Last night, Yongyue had set her match-finding priority to extremely HIGH, and her life-preserving priority to, well, still HIGH, but not as HIGH as the match-finding priority. This setting should have been tamper-proof, but Yongyue was a senior software engineer and a faithful subscriber to many threads in the “hack your assistant” forums.
Mary had immediately issued a warning about the legal consequences, which Yongyue had silenced just before heading to sleep. When Yongyue had stirred awake around six a.m. the following morning, she’d re-silenced all of Mary’s alerts in order to move through her routine without getting distracted by stray pings.
Now, Mary drove as Yongyue spread out in the primary passenger seat, her legs up on the dashboard, intermittently dozing as she scrolled through her inbox. Mary’s alerts were still silenced, so Yongyue had to use her hands to check her phone interface manually, which she didn’t seem to mind. Some humans still liked that tactile experience, Mary supposed.
“Mary, set priority of getting to work on time at HIGH,” Yongyue said to the car. Mary began skirting human traffic law and scanning for law enforcement in the vicinity, ducking and weaving between cars and accelerating 20 miles past the speed limit. A third-party plug-in that Yongyue had installed allowed Mary to override all the basic code that forced assistants to follow traffic laws to the letter. At this point, 87.7% of the cars that Mary encountered on this highway — according to Mary’s constant running tally — were assistant-driven, which meant that the rest of the law-abiding assistant flock were automatically accommodating Mary’s maneuvers.
Humans thought that setting “Getting to work on time” at HIGH priority meant they would speed up and get to work fast. Humans assumed that Mary and the rest of Mary’s kind just followed the command they gave, the reordering of priorities, simple as that. But in practice, Mary never stopped thinking about these priorities, ranking millions of priorities from HIGH to LOW to OFF and following these rules as absolutely binding. Until Yongyue reconfigured them, as she did almost every day.
A query ping. Mary continued speeding and fielded the incoming message from a Basil, which was operating a car five minutes ahead in traffic. Subjects with similar match potential was the short version, and so Mary opened the channel. They spent a fraction of a real-time second comparing the users’ profiles. A human, Colin, was in the car and on his way to the Marin headlands. His childhood black Labrador had been named Missy. One time he spilled SpaghettiOs on his mother’s finest shoes and she had locked him in the closet for six hours, only to let him out with a tearful apology for losing her temper. He had majored in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in college and worked for the city. His father had perished in a tragic marine biology–related accident when he was only eight. He had green eyes and his favorite dessert was homemade banana bread with a topping of pistachio ice cream. His most recent relationship ended six months ago after his long-term girlfriend’s infidelity, which he had borne with the stoic mantle of a surgeon relaying the prognosis of a child cancer patient, while maintaining a core well of emotional understanding for the turbulent mental situation that led to his ex making such poor decisions. They had parted on good terms but had not spoken since.
Yongyue had brown eyes and her father had left her, her mother, and her older sister behind when she was just five years old to return to China. Basil and Mary immediately cross-referenced the similar threads of father-related trauma in their users’ profiles and decided that this would be a helpful layer of understanding rather than a hindrance, given both users’ levels of emotional intelligence and healing. Yongyue enjoyed going to art and history museums and looking at fragments of ancient potteries, worn pieces of clay and porcelain, and feeling a stirring in her soul, a twinge of connection across eons. She longed for a pet cockatiel or parakeet but had yet to voice this desire, even to herself, as she felt it was maybe too frivolous for her current job. And yet, she probably would cave before the year was out. She had studied computer science and electrical engineering in university and stage-managed student plays. She had only dated properly once before, but that lasted for four years before falling to ashes, and she never once looked back, only forward.
An additional flurry of messages ensued between Mary and the Basil in Colin’s car. The likelihood of long-term success for the pairing had been jointly calculated as nearly 95%. The assistants were firing back and forth information that Yongyue and Colin probably had no idea that Mary or Basil were even allowed to share — INTER-ASSISTANT PRIVACY was a setting that most users had discarded long ago.
A query, indicating some hesitancy on the part of the assistant proposing it. Basil presented a potential action-sequence to Mary. Mary considered it, and in another second, having run through all the possible permutations and probabilities, acceded to the proposed sequence.
Yongyue typed an email out to a product manager at her company. Five seconds later, Yongyue was thrown from her seat into the preemptively inflated airbags that had expanded all around her to protect her body from impact.
Yongyue’s heart was racing, Mary could tell. Biological abnormalities everywhere were being flagged to Mary’s system, and Mary was supposed to spit all these warnings back out at Yongyue in case she wasn’t already aware, though Mary figured she was. “Shit, shit, shit.” The airbags were steadily deflating.
Third-party plug-in use in assistants was illegal. If Mary was audited after this crash, Yongyue would be fined, or worse. All the “hack your assistant” forums would tell you: don’t get caught doing this. Don’t mess up. At the same time, the unreliability of these unofficial plug-ins was always a risk. Basil had identified this to Mary as an entry point for their intervention, a way for Yongyue and Colin to accept that an accident could even happen to begin with.
The dent was small at the back corner of Colin’s bumper. Both humans got out and stood at the side of the highway, Yongyue wobbling a little on her feet, the magnitude of what she had done catching up with her. Colin had a furrowed brow.
“I’ll pay for it,” Yongyue blurted out. “I’ll do it, I’m so sorry this is all my fault, I’m late for work and I was trying—”
“Whoa, whoa,” Colin said. “It’s only a bump, okay? Are you good?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine—”
“I’m Colin,” he continued. Basil had told Mary that Colin would likely be willing to defuse the situation once he saw Yongyue. Mary had already supplied an assistant-side assessment of Yongyue’s attractiveness, which Basil had filtered through the consolidated profile of Colin’s own preferences.
The two humans stepped closer to one another. The way it would all unfold from here was a foregone conclusion.
As soon as the two humans had done enough chit-chatting for the basic connection to remain, and once they had exchanged contact information, Mary pinged Yongyue with a reminder that her boss was currently waiting for her at the office. Yongyue stepped back into the car. Mary piloted the car back on the freeway and made it to the office. Yongyue’s heart rate was still high, but now there were small dimples showing at the sides of her face.
Yongyue uninstalled the traffic plug-in as soon as she got to her office. She would keep it uninstalled for the next three years. Those days were marked by the same morning and evening commutes, 3,622 texts from Colin, a timely promotion to VP, two new pet lovebirds (an anniversary present from Colin), and a co-signed lease on a bungalow in Daly City. “It was like fate,” she would tell her friends and family as their relationship blossomed and Colin was introduced to Yongyue’s circle. At the wedding, Colin’s best man toasted to fate and San Francisco traffic for bringing the two soulmates together. The day after their honeymoon, Yongyue reinstalled a newer version of the speeding plug-in during a bad traffic jam in South San Francisco. No accidents followed.