A rumpled man behind the biggest desk in the MTM test lab looked toward the doors through a gap in the undergrowth of equipment. All he could see was a tall, familiar white lab coat. It was still missing a button.
His eyes went from its missing button to its wearer’s hands, and then to the plastic bin they held. “Hello, Doc,” he said, brushing back a few stray hairs as the bin bobbed closer in a subtle corkscrew motion. He couldn’t see its contents but they had to be work. “That isn’t one of yours, is it?”
“No, Chris,” said Doctor Little as if something were obviously true.
For a moment Chris wanted to ask whether the No meant Yes. Instead he smiled and said, “There’s a rumor going around you’re inventing things on the side, boss.”
“It’s no rumor,” Doc replied with matching good humor.
“That’ll get you into trouble with the company, won’t it?” Chris warned. “I’ve personally tested things with your name on them.”
Doc was about to reply, when an attractive young woman with a lost look walked up and touched his arm. “Doctor Little?” she asked softly, glancing from Chris to Little as if she'd rather be somewhere else.
“Yes, Marie?” he said with a smile that got a hitch in it when he saw her face.
Both men watched her decide to speak anyway. “I’m sorry to have to tell you,” she said, “but the company’s being sold, and…”
The men knew this, of course, but before any alarm could sound in his mind, Doc prodded her pleasantly. “And what?” he asked, giving her that small smile.
“Your contract isn’t being renewed. Here’s your buy-out package as per contract agreement.” She handed him a large envelope. “I’m truly sorry about this, sir.”
She walked quickly away, and Chris said, almost to himself, “That’s a hell of a Christmas present.” Then he added rather loudly, looking from the Doctor to the doors through which she had disappeared, “Didn't have the guts to face you themselves, did they? Gave the job to Marie!”
“Mmm…” said the Doctor, looking stunned at the thing in his hands. It wasn’t large enough to be called a package. Little scowled. “I'll bet he didn't give it personally to Marie, either.”
Doc walked toward his office, but changed course toward a break room to get a coffee update, and think some more about what had just happened—and what to do about it.
MTM attorney Mark Steiner, Esquire, rounded a corner and nearly got a pocket full of dark roast.
“I’m sorry, Doc,” he said, and they started down the hall.
“The packet had your handwriting,” observed Little. “I thought we…”
“Don’t say another word,” Steiner urged, quickly piling up his own words to stifle any Doc would add. “Your contract’s been terminated using the proper procedures and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Okay, I’ll ask you point blank: Did you get me fired?”
“Yes and no.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Now is not the time to talk about this.”
“Now is the best time.”
“This isn’t the place either,” said Steiner, looking around, catching a few stares from down the hall. Quietly he added, “We need to sit down, have a cup of good coffee and then talk.”
Doc refused to follow a quiet line. “It will have to happen this year,” he demanded, “or...”
“Okay, how about now?” asked the attorney. “We can go across to…”
“No. I’ll check my office. I expect they’ve sent someone to escort me.”
“That’s fine,” said Steiner even though it clearly wasn’t. “I’ll call you first thing tomorrow and we’ll set it up.”
It had been a punishing day. Little drove home indirectly, using back roads and two stops at an ice cream parlor in the country on route 303 where they made their own. He preferred Mary Coyle’s but that place was in town and he wanted country air just now.
His ancient sports car had found its way to his wife Claire’s grave in Rose Hill Cemetery, a large, peaceful, sparsely wooded park surrounded by land very like it where the trees were bigger and the stones smaller. He sat on their stone and fiddled with his phone, licking his ice cream cone as necessary until it was gone, thinking almost silently about life and death—orroses and thornsas she had liked to joke.
After he felt well enough to travel, the Doctor arrived home after dark to the chunky, two story, only house he and his dear departed had ever called home. It was unassuming but interesting. To begin with, it was bigger inside than it looked from the outside because it had two basements—one under the other—with a small atrium on the first floor that opened down onto the top basement. It also had an elevator that served all four floors.
Doc had his three labs there. Two of them—a black one and a yellow one—had a doggie door to a large kennel run outside. They also had the run of the top three floors, and barked happily whenever he came home. The third lab—climate controlled and very well equipped—just sat in the dirt waiting for him to return and invent things.
As he put a back-up pint of ice cream in the freezer, the phone rang. He picked up, deciding not to speak first.
“Winston Bozworth here. I hope you remember me.”
“Yes. What do you want?”
“I want to offer you one of those ‘other opportunities’ Sylvia Robinson said you were pursuing in her newscast this evening. You haven’t settled on any, have you?”
