“Mr. Guy?” asked TM softly.
The machine had cornered him in his cubicle, although “bottled him” would be a better analogy. TM barely fit through door openings, and there usually wasn’t enough room inside a cubicle for both man and machine to fit comfortably. So if it wanted to show you something, or to see you while you talked, it had to plug the doorway. The man made no move of recognition, so the machine made a noise that sounded only vaguely like, “Ahem.”
“Yes, TM,” the young man replied, glancing up before returning to his work. “What do you want?”
Again the machine spoke quite softly: “Fifteen hundred dollars.”
“Fifteen hundred dollars?” Guy asked so unsurely that his voice squeaked. “Is that what you said?”
“Actually, TM needs ( 1495 + ( 1495 * ( 6.75 / 100 ) ) ) dollars,” it clarified, giving the details in its old SQLish where mathematical symbols were represented by odd sounds, rather like Victor Borge’s phonetic punctuation. Guy understood the formula, of course, but used a calculator to verify the total.
“Fifteen hundred ninety five dollars and ninety one cents?” he cried, staring at the result. Eyes peeked over cubicle walls all across the room.
“TM has funds,” the machine went on quietly, “amounting to just over one hundred dollars; so all that is needed is the fifteen hundred.”
“What on Earth did you buy?” Again, Guy was too loud.
“I…” The machine seemed embarrassed to use the pronoun, and tried again: “TM does not quite know how to answer that question.”
“Okay,” the man said with obvious exasperation, “Why do you need it?”
“The money, TM, the money!”
“It is for a rather good exercise machine ‘…capable of strengthening all the major muscle groups with custom-designed exercise programs based on your individual goals.’ Consumer Reports™ has rated that particular model as a best buy.”
Heads and portions of heads were now bobbing and drifting among the tops of cubicle walls, vying for choice vantage points. Shorter people hurried as fast as was consistent with office decorum to spots near Guy’s doorway.
“So you bought an exercise machine?!”
Although stated as a fact, the man suspected his conclusion might be wrong, given what the machine had already told him. But he couldn’t think of any way for TM to need the money without having bought the thing.
“No,” TM explained patiently, “but one has been charged to …my… account. The amount required is in excess of the limit Mr. Forest allows for …video and book rentals and purchases. The bank demands payment, otherwise there will be outrageous interest charges. Could you lend …me the rest? ...I will pay you back, of course. Or you can have the machine.”
Guy was speechless.
In a hopeful tone the machine added: “TM will put it together for you.”
The general laughter seemed to draw Doctor Little to the scene, and heads turned as he strode up. Edmund Forest, the company comptroller, was close behind. Both wore severe expressions. TM recoiled a bit when it looked around to see them.
“What’s going on?” Doc and Guy asked each other. That got a few more laughs.
The machine started to back out of the doorway, and Forest politely insisted, “You’re not going anywhere, are you TM?!”
“No, sir. Actually, TM also is curious about what is going on. Why would a company send …me… an exercise machine for which TM has no personal need and no instructions to test? And why would a bank require payment from …me for a machine that... I have purchased not? Is it from a client? Our clients normally pay us to test the things they send. But this one wants TM to pay. Why do they that?”
“You have the machine,” the Doctor said, “so we’ll…”
“No,” said TM in its own language, “…I …( it ( have not ) ) do.”
Doc waited for more explanation that never came, and then looked around at the crowd. He decided not to break it up. Until everyone found out what was happening they might not get much work done, and he definitely wouldn’t.
Forest poked at the diagnostic screen on TM’s back and mused aloud, looking at its display of the bank’s data: “That isn’t our client… And you didn’t buy it…” Again, his remarks were not questions, just statements of fact. But the reason still eluded him.
“You are right about both statements,” advised TM pleasantly.
“Then why is it on your…? Oh. I see,” said the comptroller. He didn’t know whether to laugh. “TM,” he concluded, straightening up and giving a hitch to his pants—he was rail-thin with well-tailored clothes, and the hitch seemed just a habit acquired in leaner times, “I think someone’s gotten hold of your credit card number. How could that happen?”
“TM does not precisely know.”
“Then let me re-phrase: ‘Who has your credit card number?’ ”
Before the machine could say it didn’t precisely know that either, he added, “I mean, ‘What were the circumstances when you’ve given out your card number?’ …Start with the most recent incident and work backward.”
Now the Doctor dismissed everyone and led Guy, TM, and Ed to the comptroller’s office to continue investigations. But there proved to be no easy solution. No one could find fault with TM’s actions, and the websites it and the perpetrator had used were reputable. All the machine could say was: “Either it was hacked from a database by someone I do not know, or it was hacked or scavenged by someone here at TLC…. Why would a person do either thing…?”
“Well, TM,” Doc said at last, “take the rest of the day to investigate. Look at the TLC security logs and your own wanderings for a possible way someone could have gotten your card number, and we will do the same. …And you don’t know where the exercise machine is?”
After a few moments’ reflection, Doc put the affair entirely into the machine’s hands. What could go wrong?
“I’m leaving this all to you,” he said. “Where did the exercise machine go? Start investigating there. Call the shipper. Was it delivered? Build a history of the events—all the way back to the purchase, if possible.”
After the machine had toddled off, he anticipated Forest’s comments and said, “Eddie, see whether there are any other bogus charges on that card, of course.”
“There aren’t any,” said Forest. After a moment the comptroller observed: “You’ve got that ‘cunning plan’ look, Maynard. What is it?”
“I want to find out more than strange credit card charges.”
“Sure, boss,” was Eddie’s simple reply, “I just wonder whether letting the machine run the investigation is such a good idea.”
“We’ll find out.”
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