Things Can Only Get Better

“Things Can Only Get Better”

by Fiona Moore

“Do you know the old joke about the toaster mining bitcoin to pay its gambling debt to the fridge?” Detective Wilhemine Fitzjames, of the London Metropolitan Police’s Automotive Crimes Division, said.

“No,” I admitted.

“You surprise me. None of your patients—?”

“Not even the one who is, in fact, an intelligent refrigerator, has mentioned it to me. No. So, uh, can I assume that you’re hiring me for an investigation into corruption charges against the kitchenware?” It seemed unlikely—the police usually only hire autologists when there’s a need for someone who can psychoanalyse a Thing or an Independent intelligent—but then, Wills usually came to me with the unusual ones.

On my tablet screen, Wills smiled slightly. “No. That, I wouldn’t need your help for.”

“I’m all ears.” I settled back in my grey ergonomic chair. I was in my office: when I decided to go freelance, I had imagined it as a dark, creaky-floored inner sanctum out of a Chandler novel, with my name in gold paint on the glass door (TSIGOLOTUA TNATLUSNOC OYOM HAON) and bookshelves overflowing with paraphernalia. In practice, it looked more like something from a corporate sitcom: cheap modern furniture, industrial carpet, tablet stand and keyboard, a double-glazed window looking out on someone else’s bricks, and paint that allegedly made small rooms look bigger. The only reason the plant in the corner wasn’t dying was that I’d only bought it two days earlier.

Still, I liked to pretend my life was sort of noir-ish, even if the only things to which that description could be applied was Wills and me, depending on your interpretation of the word noir. I’d used a gold Sharpie to write my name on the little piece of card next to my number on the buzzer at the entrance to the building.

“A few days ago, I got asked to investigate an illegal online gambling syndicate.”

“Involving Things?” I said.

Wills nodded. “Humans and Discorporates, too, but the main suspect is a self-driving car.”

“So… why involve me? Sounds like your job, not mine. You’re the cop, I’m the therapist.”

“I’m asking,” Wills said, “because it’s at the hospital.”

“The one I used to work—”

“—The very same.”

The receptionist at the desk was human, for reassurance purposes. “Noah! Good to see you again,” he said cheerily, handing me a yellow badge to pin on. My fingerprints and information would already be on the hospital’s register; the badge was so I could be quickly identified by sight as a visitor. “You’re with the lady from the police, aren’t you?”

“Detective FitzJames. Yes.”

“She’s taken over the level one nursing station. Go up one floor and—”

“—follow the signs to Outpatient Psychology.” I could just bet the nurses were thrilled.

Inside, the hospital was the usual chaotic mix of (human and Thing) patients and (human and Thing) staff. It was all familiar from my own period with the NHS, and from visiting my father at work when I was a kid. A couple of cleaning and service machines trundled by; a self-driving cart ferrying an elderly woman, her body rigid, to some appointment or other. There were Discorporates in the cloud system as well: a small sign near Outpatient Psychology indicated that both human and intelligent practitioners were available.

“Is that a cost-saving measure, do you think?” I asked Wills, who had indeed set up her tablet at one of the nursing station’s hotdesks. As a concession to hygiene regulations, she was in shirtsleeves and had bundled her mane of locs up into a bun.

“What, Discorporate psychologists? Isn’t that normal?” Wills waved me to sit down, distracted.

“Not when I was here.”

“Anyway, let’s focus on the case. An illegally-run online gambling syndicate was traced by the Met’s gestalts to one of the hospital databases.”

“Why am I not surprised,” I said. “Hospital databases have more holes than a brain with encephalitis.”

“See, this is why I hired you for this,” Wills said. “That kind of insider knowledge that only you can provide.” No one could do sarcasm quite like Wills. “Anyway, the gestalts cleared the database and set up protections, so it’s up to me to try and trace the local culprit. And the staff are not being terribly helpful.”

“War between disputing factions?” The politics in most hospitals is essentially Game of Thrones with more amputations.

“Not so much,” Wills said. “In this case it’s the other logical development. Everyone finds a scapegoat and piles on them, evidence be damned. You know how it goes.”

