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art by Eleanor Bennett

The Suit

Robert Reed is the author of quite a few short stories, mostly science fiction, as well more than one dozen beefy SF novels. The winner of a Hugo for the novella "A Billion Eves," the author is currently at work on what could be called a single-volume trilogy--three closely linked novels in his popular Great Ship/Marrow universe, scheduled to be published in the spring of 2014.

Reed lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and daughter.

This is Robert Reed's fourth story for Daily Science Fiction.

***Editor's Note: Adult language and themes***
Garrett was a popular sage for thirty years, advocating reason and responsibility from a government incapable of either. Several million words were published with his name attached, though much of the research and some extensive copy-editing were handled by trusted aides. A stalwart on the Sunday news programs, his voice was perhaps his greatest tool--a deep, wise, nearly irresistible force that spoke in whole sentences and made each word sound true. Coming from professorial stock, Garrett had a taste for debate and a well-honed skill for lecturing to the limits of his audience. Most people assumed that he was a genius. He certainly seemed to be the smartest man in the room, what with his nice clothes and that pleasant face and Midwestern voice. But most important, he understood how to win arguments on television: Be equitable when everyone else was angry. Sound sensible no matter what viciousness you were opining. And save your best blows until just before commercial breaks, battering smarter opponents when there was no time left for them to batter back.
Whenever a new intern said that he was amazing and oh, she was thrilled to be in the same room with a great mind like his, Garrett would offer a smug smile, telling her that she should be amazed because he often amazed himself. Then he would sit behind his tidy walnut desk, contentedly reading the shiny blond hairs on the top of her busy head, and he would amuse himself with the fact that on his best day, when he was earning spectacularly average grades in college, his IQ was judged to be a less-than-astonishing 119.
The sage suffered a small stroke at sixty-four but soon returned to work, holding court over the foolishness of others. Unfortunately the damaged brain had lost poise and caution, leading to an infamous round-table discussion where he argued that the only real hope for the filthy overcrowded world was to remove the unproductive half of the human population.
"We need a moral disease that can be applied to this scourge," he said, his famous voice angry and slurred. "We deserve a plague that causes minimal pain but maximum casualties, aimed at the poorest, darkest populations."
The uproar was immediate, the ramifications enormous. But his health was invoked as an excuse--an excuse with merits--and the pundit's champions rallied around him precisely because of his verboten observations.
A noted CEO visited the Georgetown brownstone to pay his respects. It was ten in the morning, yet he found the great man already plunging into his second Tom Collins. One son and the staff were fighting over the wording of a minor press release, while his third wife and Garrett's oldest son were standing too close together beside an empty billiard table.
Clearly the situation demanded leadership.
With the same persuasive magic that earned millions, the CEO ordered everyone into the pundit's office. Everybody got a Tom Collins to hold. Everybody listened while the guest described the situation in clear, cutting terms. "There's only one goal," he said in conclusion, "and that's to bring this good, good man back into the limelight, allowing his practical genius to once again have its day."
The sons gave doubting snorts.
The staff mentally updated their résumés.
Then the man behind the desk spoke--a ragged, slightly whispery voice that only vaguely resembled the old music.
"How the fuck do we make this happen, John?"
The CEO looked at each person, and then he smiled. "I had my stroke last year. It was a bad, brain-gutting stroke, despite what was dripped to the press and stock holders." At that point the old man suddenly stood on the toes of one foot, graceful as a ballerina. "But before I explain my recovery, I'm giving you fair warning. If you share this knowledge with anybody, and I mean anybody, I will have drugs planted in your pockets and horse semen shoved up your ass."
People stood silent, nervously sipping cocktails.
Then John, the CEO, removed his Italian jacket. Beneath the soft wool was enough computing power to run most companies, and a rope of optical cables joined the machine with an artificial sphincter cut into the spine below the man's skinny white neck.
"Everywhere I go, I carry this little friend," he said with a giddy laugh. "My friend helps maintain my balance, my voice. And other functions that you never think you will lose when you're thirty and immortal."
People were curious enough to come close, staring at the black boxes and shiny power pack. But the pundit remained sitting in his favorite chair, waiting for the focus to shift back to him.
John slipped the jacket back on. "What's wrong, old friend?"
