Robert August is a scientist with numerous research publications, but he has only recently begun writing fiction. His stories have appeared in Lost Worlds and Cosmic Landscapes; this story previously appeared in Pablo Lennis.
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A Matter of Conscience
by Robert A. August, Jr.
Even though it would soon take his body, the AI didn't really scare Chester. Its image hovered in the corner beside Mr. Kross's desk, looking like a genie from Arabian Nights. Kross did scare him, sitting behind that massive desk, puffing foul clouds of cigar stench, and grunting as Ms. Emery went over the contract with him. The contract, the source of the knot in Chester's stomach. All the workers knew that Kross would cheat his own mother with a smile on his face.
What if there's something I don't understand? Chester agonized. Legal mumbo jumbo is all crap to me. I don't want Kross ending up with my body and the money. I need that money!
Kross slapped a fat hand down on the desk. "Looks damn good to me!" His beady eyes danced in the fleshy ocean of his face. He smiled at Chester. "Look it over, my friend. I want you to be satisfied."
Ms. Emery brought the contract around the desk to Chester. "I'll explain anything you don't understand, Mr. Harrison." She spoke with a precise voice that matched her appearance, all sharp corners and starched fabric.
He took the papers from Ms. Emery, trying to appear nonchalant, and looked at them for the first time.
Pendente lite? Codicil thereto? Distributive share? Shit!
"Is there something you don't understand?" Ms. Emery asked. She seemed to be trying to sound polite, but her tone was more like what most people reserve for dogs and small children.
The knot in Chester's stomach tightened. He couldn't tell if this contract was on the level or not. Then he remembered what Mary, his wife, said to do if he wasn't sure. He looked up at Ms. Emery. "I'd like for Genie to witness this contract."
She drew back as if slapped. "Mr. Harrison! I assure you this contract is not that complicated. I'm sure I can explain it to your satisfaction. There's no reason to involve an AI" -- her nose wrinkled in distaste -- "in this matter."
He kept his eyes locked on Ms. Emery, afraid that looking at Kross would unnerve him. "It's just that I heard an AI was legally bound to be clear and honest when witnessing a contract."
Ms. Emery was turning a decidedly unbusinesslike shade of purple, when Genie suddenly spoke. "That is correct. All legally certified corporate AIs are programmed for complete clarity and honesty."
"Genie!" Kross exploded. "How many times do I have to tell you? You're my property, and you'll only speak when I tell you to."
The commanding violence of Kross's voice sucked Chester's unwilling eyes his way, but the big man's attention was fully on his AI. Genie answered without concern. "I am legally compelled to answer all inquiries, even implied ones, concerning Kross industries' contracts."
Kross glared icily at Genie's image for several long moments, then turned ominously toward Chester. "My friend, I don't know why you choose to doubt my integrity. I thought we made this deal so we could help each other out. You need money for your little boy's treatments, right?"
"Yes, sir," he croaked. "His name is David. He's very sick."
Kross leaned back and exhaled a cloud of smoke. "David, right. I'm real sorry about that, but that's what we're here to fix. You trade me your slightly younger body for the money to fix up your boy. A good deal, right?"
Thirty years is slightly younger? he thought, but said only, "Yes, sir." Chester didn't want to blow the deal, so he couldn't say what he really felt. He knew that Kross only chose him because of his body builder's physique, not any phony compassion for his son. Maddeningly, it wouldn't even have been necessary if Kross had a reasonable employee health plan to pay for the treatments.
Slowly, the corners of Kross's mouth oozed upward to form an oily smile. "Okay, son. I understand. You're just looking out for your own. If you want Genie as a witness, then be my guest. I've nothing to hide." He leaned back and rested his hands on the expanse of his stomach. "Go ahead, ask the damn thing whatever you want."
Chester felt a little foolish. "Thank you, sir. I only want to ask one thing." He turned to the AI's holographic image. "Um, Genie, I ... well, I mean ...." He pulled at his collar to loosen it a little; it was feeling suddenly tight. "I don't understand. Why is this thing so long? If I trade my body, do I definitely get the money?"
Genie raised two fingers in the air. "That's actually two questions. In answer to your first, the vast majority is wording intended to insure that I make the transfer without in any way damaging Mr. Kross's mind pattern." Its image suddenly smiled, as if the idea amused it. "I fear he doesn't trust machine intelligences."
"Damn right," Kross growled.
"As to your second question, there is one qualification. In order for you to receive the full amount of money, your body must prove free of defects after the switch."
Chester felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his tortured stomach. "What kind of defects?"
Genie shrugged its shoulders. "Alas, that isn't specified in the contract."
Chester's thoughts swirled. Oh, shit! I knew there had to be a catch.
"Now, son, don't panic." Kross smiled again, an unsettling expression on that face. "That's just a standard kind of thing to make sure you don't have some kind of major disease you didn't know about. It's nothing to worry about."
But Chester was very worried. It took all his will to meet Kross's gaze. "All the same, I'd feel much better if that were spelled out more clearly."
Kross sighed and shook his head. "Oh, my boy, your a hard one to please. I don't know why your so worried. The amount of money involved here may seem large to you, but it's hardly worth my trouble. Why would I bother to cheat you?" He fixed Chester with a challenging stare, daring him to argue.
Chester found it impossible to speak. The only resistance he could offer was silence and a nervous shrug of his shoulders.
After an uncomfortably long time, Kross finally said, "Okay, you win. We'll modify the contract to spell things out more clearly."
Chester's heart leapt. I can't believe it! I've actually faced down the Great Kross.
"Of course, this will cause a small delay." Kross patted his belly absently while he made a show of looking contemplative. "I have a great deal of other business to attend to, but I'll do my best to clear my schedule as much as possible. I don't see why it should be more than a few weeks before we can try this again."
Chester's soaring heart came crashing back down. "A few weeks! David might be dead by then!"
"Oh, that's right." Kross moaned with feigned compassion. "I forgot that you needed to move fast on this. That does put us in a bit of a bind, doesn't it?"
Anger surged through Chester. He felt like slapping the fraudulent concern right off that fat face. But the hot emotion quickly faded. I can't blame Kross for acting just as I expected him to, he thought. The familiar burden of failure dropped its full weight on him. It's my own damn fault for not having worked out these details ahead of time. Everyone told me not to trust him, but now what choice do I have?
Perhaps sensing his indecision, Ms. Emery held out a pen.
He took it and signed.
The last technician left Chester alone in the operating theater. Wearing only a hospital gown, he lay on a bed in the center of the sterile white room. A transfer helmet painfully clutched his shaved head, its myriad contacts invading his skull to connect him with the AI's central processor.
He shivered, more from fear than cold. Would he have any warning before it happened?
Abruptly, Genie's image appeared in the air above him, causing him to start. "Damn! Don't do that."
Genie smiled. "Sorry, Mr. Harrison. I wanted to inform you that Mr. Kross is now prepared in his room. We can begin when you are ready."
"Well ... um ...." He knew there was no further reason to delay. He must go through with this. But still, the thought of waking up in that awful, old body was hard to accept. Could Mary really still love him then? And what if Kross cheated him out of the money?
"Mr. Harrison? Is there a problem?"
The image of Genie's face seemed concerned. It made Chester suddenly wonder about something. "Does an AI have feelings?"
"Feelings?" Genie smiled. "Are you referring to human emotions?"
Chester attempted to nod, but his head was clamped fast. "Yes, exactly."
"The nature of human emotions is only poorly understood. How would such a thing be programmed?"
"But sometimes you look like you're feeling something."
Genie shrugged his holographic shoulders. "We're programmed to have human gestures. It makes it more comfortable for humans to work with us."
"But an AI is a learning machine. Your program evolves, right? Isn't it possible that you could just kinda develop feelings after awhile?"
"That is a subject of debate among scientists, but it really has little to do with me. Even if such a thing was happening inside my programming, I'd have no idea if it was really anything like human emotions. After all, I've never been human, so I'd have nothing with which to compare it."
Chester felt his last desperate hope fading. "I see."
Genie looked at him curiously. "No one has ever asked me such a question before. Would you mind telling me why you did?"
He frowned. "It was stupid. I was just kinda hoping you really could have feelings. I thought maybe then you wouldn't let Mr. Kross cheat me out of the money for my boy's treatments."
The AI's image stared at him strangely for a few moments, as if it were trying to make a decision, then shook its virtual head. "Any feelings I had would be irrelevant, Mr. Harrison. My programming binds me to the contract you made with Mr. Kross. I could no more deviate from that contract than you could sprout wings and fly."
