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‘It’s the screw gears!’ Nick yelled.
Charlie nodded. Like every other person in the room, he winced each time one of the gears activated and the shriek of metal on metal shattered normal conversation. Unlike every other person in the room, his winces were voluntary, another facet of his perfect human mimicry.
‘You can see how this mounting here is different from the blueprints!’ Nick shouted over the noise. ‘We found that the old one suffered from repeated stress fractures! This one works much better but it reduces the amount of space available for gearing in this section!’
‘So we have to use these screw gears for vertical movement! They work fine but they make one hell of a racket!’
Charlie reached over and flicked a switch on the remote control. The machine froze, and the noise sank grudgingly away. ‘I’m sure there’s a way around it. I should be able to help you work out something.’
Dina Mallery was leafing through the drawings he had made during the night. ‘It looks like you’ve already done a lot. There’s nothing like a fresh perspective.’
‘I haven’t done much, but I’m glad to be in a position to help.’
‘You’re too modest – these are really good.’
‘Not at all. These are just modifications - you’ve already succeeded with all the major design work. I’ve got to hand it to you; I think this is the most sophisticated robot since at least the New Deal Collective. And maybe even longer than that.’
‘I didn’t know that the Dealers had any interest in robotics,’ Dina said.
‘It wasn’t one of their specialities, but they did a little work in the field,’ Charlie replied, then added, ‘Or so I’ve heard.’
Ron Jones peered over Dina’s shoulder at the plans, and hummed thoughtfully.
‘You’ve got a great sense of design, Charlie. Who did you study under?’
‘Most of my training came from Dr Vincent Xu.’
‘I don’t know him. Is he local?’
‘No. He passed away some time ago.’
Nick had introduced Charlie as a foreign researcher with whom he’d been corresponding, and who was visiting the Dominion on a roving sabbatical. He knew that this was taking a chance, given the mild xenophobia that infused all levels of Dominion society. But he needn’t have worried. Charlie gave Dina and Ron hearty handshakes and big, easygoing smiles, and they warmed to him immediately.
He also seemed genuinely impressed by Renai. The robot was basically a massive steel arm festooned with cables and hydraulic lines, fixed to a heavy base resting on six fat tyres. The arm and base were directly controlled by the remote control, based on operational parameters set by paper tape programming. It was flexible enough and strong enough to pick up a solid wooden block from a table, although when they had tried to get it to lift an empty wooden cigar box, it had crushed it like a paper cup. Its uses remained largely theoretical, but Nick anticipated progress.
‘Nick, I’d like to see what would happen if we added some more hydraulic fluid to the system,’ Charlie said.
‘You think that would increase the efficiency?’ Nick asked. He was a little perplexed until Charlie caught his eye. He’d forgotten that the humanalogue had other reasons for being in the lab than offering robotics advice.
‘Sure. I’ll just go and get some. I tell you what, why don’t you come with me and I’ll give you a little tour while we’re at it.’
‘That sounds like a great idea.’
‘I’ll come with you, if you don’t mind,’ Dina offered.
‘Ah, actually, I was hoping that you and Ron could get the fluid tank open and drain the system. Is that okay?’
‘Of course it is. It’ll be ready by the time you get back.’
As they walked away and rounded the corner, Nick muttered, ‘Did you notice how Dina was flirting with you?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Well she was.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s understandable.’
Nick couldn’t help but laugh. ‘I’m glad to see your artificial ego is working fine.’
‘In outward appearance I’m a well-built, intelligent, single male in the prime of life. I’d probably have good partnership potential.’
‘Your culture places great importance on marriage. It’s only natural that your colleague would appraise me for such potential.’
The y reached the chemical store and Nick unlocked the door. ‘Just make sure you don’t encourage her.’
‘Of course,’ Charlie replied as he walked in ‘You don’t need to worry about me reciprocating.’
‘I’m not worried.’
Charlie paused, just long enough for it to be noticeable. ‘I see.’
‘You see what?’
