“Baz, what time is the man from Silte Corp calling?” Chris asked the question over his shoulder as he worked the knot in his tie up to his throat. He then started pulling on his pants—the ones fresh from the dry-cleaner, not the ones he had worn into the Capitol that morning for the vote.
“11:30,” Baz said from the wide screen that Chris had had built into the wall directly across from his desk when he’d moved in. “That’s six minutes thirty-six seconds from now, Senator Colmin.”
“Do I look presentable?” He had just finished with his cuffs and now stood in full view of the screen’s camera, which was his virtual assistant’s perception tool.
“Perhaps you might do something with your hair, Senator Colmin.”
“Good eye.” Chris ran a soft hand through his neatly trimmed, gray-flecked brown hair, smoothing out any signs of the excitement of the last fifteen minutes. As an unmarried member of the United States Congress, he had to keep up the appearance that sex was something he just did not do, even though nobody with a brain really believed that.
“I wouldn’t put your feet up on the desk,” Alana said, smoothing out her pants as she stepped out of the office’s spacious closet, “unless you plan to put some shoes on.” She was wearing a not-quite-formal navy blue suit that was exactly what Chris would expect a senator from New York to wear.
“I wouldn’t put my feet up on the desk anyway,” Chris said. “It’s expensive.”
“Why not?” Alana asked playfully. “You don’t want to trample the desk like you trampled the lives of millions of unemployed workers and their families this morning?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Fearing an economic collapse, Chris had previously been among the many who had sought to force Silte Corp to re-employ most of its laid-off personnel and have its subsidiaries do likewise, but three days of violent protests with a death toll in the thousands (many of them demonstrators, but that was beside the point) had forced he and many of his colleagues to trust Silvan and his corporate empire—if only to stay true to the media-guided public opinion. So he had voted against the emergency action. He couldn’t help but wonder, considering Silvan’s influence, whether the outcome of the vote would’ve been any different regardless. There was a lot of money coming out of that tower in Dallas, enough to make all sorts of things happen.
“Baz,” he said to the elderly generic male face on the screen, “does Senator Shelley have a clear way out?”
“Just a moment…okay. It’s clear now, Senator Colmin.”
“Good,” Chris said. “Alana, until next time.”
“Next time,” she said, smoothing out her sleeves, “maybe we should do this when you have a little more than twenty minutes to spare.” She obviously hadn’t been satisfied, but Chris knew her well enough now to pick up on that without her having to say it.
“Goodbye, Senator Shelley,” he said formally. He walked her to the door and looked down the hall in both directions before ushering her out and closing the door to the sound of her echoing footsteps. He hoped no one had decided to leave a nearby office before she got far enough away; it would not be good at all for a libertarian like himself to get caught having a secret meeting with a neo-progressive, especially in his first term in Congress. And if somebody found out they were fucking…well, he could only imagine the career-ending articles his acquaintances would gleefully send him accompanied by messages telling him how much they had always secretly hated him. He would have to retreat back to Texas and hope the scandal didn’t prevent him from getting some type of respectable corporate job before his last government paycheck ran out.
Circling around to sit at his desk, he finger-combed his hair one last time, preparing for the meeting that the message from a Silte Corp HR-bot had so adamantly implored he be present and alone for. Chris assumed the position, placing his hands on his chair’s armrests and donning a practiced smile—friendly, but not so friendly that he would not be taken seriously.
When the call notification came up on screen Baz said, “Putting him through right away, Senator Colmin.”
“Hello, Senator Colmin,” the man’s voice said while the screen was still black. A second later his narrow, well-lined face showed up on the screen, and Chris leaned back in surprise. The man’s hair was grayer and his eyelids were heavier, his mouth tighter, but Chris recognized the man right away.
“Nelson Hergeman,” he said, relaxing his shoulders and dropping the mock-friendly act: this was a friend. Well, he was a friend to the extent that he was the man who had been appointed by Silte Corp to make sure Chris won his primary and made it to Washington as junior senator for the state of Texas. “How have you been?” Chris said. “You know I never really thanked you for, well, this.” He gestured at the office around him.
“It’s time to repay Mr. Silvan and Silte Corporation,” Hergeman said, completely ignoring Chris’s polite greeting. “We got you in office,” Hergeman elaborated. “Now you help us.”
“Oh, I see.” Something wasn’t right about the way Hergeman spoke—or the way his face didn’t seem to reflect his words in any noticeable way; in fact, he was unsettlingly wooden to the point of appearing inhuman. “I understand,” Chris said. “I mean, I’ve been wondering when you guys would reach out to me with all that’s going on out there.” Not to mention, he thought, why you scheduled this meeting for after the morning vote. Had they been testing him by seeing where his allegiance would fall when left unhindered?
