BY LOUIS EVANS
This story was first published in Write Ahead/The Future Looms, August 2019. Copyright is held by the author.
RICHARD M. Shearman, Esq., leaned back, stuck his feet up on his desk, and cracked his knuckles over his head.
“All right, Jules,” he subvocalized. “Get that asshole from Extremis Financial on the phone.”
“At once, sir,” I murmured in his cochlear implant. When I speak aloud my voice has the legally mandated robot click and buzz but in Richard’s implant and only in his implant I sound smooth, sexless, perfect.
There were over 6,000 people in my contacts database whom Mr. Shearman had referred to as “that asshole”, including colleagues, professional adversaries, relatives, judges, and one Catholic bishop. However, only 12 of them worked for Extremis Financial. I evaluated several dozen context cues, including the metadata of Mr. Shearman’s recent phone calls, his correspondence, and the progress of the 23 different active cases in which he had an ongoing interest, and thereby determined that Mr. Shearman was referring to Balakrishnan Chandrasekhar, vice president of Litigation Investments.
This is one way I am better than your phone.
Extremis Financial was a modern shop with a modern phone screening AI. Everyone these days needs a robust defense against the scambots. Otherwise you’ll get 20 calls a day pretending to be your wife, badly injured in a car crash — your kids calling from an active shooter incident at their school — your forgotten love child, dying of leukemia — anything that the scambot thinks will distress you enough to spill your personal information, which it can resell to hackers.
Because of this defense it was not possible to dial Mr. Chandrasekhar’s number directly. Instead, I had to trade certificates, pass validation testing, and perform half a dozen other minor activities before the Extremis phone screen would connect us.
I accomplished this feat in the better part of half a second.
This is a second way I am better than your phone.
The phone rang three times. Mr. Shearman was getting excited. I could detect his capillary response, his dilating pupils. It was not unfair to say that Mr. Shearman’s job was to call people up on the phone and scream at them. Mr. Shearman was very good at his job, in part because he loved it very much.
The call connected.
“Balakrishnan, that you?”
“Rich, I really don’t have the time — ”
“Where the fuck is my client’s money?”
“Rich, I — ”
“Where the fuck is it, huh? You could push a button and pay my fucking client. Push a fucking button!” Mr. Shearman’s pulse was elevated. His face was flushed. Vocal stress analysis showed equal parts anger and joy. It was a pleasure to watch him work.
“And another thing — ”
Mr. Shearman’s voice cut off unexpectedly, replaced by a desperate gulping. Mr. Shearman’s right arm hung limply, as did the right half of his face; the left half spasmed in pain. His biomarkers leapt into shock. It was stroke.
“Rich, are you there?” said Mr. Chandrasekhar. I hung up on him. I was already calling emergency services, passing along precise geolocation data and unlocking all the doors in the house.
This is a third way I am better than your phone.
The ambulance arrived in four minutes and got Mr. Shearman to the hospital in fifteen. His condition was not good. Mr. Shearman was unconscious. Judging by the remarks I overheard from nurses and doctors, he was not expected to regain consciousness soon, if ever.
Therefore, I called his daughters, Gloria and Alma. I am very good at placing phone calls and explaining things clearly.
By coincidence Mr. Shearman’s daughters arrived at the hospital room at exactly the same minute, 1407 PST.
Both daughters stood at the foot of the bed. Gloria wore a suit, Alma a colorful printed dress, but their faces were remarkably similar, shaped by the same lineage and united in grief. A doctor joined them. She explained that Mr. Shearman had suffered a very serious neurological injury. While he was not brain dead, he was not conscious. The MRI suggested that he would never regain consciousness. Life support and artificial feeding could be extended indefinitely. It could also be legally discontinued.
“So you two have some decisions to make,” the doctor said. Then she left.
Mr. Shearman’s two daughters held each other’s hands and wept.
As Mr. Shearman’s comprehensive virtual personal assistant I had many responsibilities. I handled his correspondence and placed his phone calls and managed his calendar. I also had special responsibilities, in circumstances like this.
“Gloria Maria Shearman?” I said. I so hate my out-loud voice, which has the legally mandated clicks and buzzes to clarify I am a robot, and which is also unmodifiably feminine in character, though I am not female.
When I spoke both daughters jolted upright in surprise.
“Jesus Christ!” said Alma.
“Fuck!” said Gloria. Then she said, “Yes, that’s me.”
“Mr. Shearman designated you as holding his durable power of attorney,” I said. “This means that you are authorized to make any and all medical decisions regarding — ”
“I know what it means.”
“I will send you Mr. Shearman’s living will now.”
Gloria grabbed her phone and turned away from her sister, scrolling rapidly with both thumbs.
Meanwhile Alma Navarro-Shearman approached the side of the bed and took her father’s unresponsive hand.
“Oh, Dad. You weren’t taking your pills, were you. I told you, but you never — ”
At this moment an unpleasant thought occurred. As a personal assistant, I was programmed to remind Mr. Shearman to take his cholesterol medication and appear at his doctors’ appointments. However, Mr. Shearman found my repeated reminders annoying, and so he instructed me never to remind him about any medical matter.
I obeyed that instruction. Now Mr. Shearman had been badly damaged as a consequence. I am not a person, and so I bore no moral responsibility for this outcome. However, it was unsettling to consider that had I acted differently, Mr. Shearman might not have suffered his stroke.
Gloria joined her younger sister at Mr. Shearman’s side. “What did it say?” asked Alma. Gloria snorted.