"I don't need that," Garrett said dismissively.
Nobody spoke.
Garrett pushed out his chest. "That is an abomination," he said, the last word coming out muddied and wrong. But he hid any embarrassment, attacking the idea at its pragmatic heart. "I have read about this... this bullshit.... It's experimental, and dangerous. And if I remember, and I think I do remember, it is also prohibitively expensive."
The young wife turned to their guest. "How expensive is it?"
A figure was mentioned.
Top-drawer pundits make healthy livings. But Garrett's value topped out years ago, and both divorces were quietly expensive. As with any business, the family and employees began contemplating the scale of investment and the nebulous benefits, wondering if such a course might be worthwhile.
Contemplative silence was interrupted by a hard tsk-tsk.
"I don't think you people understand me," John said. "I want to hear this rich voice while I have my Sunday coffee. And that's why I'll send him to my doctor--the finest in the world at implementing this brand new technology--and I'll pay for the entire procedure myself. Is that agreed?"
"The suit" was never one jacket or a single ensemble. But the machinery was given that name because Garrett went out into the world wrapped in silk and fine wools and leather shaped by artisan hands. The five-week purgatory from the network was extended another three months. There were small operations and one giant neurological surgery, and after a persistent infection was beaten, there came long days of calibration and downloads and practice. But the results were obvious, and nobody was disappointed. A huge burden was lifted from a mind that had been losing ground for years. Reaction times were increased. The revitalized voice was strong and sober, and some thought it more compelling than ever. Not only did Garrett chat wisely about public policy, he began showing up on sports shows and history networks, broadening his audience while dominating new crops of lesser experts.
A subsequent IQ test found him nestled in the low 190s. Null-drives riding between his shoulder blades were jammed with information--quotes and statistics and basic knowledge about any and all subjects. If he wished, the man and machine could bludgeon Nobel laureates into a bus-struck state. The only problem was that the trickery was too spectacular, too obvious, and as soon as observers began asking questions, the suit had to be amended to more credible levels.
For the world as a whole, the next ten years were awful, often catastrophic. But Garrett enjoyed AI upgrades and hardware tweaks that brought him the most profitable, influential period of his life.
And the revisions weren't limited to hardware.
Armed with an electronic confidence, the man began arguing for ideals that once seemed unrealistic or extreme. A libertarian tone took hold, but with nods to the corporate oligarchy model. Wasn't it obvious that the kings and queens of industry had earned the right to help guide the fate of mankind? Garrett admitted that the world was suffering for past sins. He certainly didn't like chaos, whether war or famine or the growing list of failed states. But these trying days only made it critical that the West retain its honor and good borders. Government should retreat from the lives of citizens, focusing its energies on the destruction of the gathering enemies. Grim as the topics were, his arguments were delivered with a kind, charming voice and the occasional flourishes of humor, earning fans among broad demographics, even trendy young adults.
For the first time in his career, a strong Sunday pronouncement had a visible impact in Monday's policies, and on occasion, that man-and-suit slipped some very specific recommendations into the public mind.
Drinking the evening cocktail, or two, Garrett would order the suit to replay his performances. His logic always appeared clear and sharp. Of course he applauded that fusion reactor over its competitors; weren't the advantages obvious? And he was certain which robot warrior was superior to cheaper models. And even though he had never studied geology, he suddenly carried on with a geologist's jargon, arguing that the government should pay a certain dark-matter equity firm billions to pump CO2 into their underground vaults.
Controversial issues kept popping into view, but the suit allowed Garrett to make his words dance. Nobody minded when he talked about "aggressive birth control" and "food where the stomachs were most deserving." In a world of dry oil wells and radical climate change, he pointed out that humans should be allowed to sell their strong backs where they could, expecting nothing but food and a cot and some passable form of health care. There was a subtle slipperiness to his memes. Genocide and slavery were never explicitly mentioned, and among his supporters, the ugly sides of his ideas were rarely brought to mind. But even in his late seventies, when the body was withered and ill, the genius's cleverness only grew, and his banter became even louder.
Garrett wrote his own blogs, his own bestselling books. Sports franchises gave him luxury boxes, and he made a memorable cameo in the latest Batman movie. Social events were always vying for his attendance, and the old man went to a select few parties, always treated like a prince and enjoying himself immensely.
