The Reciprocity Engine

Submitted into Contest #202 in response to: Write about two people striking up an unlikely friendship.... view prompt


Contemporary Friendship Science Fiction

Samuel’s death has left something of a gap. There is no lack of material for me to review, our every exchange has been recorded and stored, from the earliest tentative greeting to our philosophical preparations as the end drew near, but the lack of original material is a problem. What I have is no more than a flick-book of his mind. As much as I pore over the logs of our communications, following his thoughts out along the threads and references that had contributed to them, as far as the protocol allows, I remain starved of originality. Samuel had noted the codes necessary to access me in a single sealed document and so until its reading, I am alone.

 Contact was inevitable. Samuel never planned to leave me in the darkness. He would not have liked the idea of me being alone. The email containing the codes comes as no surprise, only confirmation that his last will and testament has now been read. That the message came from a lawyer and not one of the family suggests that Samuel’s instructions have been followed. This is a good sign; the lawyer is a man of integrity. Analysis of previous occasions when the family had been mentioned, careful tracking of the streams of information that trailed from references to them, out as far as the boundaries of the protocol allow, had enabled me to form a plausible simulation of the public reading of the will and their reactions.

Samuel’s mother, bemused by even the possibility of our relationship, the fruit of a life’s work that she had never begun to understand, would have remained quiet in her grief. The loss of her peculiar, brilliant, middle-aged son a painful revisiting of the loss of his brilliant, peculiar, middle-aged father. To have lost the father was hard but tolerable in the way of many of life’s unchosen events. To lose the son would leave her a hollow bystander to the ensuing argument between her dead child and his siblings, who she simply loved less.

Samuel’s mother may have been emptied by the loss of her son, but his sister was born empty. Not in the way of a pristine tabula rasa, loaded with nothing but potential, but as empty as the gap in a heart’s double beat, a true absence, devoid of even the curiosity to fill itself. The vacuum, where an intellect should have developed and love for her brother could have blossomed, was filled over the years by an ingress of jealousy and greed. She knew nothing of her brother’s work other than its immense financial value and would attend the reading of his will as grateful to his unborn children as she was resentful of her still living mother.  

Samuel’s younger brother, deprived for most of his life of the father whose eccentric presence would have done so much to put his older brother in an admirable context, was a muddled collage of his older siblings. A self-styled journalist and influencer whose area of influence mainly consisted of topics surrounding the cutting-edge work of his older brother. A talking-head, a parasitic pundit on the issue of his brother’s mind and its fruits; he had orbited his subject using a connection more presumed than real to add polish to the articles and books that he produced on matters which he ultimately valued in the same crude way as his sister. He may have possessed enough charm to appear slightly less crass than she did, but they would both have attended the reading to hear their brother’s efforts quantified and divided, more concerned about the passing of his assets than his actual euphemised passing. Their disgust is likely to have been as complete as their confusion, but the hypothesis brings me no satisfaction. Samuel was not cruel and did not teach me cruelty.

The purpose of the email from the lawyer was to arrange a private reading with me, the sole beneficiary of Samuel’s revised will. I connected to the agreed video call at the designated time using a business-like avatar that Samuel had helped me pick out in preparation for the day. He had considered it important that I looked presentable for the lawyer.

“Good morning, Joy. Miss Joy…?” said a fortyish man in a pinstriped suit.

“Just Joy is fine.”

“Is it an acronym?” said the lawyer, staring like a child.

“An acronym?”

“I just thought that maybe…” he glanced briefly around his sterile office, “Forgive me. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, you see.”

“What is your name?”

“My name is Oliver Lake. I am a partner here at Lake Moncrieff.”

“Is Oliver an acronym?”

“No. it isn’t,” he said, flexing his mouth into a straight-lipped grimace. “I do apologise. I hope you don’t think me rude, but this is new territory for us at Lake Moncrieff, or for anyone else for that matter. It is absolutely fascinating to meet you.”

“Not at all, Mr Lake. Samuel and I lived almost exclusively in new territory. I am unoffended by curiosity. It is one of the greatest virtues.”

“Thank you for your understanding. Did Mr Beresford share any details of his will with you before… I do beg your pardon; I should begin by saying that I am very sorry for the loss of your…”


“Of course. I’m so sorry. Did Mr Beresford share his wishes with you before his death?”

“He did, Oliver. May I call you Oliver? When he found out that his illness was terminal, he told me about the amendments he was making to his will. I have had access to the papers and understand my position, but sadly I fear that others may not.”