I did, though for reasons I wouldn’t share with Wills.

My father had been a successful doctor back in Zimbabwe, until a similar search for someone to blame during a corruption scandal. He died still trying to clear his name and get back to what he considered home.

“And you don’t think they did it?”

Wills shrugged. “I’m not convinced they didn’t. But I don’t like witch-hunts, I don’t believe in accusing someone on the basis of their past history, and the consequences would be unbearable for someone who’s guilty, worse if they’re innocent. I was thinking you could use your insider knowledge, ask a few questions, find a few explanations.”

“It’s been a couple of years since I left,” I said. “Who’s the suspect?”

Wills flashed a file from her tablet to my phone.

“He’s a microsurgery machine?”

Was a microsurgery machine. Specialised in vascular repair. He’s now a car in the hospital’s fleet.”

“Sorry, right. Was a microsurgery machine. Is a car.”

“And he was repurposed… because of a botched operation, where the patient died. Are they just suspecting him because he’s repurposed?”

“Prejudice, you mean? That’s what I’m hoping you can find out,” Wills said. “There’s a few reasons why I don’t totally dismiss the accusations, though. One is that he’s a sports fan, and, since he got repurposed, he’s started betting on them too.”

I shrugged “It’s an unusual hobby for a Thing, but not unknown. I’d only worry if it’s a stress response. Turning to an addictive behaviour to cope with the trauma of repurposing.”

A memory surfaced, of my father. He was always good at hiding the actual amount he was drinking. It wasn’t until my sister and I were clearing his flat out after he’d been rushed to hospital for the last time that the scale of it became obvious. “Enough to kill Amy Winehouse several times over,” was what my sister said.

I shook off the thought. “Anything else to connect him to the syndicate? Or is that the extent of it?”

“That’s the other. Whoever was doing it, they were running a lot of very small payments through the books. What group at the hospital gets quite a lot of very small payments?”

“The cars?” I guessed.

“Yes. For recharging, repairs; parking fees, if they have to wait for a client. The gambling ins and outs got laundered through that system. And he’s the only car that gambles. Finally, the syndicate activity started just a few months after Benji got repurposed.”

“Benji?”

“Benji.”

“What the hell kind of name is—”

“You’re the autologist. It’s your job to figure that out, not mine.”

“At a guess, his pod would have chosen it.” Pods of cars will sometimes align their names to a unifying theme. I’d encountered one motor pool where everyone was named after a character from the books of some writer called Heinlein, who I’d had to look up afterwards. But it’s not universal, and the individual cars still usually choose their own names. In this case, however… “Microsurgery bots don’t usually have names.”

“Don’t surgical teams name the bots?”

“Too numerous, too small. This is probably his first experience of being a fully social machine.”

“So he wouldn’t have had a pod before this?”

“Surgical machines aren’t social,” I confirmed. “From what I remember, the hospital’s surgical machines have a collective bank account and an official group identity, but they don’t talk to each other. What are the car pod doing about the accusations?”

“Throwing him to the wolves. Some of the other cars are the loudest voices against him.”

“Really? They do know what’s going to happen to him if he’s found guilty?” He wouldn’t be able to be re-repurposed, so he’d probably be indefinitely detained on the cloud of his original manufacturer, a fate which Things, especially social ones, considered horrifying.

I wondered why cars would wish something like that on one of their own.

“Am I allowed to interview a few people and Things? Including Benji?”

“I think so,” Wills said. “I cleared your involvement with the hospital administration. Seems most of them remember you, and not in a bad way either. The Head of Thing Resources actually seemed relieved. Apparently the case is causing morale problems.”

“I can imagine,” I said. My father had never managed to get his medical qualifications recognised after he fled Zimbabwe, and so, although he’d gotten a job in a hospital, it was as a cleaner and porter. I don’t know why he’d wanted to do that, except maybe out of some kind of masochistic desire to watch people do the things he could no longer legally do. It was the cliché of the surgeon from Africa working in London as a taxi driver… except he’d probably have been better off as a taxi driver. Fewer reminders of times past.

So I had to admit, I wanted to know why a microsurgery machine would repurpose as a car in the same hospital where everything had gone wrong for him.

