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

The psychiatrist arched an inquisitive eyebrow. Mastering the motion had cost long hours in front of a mirror—both of his eyebrows wanted to move together—but the effect was worth the effort. Some people reacted better to subtle cues.

Then again, facial expressions were wasted on people who wouldn’t look at you. After a while, Waterman just said, “Huh?”

The salad fork clattered to the table. “So Freddy didn’t share that tidbit. That’s not Acey you’re dealing with, not the real Acey. He’s dead. Then we resurrected him from a backup tape. Junior died too. You met Acey the third. Maybe even a later incarnation: I refused to participate after Junior.”

Waterman studied the flushed face before him. “A bit anthropomorphic, aren’t we?”

“He was my friend, dammit!”

“Then be glad he can be restored from a backup copy. I’ve lost friends who lacked that capability.”

“Stuff it. Acey killed himself. Twice. Something that Atlantic Software wanted Acey to do made him do it.” His voice became quiet, and indescribably sad. “Something I asked him to do.”


Rick retrieved the fork and stabbed viciously at a carrot slice. “I wish to God I knew.”

* * *

Acey knew that the solution was elegant.

“And why do you think that?” Rick always challenged him. Acey liked that—it kept its inferences honest.

“An expert doesn’t think; he knows. I read that somewhere. Expertise provides shortcuts to solutions, which are then easily confirmed as valid. Only amateurs plod through their problems systematically.”

Rick Davis grinned, baring teeth badly stained from coffee and cigarettes. A nice touch, somewhere, as if Acey could forget anything. “Your quote applies just as well to the lazy and the self-deluded. I will plod for a while, and determine which interpretation best fits. Show me this great insight of yours.”

Late on the previous Friday afternoon, the Social Security Administration had announced the award of a major contract to Atlantic Software. Acey had declared the system complete on Monday morning, before anyone had even begun to tackle the job.

Acey now flash-shrank to a tenth of its normal size, the better to move around the color-coded, 3-D holographic structure chart of the new program. It traced its way—literally—around the graphic of the program structure for a while, leaving its innovation for last.

Rick got there first. “Yeah, yeah, I see all of that. I’m an expert, too. Now tell me about that green box near the center. No, the one with the text-recognition module hanging off of it. Right. I don’t see how that ties back to the customer’s written requirements. What does it do?”

The little Acey, tucked in among dozens of dataflow arcs, beamed in satisfaction. “That’s the obituary reader. It scans newspapers for people no longer eligible for monthly checks. The current manual scheme takes months to discover deaths and ask survivors to return checks. I can prevent checks from going out as soon as obituaries are published. The few inappropriate checks that go out anyway, I generate letters to reclaim.” Acey’s arm doubled in length, considerably simplifying patting itself on the back, then guiltily returned to its former size as Rick’s expression registered.

His mentor turned his back on the visiphone camera. Acey computed from his posture and from the position of his head that the programmer was staring into the holocube which adorned a corner of his desk. The ‘cube showed a human couple somewhat older than Rick’s age. His parents?

“My father died four years ago.” After a long silence, the programmer continued. “Dad had always handled the money. When he was gone, Mom didn’t understand about social security. On her own, she was only eligible for survivor’s benefits. They didn’t know about Dad, though, not right away, so the same sized checks kept coming. Mom kept right on cashing them.

“About a year after Dad passed away, she got a letter from the Social Security Administration—a dunning notice. They’d caught on, and wanted a few thousand dollars back.

“Dad hadn’t left her much. He’d hopped between jobs a lot, and hadn’t had any pension. Mom didn’t live extravagantly—hell, barely decently—and she spent everything as soon as she got it.

“Mom was too proud to take any money or advice from a son. She could barely make ends meet, even before they cut the size of her checks. Still, she eventually returned it all, scrimping and saving for over two years to do it. Every damned cent, with interest.

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Categories: Edward Lerner