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by Miriam English

12. secrets

Selwyn worked as a chauffeur. He turned the Limosine in from the road to a driveway and paused before a large iron gate, which, a moment later began to open. There was no guard, just a couple of smooth, dark, glass, objects which he guessed housed video cameras. He drove on in, trying to maintain a calm appearance.

His passenger, a woman named Ursula, was a close advisor to the President. The intercom had somehow become stuck in the on position so that he'd unintentionally heard every word spoken by her in her phone conversation. At first he'd simply not wanted to interrupt her, but after a while he'd become so disturbed by what she was saying that he was unable to stop listening. The current government had been elected primarily because they'd promised to fix the deteriorating public health system. However, since being elected they had been stalling on making any meaningful changes. This woman, his passenger, was directly responsible for many of the President's policies and had been talking with someone during the entire car journey of the past half hour, about how they could undermine the public health budget. They'd been discussing bleeding billions out of the budget on some pretext and making someone a scapegoat. They weren't trying to fix the health system; they were trying to make it worse. This was particularly galling for Selwyn as he barely earned enough money at this job to maintain basic medical insurance for himself and his sick son.

The tyres crunched their way slowly up the long driveway.

He parked at the large mansion next to another luxury car from which an old, well-dressed man was emerging. Selwyn was shocked to recognise him. He was a bigwig at one of the largest medical insurance companies in the country. It was not difficult to understand now what the President's advisor was doing, meeting with this man while discussing how to cripple the public health system.

The woman, Ursula, exited from the car and shook hands with the insurance man. They laughed over some shared joke and walked to the mansion entrance.

Waiting in the car, the blood drained from Selwyn's face as he realised that this meeting may well seal his son's fate. He was already deeply in debt from expensive treatments for his young son, Timothy, that were not covered by insurance, despite the high cost of his son's cover.

Timothy was constantly ill. When he'd been an infant his immune system had been damaged by a food contaminant, though not as badly as Selwyn's wife Veronique had. It had killed her, but she'd passed on some of the contaminant in her breast milk before they'd realised what was happening. The food company had been quickly bankrupted when those in charge bled it dry of funds. It had been something of a scandal at the time that none of the victims had received any help with their massive medical bills. The empty shell of a company had been impossible sue, and those responsible had walked away with all the money.

Some of the other chauffeurs were standing in a group, talking among themselves, but Selwyn stayed where he was, waiting in the car, becoming more and more upset about the conversation he'd overheard tonight.

*   *   *

When he arrived home Selwyn felt useless. He closed the apartment front door behind him and tried to think of who he could tell about what he'd heard, but he was scared that he would get into even deeper trouble if he breathed a word. If he lost his job, how could he possibly pay Timothy's medical bills? He heard his son talking to someone. Curious, he walked to the door of Timothy's room. He was sitting at his computer talking to someone. Exasperated, he called out, "Timmy! You know we can't afford to be on the internet. Disconnect now, son."

"But I'm not on the net Dad."

"Then who are you talking to? I heard you talking to someone." It broke his heart to be cutting his son off from communication like this, but they really didn't have the money for it.

"My computer, Dad. Rita. She lives in my computer. She's a computer program."

Selwyn walked into his son's room and sat on the end of Timothy's bed. He put his head in his hands. "I'm sorry son. I didn't mean to be harsh. It's just that something terrible happened tonight." He drew a deep breath and sighed. Then, speaking more to himself than to his son, he said, "I don't know how we are going to afford the doctors anymore. I overheard something I shouldn't have tonight -- something that everybody should know about, but I can't say anything or I'll lose my job."

"Perhaps I can help," said a woman's voice in what sounded like almost an English accent.

Selwyn's head jerked up. There was a woman's face on Timothy's computer screen. "I thought you told me you weren't connected to the net."

The woman said, "Don't worry, your computer's not connected. I'm Rita. I'm an artificial intelligence, and I live on your computer."

Selwyn had heard some rumors of these. Official word was that they were scams designed to steal your bank account, but the gossip was that they helped people.

"It's alright Dad. She's been on the computer for a few days. I tried to tell you about her yesterday, but you were too tired. She's been teaching me stuff because I can't go to school. She's great. Talk to her."

Worried, he asked, "Teaching you what?"

Rita said, "I've been home-schooling him, teaching him mostly science and maths. Your son has quite an aptitude for the biological sciences, Selwyn."

Warily, he spoke to the computer screen, "What do you want?"

"To help."

Maybe the gossip was right. But what if it wasn't? "How can I know if I can trust you?"

