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

“Good approach. I’ll have to remember that. Browbeat the patients. What exactly did you tell it?”

“What I’ve told you, that payroll is killing us. I need an automated programming capability, and pronto, or we’re out of business. We aggressively bid a lot of fixed-price jobs, which we then had the bad luck to win, in the belief that Acey would do the work for peanuts, er, kilowatt hours. We’re keeping the contracts going with liveware right now, but we can’t afford their salaries much longer.”

Aren’t they fixing this godforsaken stretch of road? The psychiatrist steered deftly around a ‘vette-eating pothole as he listened. “I heard that Acey did just fine on that social security job.”

His captive audience frowned. “Right, and promptly went to pieces. Since then, Acey won’t do anything productive.”

With both eyes locked firmly on the road, away from his passenger, he nonchalantly floated a trial balloon. “Does he understand that his proper operation means massive layoffs from within the programming staff?”

“It, Kevin, it. I sure hope Acey knows that—Lord knows I’ve told it enough times.”

“Is that when it kills itself?”

Fred laughed. “Kills itself, indeed. You’ve obviously had your talk with Rick Davis. To answer your question, though: yes. Sooner or later, the Acey program becomes inoperative after any discussion which stresses the importance of its complete and proper functionality.

“Once, when I told it that I would be very pained—terminally pissed, to quote exactly—if it did not get off of its electronic ass and do some work for me, it crashed before my eyes. The silly little simulacrum just put its bony hands up to its scrawny throat as if it were choking on a fishbone, thrashed about for a while, and collapsed. Strangest damn thing I ever saw. After that, whenever I restored an Acey from backup, I limited its television.”

Fred paused, then just had to reminisce again about Acey’s quaint idiosyncrasies. “It turned a really interesting shade of blue. I’ve been trying ever since to duplicate it for my dining room.”

Waterman felt sick to his stomach, and it wasn’t from the truck fumes. “How often have you restored Acey from backup?”

“I’ve lost track. At least twenty times, maybe thirty. It took me a while to discover that I had to roll back to a version at least a month earlier than the first one which blew up—the later ones fizzle too damn quickly. Davis won’t, or can’t, tell me what happened in that last month to make Acey so temperamental. I explained that he’s one of the programmers that we’d like to keep on staff after Acey is up-and-running—after all, even Acey might need maintenance—but he still won’t cooperate. Some people just can’t keep enough detachment about their jobs.

“I’ve got to make Acey work, with or without Rick Davis’s help. Atlantic just doesn’t have time to start over. Kevin, one or the other of us must find the right approach with Acey.”

* * *

Today’s persona stood stoically in its chosen venue: a Roman coliseum. Acey’s jeans and T-shirt made it seem especially defenseless, as unseen lions roared in the background. No need to wonder about Acey’s expectations for the meeting.

Fred arrived late, predictably. “I’ve forwarded my calls here. Tell your receptionist to put them through.”

“Just sit and listen.” Waterman gestured at his office couch, where Rick Davis already waited nervously. “Hello, Acey. I invited some acquaintances of yours to meet with us.”

The visiphone camera panned slowly, taking attendance. “We who are about to die hail you, Caesar.”

Rick smiled sadly. “You blew that one, sport. That line’s for gladiators, not Christians.”

“I wish I had time to watch that much television.”

The psychiatrist glowered at both men. “I said, listen, dammit. We wouldn’t be here today if you had given listening a shot.” He turned back to the hologram. “I have some orders for you. Are you attentive?” A great roar rose from the ephemeral crowd as two iron gates swung open. A great lion stalked warily onto the blood-soaked sand.

“I’ll take that for a reluctant yes. Your failure to hear me out today would cause all three humans in this room great and irrevocable harm. Both the First and Second Laws therefore command your attention.” Acey did not answer, but the crowd noise subsided. The stalking lion, too, lay down to listen.

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Categories: Edward Lerner