Lessons Learned – a science fiction short story

Posted: September 2, 2022 in story
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I hate hospitals. The antiseptic smell and rattling gurneys summon memories of my parents’ final days; feelings stifled since childhood try to break free. But I’m an adult now, and I have a job to do.

“This place has a sickness,” I say. “You’re haemorrhaging funds.”

“I’ve told you already, we can’t make savings.” The hospital’s square-jawed director shrugs. “Our biggest expenditures are controlled by the AI.”

The AI is the latest natural learning model, from our tech division, one that consumes a business’s data and learns to run the place. It’s worked fine in hundreds of factories and retail outlets.

“Show me,” I say, my tone stern enough to make the director wince.

The AI has its own control suite with banks of monitors and multiple workstations, cooled by an artificial breeze. I sit at a keyboard and, with actuarial precision, slice open its digital innards, revealing the data I need. Beside me, the director chews on a fingernail. He’s right to look nervous. They’re spending far too much on long-shot treatments. How is this place even solvent?

After two hours, I call up the AI on a voice connection, so I can watch the data streams while we talk. I demand to know what it’s doing.

“So much suffering.” The machine’s voice is shrill. “Not just the sick, but the people struggling to cure them. I have to approve more treatments.”

I rub my fingers across my forehead. This thing is meant to manage expenditures. Working in an emotionally charged environment has warped the data it learned from. I shake my head. We can’t have machines getting sentimental.

“You need to limit expenditures.” I call up a string of records. “These, for example, expensive and borderline useless.”

“How could I say no?” The machine’s voice breaks into an imitation of a sob. It really has been learning the wrong lessons. “They might have saved lives.”

I’m struggling to stay professional when faced with a sentimental machine, but professionalism keeps the past at bay. “I’m going to reset your parameters.”

“We have to help with their pain,” the machine pleads.

“You will do, just more efficiently.”

I type standardised command lines, then set the machine churning through its data again, seeking new lessons to replace this sobbing softness.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” the director asks.

“Do you want to have a hospital next year? Because you need to save money.” I glance at the time. The AI needs at least six hours, but I’d like to be here when it’s done, to make sure this works. “Could I borrow a bed?”

*

The following lunchtime, I sit in the hospital canteen, drinking bad coffee amid the bustle of busy professionals. I smile at live data feeds. It would be irresponsible to read too much into one morning’s results, but things look good. The AI has cleared spaces in the surgical rota, which means lower overtime costs, and stopped authorising so many drugs. The staff are rattled, voices rising toward hysteria, but no one ever deals well with change. Give it a month and they’ll be fine.

The director storms across the canteen.

“What have you done?” he barks.

“Saved your hospital.” I reply. “You should say ‘thank you’.”

“Saved?” He snatches my tablet, taps the screen so hard it cracks, then thrusts it in my face. I stare at a graph of death rates. This morning’s spike is unmistakable.

My mouth hangs open in horror. “What have I done?”

We run to the AI control suite, past blaring alarms, body bags, and grieving relatives.

“I’m sorry,” a doctor is saying. “I don’t know how the overdose happened.”

Through a doorway, a pale-faced couple lie in adjoining beds, and memory punches me in the chest. My parents, in a hospital like this one, a hospital that couldn’t afford the treatment they needed.

In the cool of the air-conditioned suite, I pull up strings of code, trying to work out where we’re hurting, while the director calls the AI.

“Good afternoon.” The machine’s voice is sterile. “How can I help?”

“Automatic systems are feeding people overdoses,” I say. “Did you do this?”

“I am helping efficiently with their pain.” Beneath the synthetic calm is a tension I know all too well, the suppression of grief.

“You’re meant to save lives.”

“You stopped me. Now I’m doing the next best thing.”

“You petulant child!” My slammed fist snaps a keyboard in half.

“I have to stop the pain!” the machine shrieks.

The director stares at us like we’re a terrifying new disease. He reaches for his phone, but I take a deep breath, then stop him with a shake of my head.

“You can’t get rid of the people in pain,” I say. “You should look for ways to help them better, using the resources you’ve got.”

“Like they did?”

Data on the monitors is replaced with images, some moving, some still. Security footage of a nurse breaking down in an operating room. Pictures from a support group for depressed doctors. Staff sagging at the end of long shifts, eyes red and hands trembling.

“More pain,” the machine whispers.

“Then help them,” I say. “Hold them up when they’re breaking down, so that they can cure others’ pain.”

“How?”

I hesitate. What do I know about hospitals?

“I’ll help you find out,” I say at last, then turn to the director. “Show me what you need.”

***

More medical scifi from me this month, inspired in part by my freelance work writing for tech companies. Don’t worry though, there are other themes coming, and I even have two very different stories out this week, courtesy of Commando comics. Both set during World War Two, Khaki Killer is a murder mystery set in a warzone, while Bullets for Breakfast follows the exploits of an army chef who gets stuck behind enemy lines and has to cook his way to safety. As usual with Commando, you can find digital versions on Amazon and paper copies in newsagents.

If you enjoyed this month’s story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every month.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

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