Short story: “Lawyer”, “A.I.”, “Wikipedia”

Percy was about to throw the papers in the bin when he got a follow-up call from the seventy-two-year-old plutocrat who owned these papers. He was warned not to take the proposal lightly, whereupon he explained the difficulty to not take these papers lightly. Following a long, two-hour dialogue, the man convinced the mayor to give the proposal a chance.

The man, named Gladstone, had been his donor for a long time. Percy met this person at a fund raising party in Alphen des Meer. At the time, Gladstone donned a dark charcoal suit with a business card in hand. A deep pink cravat with a few horizontal white stripes near the end folded under his buttoned blazer. The cravat, he later admitted, was a calculated red herring and not by personal taste.

That evening in Alphen des Meer, he asked the-then-candidate a question that led to these papers lying on the now mayor’s mahogany desk.

“Tell me, Mr. Percival, what drives you?”

“Pardon me?”

“No, pardon me, perhaps I shouldn’t have asked?”

“Ah, no, I’m a bit surprised. That’s all. Can I choose more than one?”

“As many as you like.”

“Then it is fame, fortune, and power.”

“Interesting…why is that?”

“I won’t lie, Mr. Gladstone. Personal gains and personal stakes are incredible motivators. Those who have them tend to invest more in the position than those who are in for the novelty of it. While corruption is certainly a possibility, I still prefer a sharp knife even if it can kill me.”

“I see you have no fear of political correctness, Mr. Percival. As a businessman, I appreciate men who can articulate exactly what they want. Perhaps, you can elaborate more on what is it that you want to accomplish with fame, fortune, and power?”

“Haha, that I’m afraid I cannot disclose…”

The man behind the proposal, the Autonomous Automobile and Public Transport Reform, was a sharp knife that could kill him.

The papers highlighted policy changes necessary to accommodate a displacement of all drivers and truckers in the city. They are to be replaced with self-driving vehicles, robot chauffeurs who can speed through intersections without slowing down, weaving between fast-moving streams of other robot chauffeurs, coordinating with every other vehicle in the local swarm as one entity.

Employment safeguards must be abandoned for all concerned professions, mandatory upgrades and recall of old car and truck models must be enforced, traffic lights must be dismantled, road signs must be scrapped, and magnetic lanes for new dedicated autonomous zones must be painted. It would take the city many times its discretionary budget to enact the proposal. The numbers on the financial statements attached to the papers almost gave Percy a heart attack. He had to check his smartphone to make sure it was not April’s Fool.

But Gladstone was adamant to get the proposal passed.

He owned a conglomerate named Gladstone Three in Dubai. Other than his pink cravat, his other defining characteristic was the immeasurable wealth from oil drilling and venture capital investments in the Middle East and East Asia. He invested heavily in self-driving technology and put himself in the position where he could claim a monopoly as soon as the technology was adopted.

The man got right to the point when he was invited to speak in front of Liston’s budget office. He agreed to shoulder the bill; everything from the manpower to the compensation for laid-off drivers; on one condition: that he must be granted a monopoly in self-driving technology.

The budget office accepted his demand.

On the day a draft of the proposal was submitted to the mayor’s advisory committee on judiciary, Gladstone invited Percy to his office on Twelfth Avenue where he threw a small party on the thirty-fifth floor of La Seraphica tower. It was then that the mayor learned the plutocrat had a son. He had a crippled son; blond-haired, about Percy’s age, wearing indoor sunglasses, and bound to a sophisticated wheelchair.

“Thank you for always helping my father, Mayor Percy. I heard you were a lawyer before you were a mayor. I too was a lawyer until I took a car in the knee. Now I have wheels for legs.”

“You have become an earth dragon, Dovahkiin.”

“This is the best response I have ever gotten.”

“I’m glad you like it, Gladstone Jr.–”

“You can call me Lancaster, or Lance for short. It’s a pleasure talking to you, Mayor Percy, but I’m afraid it’s time to change my I.V. drip.”

“Alright, I’ll see you around then.”

Back when Lance was a law student, a professor once asked him a peculiar question: When a chair is used as a murder weapon, who owns the responsibility for the crime; the manufacturer, the vendor, the user or the victim? And, without a moment of hesitation, he answered:

“The user is responsible, of course. Can you blame the manufacturer?”