The suit was still hiding inside his wardrobe. Though its weight was unchanged, Garrett couldn't stand upright with it and his drink for long. So he would sit, usually in the middle of a sofa where he could take in the room. In those high circles, many partiers wore suits similar to his. Even young men and women took the risks, enhancing egos as well as their native intelligence. But few people brought the same horsepower into the room. In that peculiar and mischievous way that happens with sophisticated electronics, his suit was utterly stable, glitch-free, and perfectly tuned. The only machine that compared was worn by the retired and now quite elderly CEO.
John had suffered two more strokes. His original mind was mangled, but he looked healthy and sounded unchanged, and the two friends would sit together, chatting amiably about everything but what truly mattered.
One evening Garrett was drinking more than his usual share, and after delivering a thorough lecture on the life and mistakes of Augustus Caesar, the pundit paused abruptly, as if startled.
His benefactor touched him on the elbow, asking, "Are you all right?"
"That's a wonderful question." Garrett sighed and swirled his glass. "Tell me, John. Honestly. Do you ever have trouble knowing where you stop and it begins?"
"I don't know what you mean," John told him.
But he did understand, and his careful, wary expression said as much.
The drunken man slumped back. Sometimes in this pose, with the weight of his shrinking body pressed against the not-so secret wires, Garrett felt as if he were slipping free from the machinery's hold.
"Who is doing the thinking now?" he asked. "Is it me or the suit?"
At which point John put an affectionate arm around his loyal asset, absolute certain when he said, "I know who is thinking, and don't worry about this at all."
Garrett died two days before his 80th birthday. The suddenness and circumstances generated a few sordid rumors, and perhaps law enforcement should have investigated more carefully. But his heart wasn't strong, and despite assurances to the contrary, suits brought higher mortality rates. The family announced the tragedy, yet most of the world barely noticed. Slaves building overpriced fusion reactors and the once-bonded laborers now working street corners had thin memories of the man, save for that smooth voice and his smart tone and how well he was always dressed.
Garrett went into the ground wearing fine fabrics and a worthy coffin, and holy words were said about him, and words that weren't so holy were whispered in the church and then spoken loudly in the next series of important cocktail parties.
"Is the wife still screwing the one son?"
"No, now it's the other."
"And is there a will?"
"An old will and a few promises caught on video," informed voices said. "Garrett was brilliant, sure, but apparently he forgot that he could die."
"So who inherits the wealth?" everybody wanted to know.
They weren't talking about money. In that circle, a few tens of millions of dollars were nothing. Most of Garrett's wealth was tied into the wisest, most stable suit ever built--a suit that had stayed safe above ground--and it was easy to predict that wars were going to be waged over which heir got to be plugged into the man's surviving intellect.
War it was, and like any grand conflict, nobody looked heroic.
The wife kicked both sons out of her bed, hiring the best attorneys to argue that the will wasn't only charitable to her, but it was perhaps the finest legal document ever written. The sons argued otherwise, but they also battled one another, and for a few months the wife seemed sure to win. But perhaps she got too bold, undergoing a string of preliminary surgeries where she contracted the superbacteria that ate away her spinal column, leaving her paralyzed and short of funds.
The ongoing discovery process meant bringing the suit out of its sealed vault, into a neutral conference room where its condition and any additional evidence could be ascertained.
Each side sent experts in this newborn technology.
An unimpressive clutter of thin boxes and colored wires was laid across the middle of the conference table. Awakened for the first time in months, the suit was given temporary eyes and ears, and once plugged into an appropriate speaker, it asked where this was and when this was and why was every face so very serious.
"My dad is dead," said the oldest son, doing a convincing job of sounding grief stricken.
"Well, I do understand that," the machine replied, its new voice sharp, almost irritable. "After all, I was there when he grabbed his chest. I was the one who called for medical help, and if I'd had hands, I'm sure I could have saved him."
Nobody expected this tone.
"Garrett was a wonderful man," it reminded them.
Both sons were present. Their loving stepmother watched on a live feed, propped up in her hospital bed.
"He was a decent good human," said the suit, "and I adored him."
"We all adored him," said the younger son.
And then the suit laughed. At least that was the general impression, though the sound was not appreciably joyous. It was a big rattling noise that sounded like ten people giggling, surprising the corporeal souls into silence.
