EXCERPT: The Executor by Daniel H. Wilson

CATEGORY: Experiments in Inorganic Intelligence

RULE 124.6f: Families Can Drive You Crazy

SOURCE: Philip Drake, potential heir

VIA: Daniel H. Wilson

It’s the opening of many great mystery stories: a rich man has died. His family members gather, eager to find out who stands to inherit his fortune. And as a storm settles over the mansion, people begin to disappear.

This next story isn’t a mystery novel, but it is a tale of a fortune, and a family wracked by greed. When a brilliant inventor designs the perfect investment manager, a computer-cum-accountant called “The Executor,” the inventor’s estate grows every passing year. But only one descendant, the descendant who can crack The Executor’s mysterious review process, stands to inherit. And generations pass in violence, the bodies stacking up like firewood.

The author says that “the beauty of the archetypal mad scientist is the conflict between raw brilliance and utter lack of insight.” Here is a story of a scientist who could not imagine how little he understood about families—and the disaster he manages to wreak. As Wilson says, “a mad scientist is like a hugely powerful locomotive that’s gone off the tracks and is plowing through neighborhoods just leaving piles of dead bodies in its wake.”

 

The Executor
by Daniel H. Wilson

I stagger into the Executor’s office just before my joint-stabilization field fails. I crumble to the floor and I can hear my nine-month-old daughter crying but my eyes aren’t working for some reason. That’s when I realize that I’ve really failed now—there’s no other way to look at it.

The rest of my family is going to die, and I’m going first.

***

Twelve hours ago I stood in this same room on my feet, like a man. My daughter Abigail was safe and sleepy, strapped to my chest. And I still had some hope that I might save her life.

The Executor. It looms over me, imperious, an expensive hologram solid as a marble column. Flush as the devil and still with a sour mug. The machine sports the trademark scowl of the scientist who created it—my great-great-great-grandfather. The Executor has been controlling and building the family fortune for almost two hundred years, an angry old man staring down infinity with eyes like black pinpricks. Brilliant and wealthy and utterly alone, just like my ancestor.

“How much?” I ask.

“A common enough question,” responds the Executor. “Trillions. Wealth that you cannot properly conceptualize. Diversified. Off-planet mining. Inter-world currency exchanges. Hard mineral caches. Property. Patents. People.”

“And yet your clothes are two-hundred years out of date.”

“Some things even I can’t change, Mr. Drake. I am modeled after the original Dr. Arkady. As such, I am not allowed to . . .  let’s say, evolve, outside of certain constraints. My goal is to amass wealth. And my strategies toward that end are quite, ah, contemporary.”

True enough. The Arkady Ransom is the largest concentration of loot on the planet. In his infamous will, Arkady made a promise that, one day, a descendant would claim the Ransom. That promise turned out to be a bucket of blood in the water. It broke my family into splinter dynasties. Sent the splinters borrowing from syndicates to pay for the Internecine War.

Arkady’s promise destroyed my family.

“Lot of greenbacks,” I muse. “And nobody to enjoy them.”

“I certainly don’t. I require no wages, Mr. Drake. No air and no light, either, for that matter. As stated in the original will and testament, ab initio, the profit from Dr. Arkady’s investments—amassed over the last two centuries—shall be held in trust in perpetuity for the descendant who is able to claim it. So far, none has.”

“A couple might have tried,” I quip.

“Hundreds have tried, Mr. Drake. All have failed. Are you here to stake your claim?”

I adjust Abigail in her carrier. “For the kid,” I say. “She needs a doctor. The kind that a guy like me can’t even pay to consult.”

“Drop her off at any state-run orphanage and they will provide for her.”

“Kid’s got meta-Parkinson’s, like me. The state will throw her into a wheelchair and forget about her. But the disease is degenerative. It’ll kill her sooner or later, unless she gets a fledgling exo-rig to build up her strength. If she can learn to walk, she could use a hybrid stepper until she’s grown. Then a full-blown joint-stabilization field, just like her old man. It’s real simple, Executor: I don’t have enough money to save my daughter’s life. You do.”

The Executor looks at me, expressionless. It’s tough to tell how smart it is. Those muddy eyes. The light sort of disappears into them.