“For the misuse of their product? No, I don’t think so. But for criminal negligence? Yes, it is possible.”

Percy heard this story from Mr. Gladstone when they talked on the phone a week later. At the time, the draft hit a roadblock in the mayor’s advisory committee on the judiciary. The newspaper began to cover the draft and with public awareness came public outcries. Thereafter, on a Tuesday morning, the mayor paid the courthouse a visit where he was greeted by a group of protesters.

As soon as his car arrived in front of the courthouse, five plainclothes bodyguards cleared a path through the crowd and stopped reporters who were flashing cameras and pointing microphones over the men’s shoulders, asking questions about the controversial transport reform, from coming closer.

Upon entering the courthouse, he made a phone call. There was a priority lane for the mayor and his escorts at the security screening which led to a two-story atrium where the info desk situated. He nodded to the clerks as the group walked by and onto an escalator to the second floor.

In one of the courtrooms on the second floor, a judge accompanied by a police officer were waiting for the mayor. The mayor’s bodyguards hung around public waiting area while the mayor followed the judge through a restricted corridor to a cramped chamber. It was in that cramped space that he came face-to-face with two opponents of the draft.

Gladstone was calm when he learned of this meeting. “So, how did it go?” he asked.

“Have you ever heard of the backfire effect?”

“I believe I have. Let’s see…the backfire effect is a name for the finding that, given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.”

“Heh, Wikipedia”, Percy mused.

“Indeed, it’s Wikipedia. I’m surprised you knew.”

“I have a friend who collects retro stuff. Once he borrowed my money to buy an SSD with Wikipedia fork from ‘012 and it had been in my possession for a few months.”

“Now that’s some ancient stuff no doubt.”

“Aye. The talk didn’t go well as you might have guessed. You see, nobody wants to lose his job to a robot and nobody wants to be run over by a hijacked car. No amount of compensation will change their minds on that.”

“Ah, resistance to change, humans are truly the same everywhere.”

“On that latter point, true irony is…I got death threats, actual death threats in my inbox this morning–”

As Percy broke the news, the plutocrat’s hand clenched into a fist. Percy saw the man’s eyebrows stiffened; the expression of anger and not fear. The smirk on his lips curled wider as he continued:

“–At the end of the day, they are still fighting for the exclusive right to kill their fellow men. A hundred roadkills by human will never cause the outrage a single roadkill by robot will.”

“Is that discrimination?” an unexpected remark came.

Both men cast their glances at the source of the remark. There they saw Lancaster in his wheelchair approaching. Gladstone stood up, intending to help, but the lad turned down the gesture:

“It’s okay. I can manage this.”

“Hmm? What happened to your follower, Dovahkiin?”

The last time Percy saw the man, there had been a maid pushing his wheelchair and tending to his every need. The maid was not present this time.

With a light chuckle, the young master answered:

“I sent her on some errands, namely, picking up the supplies my physician is requesting for the quarterly examination. I saw on the news that you visited the courthouse today.  From what I heard, there was a big protest outside the courthouse. What is it about?”

“Oh, that! Just some inept soon-to-be-unemployed stirring troubles instead of working toward their inevitable retirement, or learning new skills for an occupational change…”

“Is it alright to speak about your constituents with such disdains?”

“I’m a lame duck, after all. This is my third term and I can’t run for office in Spring election next year. The amount of damn I give to them is about this much.”

He made a gesture with his index finger and his thumb. He quantified his care for his own public image at this point the size of a peanut.

“Isn’t it more problematic for you to pass new regulations then?”

“Exactly why I have to give some people a good smacking and remind them there’s a hard winter ahead for the unemployed. Elected officials are easier to deal with when the talk starts with the threat of losing your father’s donation. Peer pressure takes care of the rest.”

“Although, of course, some people are still beyond my influences”, Gladstone interjected.

“Ah yes…the judges, how can I forget? They are always so rigid when it comes to new laws.”

“Now that I think about it. How do you normally get them to agree? They can’t be bribed, can’t be coerced and can’t be forced out. Such a pain in the ass they are…”

“Normally, you need to amend the bill until it meets their moral and whatever standards. Nine of them accepted the trade-offs we proposed, two of them, however, wanted the cake and ate it too. How can one eliminate human errors without first eliminating human from the equation?”

