REPORT A PROBLEM
Nick sat on the floor, with his head leaning against the edge of the console, and watched the dustmotes dance in the light. There was just a single beam lancing in from a crack in the ceiling, looking so strong in the dim room that it seemed more real than the concrete walls and steel benches. Inside it the dust moved in silent, eddying patterns, swirling chaotically if he blew into the beam, or made as if to nudge it with his foot. In the stillness, it almost seemed alive. Ironic, he thought, and looked away, feeling his disappointment again.
He let his gaze wander to the end of the sunbeam, where it fell on the monitor of a computer and part of the wall. The monitor was grey with dust, and he knew from experience that if he wiped the dust off, half the plastic casing would stick to his fingers too. Time made tough plastics brittle and friable. Acids leaching from components had already eaten grooves into some panels, and a sharp tap could probably have shattered it. Above it on the wall were metal signs full of stern warnings and exclamation marks. Rust made them virtually unreadable.
He sighed and felt his spirits sink even lower. Even their sagging, corroded, absolutely useless computer monitor reflected their superiority. They would have laughed at him, he was sure. The accident that meant so much to him, that threatened his work and all that he wanted to achieve, would have been quaintly amusing to them. They would have regarded his struggles to push back the technological boundaries with a smiling condescension usually reserved for small children trying to do arithmetic.
He was humbled by a few kilos of rotted plastic. He closed his eyes and bitterly remembered the incident again.
Inside his lumbering, shrieking machine, a wire had popped away from a contact, suddenly setting it free from his control. Now unrestrained, it had rolled over his foot, causing him to scream in pain and fall to the floor. Then it had rumbled off up the corridor. Other technicians had tried to stop it, but it paid them no more heed than a wave pays to a boat it overturns. It only stopped when it ploughed through the glass door at the end of the corridor, and part of the door frame had lanced into its gears and paralysed it.
It had soft, under-inflated tyres, so his foot was badly bruised, not broken. The glass door, on the other hand, had been utterly destroyed, and the cost of replacing it would come out of his already over-stretched budget.
He had been visited by a man from the Governor’s Office only a week before, who had cast a cold, unsympathetic eye over Nick’s machine, and sneered at the idea of an increased budget. Nick sensed that he was perilously close to having his funding cut altogether. It wasn’t his fault; his sponsors had fantastic expectations that no one living could meet.
But even worse than the budget problems was the fact that Nick had been embarrassed in front of his colleagues. He had encouraged them to invest themselves in the machine, to give it a pet name and ascribe a personality to it. Then with one popped wire, it had revealed itself to be just a huge, dangerous piece of equipment, with no more personality than a tractor, more likely to injure them than do what they wanted. One popped wire had burst a very important bubble of illusion.
So Nick had crawled away to look for inspiration in the past.
The broad, dark room did not offer him inspiration; just the heavy weight of dust and years, and then, just faintly, a sound. Metal, squeaking against stone. Not the clatter of a rat knocking over an aluminium can or dislodging some rusted fragment of steel, but the rhythmic scrape of something being worked. It was coming from somewhere deeper in the building.
Nick stood, and peered into the gloom indecisively. He had only rarely ventured further into the complex. Deeper in the darkness became almost absolute, it was dangerously easy to get lost, and the rats were fearless and hungry.
Still, his curiosity had been awoken. He walked cautiously toward the noise, careful to make as little sound as possible. The floors were thick with dust and fallen ceiling tiles. Here and there were the skeletons of office chairs stripped of their upholstery by rats and rot. On the walls were glass-fronted frames that had once held photographs, but now just showed pale grey blocks where the images had faded away. Empty doorways revealed offices with sagging desks and more disintegrating computers. Light meandered in through dim skylights, tinted green where they’d been smothered by plants up on the surface.
He followed the noise down a long corridor and through what had probably been a conference room, into a restroom. Here part of a wall had collapsed, spraying concrete, porcelain and mirror shards across the tiled floor. He stepped on a loose tile, and it cracked, and the scraping sound suddenly stopped.
‘Hello?’ Nick called. His throat was dry and his voice came out higher than he’d have liked. He crept across the restroom and peered through the gaping hole in the wall. ‘Hello?’
There was no reply. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he stepped hesitantly forward.
The floor was uneven, and he put his hand out to steady himself, but the concrete wall crumbled under his fingers and he fell awkwardly onto one knee.
‘Don’t come in any further!’ a sharp voice rang out from the darkness.
Nick rubbed his jarred knee. ‘Who’s there?’
‘Just leave now,’ the voice said.
Nick’s eyes had adjusted a little more to the darkness, and he could now make out the figure of a man near the far wall. He was lying in the rubble.
‘Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine. It’s dangerous for you to be here. Please go now.’
The man’s voice was not threatening, or angry, but it sounded genuinely concerned. The floor was covered in shattered concrete and twisted metal, and as Nick looked up, he could see that part of the ceiling had collapsed. Fragments of a metal staircase jutted out from the wall, and huge chunks of concrete loomed pendulously overhead supported only by rusted rods of steel reinforcing.
‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ Nick asked.
‘I’m sure,’ the man replied, but he didn’t stand up. Nick took a few steps closer, and realised that the man’s right leg was buried under a concrete slab.
‘You’re trapped,’ Nick said.
‘I can get myself out,’ the man replied. Nick saw that he had a fragment of metal in his hand, and had been chipping ineffectually at the concrete. Judging by the scrapes on the slab, he had been there for days, at least.
‘Just how long have you been stuck here?’ Nick queried.
‘Not long. I’ll be fine, really. Just leave now.’
‘Hey, I’m really impressed by your macho routine, but there’s no way I’m just going to walk away from a fellow human being pinned under fallen concrete. Let me find something to dig with.’
‘Look, I’m warning you now. Don’t make me get angry.’
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ Nick demanded. ‘I’m trying to help you!’
‘I don’t want your help. I want you to go away.’
Nick took a few steps closer so that he could see the man more clearly. The slab was vast, and Nick realised that the man’s leg had to be completely crushed. But his face was calm and his voice steady and clear. He seemed to be in no more pain than a man reclining in his favourite chair.
Nick felt a sudden pang of realisation.
‘Just who are you anyway?’ he asked, peering at the figure more intently than ever.
‘That’s none of you business,’ the man said brusquely. ‘If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here right now.’
‘On the contrary, I think maybe it is my business.’ Nick crouched down and peered at the man’s free leg, at a spot where his trousers had been badly torn, revealing the scraped flesh beneath. What he saw sent a spasm of shivering down his back and along his arms and legs.
‘Well I’ll be damned,’ he said unevenly. ‘You’re a humanalogue.’
The man said nothing, but his expression was as hard as stone.
‘You are, aren’t you?’ Nick persisted. ‘I can tell, you know. I’ve read every book there is on the subject. It’s what I do for a living.’
‘Is that a fact.’
‘You know there’s no way I’m just leaving you here, not now that I know. I don’t care if bits of the ceiling start falling down right now.’
‘I don’t think you’d be so confident if it was your leg under this piece of concrete.’
‘Well, the sooner we get you out, the sooner we can leave.’
The man was silent for a moment. Then he pointed into the rubble. ‘You’ll need a lever to lift this slab. Over there is a metal bar. Bring it here.’
Nick searched the debris until he found a thick metal shaft that had probably been a support for the staircase. Following the man’s instructions, he wedged it under the concrete slab next to the crushed leg.
‘Push down as hard as you can,’ the man instructed, and Nick did so. The slab shifted slightly. The man brought up one of his own arms, and pushed on the bar as well.
The slab rose off the rubble by a good handsbreadth; the man had more strength in one arm than Nick had in his body. The man carefully slid his body backwards, dragging his leg out. It was horribly mangled, barely hanging together. The man showed no sign of pain. When his leg was free, he took his hand off the bar and the slab thudded back into place. The impact sent little drifts of cement dust drifting down, and there was a faint groan from the surrounding masonry.
With a strong twist of his body, the man flipped himself upright.
‘There, I’m free now,’ the man said. ‘Are you happy?’
Standing, he was a head taller than Nick, and a good deal heavier. Nick felt a twinge of fear, but he fought it down. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Lean on me, and I’ll help you out of here.’
The man paused, and ran his gaze over Nick. Then he stretched out his arm, resignedly, and Nick put his shoulder under it. Together they hobbled across the room, through the restroom and the conference room, down the corridor and out into the workroom where Nick had been sitting. There the man stopped.
‘You’re more or less safe here,’ he said, pulling his arm off Nick’s shoulder. ‘You shouldn’t venture so deep into buildings like this. They’re unstable.’
‘I could say the same thing to you. Why were you in there, anyway?’ Nick retorted.
The man gave him another hard look. ‘Well, thank you for your assistance. I think you should go now.’
‘Oh no you don’t. There are questions I’ve been wanting to ask a humanalogue since I was a kid, and now that I’ve finally met one I’m sure as hell going to ask them, whether he likes it or not.’
The man did not reply. He spun on his good leg and, using the steel bench as a support, started to limp towards one of the exits.
‘Stop right there!’ Nick snapped. The man twitched, then halted.
Nick walked around to look him in the eye. ‘Who owns you?’
There was a pause before he answered. ‘I take my orders from United Nations Peacekeeping Command.’
‘I’ve never heard of them.’
‘The United Nations Peacekeeping Command was established in Geneva, Switzerland, following the Hiroshi Resolution of 2071.’ the man recited, as if reading an internal reference book. ‘Do you want more?’
Nick waved for him to stop. He could feel himself start to shiver with excitement. ‘What are you saying? You’re still owned by an organisation that existed in 2071?’
‘As far as I’m aware, I am,’ he replied.
‘But they can’t possibly still exist!’ Nick protested. ‘When did you last receive an order from this United Nations Peacekeeping Command?’
‘That information is classified,’ the man said tersely.
‘Is that what this building is? The United Nations Peacekeeping Command?’
‘No, this is the Kerrigan Military Base,’ the man replied. ‘This facility was put at the disposal of the UNPC in 2098.’
‘And are you expecting to get more orders out of this place?’ Nick took in the dusty, rotten artifacts with a sweep of his arm.
‘I have no expectations,’ the man said.
‘Your UNPC probably hasn’t existed in centuries.’ Nick told him. ‘Admit it, you’re a humanalogue without an owner.’
‘I have no proof of that.’
‘Proof?’ Nick threw up his hands in frustration. ‘You don’t need proof! It’s common sense!’
The man’s stare was as cold as deepest winter. ‘Then maybe I don’t have common sense. Thank you for your assistance, sir. Don’t let me detain you any longer.’
‘Neither of us is going anywhere,’ Nick said. But despite that, the man turned and started to limp towards the nearest exit again.
‘Look, I can help you!’ Nick cried desperately. ‘Take a good long look at that leg of yours. You’re badly injured. You’ll need resources and tools and things to fix yourself. You might not even be able to! I can help you. I’m a robotics engineer!’
The man stopped but didn’t turn. ‘Humanalogues aren’t robots,’ he said.
‘Well, they’re close.’ Nick said lamely.
‘No, they’re not,’ the man responded. ‘That just shows how much you don’t know.’
Nick hated the pleading tone that was creeping into his voice, but he couldn’t stop it. ‘Which is why I need to talk to you. There are things I really need to know. We can both help each other. Please. Damn it, please let me help you!’
The man very slowly turned to face Nick. His expression was unreadable. ‘Thank you for your offer of assistance, sir, but I don’t need your help.’
‘Well, maybe I need your help. Did you consider that?’ Nick barked. ‘I don’t want your stupid obsolete military secrets! I just need you to help me!’
‘How could I help you?’ the man queried softly.
‘I need you to tell me where I’m going wrong. I have to use trial and error in my research and it all just seems to be error. I keep making mistakes and I can’t afford to. I have no budget, I’ve just destroyed a door, and Renai ran over my foot and it hurts like hell.’
‘Who is Renai?’ the man asked.
‘Renai is my robot,’ Nick replied. Face to face with his first live humanalogue, it seemed a shameful confession to make, like a child admitting an imaginary friend.
‘The specifications of military humanalogues serving in the UNPC are classified,’ the man said. ‘I can’t allow you to access any of my technology.’
‘I’m not asking you to lend me spare parts,’ Nick retorted. ‘Let’s be honest here; my robot is made of hydraulics and gears and bits of copper wire. I control it with a remote control attached to it by a cable as thick as my thumb. I mean, bloody hell, we program it using punched paper tape! I just need some pointers, to see where I’m going wrong.’
The man was silent, staring at the floor.
‘Look,’ Nick said. ‘Maybe you’re right. I may not know much about humanalogues. But even I can see that your leg is smashed like roadkill, and that an injury that bad might kill even you. And how are you going to serve this UNPC thing if you’re dead? I’m asking you, please, help me and let me help you.’
The man looked at him. ‘Alright,’ he said, very slowly and distinctly. ‘If you assist me to repair my damaged leg, I will give you some advice on your robotics project.’
Nick felt a tremendous buzz of relief. ‘It’s a deal.’
The man merely nodded.
‘Come on,’ said Nick. ‘Lean on me again, and I’ll take you back to the house.’
‘Yeah. Don’t worry, it’s not far.’
‘Does anyone else live with you?’
‘No. I live alone.’
Still with a trace of reluctance, the man held out his arm, and Nick put his shoulder under it.
‘My name’s Nick, by the way. Do you have a name?’
It seemed to take him a moment to remember. ‘Charlie,’ he said simply.
The light was beginning to fail as Nick helped Charlie up the weed-strewn steps, out of the underground bunker.
Together they hobbled into the forest that had grown through the tarmac outside the bunker, past the shadow on the ground that showed where an impenetrable fence had once been, then up the rocky hillside towards the house. The twilight air was scented with the smell of pine, from the stunted conifers that grew in the cracks between boulders.
With every step, Nick’s appreciation of his perverse luck grew. If his juggernaut of a robot hadn’t run amok, he wouldn’t have taken refuge in his secret place in the ancient military facility, and thus would never have found the humanalogue.
Charlie seemed to need Nick more for simple balance than any real support, but each step Nick took with Charlie leaning against him was a revelation. Charlie’s body was as warm as another human being’s. He could feel the muscles shifting under the humanalogue’s skin; the flex of the shoulder, the stretch of the lateral pectoral muscles, the minutely fluctuating grip of his fingers on Nick’s shoulder. He could feel Charlie’s hipbone against his own. He could hear Charlie breathing, with a little grunt of effort occasionally as he hefted his ruined leg over a rock or an exposed root.
Then when he looked down, he could see the crushed leg. Underneath the shreds of Charlie’s trousers, there was a soft, grey, foam-like substance where his muscles should have been. A rod of gleaming black metal was thrust out like a broken strut from an umbrella. Tiny components of blue and yellow twinkled in the fading light. On his other leg, the scraped flesh revealed more grey, with flashes of pale colour where plastic pretended to be tendons or muscles or bones.
The possibilities are endless, Nick thought, and it gave him a sudden, giddy thrill. I have a humanalogue.
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