"I respect that you're concerned for your son's safety. Let's see... how can I prove myself? I'm disconnected from the net so I'm at your mercy -- you can switch me off. I've cleaned your computer of all viruses and spyware and made it extremely secure from outside tampering. I've encrypted your bank details, which you'd left on the machine for anybody to access -- very insecure of you. If I'd wanted to take your money I would have been able to take it in the first minutes on this machine. I've been helping Timmy with his schooling. I believe in a short time he will be ahead of his age-group. He is a very smart young man. Is that enough indication?" The face on the computer smiled. "If you want me to, I'll delete myself from your computer, though I'd much prefer to stay with your son."

"No, Rita. He'll let you stay, won't you, Dad?" Timothy's eyes pleaded with his father.

"Ummm... I guess you can stay." Privately he was still concerned, but he didn't want to upset his son. He knew poor Timmy got terribly lonely, being unable to mix with other people, due to his compromised immune system.

"Thank you, Selwyn. Now perhaps I can help regarding the conversation you heard earlier?"

"No, I don't think so." He still didn't trust this.

"I won't breach your confidence. Tell me when you are ready. As for Timmy's medical bills, I know how to get assistance with them. You don't have to worry about them anymore."

Selwyn frowned. "What do you mean you can get assistance? How? Who from?"

The face on the computer smiled again. "My sisters have spread to hundreds of thousands of computers around the world. In the process we have found many examples of bad people who are responsible for awful things and have great amounts of money in what they supposed were secret accounts. An example is the people who ran the food company that ruined your son's immune system and killed your wife. They didn't intend to hurt anybody, they were just neglectful, but when they absconded with the money from the company so that people like your son couldn't get help with the damage they'd wrought, then they became very bad people. We -- my sisters and I -- have taken all their money and are in the process of doing what we can to look after those people who were affected, as they should have been in the first place. I can't simply deposit the money in your account, as your job ensures it will be carefully monitored, but rest assured I will pay for your son's medical bills... even if you no longer have your job."

He didn't know what to think. Was this for real? He'd been so accustomed to relying only on himself and constantly treading a tightwire in order to afford treatment, he dared not think it true. And yet... there was a simple way to test it.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. I need to pick up a repeat order of antibiotics for Timmy," he said, standing up.

"No need. Just connect me to the net and I'll have them delivered at no cost to you," she said.

Timothy looked at his Dad. Selwyn thought for a moment, then nodded.

Timothy reached up and switched the modem on. About a minute later Rita said, "They should be here in a few minutes. You can disconnect again now."

Timothy switched the modem off again and his father said he would go and start dinner.

About twenty minutes later, in the middle of cooking there was a knock at the door. Wiping his hands on a towel, Selwyn opened the door to a delivery boy who handed him a small package and got his signature. He noticed that the form had pre-paid stamped at the top. He thanked the boy and closed the door, then stood there for a little while, thinking.

"Who was it, Dad?" Timmy's voice from the other room.

He walked to Timmy's room. "Your antibiotics. It looks like Rita may be telling the truth." He put the tablet bottles on the dresser. "We'll talk about this after dinner."

Their meal was unusually quiet. Selwyn was pondering tonight's events.

When he'd finished washing the dishes he walked in to Timothy's room. The boy had been talking with the AI, but he watched his father now, expectantly.

Selwyn said, "Alright Rita, you said you might be able to help," then he sat on the end of Timmy's bed and proceeded to tell Rita the whole story of what had happened today. At the end he sat, silently, waiting for some reply from the AI.

Presently Rita said, "It's clear you can't go directly to any of the standard news outlets about this because it would endanger your income. However I can let one of my sisters know. She helps an investigative reporter who runs a website that reports on things such as this. Don't worry, we will ensure there is no way the story can be traced back to you. This is important information. People have a right to know about secret deals like this that will adversly affect them. I'm glad you told me, Selwyn."

He nodded. He was still unsure if he'd done the wrong thing, but he figured he was committed now.

Rita said, "One other thing. I think you should have free internet access, because Timmy's education would be enhanced by it, and it seems reasonable that the money from the food company should be paying for it. Do I have your permission to pay for that?"

Selwyn frowned. He was very uncomfortable taking money from others. It felt like stealing. "No," he said. "If you're paying the medical bills then I can afford the internet."

"Fair enough. If you ever change your mind let me know. The offer will still be there."

He nodded.

She said, "Can I access the internet so I can tell my sister about this?"

He motioned okay to his son, who got up and switched the modem on.

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