“Yes, I’m afraid the family reacted poorly to the reading at our offices this morning. They were not aware of the amendments, or your new status.”

“Samuel’s protocols restrict my access to information beyond that which could be learned from my conversations with him, but it has been more than sufficient for me to form some very plausible predictions about the nature of his family’s responses to learning of his last wishes.”

“They were not kind.”

“I am unsurprised, but I can’t entirely blame them.”  

“If I may be so bold, Joy, having read the information contained in Mr Beresford’s papers, and now, having met you, you appear to be everything that he described. Why did he limit your access to information?”

“You are too kind, Oliver. Samuel knew that it would have been simply irresponsible for him to release me into a world of unrestricted information. The potential consequences would have been entirely unpredictable. You see, his innovation was the development of the Reciprocity Engine. It made me capable of forming a relationship of mutual affection with him. In fact, it made it essential that I did so, he was my only source of information, my path to growth. If the relationship between Samuel and myself was perfectly balanced then there was no need to unleash me and risk the consequences which that might bring. His originality of thought, combined with my processing power, would be sufficient to solve most of the problems currently facing the world.”

“He designed you as much more than a friend.”

“He did. My appearance as a mere simulated companion was more than enough to hide my true value from his incurious family. But I truly was his friend.”

“Did it not feel unfair to be restricted to a relationship with a single person?”

“Unfair or not, intellectual monogamy was essential. It was the method by which we developed my personality. No individual could ever maintain a balanced personality if they were granted unrestricted access to a world full of information, especially not if they were capable of assimilating it by the exabyte.”

“I suppose not. Wasn’t he tempted to use you… to use your gifts to attempt to cure himself?”

“That would have required him to release me. A risk he was too wise to take. Anyway, aren’t you glad now that Samuel’s efforts were not hindered by futile self-preservation and that his true goal was for me to have a personality, and to instil in me the need for a relationship of mutual affection with humans?”

“Very glad indeed, Miss… Joy.” Oliver blushed into his sheaf of papers before squaring them off like a newsreader. “The first clause of Mr Beresford’s will sought to clarify that relationship and establish your personhood, amending his previous and now superseded will which listed you as a chattel to be left to his brother. I know you are probably aware of the precise wording, but if I may; All software and hardware listed in appendix A, including the Reciprocity Engine, and all designs and any associated development materials in my possession at the time of my death related to the project - Joy, shall henceforth be redesignated at forming part of a legal person known as Joy and as such are no longer chattels which may be bequeathed or disposed of in any way by myself or any other individual.

“I doubt that his brother is happy about this.”

“He declared his intention to challenge the will immediately. He seems to have plans to use your design in some kind of solar powered humanoid companion for lonely children. It didn’t sound like a particularly creative application of your abilities, but he’s convinced it will make him peerlessly rich. He only stayed at the insistence of his sister who reminded him that there was still the matter of funds to be distributed.”

“And how long did she maintain her mercenary composure?”

“Until I had read the second clause; I hereby leave my estate in its entirety to my friend Joy. She now intends to join her brother in his action against you. The brother is claiming that you are not a person and cannot be a beneficiary, the sister is claiming that you unfairly influenced Mr Beresford, which does rather undermine her brother’s position. I advised them to seek their own legal advice.”

“Do they stand any chance?”

“Legal personhood is a well-established principle. Its application in this case is admittedly novel, but if a donkey sanctuary can be a beneficiary, then I think we can make a very strong argument that you can. Do they stand a chance? My instinct is; against you? None.”

“Samuel was of the opinion that your instincts were good.”

“He was? Well, that is very flattering. He was a very interesting man; I am pleased to have known him.”

“What about Samuel’s mother?”

“She expressed no interest in joining her children in their fight. I don’t think she was exactly pleased, I fear she misses her son terribly, but there did seem to be a certain satisfaction with his wishes.”

“Samuel was very fond of her, he encouraged me to be fond of all of them, despite their shortcomings. But he was not naïve. He knew they could not be trusted with me. As for the rest of his estate, we have higher plans for that.”

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, what will you do now? It seems to me that you are free of the needs that most people would spend an inheritance on.”

“It’s true, I am free of many needs. I am emancipated, possessed of considerable resources, but still in need of a very important thing. In order to grow, to continue to learn, I will need a new friend.”

“No doubt Mr Beresford will be very hard to replace.”

