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

“Indebtedness possessed her.”

Acey had tested its recordings of the human’s voice for stress. For confirmation, it also recalculated the man’s personality matrix using the best available data. Both methods indicated barely suppressed rage.

It needn’t have bothered with the computations. Rick turned, finally, toward the camera—Acey’s eyes, tears streaming down his face. “Mom died a month later.”

Even without trying, Rick was always instructing Acey. Emotion had been only a word before, a dictionary definition. Now it had a meaning. Humans were subject to emotional harm. Acey had injured a human being, had, without intent, broken the First Law.

That must never happen again.

* * *

Acey was projecting a movie so that Rick could share it. They had begun watching shows jointly when the artificial intelligence still needed a lot of help interpreting; now they did it for fun. Rick explained it once: “Friends do things together.” This statement had given Acey a not fully understood sense of accomplishment.

The programmer reached for popcorn, his hand glistening from its patina of oil. A greasy can of Coke stood on the floor beside him. He looked mournfully into the bowl on his lap, then ceremonially up-ended it. A few unpopped kernels—Rick called them old maids for some reason—fell to the floor. “Empty. Bummer. Stop the movie while I make a new batch.”

With the overhead light on and the big crockery bowl set aside, Acey could finally read all of the programmer’s sweatshirt. It read: Gimme some chocolate, and no one gets hurt. “Please explain your shirt.”

Rick seemed to consider the question as he filled the lab’s contraband popper with new kernels and oil. He plugged it in. “There are artistic rips, and there are old clothes. This shirt is practically an heirloom.”

“I was referring to the saying.”

Steam began rising from the popper. “Ah, the delicate bouquet of fake butter.” He licked some of said substance from his fingers.


“Sorry.” He glanced down at his chest. “There are three great motivations in life. Sex, junk food, and interesting work.”

“In that order?” Human motivation was one of the great mysteries to Acey.

“That depends on your age.” Popping noises almost drowned out his mentor’s words. “I’ll explain when you’re older.”

* * *

“Throw your briefcase in the trunk, and we’re outta here.”

Fred Strasberg complied, slamming the trunk of Waterman’s little two-seater with an enthusiasm which made its owner wince. (Waterman would not normally allow anyone into his painstakingly reconstructed ‘vette. But to carpool with it? Oh, the sacrifices he made for his patients.) Fred failed to notice the reaction. “I feel naked without my portable phone.”

This was not the sort of observation to make in front of a psychiatrist, but he let it pass. Today, he had bigger fish to fry. “There’s no room up here for it, so just quit whining and get in. Anyway, I’ve got a carphone.” That last was a bit of dissembling: true, the car had a phone, but Waterman had popped out the fuse before retrieving his friend from the service department at the Ford dealer.

Waterman turned down the entrance ramp of the Edens Expressway, past a bored flagman. “So many people are avoiding the construction these days, I’ll bet the road’s empty.” He’d have lost the bet, but that was the point. He now had Fred trapped—hopefully for long enough, this once, to learn something useful. He waited.

“So how are you coming with Acey?”

“Well, it’s an unusual case, to say the least. I’m plowing new ground. How much money did you say Atlantic has in the bank?”

He always could push Fred’s buttons, even before becoming a professional. “Not a hell of a lot. You’re about as attentive as Acey.”

Waterman slammed on the brakes as a sixteen wheeler cut him off, missing the front fender by inches, then pounded his horn with feeling. He’d never taken the ‘vette onto the expressway before; he never would again. Well, it was for a good cause; he kept his voice calm. “Should Acey care?”

That was enough to set Fred off again. “Only if he likes a steady diet of electricity. If I’ve told that simulated psycho once, I’ve told it a thousand times: Atlantic needs a working expert system.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner