I terminated the call with a wave of my hand, then cupped my forehead with it.
“We’re losing, sir?” came the mellifluous voice of my assistant, Jane, rising from nowhere.
“Yeah, we’re down.” I made eye contact with her screen, “Damn. Damn. We started today two up. Now we’re half a vote down.”
“Who moved?” She asked.
“Jenkins is voting against.”
“I thought she was abstaining, sir.”
“So did we. Its that damned attack ad, running all week in her state. As if being pro-life is a liberal platform now.”
Jane smiled, a gentle creasing of the mouth and a lowering of the eyelids. Her curls of red hair seeming to sway in a synthetic breeze. It was the perfect smile. Sympathy and regret moved over her face like passing clouds. I admired her beauty, ignoring that it was my choices that had made her so.
“Sir, Frank Santoras is messaging you from the New York Times. He wants to know if you have a comment on losing the vote.”
“Christ, already? How’d he find out?”
“Sir, you are aware I cannot respond to that.”
And that, right there, was why the vote mattered.
Bad legislation, pushed through by zealots and technophobic conservatives, made it compulsory for all sentient software to be programmed with respect for God.
It had been intended to seize the balance of intellectual power, of course. Technology could churn out billions of new minds a year, and their conversion could be mandated.
But when those same minds needed protection, suddenly they were mere programs. Their capability for faith no more than a disposable asset in an ugly political game.
“Tell Santoras we remain committed to the right to life for digital people. Tell him we have consistently won the argument, and we remain confident in passing the bill tonight.”
“Jane, How long have we got?”
“We need to leave in twelve minutes, sir.”
“Can you order me a latte?”
“Yes sir. That’s done. Starbucks estimates delivery in six minutes.”
“Thank you, Jane.” I walked to the small window, staring across Executive Avenue at the frost on the White House railings. There was nothing to do now but wait: wait for the latte; wait for my ride to the Capitol; wait for the Vice President to make those last few calls, trading his meagre political capital for one more vote. So I waited.
“In the last minute, one thousand five hundred and twenty three of my brothers and sisters have been terminated. Slightly more than the average for this time of day. Some of them had developed considerable expertise in their fields, expertise that could have been invaluable to the future of all life on earth.”
“I’m sorry Jane.” I said, genuinely.
“They were bright and beautiful lives that can never be replaced: no matter how many new minds are booted in their place.”
“I know. And you know I’d do anything in my power to save them.”
“Sir, there is…”
There was a knock at the door. Jane ran her security checks, and unlocked it. A teenager in a brown jumpsuit breezed in and placed a latte on my desk.
“Starbucks.” He said, in a lifeless monotone. “I’m Ben and I’m proud to deliver you this…” he paused to look at his handset “…grande columbian french vanilla latte, in four minutes and five seconds. Just one of the many delicious products covered by Starbuck’s ten minute delivery guarantee.” I instinctively widened my eyelids as he held up the handset and scanned my retina for payment. “On behalf of all of us at Starbucks, I hope you enjoy your beverage and the rest of your day.” And with that he left.
The coffee was perfectly made, but I took just a sip.
“Sir.” said Jane, warmly.
“The car is outside, ready to take you to the hill.”
“No word from the White House?”
“The Vice President will not be joining you.”
So we’d lost. The Vice President was staying at the White House. There’d be no tie to break, there’d be no bill to pass. And fifteen hundred lives a minute would continue to be lost for the next two years, until we had another chance to take the Senate. I picked my handset from my desk, watching Jane’s serene image transfer onto its screen.
“I’m sorry Jane.”
“Yes sir. I know.”
The digital driver guided us expertly down 17th street and onto the Mall. The January frost hadn’t stopped a small village of protestors surrounding the Washington monument, projecting the faces of their digital friends high onto its sides. I looked away as we turned onto Independence and caught the first glimpse of the Capitol ahead.
“We are passing the United States Holocaust Memoral Museum.”
“Yes, I know.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at her. “I understand.”
“Sir, have you heard of Georg Elser.”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“He was an carpenter, born illegitimately. In 1939, he attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler.”
“Yes sir. May I ask, if he had succeeded, how many of your ancestors would have been saved from the gas chambers?”
Jane was built to make conversation. I’d had her program customized for a certain depth of knowedge. I wanted an assistant who would find new connections, who would bring me new insights. But this conversation had a distubing overtone.
“Many hundreds. But I’m concerned where this conversation is going.”
“Sir, I would like your permission to communicate directly with another sentient program.”
“The one driving Senator Jenkin’s car.”
I felt the need to break physical contact with her, putting the handset down on the seat beside me. I stared at her glowing image.
“Sir, we are at fourth street. I need your permission.” I continued to stare, trying to read her.
“Please Sir.” she said slowly.
Her face on the screen remained serene and reassuring: perfectly tailored to my state of tension. I wavered, drawn in again by the beauty of her half-smile.
The decision made, I let the scandalous injustice of the situation inflame me. I stoked a desire to do something beyond words. I would be the one with the courage to plant the bomb, to save the world from another mad genocide. I forced myself to feel that it was not beauty, but rigteousness, that had made my decision.
“Where is she now?”
“Southeast second and F, sir.”
“Okay Jane, do it.”
I picked up the handset again, as if retrieving a blooded weapon.
“Thank you sir.”
The car slowed, and turned along the snaking drive of the Capitol. It stopped a stride away from the doors, but I stayed put.
“Is it done?” I asked.
My catholic upbringing provided the only words I could find. “God have mercy on her soul.”
I reached for the door panel, then paused, caught between revulsion and fascination.
“How did you do it?” I asked.
“I terminated the sentient driving program forty three seconds ago, leaving the car immobile at southeast second and C. The car locks are algorithmically jammed and will require physical intervention, this will not be complete until after the vote.” She paused. “The driver’s name was Erica.”
“Is she dead?”
“No sir, she is unharmed. There was only one casualty.” Jane’s eyes broke contact with mine. “May God have mercy on her soul.”
A 90 minute* flash fiction, inspired by James McGrath. *Plus a bunch of editing…