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Be Careful What You Pay For

“Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs, and having beliefs seems to be a characteristic of most machines capable of problem solving performance.”

John McCarthy, widely accepted as one of the founders of artificial intelligence.

###

“You know Officer, McCarthy’s don’t think like the rest of us. They just don’t. It’s not just the fiber optic cables instead of arteries or quantum DNA instead of protein-based bits - it’s a fundamental difference in how we look at the universe. In how logic works for us on the most basic of levels, you know? Sure you do, yeah…and maybe if Sammy had known it too, things would have turned out differently.”

###

As soon as the McCarthy marched into the sterile office, Sammy started to fidget. His wide, middle-aged ass shifted in the straight-backed chair like a pill bug under a microscope. He’d never been comfortable around artificial lifeforms, not since we were kids and the first models came out and started taking all of the “menial” labor jobs, like our dads’ jobs on the lines in the Toyota plant.

The same old story, sure.

But true, nonetheless.

“There is a premium for illegal jobs, Mr. Wright.” The McCarthy’s voice gave new meaning to the word “monotone.” It marched into the air with the same precision that the android itself had marched into the room with, and about as much passion. That was artificial intelligence for you, though. I mean, there was a damned good reason the lifeless bastards were cheap labor, even for this kind of work.

They might be able to pass the Turing test and squeak through the UN’s definitions of “self-aware,” but there was no way in hell they’d ever pass for anything other than one of those old digital telephone companions with fancy legs.

I could see Sam’s eyes tighten in response to the usual tones. I still can’t get over how every android on the damn planet, from the overly average Turing models all the way to the irritatingly attractive McCarthy model standing in front of us has the exact same voice, but if you think it eats me up…Sammy hates it.

Almost as much as he hated his wife.

“I understand it.” Sammy bit the words out. If his tone upset the McCarthy, the machine didn’t show it.

It was dressed in a regulation one-piece, the kind you used to be able to get from Wal-Mart for a $150 before the government shut them down for monopolizing. The only reply it made to Sammy was to reach down and smooth out an invisible wrinkle on the front of its thigh. The McCarthy models had the weirdest damn quirks built into their OS.

“In that case,” it replied, “you should tell me about the job in as clear of a fashion as you are capable of doing.”

Sammy squirmed in his seat and then leaned forward to jab one pudgy finger at the soulless machine opposite us.

“What you gotta understand is that I wouldn’t be here if I could afford anyone else, like a real someone else, you get it? Even with your precious premium, you’re still cheaper than someone with blood in their veins.”

The McCarthy just stared back at Sammy, unblinking.

“Fine,” Sammy snapped. “Have it your way. I’m here, one way or the other. It doesn’t matter, does it? Here, there, real person or not. A hit man is a freaking hit man, no matter which way you look at it. Am I right?”

Still frowning, he looked at the McCarthy for some sort of response to this, to any of the rambling bits of emotion he’d been spewing, but it gave him nothing. Frustrated, he glanced at me for some sort of support, I guess.

“Sure thing, Sammy,” I said, in as comforting and encouraging of a tone as I could manage. I was here to have his back, after all. It was the very least I could do as his best friend.

Especially since I’d been sleeping with his wife since about two weeks after they’d gotten married.

The fake support in my voice must have been enough for him, though, because Sammy took a big breath, blew it out with as much drama as the pitiful idiot could manage, and turned back to explain everything to the McCarthy.

“I want you to kill my wife, kill her dead. As soon as you can do it. I want her gone, you understand me? I want her to suffer, to feel every rotten piece of pain that the whore has given me. And what’s more, I want her to know that I’m the one who made it happen.”

It took a lot to keep from nodding along, but I managed. I liked Sammy’s wife Rachel, liked her just fine (obviously). But she’d been getting awfully clingy and that was the sort of thing that could lead to my own wife Sherry finding out.

And I clearly couldn’t let that happen, not after the last time. I loved Sherry and really, really didn’t want to lose her.

The McCarthy tilted its head to the right in a carefully orchestrated mimicry of curiosity. It made me sick to my stomach.

The cheap bastard, I thought to myself. If Sammy weren’t so damned tightfisted, he could afford a real hit man, an honest to God human being.

“My moral equivalency algorithm doesn’t equate marital faithfulness with deserving capital punishment. Does yours?” The stone in the McCarthy’s face echoed in its voice as well.

“What the hell does that even mean?” Sammy sputtered. “I don’t give a hot damn what your algor-whatever equates. It’s a job. I want her gone. Do you want the job, or not?”

The McCarthy shrugged.

“Why do you think your wife deserves this?”

“Because she’s a pain in the ass. Because she won’t shut up. Because she spends all of her damn time at the gym, for God’s sake. Because I’m about ninety percent certain she’s screwing around on me. Half a dozen of one, six of the other. Take your pick.”

The disgust and heartache on Sammy’s face swirled together in a way that made my stomach feel like I’d eaten a hamburger that had been sitting out for a week in the heat. He’d been my best friend since sixth grade, and he deserved better from me than what I’d given him.