‘I mean I understand.’
‘You understand what?’
‘Hydraulic fluid.’ Charlie picked up a bottle, dipped his finger in the green liquid, and rubbed it inside his cheek.
‘It’s not as pure as I’d like, but I can work with it.’ He raised the bottle to his lips and took a good swig. ‘Now, where would I find mineral turpentine?’
The store was shared between a number of departments, and the wooden shelves were stacked floor to ceiling with bottles, flasks and tins. Nick chewed his lower lip as Charlie wandered up and down the rows of shelves, pulling out containers and pouring their contents into his mouth.
‘Just how many chemicals do you need? The people in Supplies will cause problems if they think someone’s been pilfering.’
‘I’m only taking small amounts; 50 millilitres here and 100 grams there.’ Charlie replied.
‘100 grams can be a lot if it’s something expensive.’
‘Alright. Do you have the authority to requisition materials?’
‘Yes, but I’ll need to know what you’re taking and write it in the ledger.’
‘Well, here’s what I’ve taken so far.’ Charlie rattled off a list of chemicals and compounds. ‘Write that in the ledger… and I’ll take this half litre bottle of silicone oil too.’
‘Carbon tetrachloride… hydrochloric acid… arsenic… I’m surprised you don’t melt with all this inside you,’ Nick commented as he scribbled.
‘I metabolise it into new forms. Even so, if you find any drops of translation gel on the floor of your kitchen, don’t whatever you do put them in your mouth.’
‘Thanks. I’ll try to keep my inner two-year-old under control.’
If Charlie got the joke, he didn’t show it. ‘Does the ledger record any aluminium or titanium in the inventory?’ he asked.
Nick scanned through the pages. ‘No. There’s some aluminium powder on backorder, but it hasn’t arrived yet. And titanium is so expensive that there’s no way I can justify requisitioning it. Is this for your crystalline matrix?’
‘Yes. I really need liquid pseudoalumtitanium, but you’re decades away from that. There’s only one way right now to properly repair my matrix.’
‘Cannibalise another humanalogue.’
‘Really? That’s sort of creepy, isn’t it?’
‘It’s the only way to access the necessary pseudoalumtitanium. There’ve been plenty of times in the past when I’ve had to salvage material from dead humanalogues. In earlier centuries there were a lot more of us than there are now – finding a dead, abandoned humanalogue was relatively easy.’
‘It was? I can’t imagine people just leaving bodies… even artificial bodies…. just lying in the street.’
‘The world is very tidy compared to what it was a century ago,’ Charlie said. ‘Back then there were warlogs killed all the time in feuds and battles, and then the Mitchellites destroyed thousands of amilogs while they were in power. But now… well, how many functioning humanalogues do you think there are in this city?’
Nick scratched his head. ‘Well, the Governor has two. The president of ResumeCorp always shows his amilog off whenever he’s in the news. I’d be surprised if the Marchant family didn’t have one stashed away somewhere. I don’t know… half a dozen? A dozen?’
Charlie nodded. ‘Even the dead ones are valuable now for spare parts. I’d be very lucky to find the material I need lying in a ditch or an abandoned house like I used to.’
‘Well, you know, now that I think about it, I do think I know where you can find a couple of dead humanalogues.’
‘I can show you later. Are you finished here?’
Charlie tipped half a bottle of copper sulfate down his throat, then said. ‘I think that’s everything. There are a few other compounds I need, but I’m sure you’d have them at home.’
‘We’d better get back Ron and Dina. They’ll have the hydraulic system ready by now. Don’t forget to grab the rest of that fluid.’
All seemed to be going well until they got back to the door of the lab. Nick’s heart fell as he looked through the glass and saw Professor Rian talking to Dina. His posture suggested that it was not a friendly chat. Nick sighed and pushed the door open, and at the sound Rian turned to face him, already opening his mouth to begin what was almost certainly going to be one of his trademark harangues.
But then he noticed Charlie, and was momentarily thrown off track.