“My sources at MTM Marketing joke about all your product ideas they rejected. Would you like a chance at revenge?”
“Not revenge, —”
“Sorry. Wrong word. How about control instead? Would you like a shot at running your own company?”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. I’d like to back some of your ideas. For example, are you still dreaming about a thinking machine?”
“Yes,” said Doc, amused at an opportunity ringing so soon, and offered by one of the executives in the company from which he had just been fired. But he hadn’t mentioned thinking machines to Marketing.
It took Bozworth some time to finish his pitch, and the result was either a sale, or a home run, or a dark sticky mess, depending on which metaphor comes to mind. ...Little said goodbye, pressed the telephone hook, and made a call of his own.
“Hello, Marie,” he said when she answered. “Did you get fired too?”
“No,” she said as if more needed to be said but she wasn’t sure yet what it was.
“Well,” he asked, “…I can trust you to keep something confidential, can’t I?”
“Of course; that’s my job.”
Little took a breath and asked, “How would you like to work for me and Winston Bozworth?”
“I can’t work for both of you. Which one will it be?”
“For me,” he said instantly.
“Essentially what you’re doing now.”
“Where’s the capital coming from?” It was a bold question, but necessary.
She paused. “No, you wouldn’t joke about that…. So you’re going to work for the same company responsible for firing you?”
“Companies don’t fire people. People fire people. And no, they’re only supplying some capital and pieces-parts. Our new company will be more like a spin-off. I will be President and CEO. Bozworth will be chairman of our board. I’ll handle operations. He’ll handle the finance side.”
“You’re getting capital without strings? I don’t believe it.”
Doc laughed. “All capital has at least one string: the capitalists want to make money.
“And we will make it for them,” he added, “provided they let me run it the way I want to. That’s the deal. Bozworth agrees. We sign the papers in a few days.”
“What about Steiner?” she asked. “What does he say about all of this?”
“He wants to be our attorney, apparently, and that can’t happen.”
“But what did he say? That’s what I’m asking.”
“I can’t trust him anymore, Marie, not the way I need to.”
“Oh? That’s good!”
Marie Sanchez was a handsome young woman. Her mother was French, her father Spanish, and you could see both if you managed to get a good look at her face without attracting an enigmatic stare in return. She was sharp on more than one edge; it was often helpful to talk business with her. Soon Doc found another very competent lawyer. And TLC, Inc., their new little company, returned excellent profits for the last five of its six years.
The whole thing had turned out rather well. Problems were good for those years, even after the Thinking Machine started running. They were good because solving them generated cash. The machine was supposed to let TLC keep more of that cash, and it did. Good problems continued until the machine started getting intellectually frisky. Then the problems became a list of more specific adjectives: aggravating, hilarious, aggravating, funny, aggravating, weird, and finally, bad.
 Dear Diary: The bad was not all my fault, as Guy my programmer would tell you.
A Literary historical science fiction mystery
Table of Chapters
Chapter 0. Problems
Chapter 1. Headaches
Chapter 2. Happy Holidays -------------------------->
Chapter 3. Mr. Nice Guy
Chapter 4. The Brainless One
Chapter 5. A Little Crazy
Chapter 6. Grave Consequences
Chapter 7. Core Directives
Chapter 8. Expect Difficulties
Chapter 9. Caveats
Chapter 10. Mister Machine
Chapter 11. Good News, Bad News, El Cheapo
Chapter 12. New Memories
Chapter 13. Little Problems
Chapter 14. Lasers, Language, and Happiness
Chapter 15. Chatterbots
Chapter 16. Ready Or Not
Chapter 17. Not a Turing Test
Chapter 18. Reality Test
Chapter 19. Chess, Anyone?
Chapter 20. FOM
Chapter 21. Chairman of the Board
Chapter 22. The Usual Suspects
Chapter 23. M. God
Chapter 24. Walkabout
Chapter 25. Why
Chapter 26. First Blood
Chapter 27. More Machines?
Chapter 28. POV
Chapter 29. ROI
Chapter 30. Last Blood
Chapter 31. Don’t Want to Talk About It
Chapter 32. Round Table
Chapter 33. A Change of Mind
Chapter 34. Threes
Chapter 35. Knight Moves
Chapter 36. Little Combinations
Chapter 37. Can We Talk?
Chapter 38. Pas de Deux
Chapter 39. The Jig Is Up
Chapter 40. Good, Bad, Ugly Chapter 41. Function Goes On