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Afterhours at the Eversure Insurance Company

M. J. Pettit is an academic historian, a half-hearted wrangler of vegetation, and an avid reader of short fiction. He divides his time between Toronto, Canada, and Manchester, UK. This is his third appearance in Daily Science Fiction. You can find him on twitter @pettitmichael.

Maria wondered how her employer could afford to replace his skin as often as he did. He looked more like an intern than the vice president of the Eversure Insurance Company. But then Mister Bakewell possessed all the accoutrements befitting his standing in the gerontocracy. He wore augmentation casually like a fine-tailored suit, retaining much of his organic core alongside his mechanized extensions. Today, however, his cybernetic eye emitted a high-pitched whine as it rambled about its socket.
"It isn't easy being clockwork," he said, adjusting the eye.
"No doubt," Maria said.
"Take a seat. We have much to discuss."
She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. Ten past six. She'd missed the last express tram. Hopefully the brownouts wouldn't cause too many disruptions on the local. Even before receiving Mister Bakewell's summons, the evening loomed over her. One crammed with children to pick up, meals to cook, and studying to help with--for Izzy's calculus test. She also owed Lorelei a visit at the hospice. She'd put off seeing her for too long. Born without the right to rejuvenate, her neighbor carried the full brunt of her seventy plus years. Yes, she'd pick up some flowers and go on the weekend. She'd make the time somehow. Unless the weekend came too late.
Bakewell continued, "You don't need to see the chess master to know when you're a pawn."
A ripped-open bag of marshmallows lay before him on the rosewood desk. He kept eating them like each new marshmallow compelled him to act. "Would you like one?"
"No thanks," said Maria. "Maybe later."
"Your choice," he said.
He gave her an odd smile as he absentmindedly popped another one into his mouth.
"There was something you wanted to discuss?" she asked.
"I suppose you're too young to recall universal freedom," he said, "but I still remember a time when I felt the weight of my own choices. They belonged to me."
The evening found Bakewell in a nostalgic mood. She'd be late collecting Luis from soccer practice. Her son would be the last one, anxious for her arrival and casting apologetic looks at a coach desperate to get home to her own family. Maria remembered the times she thought her parents weren't coming to get her. Waiting in twilight, gripped by the fear of what might have happened to them.
"The prophets warned us," Bakewell said. "A society collapses without the semblance of free will. When I was a child, I never dreamt of cheating on a test but look at today's kids. Can't separate them from their exported intelligences."
Did Mister Bakewell have to scrimp and save just enough so that he had the luxury of choosing which of his children would receive the cognitive enhancers bought off the black market? She supposed such decisions weren't necessary when you inherited your wealth.
"Nobody is willing to help their fellow man anymore. And it's near impossible to find an honest employee."
Maria braced herself. She was getting fired. Why else the afterhours summons? For a strict adherent of the Church of Determinism, Mister Bakewell had a nasty habit of making snap decisions. Understandable given he wasn't the one making them.
She straightened her back. She refused to let this little man see her cry.
"I became quite depressed after I learned of my lost freedom," he said. "Wasted my second youth on pointless hedonism. Then a voice spoke to me, revealing my true purpose. The great experimenter bequeathed to us the path to our salvation alongside his infamous curse. The voice explained how Saint Libet erred in thinking the great experiment proved the absence of free will. One can reconfigure his set up as a test to measure individual differences in this ability."
The detour back into theology came as a relief. Maybe he only wanted to deduct a larger tithe from her pay.
"Mister Bakewell, I'm sorry, but I should head home."
"The choice is yours," he said, laughing to himself, "but we've been monitoring your performance. There's something I must discuss."
Maria winced though the information came as no surprise. Eversure made ubiquitous biomonitoring a condition of employment. Random neural scans secured honest behavior. She'd been diligent in processing each claim but everyone on her floor knew the company used the cheapest equipment, its results riddled with non-grievable errors.
"I feel like this moment was preordained," Bakewell said.
Why did they always insist on talking about predestination just before they fired you?
"Look at these results," Bakewell said as the series of graphs appeared on the screen behind him. "Your conscious decisions precede the relevant cerebral activity by three hundred milliseconds. An astounding score. By my estimation, you are the freest individual I've ever tested."
"I'm sorry," she said.
"You're the rarest of people, Maria. The kind my order seeks. Your mind guides its neurological machinery. I'm somewhat jealous but also grateful for destiny's gift."
He came around his desk to shake her hand. Droplets of oil streamed from his enhanced eye. "I've been determined to locate an individual such as yourself since the time I received the revelations. You're a natural leader, a genuine decider. Our fate depends on you. Can I persuade you to join the struggle?"
Maria sighed. What was one more obligation? "Of course," she replied.
Like she had any choice in the matter.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

Author Comments

This story represents my sardonic take on the recent revival of moral psychology in the guise of the neuroethics of free will. I often find myself disappointed by the narrow understanding of choice and agency found in the endless parade of trolley problems, marshmallow tests, and depleted egos.

- M. J. Pettit
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