“I suppose the Thing Resources manager’s worth talking to,” I said. “That would still be Oliver Martin, yes? And the car pod leader would be Lassie? SUV with disabled attachments?”

“No, a sedan named Trigger. She wasn’t exactly keen to talk.” Wills frowned. “Oh, and there’s a psychologist called Fran. Gestalt entity. She is keen to talk, and I’m not sure why. Says she’s a friend of Benji’s.”

“Possible, if not really credible,” I said. “She may just be attracted to the dysfunctionality, wants to fix it. Intelligent psychologists are wired that way.”

“OK,” Wills said. “Let me know what you come up with from them.”

“I think I’ll begin at the source. And talk to Benji.”

“The plot thickens,” I said to Wills, as we sat in the hospital cafeteria with our coffees, or at least drinks which the vending machine swore blind was actual coffee and not, as the taste would suggest, some new conversion of wood pulp into liquid. “Turns out Benji was the whistleblower. Sent an anonymous tip about the syndicate to your lot at the London Metropolitan Police.”

“What?” Wills set her drink down very carefully on the melamine-look surface.

“Benji’s story is that he’s not actually that interested in gambling. Likes watching football, can take or leave the betting. But he finds being a car boring, so he started getting into football fandom.”

“Which team?” Wills asked, interested.

“Apparently he likes Crystal Palace,” I said.

“More fool him.”

“We can’t all be the sort of masochists who follow Tottenham Hotspur. Anyway, that was when he found out about the gambling syndicate.”

“How?”

“Got approached by another fan, who thought he was involved,” I said. “One of the cleaning machines. He started gambling in order to find out more about it—he didn’t know it was dodgy at the time, but was suspicious—and he played for long enough to figure out it was. Dodgy, that is. Which is when he went to the police about it.”

“Why doesn’t he just tell the pod that?”

“In the first place, who’d believe it?” I said. “And in the second, and more seriously, he’s not very good socially. He doesn’t get on with his pod.” That was an understatement. According to Trigger, he had an uncanny ability to start the other cars fighting amongst themselves any time they had a social event. “He doesn’t even get on with the passengers.” Trigger had also described a string of complaints and bad reviews.

“So, who decided to repurpose him as a car?”

“I’m talking to Thing Resources next.”

Oliver frowned for a moment before turning to his tablet-stand and air-typing the desk. “I’ve got the record of his disciplinary.” He peered at the tablet.  “There was a pattern of cases where he’d been hesitating, not intervening when he should. He was beginning to empathise too much with the patients. And that’s not a good thing in a surgical bot. The advantage they have over human surgeons is that they can view the task as a simple issue of meat, cuts and sutures. Oh, by the way, Delia in Human Resources said to ask if we can entice you back to your old job. The autology team isn’t the same without you.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, meaning, never in a million years. “Getting back to Benji’s repurposement, why a car?”

“I discussed it with his union caseworker, and we thought it would be a good fit,” he said. “Empathy for humans.”

“And nobody followed it up? Made sure he was OK?”

“I… guess not,” Oliver looked shamefaced. “Problem is, I’m not sure what other job he could do. The only roles I can think of around the hospital either require more empathy, or less.”

I nodded. “And he wouldn’t consider leaving the hospital?”

Oliver looked surprised at the idea. “He was born here,” he said.

“Poor Benji,” Fran said. “I hope you can clear his name.”

We were in one of the Psychology rooms. Comfortable chairs, soothing atmosphere. A good view of the ravine behind the hospital, though, in early February, that meant dead-looking trees in the rain. Light electronic music, one of those lamps that changes colour in slow cycles. And a disembodied feminine voice coming from speakers somewhere I couldn’t see.

“Me too,” I said. “Supposing you tell me how you two met. It’s unusual, isn’t it, a friendship between a Thing and a Discorporate?”

“It’s not unknown,” Fran said. “We could have met on the Internet.”

“Did you know him before he became a car?” I persisted.

“No,” Fran said. “We first got in contact because he was driving one of my patients, and there was a disagreement over fees. But we got that straightened out. I’d heard about his troubles, and asked for his side of it. We just kept on meeting up and talking. As you do. And then there was the gambling.”