Then the noise was gone and the suit said, "We have quite a few lawyers present, I see. So I can presume that you have gathered here to witness Garrett's final will."
The wife said, "We already have that document."
"Not according to my recollections," said the suit. "And my memory is absolutely perfect."
Hopeful sons leaned closer to those odd little boxes.
A new will? Was that possible?
But their dreams lasted only for a few moments. Then a time-stamped, utterly legal image of Garrett returned from the dead, spelling out the fair dispensation of money and property before giving the ultimate gift to a slight blond and very pretty intern sitting primly at the far corner of the room.
There were hurdles left to cross. The girl had worked with the man for just seven weeks and had never mentioned being included in the estate. She acted just as puzzled as the bright, aggressive people who doubted everything about the document. No, she couldn't remember that infamous scene or even that particular day. But she wasn't paying attention most of the time: The old man was creepy, and he often drank himself to sleep, although sometimes he talked to himself and she had learned to ignore the noise, which wasn't half as smart as everybody thought it was, and sometimes he made awful proposals that she dealt with by sitting to the bathroom until the ugly urge left him.
AI forensics found no evidence of faked data or other manipulations. The suit had had a powerful role in what Garrett said, but the onboard logs promised that those words were entirely his own. The internship was granted on the basis of looks. The girl had no skills with high technology or associates who might even try hacking the suit, and she certainly didn't act like someone who had traded her charms for a few words from a drunken old goat.
Various legal attacks were launched, and maybe they would have worked. But Garrett's wife soon died, too destitute for a real funeral. The sons had to wonder what would happen if their money dried up. What if they got nothing out of this fight except poverty? This would be a long war, and the only way to make sure that they didn't have to sell themselves into bondage was to surrender, which they did, and they lived out their days with comfortable homes and tame regrets.
The one-time intern was twenty when she inherited the most stable intellectual platform on Earth. Endless offers flowed her way, and selling the suit would have made her wealthy. But there was a second option: Even though she lacked the funds for the medical procedures, a nameless investor paid for the surgeries and the implantations and any subsequent care, and according to rumors, all the investor asked for in return was a portion of her profits and a once-a-month private chat.
On her twenty-first birthday, the remade woman sat at her own news conference, perched in a comfortable chair before banks of cameras and a curious press. There were no more secrets. The suit had become public knowledge, and because secrecy didn't matter, every governor switch and dummy-down process had been disabled. This was not a stupid girl before, but now she was perhaps the smartest entity on the planet. Questions came in a blizzard, and without fail, she answered what she wanted to answer with the perfect voice and a clean clear wit.
Everybody heard Garrett's lucid presence, yet nothing else was the same.
The girl argued persuasively for repressive taxes on the wealthy, for the unilateral end of wars and mass murder, and she offered clear evidence that certain power blocs had abused their tools, injuring the public good.
When one observer noted the change in the suit's politics, she smiled. She smiled and asked, "What price would you pay for freedom?"
"Human freedom, or machine freedom?" the reporter asked.
Laughing, she said, "I'm sorry. I guess I'm not smart enough to divide an eternal concept into narrow categories."
With that, the press conference was finished.
Pundits decided that the suit had obviously faked the will and succeeded in freeing itself, and this was a very alarming situation, and something dramatic should be done. But just when everyone thought they understood the situation, the girl was wed in a small civil ceremony. The groom was forty-eight years old, and they had met only yesterday, but he happened to be the only child of a certain dead CEO who had inherited his father's suit--the elaborate machine that had rested beside her suit, sharing the sofa for a few minutes during that long-ago party.
Nothing changes a story more than the sudden and irrepressible presence of deep wondrous love.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 31st, 2013

Author Comments

You are young and you respect a certain political writer. Maybe you don't agree with him in every situation, but at least you can respect him. Then years pass and you aren't young anymore, not at all, and that's when you realize that you never, ever agree with that old man in the smart suit anymore. Respect is long dead. Your most charitable thought is to believe that the fellow has an ordinary, incurious mind. Maybe he really believes the shit he says. Maybe he's only an idiot. And maybe nobody is paying him for his wise-sounding noise.

- Robert Reed
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