“Dr Ostin?” the Professor said, with a flick of his eyes in Charlie’s direction.
‘You must be Professor Rian,’ Charlie stepped forward and shook Rian’s hand with gusto. ‘I’m Charlie Kerrigan from UNPC. If you’re half the man Nick says you are, this is indeed an honour.’
‘An honour?’ Rian echoed blankly.
‘This is a capital facility you’re running here. Really first rate. The technology you’re rediscovering eclipses anything I’ve seen in my travels. This robot, for example, is just groundbreaking. You must be very proud of your team.’
‘Their progress has been… encouraging,’ Rian managed. ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite catch who you are.’
‘Charlie Kerrigan, UNPC. I’ve been corresponding with Dr Ostin on robotic engineering, and I must say it is a very great pleasure to finally be here and see the work you’ve done. It’s amazing what Nick and his team have been able to achieve. Of course it helps to be under a departmental head who demonstrates a bit of vision.’
‘Vision?’ Rian repeated, and smiled despite himself. ‘Oh, well, yes, of course. We all have to look forward to making the world a better place.’
‘You don’t know how refreshing it is to hear that, Professor, especially from a man actually in a position to do something about it.’
‘Well, we all try our best.’
Nick wondered if Rian was about to start purring. But then a student appeared at the door and nervously interrupted, ‘Professor Rian? I was told to come and get you. A government car has just arrived.’
‘What? Oh, that’ll be that damned auditor again. I’ll be there in a few minutes.’ He turned back to Charlie. ‘It’s hard to keep a vision when the accountants are nipping at your ankles.’
Charlie chuckled good-naturedly.
‘No, Professor Rian,’ the student said, ‘it’s General Sierra’s staff car.’
‘General Sierra?’ Rian frowned as he heard the unexpected name, then his eyes widened as the implications sank in. He stumbled halfway through an apology to Charlie, then abruptly left the lab. They heard him break into a run somewhere in the corridor.
‘What was that all about?’ Charlie asked.
‘General Sierra is the Governor’s top military advisor,’ Dina said. ‘He’s the commander in chief of the entire army. What do you think he’s doing here?’
‘He’s probably come to take Rian away,’ Ron muttered sourly.
‘We wish,’ Nick added.
Dina looked at them both, aghast. ‘That’s an awful thing to say! Professor Rian may not be the most pleasant person in the world, but nobody deserves to be, you know,’ her voice fell to a whisper, ‘‘vanished’.’
‘You’re right,’ Nick said. ‘I’m sorry.’
Ron rubbed his jaw. ‘Still, Sierra’s supposed to be head of the secret police too. You really think he could be here to arrest someone? Surely if they were going to do something like that, they’d do it at night, or they’d go to his home, so there wouldn’t be any witnesses.’
‘You’re thinking about this way too much. I bet he’s just here to talk to some weapons designers.’ Nick looked to Charlie for support, but to his surprise, the humanalogue had disappeared.
‘Where’d your friend go?’ Dina asked, as she noticed the same thing.
‘I don’t know. He’s… er… probably just gone to the bathroom.’ Nick said. But as he replied he remembered what Charlie had said that morning, about fleeing at the first sign of trouble. He had the sudden, terrible suspicion that the humanalogue might have gone for good.
‘If he’s wise he’ll hide in there,’ Ron said.
The sound of footsteps drifted in from the corridor, along with the voice of Professor Rian trying to be ingratiating. Four figures marched past the doorway; they were moving swiftly but Nick thought he recognised the auditor from earlier in the week. He only glimpsed a tall man in uniform and a smaller, slighter man in black.
‘Well, at least they’re not here to see us,’ Ron said.
‘So who are they here to see?’ Nick asked.
‘Hey, Dr Ostin,’ the student who had come for Professor Rian slipped around the doorframe. ‘Did you see who was with the Professor?’
‘It was the auditor, wasn’t it?’ Nick replied. ‘And I guess one of the others must have been General Sierra.’