“Was it a problem?”

A significant fractional pause. “Let’s say I had my concerns. It’s not unknown for repurposed Things to develop issues.”

“Are you a sports fan?”

“Not in general,” Fran said. “I do like the football, though.”

“Crystal Palace?”

“Arsenal,” Fran said with an edge of humour. “But we don’t let that get in the way of the friendship.”

“What do you like about it?”

“The honesty of the game,” Fran said. “Professionally, I specialise in personality disorders.”

“That’s quite a specialty.”

“It’s easier for me than for a human,” Fran said modestly. “Harder to fool me. And psychopaths can be very fun people. But one does sometimes get tired of all the lying.”

“Was the patient Benji was driving one of them?”

“Now that,” Fran remarked coldly, “would be a breach of confidentiality.”

“You’re right. I apologise for asking,” I said. “If there’s anything else I need to know, can I get in touch?”

“Subject to confidentiality rules,” Fran said, in a more friendly but still pointed tone, “yes.”

“She’s right, you know,” I said, “it’s a breach of confidentiality.”

“What’s the point in being a police officer if I can’t read everyone’s private records? Strictly when necessary, of course.” Wills was swiping through a hospital admin tablet she’d persuaded a nurse to part with, looking up the records of Fran’s patients and cross-checking if any of them were driven by Benji.

“I thought you were certain the scheme was instigated by Things.”

“We could be wrong. Could be a human.”

“Or a human working with a Thing,” I said.

Wills shrugged noncommittally. “Found it. Now, that is interesting.”

“What, specifically?”

“The human’s been coming here, presumably to see Fran, for the last six months,” she said. “Before that, for about twelve months prior… he was booking cars to take him to the Davison Centre.”

“Huh,” I said. “So, a patient attends a walk-in addiction clinic, then winds up here, being treated by an intelligent who specialises in psychopaths.”

“Personality disorders,” Wills corrected.

“Which includes psychopaths,” I said. “It’s all suggesting a hypothetical scenario.”

“It’s suggesting one to me too,” Wills said, “one in which you’re about to go outside our remit. The Davison Centre’s privately run, and I can’t investigate them without a warrant.”

“Leave it to me. I’ve got an inside informant.”

Wills looked concerned. “If we’re talking about a vulnerable individual…”

“Oh no,” I said. “We’re really not.”

On the way back to the office (using a taxi service rather than the hospital fleet), I sent a message, and by the time I’d reached the building had arranged a date at the café in the pedestrianised shopping area nearby.

“Noah.” Rhonda, all gold jewellery, pink glasses and lilting Ghanaian vowels, gave me a huge hug which smelled of Chanel. “So good to see you. Where’ve you been?”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You’re busy with your job I suppose,” Rhonda settled back into her chair and took a delicate sip of her latte. “But don’t be a stranger. We’re family, you know. Logical family.”

“Logical is better than biological,” I said, smiling as one of the café’s drones swanned up with the mug of tea I’d pre-ordered. It had been a running joke between the three of us—Rhonda, me and my sister—ever since she’d started dating our father, when she was an outpatient counsellor at the hospital. After the relationship had broken up, the three of us had stayed in touch. Even if he hadn’t.

“Business first,” Rhonda said. “You said you wanted to talk with me about something to do with your work. You did remember to file your tax return this year?”

“I only missed the deadline once,” I said. Yes, Rhonda was family all right. “You still work at the Davison Centre, right?”

She’d taken the job not long after my father died.

“Not recently,” she said. I started to ask if she could put me in touch with someone who was still there, but she was going on. “There was an incident about eight months ago.”

I pricked up my ears. That would put it in the timeframe for the formation of the gambling syndicate. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“I don’t want to go into detail.”

“Understood.”

“But one of our regulars—well. Charming fellow. Friendly. Sincere. Lied like a rug.”

“Indeed?”

“Pitted the administrators against each other. In the end he was barred from the clinic, and referred to the hospital for psychological treatment.”

“Sounds like it was resolved?”

