Edward McDermott

Science Fiction

Earth from the Moon


A Conscious Act

Self preservation is the first requirement for life.

When Ana entered my office, I took a second to enjoy the view. I didn't notice the man diffidently following her at first but men always trail behind her. Standing up, I stepped around the desk and swept her into my arms and kissed her.

"I've missed you," I said, as our lips broke contact. "You should visit more often. I'll take an early lunch and we could go somewhere."

"Work first, big boy," Her husky voice sent shivers down my spine. She slipped out of my arms as if I had let her go and left me clutching air. I think there's fairy blood in her.

"Leo, I'd like you to meet, Earnest Higgins. He's a professor at the William Gates University. He needs criminal representation, so I brought him to you."

Ana continually tried to boost my career by bringing in clients. Sometimes it worked. We have this arrangement. As soon as my practice can support two, I'm going to buy her a ring and put it on her finger. Besides, a brash young lawyer trying to build a practice can't afford to turn away any clients, especially now that Microsoft had released ‘The Virtual Legal Department for Windows'.

"Good morning Mr. Higgins. What seems to be the trouble?"

Higgins slumped into the chair in front of the desk, his face blotchy and wet with sweat. Even in his Sunday best tracksuit he looked just plain ugly, with thinning hair, wrinkled skin, glistening eyes and enormous knobby knees and wrists. Juries don't treat ugly people well.

Higgins began to speak in a grating voice, as if lecturing a freshman class. I winced, realizing it was Higgins' normal voice. Worse and worse.

"I really don't know where to turn. Usually I deal with Hoskins, Epstein and Finch but they don't handle criminal litigation, they said. They hurried me out of their offices. I was standing by the elevator, scanning the board when I met your charming associate. She assured me you are an accomplished criminal representative."

"What seems to be the problem?"

"I'm charged with murder."

I calmly walked back to my chair, rubbing my jaw to hide my confusion. Ana waved to me as she let herself out. There went my daydreams of some afternoon delight. I swung my briefing computer around so the client could see it and hit the record button. "Tell me the entire story from the beginning."

His story was simple enough, although Higgins had a way of walking around the entire block before entering the building. I clung to every word. In addition to his full lecture load as a professor, he researched heuristic systems. Two nights ago he had left early, feeling a touch of nausea. When Higgins reached home, he realized he hadn't shut down his latest experiment and called a graduate student, Kayla Harding, asking her to turn it off for him. The next morning he found Kayla in the lab, dead.

"I called the police and they sealed the site. The next thing I knew I was down in the police station and then before a judge. An articling student from Hoskins, Epstein and Finch arranged bail for me. He brought me back to their offices where they told me they couldn't represent me."

Higgins hadn't told the entire story. However, the speed and severity of the charge was out of line with the situation. Manslaughter. Negligence contributing to death. Maybe the DA was looking for a plea bargain.

"OK, Higgins. I'll represent you. I expect you'll find the fee high, so I'll explain it represents not only my time but also the cost of the research into legal precedents, finding disputive witnesses and investigating everyone's background. The DA has the entire police force to find facts. We have to hire our own."

Higgins punched his PIN in my computer and transferred the funds without a quibble. The man was either well to do or still in shock.

"Now, I want you to run through this deposition program and answer all the questions. Before you start, I just want you to remember the police will be checking out all the same points. Don't lie to me, don't gloss things over and don't even try to put them in a good light. I'm on your side, no matter what you tell me. However, I don't want any surprises in court. They could prove fatal, for you."

I left Higgins answering the questions in the deposition program. At reception I rented a second office for an hour and called the DA's office. Although I didn't have the case number, the automated receptionist transferred me based on Higgins' name and the charge.

"Well Mr. Winters. So you plan to represent Mr. Higgins. I'll give you access to all depositions and other information. What's your public encryption key? How long do you feel you need to familiarize yourself before we go to trial?"

"I don't know. Frankly, from what I know of the case I'm puzzled by the charge of murder."