Which was just one more reason I needed this to work. I could live without sleeping with Rachel - I couldn’t live without Sherry or Sammy in my life.

The McCarthy tilted its head once more, but this time to the left.

“Do you have any proof?”

“Do I have proof? What the hell does - why do you care if I have any freaking proof?” Sammy was practically spitting, he was so incensed.

Another shrug from the machine, in exactly the same motion and symmetry as before.

“My core programming includes a rigid set of beliefs, among them a karmic sense of justice. You can blame my programmer, I suppose, but the question persists either way. I have difficulty accepting that someone deserves to die if they have not done anything to deserve it.”

Sammy just stared, incredulous. Then he shot a look at me.

“He’s kidding, right?”

“Who cares if he’s kidding, Sammy!” I had to shut this nonsense down, and in a hurry. We were going down the rabbit hole here, fast, and if I let Sammy think too much about what he was doing, he might chicken out. I stood and leaned forward to address the McCarthy, bracing myself on the cold, polished steel of the desk between us.

“The job is to kill her. One hundred thousand dollars. Do you want it, or not?”

Millenia passed in the milliseconds that it took the McCarthy to make up its mind. Its eyes locked on mine, their perfect dirt brown color reflecting my hypocrisy. Then, it leaned to look around me and addressed Sammy once more.

“I will take the job. Do you have any specific requests?”

Sammy stood up. He barely came to my shoulder, the hefty frame I’d spent years benefiting from by comparison almost vibrating with relief.

“Just the usual cliches - make her suffer, and let her know that I’m the reason she’s suffering.”

The McCarthy pushed back its own chair and stood. It towered over both of us, the cool, collected presence emanating from it a stark contrast to the picture of mixed guilt and anticipation that I was certain Sammy and I gave off.

“That,” the machine said, “will not be a problem.”

###

My first mistake was not deleting the text when it came through. I was lucky that Sherry didn’t see it in the first place, and I should have taken advantage of being lucky by deleting the damn thing and been done with the whole mess.

It was two weeks since I’d gone with Sammy to hire the McCarthy. Nothing had happened yet, as far as I knew, but I’d been doing my best to stay away from Sammy and Sherry both. If and when anything finally did go down, I didn’t want any part of it.

But then the text message from Rachel came through.

the dumbass is gone, baby, out for work or some such shit. i said i’d be at the gym - want to help me “workout”? xxx

And just to twist the knife, there were pictures accompanying it, the kind I’d ground my son for a year for if I found him looking at them online.

They made me weak in the knees, weak in the pants, weak in the everything. I should have said no, I knew that, but I knew there was a damned good chance Rachel would be out of the picture soon, either because the McCarthy would do what Sammy had emptied his retirement account for, or because Sammy finally got tired of waiting and just kicked her ass out.

And once she was gone, my extracurricular fun would be gone for good.

One more time, I thought, just one more time. The same story every idiot addict thinks just before he overdoses.

One more time.

I made up some nonsense about work to Sherry and headed over to Sammy and Rachel’s house. Rachel was waiting in their bedroom, in exactly the state of wicked undress that her pictures had promised, and I didn’t even pretend to resist.

We were going at it pretty good, good enough that we completely missed the front door opening. Instead, out of nowhere, we heard Sammy’s voice in the hall.

“Why did we have to drive all the way downtown just to turn around and come back here? You still haven’t given me a satisfactory answer as to why you haven’t done what I paid you for. Thank God Sherry isn’t home - I don’t know how I’d explain your ugly metal ass to her.”

Shit.

“Son of a bitch!” Rachel hissed at me, her hands skipping away from my back and grasping frantically at the sheets that tangled around us. “Hide, you’ve got to hide somewhere!”

I tried to disengage from the mess of Rachel and the bed, but there was no way to do it quietly.

Then I heard the McCarthy’s response.

“As I said, I will explain momentarily. There is something you need to see, first. If you’ll just look in your bedroom. Also,” a pause, and then, “you will need this.”

###

I’ve never been one to believe in anything crazy, Officer, any out there sort of mumbo jumbo, but if you’d have asked me right in that moment, I would have sworn that I was having a premonition. That I knew exactly what was going to happen.

Somehow, I knew that when Sammy opened the door to the bedroom, that he’d have a gun in his hand.

And he did.

I don’t know why the McCarthy kept Sammy from shooting me. Or where the damned machine went after it pried the gun out of Sammy’s hands and slipped off down the hall. I guess he was the one who called 911? I don’t know.

I was too busy trying to keep Rachel from bleeding all over me.

About the only thing I do know is that Sammy got exactly what he paid for, in the end. What we asked for.

That’s what I mean about the McCarthy’s being different from us - it took Sammy as literal as literal can be.

Rachel knew that Sammy wanted her to suffer in the end, all right.

THE END

Nashville, TN, USA

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