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Company Property

John Albertson is a scientist and author based in Reading, England. His interests in fiction are memory, other worlds, and the question of what makes us human. When not writing (or sciencing) he can usually be found in the kitchen. His work has been published by Rebel Books, Poundlit Press, and 365 Tomorrows. This is his first story in Daily Science Fiction

There's a thunk and the capsule stops. The interior bathed in soft, red light.
"Charlie? What's happened?" Mona says, putting down her Oracle.
"There's been an accident," Charlie says. The AI's voice is calm, drifting out from the capsule's speakers.
"Are we damaged?" I ask.
"Hull integrity is ninety-nine-point-eight percent. A Section Two report has been generated. MediDrones are on their way for the child."
"Child? We hit a child?" Mona's face is white, her mouth gaping.
She pushes herself to her feet and looks over at me. "Lily, come with me."
Mona's fingers tap and the door hisses open. She's out into the bright sunlight, and I must follow.
The sun beats down on us at the front of the capsule. The smooth concrete is burning hot.
"Where? I don't see--" Mona is looking around, but far too close to the capsule.
I point to a dark bundle on the concrete about two hundred feet behind us.
Mona puts a hand to her mouth and starts towards the body.
"Mona, don't." I reach out a hand to her.
A white and red MediDrone drops from the sky and scans the bundle before shooting back up into the blue.
"Dead," Charlie says in that detached way of his.
"What... what happened?" Mona says. Her eyes are wet and red.
"The child ran onto the SearsHaackway. When I calculated evasive action there was a seventy-four percent chance of serious injury to one occupant, and a fifty-two percent chance of injury to both occupants. Compared to a ninety-nine percent chance of injury to a third party, I was unable to maneuver."
Mona covers her mouth.
"I must ask," Charlie says. "For further algorithm development. Did I do the right thing?"
"Yes," I say, at the same time as Mona says, "No."
She looks at me, and I see it. Something I've not seen for a while. The flicker.
"Yes?" She asks.
"You heard Charlie," I say. "The percentages--"
"Don't you quote the percentages at me." Her hands are balled into fists. Her voice hissing between clenched teeth. "You're better than that. No." Her eyes narrow. "You're only supposed to be better than that."
She turns to the capsule, her voice trembling. "The next time you have to choose between the injury of an adult or the death of a child, you save the child. Every time."
Mona's face is white and red, like the MediDrone. Her jaw muscles are bunched tight beneath her skin.
"The algorithm is designed to take into account the damage to Lily as--"
"No!" Mona yells. She's yelling at Charlie, but it's me she's looking at. "You do not calculate damage to Lily. You do not put company property before the life of a human child. You do not!"
She breaks off, her hand clutching at her stomach. "You do not," she whispers, and gets back onboard.
Charlie and I share a brief EMF communication as I look south, past the concrete expanse of the SearsHaackway towards the sprawl of Kinshasa.
Fifty million people live in the city. Approximately a thousand of those will die today. Half will be children. Mona has never mentioned the deaths of children from Kinshasa, even though there must have been over four hundred thousand since we met. It has never distressed her before. But clearly, it has distressed her now. Charlie is asking me over EMF why this is.
My reply to Charlie is curt. I feel ashamed that I cannot explain this to him.
It seems we both have much still to learn about humans.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 29th, 2021

Author Comments

This was written as a piece around the prompt "static vs movement," and I wanted to explore an idea around something abruptly stopping--which turned out to be the capsule in the story, and the reason that emerged was a tragic one. I'm always a bit of a "pants" writer, so the story grew organically from that. The question of whether the android Lily and the AI Charlie would understand the significance of a death Mona was involved in versus the everyday, detached deaths that happen in the city was one I wanted to explore here--is that cognitive bias part of being human?

- John Albertson
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