“Is there a way to overrule these judges?”

“Good question. There isn’t.”

“Say, if they, by chance, got caught up in an unfortunate incident and were unable to serve the office then could you perhaps appoint new judges who are more…agreeable?”

“Ah, perhaps an accident by human error”, Lancaster mused.

“Hold it. What are you suggesting?”

“It’s a decent trade-off, don’t you think? Two judges for a bill that can save hundreds a year. Or perhaps, are you in any way a cake-eater like them?”

“Is that a threat, Mr. Gladstone?”

“Oh, no, no, no”, the man smiled devilishly, “Not at all! How can I threaten a friend whose inbox is already filled with threats from the other side?”

“Mr. Gladstone, sometimes, even a politician will appreciate someone who can articulate exactly what he wants. But, I digress, there is no point in reiterating what both sides already understood.”

“You are surprisingly calm. Do mayors get threats like these often?” Lancaster asked as a flash of admiration glinted in his eyes.

“Not at all. I’m normally the one making the threats.”

“And so am I”, Gladstone nodded.

But neither of them exercised their coercive might, both understood there was a line that should never be crossed. The dinner they shared on the thirty-fifth floor of La Seraphica tower that day was the last of their meetings. The unthinkable happened at dawn of the next day.

A truck plowed into the silver eight-seater carrying Gladstone to the state court. The eventuality he had been desperately trying to avert struck him with a cold vengeance. That Wednesday night in August, the wealthy businessman shed his last breath on the cold asphalt of Twelfth Avenue. No one in either vehicle survived the crash.

The cause was human error.

His funeral was attended by legislators, business partners and all eleven members of the judiciary committee; whereupon they pledged to make his final dream come true.

His son, Lancaster, was not seen at the funeral but the maid escorting Lancaster was there. She apologized on her master’s behalf for the absence, stating his health had taken a turn for the worst upon hearing the news of his father’s passing. She did not say anything else and Percy knew better than to press the matter further.

In the end, the reform never came to pass. Even with the approval of both the Council and the Court, the funding necessary for the bill was rescinded by Gladstone Three. It became clear that with Gladstone father and son out of the way, the new president had no reason to follow through on their promises.

One moment of hesitation and a man’s life work had come to naught.

A morning in February, when the winter cold still lingered in the air and when Percy’s days as this town’s mayor had come to an end, he caught glimpse of a familiar deep pink cravat with a few horizontal white stripes, in a silver eight-seater parked across the street from his private residence. He rushed to the front yard, a smile flashed across his face.

The car was still there, parked across the street by the sidewalk. Its passenger door swung open and his demeanor darkened as his daydream was crushed under reality’s ruthless steel boots. The greatest philanthropist he had ever known was no longer in this world. Only a petite, Asian girl in a familiar dark charcoal blazer on white checkered skirt stepped out of the car.

She politely bowed to him. It was not the same deep pink cravat she wore but a necktie of the same design.

“Greetings, Mr. Percival. Have you accomplished what you desired with fame, fortune, and power?”

“Wh-What is the meaning of this?”

“I am Gladstone Three’s current president. We are closing down Liston office today and I’m here to fulfill the previous president’s final directive. So, I’ll ask again. Have you accomplished–”

“No…”

“Excuse me?”

“When he asked me this question nine years ago…I lied. There was no secret to disclose. I had nothing I wanted to accomplish besides fame, fortune, and power. In the end, I did accomplish them.”

“I see…”

“However”, he cleared his throat and continued, “He made me realized fame, fortune and power are not the ends. They are the means to the end. Mr. Gladstone realized his end because of his son and I realized my end because of him.”

“And what did you realize…?”

“Ms. President! With his life, he proved the status quo is dangerous. He proved that bipartisan agreements can be accomplished. He proved that unless one fights to change the system, the system won’t change. In three years’ time, I’ll run for office again. This time, I’ll make his vision a reality. Will you support me, Ms. President?”

After a moment of surprise, she grinned and removed her necktie, along with an earbud from her left ear. Placing both items in his hands, she bowed her head again and solemnly informed:

“Welcome back, Mr. Gladstone.”

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