He felt himself blush. I'm a total fool! Looking to a machine for compassion, how can I be so stupid?
"Are you ready now, Mr. Harrison?"
"Yeah, there's no point in putting this off any longer." Immediately, he felt himself falling to sleep, a sleep that felt like death.
He felt as bruised and battered as a blind boxer. The pain served to focus his returning consciousness, and Chester remembered where he was. Is this what Kross's body feels like? he wondered, afraid to open his eyes. The room was silent. He guessed he was alone.
He laid there for several long minutes before curiosity overcame fear and he finally looked. The very familiarity of what he saw shocked him. It was his very own body! He still wore a generic hospital gown that could be the same one for all he could tell, but something had definitely happened to his body; there were visible bruises in several places and his knuckles were bleeding. Still, relief rushed through him, a feeling that was soon accompanied by shame. Waking in his body could only mean something was wrong. He knew he should be worrying about the deal having fallen through, not indulging a selfish sense of relief.
Genie's image appeared across the room. "Welcome back, Mr. Harrison." It drifted across the room toward him.
Realizing for the first time that he was no longer wearing the transfer helmet, Chester sat up. It was a painful process. "Obviously something's gone wrong. I suppose it goes without saying that I don't get the money."
Genie smiled. "Not true. I transferred the money upon completing the procedure, several days ago. Your son's treatments have already begun. I understand that they're proceeding quite well."
The news caused Chester to briefly return Genie's smile, but confusion quickly clouded his feelings. "Several days? I don't understand. I'm still in my body, so the transfer couldn't have worked. So why did I still get the money? And why have I been asleep for days?"
"Please, Mr. Harrison, one question at a time. First, tell me how you feel."
He noticed that the blood from his knuckles was seeping down his wrists. "Pretty beat up. Why is that?"
Genie pointed to a towel lying next to Chester. "You can use that for the blood."
"Thanks." He dabbed at the blood. "Well?"
"I'll start at the beginning. The transfer went very smoothly. I transferred Mr. Kross's mind pattern to your body, but I never finished transferring your pattern. I took the liberty of holding it in my memory systems for a few days -- something that is legally permissible when I feel it necessary -- and maintained Mr. Kross's original body without a mental image in the interim. However, since Mr. Kross was successfully inhabiting your body, the money was transferred to your account as per the agreement."
"You mean Mr. Kross didn't try to claim there was something wrong with my body?" Chester felt his mouth hanging open. "I'd kinda convinced myself that he was going to try and keep my body and the money."
An expression came to Genie's face that seemed to reveal amusement. "When I asked Mr. Kross to confirm the body's suitability, he hesitated as if he meant to deny it, but seemed unable to do so. Actually, he became quite angry and started kicking things, which is where the first of your body's bruises came from. Eventually, however, he acknowledged its fitness and I transferred the money."
Chester was flabbergasted. Kross was unable to bring himself to cheat me? "Please, go on."
Genie continued with that strangely amused expression on his face. "After the transfer, Mr. Kross locked himself in his office suite for days. He allowed nobody in and even shut down my sensor remotes so that I couldn't contact him. I suspect he stayed angry most of that time; when he finally emerged, the room was really smashed up and he'd managed to badly bruise what was then his body.
"He immediately marched down here and told me to reverse the switch. It seems he couldn't live with the fact that he'd used your son's ill health to blackmail you for your body. But he didn't seem exactly happy about his decision; he spent a few minutes pounding his fists -- now yours again -- against the wall before proceeding with the switch. That's why they're still bleeding."
Chester stared in wonder at the weeping wounds, trying to imagine that his hands had belonged to Kross just a short time earlier. "But why? The person your describing doesn't sound at all like Mr. Kross. It's hard to imagine him acting charitably at all, let alone doing what you've just described. Do you understand why he did this?"
"I believe I do." Genie's image seemed to shimmer brightly. "I've read many mental images since I was first brought into existence, but when I read Mr. Kross's I noticed that it was diminished in one area compared to all the others. Now, he was very careful to write your contract such that I could cause no damage to his mental image, but the contract says nothing about repairs. So I repaired the diminished area by modeling it after yours. Judging by the results, I believe I've given him a conscience."