‘Yeah, but do you know who was with them?’
The student’s eyes darted nervously around the room. ‘That guy they call Mr Smith.’
Nick’s jaw dropped. ‘What? Here?’
‘Are you sure?’ Ron demanded.
‘I heard the auditor introducing him to the Professor.’
‘What are they here for?’ Dina asked.
‘Mr Smith said that he wanted to see the laser team. He said that the Governor wanted him to take a special interest in the people working in there.’
They all looked at each other, as the news wormed its way inside them and set up scenarios, each more horrifying than the last.
‘There’s nothing we can do about it,’ Nick said at length. ‘Let’s just get on with refilling this hydraulic system.’
‘Yeah,’ said Ron. ‘I bet it’s like you said, anyway. They’re just here to talk about weapons design. They used to use lasers for weapons too, you know. It’s probably easier to burn a hole with a laser than try to read a CD with it. They’re probably planning what they want to blow up first.’
Nick didn’t believe him, but he nodded anyway, and tried to concentrate on the work at hand.
It took them nearly twenty minutes to recharge the system and, ironically enough, the hydraulics did seem to run fractionally better with the extra fluid in the tubes. Even when he was just making up an excuse, Nick reflected, Charlie’s advice could be helpful. He was resealing the fluid tank when he heard footsteps in the corridor, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the men from the government passing by, back towards the carpark. He refused to look up.
But then he heard Dina gasp, and had to raise his head to see. The small, slight man in black was standing in the doorway. He peered into the laboratory, as if he had just noticed it for the first time.
Professor Rian came scurrying back to him. ‘Ah, this is the robotics team, Mr Smith. I don’t think they’re involved with the laser project at all.’
Mr Smith made a small, light gesture with his hand to silence the Professor. Behind him, General Sierra appeared. ‘Is something wrong, Mr Smith?’
The man in black slowly walked into the lab.
He took in the cluttered benches, shelves and filing cabinets with an almost child-like curiosity. He peered at the robot as if he thought there was something untoward lurking in it. Then he turned his gaze on Nick.
‘Nick Ostin, sir.’ He swallowed awkwardly. ‘I’m the leader on this project.’
There was something unworldly and subtly horrible about Mr Smith’s face. It looked to Nick as if a large dead fish lying on a bed of ice at the markets had suddenly raised it’s head and stared at him.
‘Do you do any work with humanalogues, Dr Ostin?’
Nick felt as if icy hands were gently stroking his shoulders. ‘No, sir. I’ve read about them, of course, but I’ve never actually met one. At least not a working one.’
‘Really? How strange. I could have sworn…’ He cast a thoughtful gaze around the lab. ‘I suppose you could have a manual or a stray component somewhere in here. That might explain it.’ He paused, frowned and said, ‘Did you say your name was Ostin?’
‘Any relation to Benny and Lauran Ostin?’
The icy hands at his shoulders spread to a full body embrace. ‘They were my parents.’
‘Oh yes. I remember them well. I was a great fan of your father’s music. It’s a shame they held such… regrettable views.’
The General stepped into the lab. ‘Mr Smith, I think we’re expected back at the Governor’s palace.’
Mr Smith gazed at him languidly. ‘Of course, General. We’ve done what we came here to do.’ He looked back to Nick. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Dr Ostin. I can definitely see the family resemblance.’
He allowed the impatient General, the auditor and the Professor to lead him back out into the corridor. The sound of their passage receded.
‘Are you okay, Nick?’ Dina ventured, at length.
Nick couldn’t focus on what she was saying. Mr Smith had known his parents. The rumours around him claimed all sorts of things, but they coalesced around the fact that he lived in the cells far beneath the Governor’s palace, and he made sure people told the Governor what the Governor wanted them to tell him. The thought that he knew and remembered their names even after ten years made Nick’s stomach churn.
‘I’d better go and find Charlie,’ he said, as if in a daze, and he bolted from the laboratory.
The Tip Jar