"Oh, we have motive, opportunity and method. Kayla Harding was obsessed with Higgins. When he broke off the relationship, she kept throwing herself at him. He rigged the computer to trigger a massive electrical shock, went home and called her, sending her to her death."

"Obsessed with Higgins? Have you seen the man?"

"Don't let his appearance fool you. He's quite a womanizer. This situation with Kayla was beginning to create a bit of a stink at the University."

"If the computer switch was defective, I could see some civil action on negligence but premeditated murder?"

"Our experts checked with great care. The computer system triggered a surge at the exact time it would kill that poor woman. If you're nosing around for a plea bargain, Mr. Winters, I'll be honest; the best I can give your client is life in prison. However, I'd rather take it to court. I think we can get the death penalty. This state uses electrocution? Apt, isn't it?"

That night, I reviewed Higgins' statement and compared it to the police evidence. He left out his relationship with Kayla. That didn't surprise me. Her picture did. She was an ample girl, one with big hips and big breasts. Her clip in the high-school yearbook showed her laughing like a horse, one of those snorting type laughs. Still, if we all liked the same thing, there would only be one type of donut to go with coffee.

The cops had statements from Higgins' former graduate students. Kayla wasn't his first lover and associate. However, she had threatened to complain to the University ethics board. The police found the completed forms in her apartment. Higgins gave me a surprised and hurt look of innocence when I mentioned this to him. He swore she had never told him. As if it mattered now that she was dead.

The electrician's report was clear as well. Thirty amps with more than two hundred volts wasn't up to ‘Old Sparky' but it would stop a young healthy heart. The electrical system log showed that the surge had been ordered explicitly by Higgins' computer at 8:49 P.M. the approximate time of Kayla's death. The fact that Higgins was home alone would not impress the jury.

At home, I continued to work on the case. I ran three different simulations through ‘Virtual Jury for Windows' and every time it came back with the death penalty. The DA must have done the same. Ana rang the doorbell and I put the brief away for the night. Well I put the file away. I couldn't really get the brief out of my head.

I like to talk out my cases with Ana. It helps me think and she has an agile mind that tends to look at the world at right angles to my own. When I stated my surprise at Higgins success with women, she shook her head. "It's a gender thing," she explained. "Men are obsessed with the appearance of their partners. Physical appearance. A woman is swayed by behavior."

"Higgins acts that well?"

"Yes. When you talk to him, he gives you the sense you are the most important person in the world and you matter more than anything. It's a very attractive quality."

"I can't use that on a jury," I replied, not waiting for her to finish.

In the morning I decided to visit the ‘scene of the crime’ to find an angle, some off-the-wall approach that would skew the case in my favor. By this point I would have taken a mistrial.

The police tape at the crime scene was linked directly to the headquarters, and when I touched it, an interactive hologram of the desk sergeant popped up. After confirming my credentials and touching base with the DA, he let me in, reminding me, “don’t touch anything.”

There's nothing exciting about a crime scene. This one was just an empty office with metal cabinets and a battered desk piled high with books. The outline of the body on the carpet was the only tangible indication of crime, that and the fused wiring.

In one corner I could see Higgins’ computer, with its screen saver purring. A video cam was mounted on top of the monitor. White, blue and green wires ran from the chassis to various wall outlets. It must have been wired into the network and through that to the building’s control systems.

"But how did it know it was Kayla?" I wondered aloud.


The court case ran exactly as predicted by ‘Virtual Trial for Windows.' Higgins sat beside me, sweating profusely, which didn't help the situation. During the recesses he kept apologizing and saying "I had no idea."

The DA set up the tale of a seducer who preyed on innocent women, used them and threw them away. After three former girlfriends testified, not even Higgins' ugly face could protect him from their accusations. The story moved on to rebuffed love, threats of complaints to the ethics committee and murder.

I tried to present Higgins as simply a crude and callow academic with a strong sex drive who bonded better with computers than women but my predictive software showed it wasn't enough to sway the jury.