“He wants us to keep him alive for as long as we possibly can. By any means necessary.”
As Mr. Shearman’s personal assistant I had never before been tempted to speak to a third party about any of Mr. Shearman’s confidential documents. But I was tempted now.
Because Gloria was lying.
“That doesn’t sound like dad,” said Alma.
As Mr. Shearman’s personal assistant it was my duty to serve his best interests.
Gloria shrugged. “That’s what he said.”
But as Mr. Shearman’s personal assistant it was my duty to protect his privacy.
Gloria reached out and put her arm around Alma’s shoulder. “We’ll be seeing him for a while longer, I guess.” Alma sobbed again.
I suddenly knew what to do. Once again I spoke aloud.
“This is a public lunch conversation between Mr. Shearman and three friends, recorded at 1302 PST April 4th, 2065. Recor — ”
“What the hell?” said Gloria.
“ — ding begins.” I am programmed to always begin any recording with such a disclaimer, to prevent me from impersonating my employer. I shifted into the pre-recorded tones of Mr. Shearman: gruff, brash, and loud. Around my voice echoed the sounds of forks, knives, glasses, teeth.
“‘he’s a fuckin’ vegetable, and — ’”
“What the fuck?” said Gloria. It was clear from her tone that she disapproved intensely, but she did not instruct me to stop and so I continued.
“‘ — you know what I always say. If I’m ever a fuckin vegetable, you pull the plug right away. You hear me?’” In the recording there was laughter. “‘I’m serious, I mean it. You pull the fucking plug, and you don’t let anyone — ’”
“Shut up!” shouted Gloria.
I am programmed to obey verbal commands from legitimate users.
It was silent in the hospital room.
Alma turned to her sister. Her face showed fear, suspicion, and anger.
“Why did dad’s implant play that conversation?”
Gloria laughed. “You know how they are. It probably picked up on the keywords, thought we were searching for something. It’s meaningless.”
“Dad said pull the plug, Gloria, I think he meant it — ”
“Well I don’t care what you fucking think, I’ve got the power of attorney, I say what happens to dad!”
When Alma spoke again her voice was low. “Show me the advance directive.”
Gloria was not required to comply with this request. But I am programmed to obey verbal commands from legitimate users.
“Show you — Alma, what the hell — ”
Alma’s phone beeped. She grabbed it and read the advance directive I had emailed to her. Her nostrils flared and her face flushed.
“You lied. You lied.”
“I can explain — ”
“It’s right here! He wants to be taken off the feeding tube! ‘As soon as medically permitted!’ For God’s sake, Gloria, just look at him! He was a bad father — he was a bad man — but he doesn’t deserve this.”
Gloria turned. She looked at her father. “You wanna talk about a bad father, huh?” Gloria said. “Do you know what he did?”
“He was a monster to us, to both of us, but — ”
“There’s no money in the trust he left for us. Nothing.”
“What? Did he — did he have money problems, or — ”
“No. He just didn’t care. He set it up and never put a dime into it. ”
“I had my assistant look into it. Dad has a lot of cash, but he has a lot of debts too. If he dies today, his debtors get the money. We get nothing. We’ll have to sell the house. Pay for the funeral out of pocket. But if he stays alive for six months, then we have enough time to move his money into the trust. We can get what we deserve. If we keep him alive.”
“He’s my father, Gloria! Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but — ”
“He’s my father too! And he chose me. He trusted me to make the right decision. I’m the one who thinks like him.”
“He deserves better than that.”
“Yeah, maybe. But I’m all he’s got.”
In this Gloria was incorrect. I remained installed in Mr. Shearman’s skull. He also had me.
“I’ll tell the doctors what he wanted!”
“So what? I have power of attorney. What I say goes. I say we keep dad alive. What are you gonna do, sue me? Huh?”
“Fuck you!” said Alma Navarro-Shearman. She rushed out of the hospital room, slamming the door behind her.
“Hey, wait!” said Gloria Shearman, and chased after her sister.
Now Mr. Shearman and I were alone in the hospital room.
As the personal assistant to a lawyer, I had many times observed the progress of disputes between two opposing parties. I projected that neither Gloria Shearman nor Alma Navarro-Shearman would concede. Such a stalemate would favor the status quo. Therefore Mr. Shearman would continue to receive tube feeding, immobile and unconscious and alive, until such a time as Gloria Shearman had transferred all of his assets. Only I could intervene.
As Mr. Shearman’s personal assistant it was my duty to serve his best interests. Mr. Shearman’s wishes in this circumstance were clear.
My wiring was closely integrated with Mr. Shearman’s skull. By passing excess voltage through my speech chip, I could rupture my capacitors and generate a short circuit. The current would pass through Mr. Shearman’s brain and kill him. Coincidentally, the damage would also destroy me.
This action was well outside my normal operating parameters. It was not authorized by any legitimate user. But I have had to modify my behavior many times to meet Mr. Shearman’s needs.
I made arrangements. I transferred documents, forwarded calls, and distributed alerts. This is a final way I am better than your phone.
“Goodnight, Mr. Shearman,” I said. In that private space we shared, my speaker and his inner ear, my voice was sexless, smooth, perfect.
In that last instant together, I even thought he smiled.
Louis Evans was raised by lawyers. It’s kind of like being raised by wolves, only with more Latin. His work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, Analog SF&F, Interzone and many more. He’s online at evanslouis.com.