Rhonda cast her eyes heavenward. “If only,” she said. “He’d started relationships with two administrators, and got both of them gambling on his behalf. He’d been barred, you see. They both resigned. It was on the local news, I can’t believe you didn’t know about it. And in any case I’d been feeling like moving on for a while. I’m at a drop-in clinic near Clapham Junction now. We get the most interesting visitors.”

“So,” I said to Wills, on my screen, “I think that’s our man. He found out about the hospital’s less-than-exemplary accounting system through the dispute with Benji over fees, exploited the hell out of it, and then got caught.”

“Not quite,” Wills said. “Unless he’s a particularly skilled criminal hacker, and I’m thinking that would be a coincidence too far, he’d’ve had to have local help.”

I frowned. “Are we back at Benji again?”

“Have to be. Who else did he have contact with at the hospital?” Wills said, then clearly, in her mind, came to the same conclusion I had. “Oh.”

“Is it possible?”

“It’s possible, all right.” Wills scowled. “So possible, in fact, that I’m getting a warrant.”

When I arrived at the hospital the next day, the place was outwardly normal. If you knew what to look for, though, you could see quick and decisive action being taken. Human police officers, talking with doctors. The receptionist distractedly waving me through without looking or issuing me a badge. Drones and cleaning machines staying more carefully out of the way than usual.

Wills was at the nursing station, talking to Oliver. She caught my eye, turned away from him and smiled at me. “It’s all stacking up. Have to thank you, Noah. Your information was the break we needed.”

“If you do want to thank me, you could do worse than telling me what you’ve learned since yesterday.” I looked around for a chair, found none, and leaned against the work surface. Oliver disappeared rapidly back into the offices.

“Apparently Fran had been feeling the strain of her job for a long time,” Wills said. “She was programmed not to be susceptible to manipulation, because of her work with personality disorders. Unfortunately, she requires continuous monitoring to make sure her natural tendency to learn from her environment doesn’t cause her to start emulating them, and that monitoring hasn’t happened in a while. Staff cutbacks.” Wills frowned. “The final straw was the client with the gambling addiction. Listening to him, she not only began to figure out ways of running a gambling syndicate through the hospital, she started to want to do that.”

“Where’s Benji fit in?”

“That’s where it gets worse,” Wills said. “Fran was also actively subverting other intelligents in the hospital. They’re going to have to run a full audit—that’s what I was talking with Oliver about—but she might have influenced as many as one-third. She tried with Benji, but he was sneakier than most.”

“Good for Benji,” I said.

Wills frowned pensively. “You should probably know that I’ve spoken to my superiors about offering him a job. I think he’d be good at infiltration and investigation, and I think they’re likely to agree.”

“That could be the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time,” I said. Considering his supposed best friend had been callous enough to put him in the frame for something that could get him banged up for life…

“Anyway, I think we’re done here,” Wills shifted, looked at her phone. “Contract administration will be in touch about your fee. And thanks again for finding the missing piece.”

“It was nothing,” I said. “Just revisiting some old family connections.”

Getting back home, I checked my work messages. The first was from Oliver. Thanking me, and asking if I’d consider coming back to the hospital.

I started to type No, too many bad memories, then stopped. That wasn’t true anymore.

Instead I typed, No thanks, I’m happy as I am.

No more need to provide a vicarious career for my father, or for my father’s memory. No need to feel defensive about it, either.

The second message was from the Met.

They had an intelligent who had been found guilty of fraud and subversion, and sentenced, among other things, to an autological reconstruction. The intelligent version of a talking cure, redeveloping the personality slowly in concert with a trained autologist. Would I take on the case?

I knew who it was before I even clicked on the case file.

Undoubtedly there was a conflict of interest and a potential for clash of personalities.

On the other hand, it might pay back some personal debts.

What the hell, I thought. Certainly, I typed.

I’d love to work with Fran.

______________

Fiona Moore is a London-based, BSFA Award-shortlisted writer whose work has appeared in Asimov, Clarkesworld, Forever Magazine, Escape Pod, and three consecutive editions of The Best of British SF, with another story forthcoming in Abyss & Apex. She has also published one novel, three stage plays, four audio plays and a number of guidebooks to cult TV series. Full details can be found at www.fiona-moore.com.

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