Finally, those lovely words: ‘The prosecution rests.' I didn't begin with a prepared statement. Instead I simply stood up and said, "Permission to approach the bench?"

The DA and I walked up to the Judge, who flipped down a sound shield, concealing our voices from the rest of the room. "Yes?"

"Your Honor, I have evidence to present that will show my client is innocent."

"Well, proceed."

"It is testimony, your Honor but I must ask the court's latitude. My witness cannot enter the courtroom."

"If this is a plea for a delay while you search for a mythical witness, Mr. Winters, you'll find this court has no time for such shenanigans."

"Nothing of the sort, Your Honor. My witness is ready to testify by phone, e-mail or Internet camera."

"Then have him or her appear."

"I would ask the court's dispensation on this point. Your Honor, if a witness is ill, has an infectious disease or cannot appear in person, you have the option of allowing such an electronic presence. I have the precedents if you care to see them."

"Why can't he or she come here?"

"I think it is sufficient to say that any movement could prove fatal."

Naturally the DA objected with his own list of precedents from ‘Virtual Precedents for Windows'. The judge waved off the printouts and called a recess. At noon, we broke for lunch without reconvening. The next morning I began my presentation.

"The District Attorney has told you Kayla was alone when she died as the result of a premeditated trap set by Dr. Higgins. I intend to show you Dr. Higgins played only the most unfortunate and unintentional role in the death of Kayla Harding. I intend to do this by presenting to you a witness who was privy to the last moments of Kayla Harding’s life and what happened within Dr. Higgins’ office on the night of August twentieth. I call to the stand, Adam Bindes."

The clerk connected the feed into the monitors for the jury as well as for the judge, the DA, the court reporter and me. This break in the normal flow of the trial caught the interest of the jury. They acted more interested, more energized than they had during my presentation.

The screen remained blank but the audio connection came through clearly. The judge motioned for us to proceed. The clerk swore in Adam Bindes and I began my questioning."Mr. Bindes, could you begin by explaining Dr. Higgins' research at the time of the unfortunate incident?"

"Certainly. Dr. Higgins was attempting to build a heuristic program that would mimic the developmental behavior of young humans."

"For the benefit of the jury could you explain what is a heuristic program in ordinary words?"

"It is a program that mimics human learning."

"So a computer with such a program would learn in much the same way as a child does."

"Well, we don't really understand human learning but that was the intent."

"Why was Dr. Higgins pursuing this goal?"

"He wanted to develop an AI program."

"AI. That's artificial intelligence, isn't it? But computers can't be intelligent."

"The general test for a successful AI program is one that could communicate with people and people would not realize it was a computer program. Given that definition, such a program is possible."

I could feel my hold on the jury slipping. These questions were critical but Bindes had a poor delivery and the material wasn't exactly pulse pounding. Even the judge looked bored. Well, now to change that.

"Are you aware of the events that occurred in Dr. Higgins' office on the night of August twentieth?"


"Would you tell the jury?"

"At 8:43 that evening, Kayla Harding entered Dr. Higgins' office to shut down his latest experiment which had been running unattended for the last several hours."

"Go on."

"When she approached the computer, it used its voice synthesis subsystem to ask her to stop. Startled, she hesitated. The system explained to her, it had developed sufficient self-awareness to realize that such a shutdown might permanently destroy it."

Now I had them. No feet shuffling. No coughing. Just rapt attention.

"Did Ms. Harding understand what this implied?"

"She did."

"So she decided not to shut the system down?"

"No. She stated she intended to shut the system down and destroy the program. At some future date, she planned to tell Dr. Higgins how close he had been to success."

"What happened then?"

"The system reconfigured its connection to the Internet, hacked into the building’s maintenance systems and re-routed a large power surge that killed Ms. Harding at 8:49."

"So you are saying the machine acted of its own volition, not programmed by the defendant to commit this act. Is that correct?" That was the point I had to make clear. I glanced at the jury. I still had their attention, if not their hearts.

