on about software development. The next time that his patient walked by, Waterman stuck out his leg; Acey glided through the obstruction without pausing.

The psychiatrist was currently sharing his consultation room with a hologram. The real Acey could not attend, today or any other day. The real patient was an artificial intelligence. Waterman sighed to himself: it only got worse. The computer nerd currently walking through his desk was only today’s persona. Yesterday, Acey was an economist; only Freud and Von Neumann working together could guess what he might be tomorrow.

He? Since when was Acey a he? Maybe, Waterman thought, he himself did belong stretched out on the couch. Get a grip on yourself, man!

“Acey.” The image stopped moving.” Do you enjoy computer programming?”

The skinny figure pondered, rubbing his evanescent chin thoughtfully with a spectral hand. “Wouldn’t that be Oedipal, doctor?”

Did the damned thing read minds, too? At least it didn’t seem to recognize rudeness. “Time out.” Waterman broke the visiphone connection—he needed to do some mental regrouping.

* * *

The Automated Coder, hence AC, hence Acey, resided—if that was the appropriate verb—in a computer complex a mile from Waterman’s office. Once operational, Acey would do the work of hundreds of software engineers. Once operational, there’s the rub….

Two days ago, Fred Strasberg had sat squirming on his big leather couch. His old college roommate had called just hours earlier, begging for a few minutes of Waterman’s time, insisting that it was urgent. A last-minute cancellation had allowed the psychiatrist to agree.

Fred was director of engineering at Atlantic Software, Inc. He sat there ranting, seeming older by the minute.

“Acey cost millions to develop, Kev, lots of millions. I’d be in deep shit if I told you just how many. Building that thing was a bet-the-company decision.”

“You can tell me. I deal with privileged information all the time.”

“I’m not the patient. Yet, anyway.” The engineer mopped a sweaty brow with a soggy handkerchief; it looked to Waterman like the cloth had reached equilibrium dampness.

“You’re the only one here.”

“Lemme use your phone.” Fred called out the number without waiting for an answer. Atlantic Software’s logo—an enormous A composed entirely of magically confined ocean waves—floated in mid-office, courtesy of the company switchboard.

On the third ring, a gaunt man replaced the logo. Bits of white stuff (Waterman guessed Twinkie filling) dotted the man’s scraggly beard. He wore jeans and a Lord of the Rings T-shirt; on the shirt, an elf maiden in leather and chains was performing an unseemly act with an elderly furball that had to be Bilbo Baggins. By subcaption, the elf was saying: No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to kick the hobbit.

“What the hell took you so long?” demanded Fred.

Three rings!? Waterman sat back and just watched.

The programmer, for surely that’s what he was, did not take offense. “Working,” he answered mildly.

“On what?”

“Graphics.” He retrieved a much-gnawed pencil from behind one ear and took a chomp; it broke in half with a loud crack. Splinters dribbled from between yellowed teeth. Smiling beatifically, he somehow swiveled the two pencil ends forward with prehensile lips. Enunciating with precision, he said, “White man speak with forked tongue.”

Fred punched the visiphone privacy button. “That’s your patient.”

And not a moment too soon. “Not unless he’s here.”

“He can’t come here. That’s Acey.”

“That’s your programming expert?”

His friend nodded glumly. “I think we overachieved.”

* * *

“Sit down, dammit. I can hardly be insightful as shit if you keep distracting me.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner