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‘I’ll need some light,’ Charlie said.
Nick flicked the switch that turned on the kitchen lights. From his seat at the kitchen table, Charlie hefted his crushed leg onto another chair, and peered at it intently. He carefully tore away the remains of his khaki-coloured trousers to mid-thigh, revealing the full extent of the damage, and conducted a few delicate investigations with the handle of a teaspoon.
‘Don’t you think I should sterilise that first?’ Nick asked, gesturing at the teaspoon.
‘There’s nothing in here to infect,’ Charlie replied. ‘It’s all metal and plastics. But thank you for your concern.’
While the humanalogue did his investigations, Nick was content to stand by the door and get his first really good look at him. Charlie was taller than average, perhaps 1.9 metres, and solidly built. He had nondescript blonde hair, cut short and neat. His face was round and blunt-featured. His age looked to be somewhere around thirty, but of course Nick knew that he was far, far older than he appeared. Except for the technology spilling out of his leg, and the vaguely military clothes, he could have passed for a local mechanic, or a farmer, or a road worker.
‘So,’ Nick said, hesitantly. ‘What sort of humanalogue are you?’
‘I’m a CMP 4000DX, Command Series Version 2,’ Charlie replied without looking up. ‘Do you want a product code as well?’
‘That’s not what I meant. You’re a warlog, aren’t you? I read that’s what they used to call the warrior humanalogues.’
‘I’m a warlog.’
‘And what does CPM stand for?’
‘It’s CMP; Consolidated Military Products,’ Charlie corrected. ‘They mass-produced military-spec humanalogues, as well as high-end vehicles and weapons systems, primarily for the US government. I came from their factory in Raleigh, North Carolina. Do you have a long knife?’
‘What? Oh, yeah, sure,’ Nick pulled a breadknife out of a drawer and held it out to Charlie.
Charlie pointed at his leg. ‘Push it in here until you hit solid metal, then lever it to the left.’
Gingerly Nick obeyed. Charlie took the black metal rod that was sticking out of his leg and, using the teaspoon to hold the grey foam to one side, maneuvered it deep into the wound. After a moment Nick felt it lock into place somewhere inside Charlie’s knee.
The humanalogue hummed in satisfaction. ‘That’s better. I think my subframe’s all still properly aligned.’
‘Is that important?’ Nick asked.
‘It would completely throw out my coordination if it weren’t,’ Charlie replied. ‘I can’t test it properly until I do some other repairs. Do you have any sugar?’
‘Sugar? I don’t know.’ Nick peered into his cupboards. ‘No, I don’t think I do. I don’t really use it much. What do you need sugar for?’
‘My translation gel level is very low. I lost a lot of it in the accident. I need sugar to manufacture a temporary replacement. Do you have anything else? Corn syrup? Candy?’
Nick shuffled bags and packages in the cupboard.
‘Hey, what about marshmallows?’
‘That’ll be fine. I’ll also need a couple of litres of water.’
Nick found one of his mother’s old water jugs, and filled it from the tap. ‘So, we’ve got marshmallows and water. You’re a lot less high-tech than I realised.’
‘It’s only a temporary replacement. Proper translation gel requires a very specific set of petrochemicals which I doubt you keep in your home. But I’d like some of the white paint you used for the outside of this house, if you still have any.’
‘There’s some in the garage. Why do you need white paint?’
‘It should contain mineral oils, and hopefully some aluminium and titanium. It’s probably the best you can manage for field repairs. That is, unless your civilisation has redeveloped liquid pseudoalumtitanium alloy?’
‘Er, not that I know of,’ Nick admitted.
‘I didn’t think so,’ Charlie replied. ‘Even under the best conditions, that’s got to be at least fifty years away. The last time I looked you hadn’t even worked out how to fire a laser.’
Nick felt slightly stung. ‘I have colleagues working on that. They say they’re really close.’
Charlie didn’t look impressed. ‘In my experience scientists always say that.’
Nick left him stuffing marshmallows into his mouth, and went out to the garage to get the paint. When he returned, the humanalogue had cut open his boot with a paring knife, and was patiently locking smaller versions of the black rod in his leg into place inside his foot.
‘So the black metal struts are your subframe,’ Nick said as he put the paint tin on the table. ‘That’s like a skeleton?’
‘More or less.’
‘And that grey foam is… what?’
‘It’s not foam. It’s a pseudoalumtitanium crystalline matrix.’
‘I’ve read about it, but I never really understood it.’
‘It serves a number of purposes. It expands and contracts to allow movement, it houses nanofacturing systems, and it carries data between processors located throughout the body.’
‘So… muscles, organs and nervous system, all in one.’
‘You could look at it that way.’ Charlie used the teaspoon to pop the lid off the paint tin. He dipped his finger in it then put his finger in his mouth and rubbed the inside of his cheek.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Testing this paint.’ He looked blank for a moment. ‘Unfortunately I’m not detecting titanium. Did you know this paint is lead-based?’
‘I guess so. I thought most paint was lead-based. What’s wrong with that?’
‘Well yes, but it’s not like I go around licking the walls or anything.’
Charlie regarded him for a moment. ‘I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget how much things have changed since I was built. Danger and risk are relative. Your ancestors wouldn’t have tolerated lead-based paint in their factories, let alone in their homes.’
‘There isn’t much in the way of alternatives,’ Nick said. He found himself adding, with a little sigh of wistfulness, ‘My ancestors would have had plastic paint or something, I guess.’
‘Silicate-based, usually. When I was built most commercial house paint was also designed to channel video images.’ He snapped the lid back onto the tin. ‘I’m afraid I can’t use this. I’ll do some makeshift repairs and deal with the problem later. If you have any surgical thread or heavy cotton, I’ll stitch my skin up.’
‘I’ve probably got some surgical thread in the first aid box. I’ll just get it.’
Charlie peered at the kitchen light. ‘Do you have a more direct light source? Suturing is a delicate operation even for a humanalogue, and this light is too diffuse.’
‘There’s a reading lamp next to the big armchair in the living room. Why don’t you try that?’
‘Thank you,’ Charlie said. Nick went to help him get up, but he was gently pushed away. ‘I can move much more easily now that my sub-frame is repaired. If you get the suturing thread I’ll get myself set up in the living room.’
Nick went off to dig out his first aid kit, and when he came back, Charlie was seated in the armchair, with his leg propped up on an ottoman and the reading lamp lowered to just above it.
The humanalogue rummaged through the first aid kit until he found what he needed. He selected a thick needle, expertly threaded it, then without flinching drove it into his skin. Nick winced involuntarily. ‘I guess you don’t feel pain,’ he commented.
‘I’m not authorised to discuss that,’ Charlie replied, not looking up from his suturing.
‘Oh yes, I forgot. We wouldn’t want any military secrets getting out. I might integrate them into my own paper-strip programmed robot.’
‘There’s no need for sarcasm. I didn’t make the rules.’
Nick let his gaze drift from the humanalogue’s leg up to his face.
His eyes were blue-grey, as nondescript as the rest of his face. His stare as he worked on his leg was anything but mechanistic. His eyes blinked at irregular intervals, just a tiny flick perfectly mimicking human blinking, all according to some deep, ancient algorithm. His brow was slightly furrowed, as if in concentration. Every so often, there was an almost unnoticeable twitch; a minor nostril flare, a shift in the jawline, or a pursing of the lips. Nick was almost mesmerised by it, and it gave him a small start when Charlie’s eyes flicked up to meet his own.
‘Is there a problem?’
‘No, no, I was just… looking. It’s amazing. I can’t believe that people like me were once able to design something like you. It’s just incredible.’
‘Humans didn’t design humanalogues,’ Charlie said shortly.
‘What so you mean?’
‘All humanalogues were designed by networked APIs,’ Charlie replied. ‘API stands for Artificial Parallel Intelligence.’
Nick made a face. ‘I do know what APIs are, thanks very much. I read all about them. And I understand that were invaluable in the design of humanalogues, doing all the computations and the hackwork. But humans did the actual design, after all.’
‘Your sources are inaccurate,’ Charlie said briskly, ‘and you underestimate the power of the APIs. All the humans did was give them some basic parameters. No human brain could handle the complexity of humanalogue design, and no human language is precise enough to communicate parts of that design across a team. The first humanalogue, built in 2055, took over two hundred APIs nearly seven years to design. It would have taken humans centuries, even if they could manage it.’ Charlie snapped the thread at the last of his stitches, and flexed his leg experimentally. The repairs seemed to satisfy him.
‘So what does that mean for my research? If what you say is true, I should be concentrating on computing, not robotics.’
For possibly the first time, Charlie smiled. ‘I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself. You don’t have personal computers, the Internet, cyberprosthetics, adjuvants… all these were invented years before humanalogues, and humanalogues couldn’t have existed without them.’ He slipped the needle back into the first aid kit, and carefully lowered his damaged leg from off the ottoman. ‘Now, you wanted me to help you with some robotics project, didn’t you? There’s no time like the present.’
Nick went to his study and dragged out the pile of papers and blueprints that had been cluttering up his desk. It was all there, in almost unfathomable chaos – programming theory, design sketches, flow diagrams, handwritten progress notes and ancient mimeographed copies of pages from even older textbooks and journal articles. Some of it was duplicated from the material he was using at the university, but much more was simply technology-themed ephemera. He had acquired documents from conferences, libraries, secondhand bookstores and just plain scavenging. He dumped the papers on the ottoman, and let them spill out over the floor.
‘Your source material seems very… eclectic,’ Charlie commented, fishing one page out of the pile. ‘’The Journal of Advanced Robotics, July-September 2013, page 46: A reappraisal of the Berkeley model of hierarchical reasoning systems’.’ Charlie lowered the page. ‘I think this is a bit out of your league. Plus this is only the first page of a four page article.’
‘It may be beyond me now, but in ten years, who knows?’ Nick retorted. ‘Besides, that’s just a peripheral issue. These drawings here show the wiring for the remote control system. This is where I need your help right now.’
‘’University of Mansfield Research Library Transcription: Owner’s manual – Aibo ERS-210’,’ Charlie read from another piece of paper. ‘What’s an Aibo ERS-210?’
‘I don’t recall – can we focus on these drawings please?’
‘Of course.’ Charlie put down the page and turned his attention to the wiring diagram laid out before him.
It took Nick several minutes to explain the design behind his machine’s control wiring, which lead inevitably to hours of explanation of materials, sensors, hydraulics, motors and programming. Charlie was an excellent listener, quietly following Nick’s lines of thought, then asking pertinent questions as if to demonstrate that he understood.
When Nick eventually prompted him, he picked up a pencil and redrew the wiring diagram, dropping out some extraneous contacts and inserting a simple failsafe circuit.
Nick looked at the sketch. It was the sensible suggestion of an intelligent outsider, an idea easily missed by someone caught up in the project.
‘Won’t that work?’ Charlie asked when he saw the look on Nick’s face.
‘Oh, yeah, I’m sure it will. I guess I was just hoping you could tell me something a little more… groundbreaking. This is just, well,’ he made a small abashed grin, ‘this is just good design.’
‘I’m not a robotics expert,’ Charlie explained. ‘I know a little electronics and mechanical engineering, but that’s all.’
‘I thought a humanalogue would know everything there is to know about robotics,’ Nick said.
‘You’re a human: do you know everything there is to know about human biology?’ Charlie replied, with a questioning lift of his eyebrow. ‘I was trained to be a UNPC soldier. That is where the vast bulk of my knowledge lies. I could teach you how to strip down and reassemble forty-six varieties of submachine gun, if you had any of them, and if you were interested.’
‘I don’t, and I’m not.’ Nick sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. ‘I suppose you know seventeen ways to kill a man using only a cake fork, too.’
‘I can only think of six,’ Charlie said.
Nick peered at him, unable to tell if he was joking. It didn’t seem right that a machine could have a sense of humour, but then it didn’t seem that far-fetched when that machine was a humanalogue.
‘It must be sort of comforting, to know that you can defend yourself under any circumstances. Even if all you have is a cake fork,’ Nick said.
‘I couldn’t defend myself from several tonnes of falling concrete,’ Charlie reminded him.
‘I meant from people,’ Nick clarified. ‘I meant it must be comforting to know you can meet any attack and protect yourself and the people around you.’
‘All humanalogues have an assurance that they possess the abilities to fulfill their designed purpose,’ Charlie replied. ‘In that sense, I suppose it is ‘comforting’.’ He let a few seconds of silence drift by. ‘Are you in danger?’
Nick jumped, like a guilty child suddenly caught with his hand in the cookie jar. ‘Me? Danger? What makes you ask that?’
‘It’s the wistful way you speak of self-defense,’ Charlie replied, then paused. ‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘No, I’m not in any danger. I live a quiet life and this is a very peaceful neighborhood. There’s no danger around here.’
‘If you don’t want to tell me, that’s your prerogative. But if you are under threat, I would like to help.’
‘What makes you so sure that I am under threat?’ Nick protested. ‘And even if I was, what’s it to you?’
‘I am a peacekeeper,’ Charlie responded. ‘One of my primary duties is to protect civilians from hostile forces.’
Nick wished that his tiredness and Charlie’s calm, everyman face weren’t encouraging him to speak. ‘If you’re asking whether troopers are going to crash through the front door tonight and try to kill me, then no, I’m not in danger. But… I have history. I’m always aware that if I step out of line the troopers could be bursting in here within the hour.’
‘Why is that?’
Nick bit his lip and rolled painful memories about in his mind.
‘Ten years ago, my parents were killed. The authorities claimed that it was an accident, but I know that’s not true.’
‘How did they die?’
‘Supposedly they lost control of their car on a mountain road. It went through a rotten crash barrier and plunged into a ravine. The fuel tank exploded and it was incinerated down to its frame.’
‘And you don’t believe that this happened?’
‘Oh, the car went off the road all right. But I think they were dead long before that. They had no reason to be driving up Mount Erin in the middle of the night. They’d been to a concert in Red Hill that evening, fifty kilometres in the opposite direction. It was a set-up.’
‘You seem very sure of that.’
‘My parents were critics of the Governor. They mixed with anti-government groups and they didn’t know how to hold their opinions quietly. In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before…’ Nick’s voice cracked and faltered.
‘You blame the government for their deaths? That’s a big accusation.’
‘Things have changed a lot since you were built, Charlie,’ Nick said bitterly. ‘Your government liked dissent. Hell, I read that they even paid people to dissent. Things aren’t like that now.’
‘I know what things are like now, more than you realise,’ Charlie replied softly.
‘I know about your government – I was watching when they took power. I was watching when the warlord before them took power. I saw the rise and fall of the Mitchellites to the east. I saw the New Deal Collective develop technology greater than yours before it was destroyed by Estevan’s coup. I saw the birth of Northern Trading. I observed all forty years of the Valley Wars. I spoke to the last humans who worked at Kerrigan base, when it had working APIs and quantum-dysfunction canons. Don’t think that I’ve been sitting in there in the dark for centuries.’
Nick stared at him, and the weight of each of those years suddenly seemed to press in on the dimly-lit room. He cleared his throat, and said quietly. ‘So, if you’ve seen so much, do you know if the government killed my parents?’
‘No, I don’t,’ Charlie said. ‘But it’s certainly possible. It wouldn’t be the first time your government has done such a thing. Nor would it be the worst thing it’s done.’
‘I see,’ Nick replied, not wanting to know more, and they both fell silent. The quiet was filled by the clock on the mantel striking one.
‘I think you need to sleep now,’ Charlie advised. ‘I will go over some more of these designs and see if I can offer any suggestions.’
‘Do humanalogues sleep?’
‘Most humanalogues prefer to power down to standby mode once a day, to run virus scans, collate new files and reboot any corrupted algorithms. It takes about fifteen minutes.’
‘Do you do that?’
‘I’m not authorised to discuss that with you.’
‘Fine. Whatever. See you in the morning.’ Nick walked to the stairs, where he paused and looked back. ‘You will be here in the morning, won’t you?’
Charlie nodded. ‘Yes.’
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