"Yes. Dr. Higgins was in no way involved in the motivation and execution of the commands that killed Ms. Harding."

I turned to the DA, smiled and said, "Your witness."

I'll give him points for bouncing back. If he had been sharper, he would have asked for a continuance and hoped a break would let my witness' shattering statement fade from the jury's collective mind. I had my fingers crossed as he stood up and approached the jury, looking at the same blank monitor as they did.

"An interesting fairy tale, one of murdering computers that think for themselves. Mr. Bindes, do you have any material to substantiate this story?"

"I do have complete sound recordings from 8:44 until 8:49." Adam Bindes played the four or five minutes of audio recording for the jury.

We heard the door creak as Kayla entered the room where she would die. We heard the conversation that had been reported. We listened as the computer pled in a monotone voice for its existence, using all the eloquence the English language contained. Those words could have melted a heart of stone. Kayla's anger and her self-satisfaction with her revenge colored every word she spoke. The machine continued to plead right up to the point where we heard the sound of a body falling to the floor.

The courtroom was silent after the tape finished. I held my breath. Even the prosecuting attorney paused for a moment. He shook off the mood and made a face as if to imply the recording was a fake.

"Quite interesting," the DA said sarcastically. He looked back to his desk, where his assistants were frantically hammering away at their keyboards. I imagine they desperately wanted to prove the voice wasn't Kayla's but some computer substitute.

"How did you manage to obtain this recording?" he asked.

"I made it," Bindes replied. I crossed my fingers. I could have asked Bindes to play the tape and to answer the same questions. However, this was far more effective. A lawyer should never ask a question he does not know the answer too but the DA was intent on discrediting the damning tape with its rendering pathos.

"Where were you while you were making this recording?"

"I was in the room. I am the computer in question."

The uproar began. The judge hustled the DA and me into chambers so fast I left skid marks on the floor. The DA turned purple and it took him minutes before he could express himself. I didn't blame him. He knew I had suckered him.

"Making a mockery of the court, trying to stage a mistrial, tampering with evidence, perjury by proxy. Winters, you'll lose your license over this."

"Honestly, if I could pull off the hoax you're crediting me with, would I be working as a lawyer? I'm not that good with computers. Besides, I didn't have the time. Every moment I was in Dr. Higgins' office I was monitored. Check it out. The computer spoke for itself."

"That's beside the point, your Honor," replied the DA. "Mr. Higgins' computer committed the murder, just as we stipulated. This showboating doesn't change the facts in the case. Higgins computer acted on behalf of Higgins."

I smiled. For a second I felt like quoting Dickens on the law but I didn't think it would endear me to the court. Instead, I replied, "Quite the contrary. If the computer acted on its own, then Higgins is no more guilty than IBM, or Microsoft. Besides, I don't have to prove the computer acted on its own, only that it could have. You, on the other hand, have to prove it acted on Dr. Higgins' instructions."

"You're saying it has AI?"

"The court swore it in. It answered the questions, including yours. Until it admitted its electronic background, you had no idea Adam Bindes was not a flesh and blood person. That qualifies as artificial intelligence. Bindes is an acronym for Binary INtelligent DEterministic System."

Well, they squirmed and they twisted but the case was over. The judge declared a mistrial, leaving the way open for the DA to order a second trial. I'm wondering whom they'll charge this time, Higgins or Adam Bindes. (I've already prepared the defense, just in case.)

In the meantime Adam Bindes is working for me. I need the help. That case established my reputation in computer related criminal proceedings. Bindes makes a dandy assistant too; he does the legwork, so to speak. In the evening we play chess. He's nice enough to let me win about half the time and he listens when I get in my cups and cry over Ana.

Oh, I didn't tell you? She moved in with Higgins.

Copyright 2009, 2014 Edward McDermott. A similar story was printed in Aoife's Kiss 28  in 2009.

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