There was no question that Chris owed everything to Silte Corp. When he initially set out on the campaign trail, he made no secret about his full support of the Corporate Freedom Act in its present state and promised that he would not vote for any legislation that would impinge on the rights of corporate persons. Knowing, obviously, this would have limited appeal among a weary voter base, he had been relying on gaining an edge in the primary through generous corporate contributions; what he had gotten instead was a visit at his North Dallas headquarters, in person (for the one and only time—the rest of their meetings would be in vid-calls), by Nelson Hergeman. The man had discussed a few ideological points with him for a while before telling him that Silte Corporation would be willing to win him the senate seat if he would agree to serve them whenever they needed him to. Wanting nothing more at that moment than to gain one more step on the political ladder, Chris had taken the stylus firmly in hand and signed the tablet screen. Within a week, the only other serious contender in the primary dropped out suddenly and mysteriously. Two months later, the two other candidates who posed any real threat to Chris’s campaign dropped out of the race, and in November he began making preparations to come to Washington D.C. to join his fellow freshman senators. Hergeman had sent him one final message: “Congratulations. You will hear from us.”
It seemed that time had come.
“We have a bill,” Hergeman said. “It has your name on it, along with a few others, but you’re front and center. You’re going to introduce this bill Wednesday, and the vote will be Thursday. It will pass the senate and house and will obviously not be vetoed by the president.”
“Okay,” Chris said slowly, trying to ignore the weird motionlessness of the face on the screen. “And what is this bill? More corporate freedom? If so, I can’t guarantee it will pass.”
“No.” Hergeman shook his head mechanically. “The bill gives artificial personalities, intelligences, and other entities legal personhood. The Freedom of Non-Physical Persons Act.”
Out of respect for the man, Chris forced himself not to laugh. After a short silence he said, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather me propose increased freedom for corporate persons? That might have a better chance than this.”
“It will pass.” The strange, emotionless way he said it made Chris believe him.
Sponsoring a bill wasn’t all that much to ask of Chris. In fact, having his name on a major, polarizing bill could be a great step to a possible future presidential run. But this bill in particular was just ridiculous. There may be fifteen or twenty members of Congress on the ideological fringes who thought that, for one reason or another, artificial personalities should have equal rights; aside from those, everyone saw the possible long term implications—like what will happen when a true artificial intelligence is created and instantly possesses all the rights of a natural human being. The fear was just too ingrained to allow them to endorse such a thing. Not to mention the fact that half of them—including every senior senator over the age of 65—still refused to update their offices with virtual assistants like the rest of the world. This bill would be a tough sell, and not only would it not help his future presidential campaign, it might actually prevent it altogether. He should say no to Hergeman now and join in the mocking derision aimed at whomever they picked to take his place on Wednesday.
But he didn’t have that option.
“Give this bill to my assistant,” he said to the screen, where Hergeman’s face didn’t even acknowledge that Chris had said anything.
“That will be all for now, Senator,” Hergeman said.
“All right.” Chris poured himself some ice water from the jug on his desk and took a sip. “Before you go,” he said, “why exactly does Silte Corp need a bill like this to pass? Are your secretaries threatening to go on strike or something?” He chuckled but quickly stopped when he realized the joke had not made so much as a dent in Hergeman’s steel exterior.
“I’m not permitted to answer that.”
“Understandable,” Chris said. Then, deciding he’d had enough of this uncharacteristic version of the man he had once known, he said, “You know, for as much life as you’re showing today, I’d say you’re an artificial personality.”
Still not even a grin from the other man. Hergeman only said, “We will be in touch, Senator.” And with that the meeting was over.
Draining his nearby glass of water, Chris got up and moved around the desk, straightening his tie and shirt collar. He looked around the room and sighed; on Wednesday he would probably become the subject of a day’s worth of jokes from the news analyzers and political satirists of the world. It would blow over, eventually—it always did. Or maybe it wouldn’t need to. Hergeman had sounded pretty sure, and Chris couldn’t deny that Silte already had a heavy hand in the day-to-day dealings in Congress. He would just have to trust the masters and play along, do his job.
“Baz,” he said, “I’m going out to lunch. Give me a summary of that bill. Everything I need to know to not look like too much of an idiot on Wednesday. That includes outside facts and data.”
“Right away, Senator Colmin.”
Pocketing his tablet, Chris said, “Just think, if things work out Wednesday then maybe someday you’ll be a senator and someone will be taking your orders.” He couldn’t help but flash an irreverent smile at the screen as he sauntered out of the office—a smile that quickly died when he realized that if the bill passed he might actually have to start giving his virtual secretary paychecks.
And that was a scary thought.