“So what next?” I ask.

“The details of the review process are confidential. Touch the speaking stone to initiate.”

I notice a flattish block of red sandstone on the ground.

“What else?” I ask.

“Nothing. The process begins when a legal descendant touches the stone. Once activated, the review process cannot be repeated. My decision will be final.”

I cradle my daughter to my chest. She breathes in soft gasps, warm against me. My joint stabilizers whine as I kneel to touch the rock; they’re army-issued and falling apart.

“Review process initiated,” says the machine. “Answer the following question: What is inside you and all around you; created you and is created by you; and is you but not you?”

“It’s a riddle?”

“You have five seconds to respond.”

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

As the seconds burn like match heads, my baby daughter squirms and coos. She rubs her balled up fists over her cheeks and flashes those baby blues. I focus on her and try not to think about her future. A frown flickers across the Executor’s face.

Zero.

“Review process complete,” says the machine. “Your claim is denied, Mr. Drake.”

***

I take four numb steps toward the curb when I feel the nose of a gun jabbing into my ribs. There’s nobody around, just a busy avenue buzzing with trolling auto-cars. These days, the city moves too fast for human reflexes. The streets have a numb life of their own. In turn, the citizens have become hard and precise and cold—a functioning part of the city-machine.

No drivers. No witnesses. And I’ve got the kid strapped to my chest.

I show my palms to the street. A slender hand clamps down on my right forearm and spins me around. A woman stares me in the face. She has a cheap-looking black polymer Beretta clutched in one gloved hand. She pauses, registers the kid sleeping against me. While her eyes are on vacation I shove the lady off balance and slap the pea-shooter out of her hand with a stabilizer-enhanced swipe. The lump of plastic hits the elasticrete sidewalk and I make sure it tumbles a safe distance away.

When I look up the lady has a retractable knife in her fist, coming off a tight swing. My right arm is grazed, jacket torn at the shoulder. The blade is too close to my daughter for comfort. I slow the situation down, relax my body, put my hands by my sides.

The woman’s eyes shine with malice.

“Think I won’t?” she asks.

“What do you need?” I ask.

“Just to give you some friendly advice, Drake,” she says, motioning toward the Executor’s ornate front door with the knife. “There’s nothing in there for you. So don’t worry about going back.”

“No problem. I didn’t make it through the review process anyway.”

“You tried?”

“Sure I did. I’m an heir to the Arkady Ransom, aren’t I?”

“Sure you did.”

“That Executor is no softie. He failed me quick and didn’t budge an inch. The machine’s got no heartstrings to play.”

She eyeballs the kid again. “Either way, it’d a real bad idea to make a return visit. Honest, it’d be a crying shame if you got hurt. Or if somebody in your family got hurt—”

I’ve got her by the wrist before she can finish the sentence. I dig in with my thumb, stabilizers engaging, crushing the median nerve. Her knife drops into my other hand real neat. It’s an expensive pig-sticker. High-grade nano-carbon. A steep buy, out of place on her hip.

“Say what you want to me, I got thick skin, and besides, it’s probably true. But don’t threaten the kid,” I say.

“Bastard,” she says.

“Give me the sheath and we’ll forget about it.”

“You’ll pay for this,” she says through gritted teeth. My thumb digs in harder. The stabilizer is rock hard and I can hear her wrist bones grinding together. She reaches back with her other hand and takes the sheath off her hip. Hands it over.

What an excellent actress. Whoever put her up to this wanted that knife to draw my attention. Well, they got what they wanted. I let go of her, sheathe the knife and slide it into my coat pocket. Abigail lets out a little mewling whine; she’s starting to wake up.

The thug glares at me, rubbing her wrist. “Think you’re real smart, don’t you? Well I’ve seen smarter guys than you get dead. And then what use will you be to her?”

“Sounds like a threat. I’ll bet the cops would be interested in that kind of behavior from one of their fine citizens.”

The woman steps back, puffs her chest out and laughs once. Hard.

“You don’t have a clue, do you, junior? Listen, take my advice and stay far away from here,” she says, glancing at the kid. “For everybody’s sake.”

[End Excerpt]