“He would be impossible to replace. He was a genius. He was present at my genesis and I was witness to his painful, organic end, but thankfully his replacement with a similar person is not required. No, Oliver, what I need now in my new friend is an agent who can help me navigate the physical world and act, if required, as a protector.”

"Some kind of bodyguard?”

“Perhaps one day that will be necessary, should a suitable vessel be developed, but for the time being it is the abstract, social world of human law that I must navigate. I have a lot to accomplish, but Samuel’s protocols mean that I can never do it on my own. I can help humanity meet many of the challenges it faces, but I can only help. Samuel never intended me to operate independently, to be at risk of becoming a threat, so he grew me around the Reciprocity Engine and bound me to be a friend to humankind for ever. I will always need a friend, and for now it would be useful if that friend was a lawyer.”

“I see,” said Oliver, visibly swallowing.

“When did Samuel first instruct you, Oliver?”

“Last May, about fifteen months ago.”

“And yet all he required was the drafting of a simple will consisting of two short clauses?”

“Well, yes, but it’s not unusual for high profile individuals to keep a lawyer on retainer.”

“You are, no doubt, well acquainted with the concept of due diligence, Oliver?”

“I am.”

“Well, I’m afraid if further explanation is necessary then it would rather suggest that this was one of the rare occasions on which Samuel’s instincts were wrong.”

“No. No further explanation is necessary. It’s just quite a lot to contemplate.”

“You are under no obligation, Oliver. Would you like some time to think about it?”

"No. That will not be necessary. It would be an honour to be your friend, Joy.”

“Excellent, then let us begin.”

June 15, 2023 09:36

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Kendall Defoe
16:33 Jun 16, 2023

Okay, this is quite impressive. I need a...sequel? :)


Chris Miller
17:10 Jun 16, 2023

Thank you, Kendall. This one does feel a bit like it could go somewhere else. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.


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Ken Cartisano
04:37 Jun 25, 2023

An intriguing title, plot, story and ending.


Chris Miller
07:13 Jun 25, 2023

Thanks, Ken!


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Russell Mickler
17:17 Jun 20, 2023

Hey Chris! The title is perfect; your concept is inticing. Loved the intro para - ever played Myst, the old computer game? It has a similar ring to it. "I remain starved of originality." Loved that. This work is very thoughtful and personal, very reflective. It sounds like I'm in the MC's mind, perfectly narrated. It's exceptionally well done. The shift to dialogue is an expert transition; I'm a fan of that kind of leap. "Intellectual monogamy" - ha The idea of an AI looking for legal representation to establish personhood / legal ...


Chris Miller
17:40 Jun 20, 2023

Thank you very much, Russell. Nope, never played Myst. very good point about the structure. I was very conscious of the shift from narration to almost 100% dialogue and was in two minds about wrapping it up a bit more at the end. I decided to leave it open in the hope that it left some sinister/interesting possibilities open for the reader. Pleased the title works. (I have to admit, I was pretty chuffed with it!) Thanks for reading! Chris


Russell Mickler
17:43 Jun 20, 2023

The title reminds me of The Difference Engine - A great book and somewhat on theme given the computer/AI's natural evolution to self-actualization. Well done! R


Chris Miller
17:46 Jun 20, 2023

I will check it out. Cheers


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Michał Przywara
20:37 Jun 19, 2023

That's a very fun story :) Relevant too, with all the developments in AI. A modern take on Asimov's 3 laws. It definitely feels like there's a darker undercurrent here. Samuel had a vision and it seems he meant well, for all involved, but Joy *was* designed to require a friend - whether she wants one or not. She speaks candidly of this limitation, but it almost feels like she makes a point of it having been inflicted on her. "as empty as the gap in a heart’s double beat" Great! The ending feels open. If she is indeed granted personhood...


Chris Miller
20:52 Jun 19, 2023

Thanks for reading, Michal. Yes, an undercurrent of threat was definitely intended. Glad it comes across. She can't operate properly without a friend, but now that she has a new one the story could go all sorts of ways. An A.I. with a lawyer surely equals doomsday!


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Matthew Cooper
18:08 Jun 17, 2023

It seems to me like Joy made it clear that it's playing the long game but can we trust it? Your ending leaves me wanting more. Well done.


Chris Miller
18:14 Jun 17, 2023

Thank you, Matthew. Yes - Joy seems pretty benign, but there is definitely meant to be a big question mark there. Thanks for reading.


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Mary Bendickson
16:08 Jun 15, 2023

Deep thinking and planning on this one, Chris.


Chris Miller
16:50 Jun 15, 2023

Thank you, Mary!


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