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Charlie was not in the bathroom. Nick hadn’t really expected to find him there, but it seemed as good a place to look as any.
The only person in there was one of the scientists on the laser project. He was on his hands and knees at the urinal, where he had vomited copiously. Thin strands of bile still hung from his lips. He made an effort to stand when he recognised Nick, but it seemed that his strength had failed him, and he merely slumped onto the tiled floor. When Nick reached down to help him, he flinched away.
There was no sign of Charlie back in the chemical store, or in any of the corridors. Nick walked out into the grounds through one of the side entrances, but there was no sign of the humanalogue there either. I only had twelve hours, Nick thought bitterly. That’s not long enough to understand a humanalogue.
As he rounded a tall hydrangea hedge, walking toward the front of the building, he saw a large grey car with government number plates pulling away from the main entrance. He waited in the shadow of the hedge until it had driven out of sight.
Professor Rian was standing on the front steps, watching the car drive away. He seemed fine until the car disappeared, and then he sagged, as if an important valve had failed and all of his vigor had leaked out. He trudged back into the building looking twenty years older than he had half an hour earlier.
Despite everything, Nick couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
He turned to walk back to the lab, and collided heavily with someone who had materialised as if by magic behind him. He nearly gave himself whiplash as he jerked away. It was Charlie.
‘Charlie!’ Nick cried. ‘Where did you go? I thought I’d lost you!’
‘I didn’t want to risk meeting any representatives of your government. They’d invariably ask questions, and they might even recognise what I am.’
Nick remembered Mr Smith’s searching eyes, and his sudden questions about humanalogues. He was almost going to mention this to Charlie, but he realised that it might scare the humanalogue away for good.
‘They weren’t here to see us. They were here to see the team on the laser project. I don’t know why, but at least it doesn’t have anything to do with us.’
‘I did tell you I’d leave you without warning if I thought I was in danger of being discovered.’
‘I know, I know. I appreciate the fact that you came back, though. I wasn’t sure if you would.’
‘You said you knew where I could find some dead humanalogues,’ Charlie reminded him. ‘You never told me where.’
‘Oh,’ Nick said. ‘Yeah. I’d forgotten about that.’
‘Do you think we could go there now?’
‘Sure. It’s probably better for you not to be here, anyway. Everyone will be on edge… which isn’t a good environment for someone trying to lay low.’
Nick led Charlie back to the lab, where they made their excuses to Ron and Dina. They then walked out to the main road, where they caught a city-bound tram.
It remained a beautiful morning, clear and warm. The university lay in the city’s inner suburbs, and it wasn’t long before they were entering the central business district. The streets started to clog with cars and trucks, and the occasional horse-drawn vehicle in from the country. The electric wires that powered the tram merged with others for telegraph and telephone until the sky looked like it had been scribbled on.
The buildings shifted closer together and grew taller. They passed through the shadow cast by the Grand Hotel, which at twelve storeys surpassed anything else in the Dominion or its neighbours. The air filled with noise; the blare of car exhausts, the screech and spark of trams on their steel rails, the bellows of workmen ferrying bricks to each other on a building site, the shrill whistles of policemen directing traffic, and a thousand footsteps and conversations on the sidewalks that merged into a low, flowing clamor. The air smelt of steel, burnt oil, ozone, warm asphalt and fresh concrete.
The tram crawled through the intersection where the statue of the first Governor stood, twenty metres high and cast in bronze, gazing out over the streets with disdain, and looking ready to step down at any second and crush dissention with one of his mighty fists. Nick and Charlie got off at the next stop, and as usual Nick felt that the monstrous statue was looking at him, judging him, and wondering what to do with him.
Charlie also looked uncomfortable, but more because of the throngs of people surging around them. ‘Where are we going?’ he murmured to Nick.
‘Across the street,’ Nick replied. At the first break in the traffic, they crossed over and Nick led Charlie up the wide stone steps of a squat, venerable-looking building with the word ‘MUSEUM’ in huge gold letters over the entrance.
As they walked in the temperature fell by a couple of degrees. ‘Air-conditioning,’ Nick whispered. ‘I bet you haven’t felt that in a while.’
Charlie sniffed the air. ‘It needs cleaning.’
‘Hey, don’t rain on our parade. There are only a few public buildings with air-conditioning. The museum is very proud of it.’
‘I’m impressed, but it still needs cleaning.’
The museum was older than most buildings in the city, having survived more than a few violent regime changes and any number of whims from presidents, warlords and governors. As a testament to the tact and diplomacy of several generations of curators, it hadn’t been ransacked for over a century, and had only been closed for ‘reorientation’ a half dozen times since then. It held the favor of the current Governor, enough to afford the restoration of its 150 year old façade, and to employ sufficient staff to keep its marble floors polished and its many display cabinets sparkling clean.
To the left of the foyer was a large room telling the seventy year history of the Red Hill Dominion with remarkably discreet sycophancy. To the right was a similarly sized room recalling the history of the preceding centuries, tracing the light of civilization as it flickered, sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes almost extinguished entirely. The material was considered reasonably accurate for the century or two before the foundation of the Dominion, but earlier than that the dates became educated guesses, then rumours, then just admissions of legend.
But very few people lingered in these rooms. Most walked straight ahead.
Nick and Charlie entered the main gallery through a wide doorway with an illuminated glass sign built into its lintel. The sign, which was one of the oldest parts of the building itself, read ‘Hall of Antiquities’.
The hall took up more than two thirds of the museum’s total floor space. It was a vast area lit by long barrel skylights of frosted glass, which made the light fall in a diffuse glow across the exhibits. The floor was cluttered with artifacts and display cases of all shapes and sizes, but it was the mural which first attracted the eye.
It was a panorama which encircled the room just under ceiling level. It had been painted by a group of acclaimed artists soon after the original museum opened. The scenes were taken from ancient photographs, or more likely photographs of photographs, showing great events from the apex of human civilisation.
Nick knew them all well. There was a group of men and women in white coats gathered around a machine the size of a refrigerator, smiling in apparent triumph. Nearby an early-model adjuvant held hands with two small children. Further along an old man stared thoughtfully at a test tube.
There was an image of a huge, spidery construction which seemed to float unsupported against a starry backdrop. Then a vivacious woman in evening dress, laughing for assembled photographers as she smashed a bottle against a wall of metal.
Not all the scenes were peaceful, however. There was a depiction of a sprawling city ablaze. In one panel several men, with their mouths open in an angry frozen shout, waved bloodied hands over their heads. Another picture showed an enormous jet aircraft, photographed just as it started to explode against the side of one of a pair of glass-walled skyscrapers.
‘Do you know any of these pictures?’ Nick whispered to Charlie as he gestured at the mural.
‘Only that one,’ Charlie replied, pointing at the panel with the construction on a starry background. ‘That’s the launch of the first of the Serenity probes in 2081. I remember the technicians on my first assignment watching the live broadcast. Three APIs were sent to Proxima Centauri to explore.’
‘What did they find?’
Charlie smiled. ‘Nobody knows. They would have only reached their destination a century or so ago. They’re probably still out there, wondering why their signals to Earth aren’t being answered.’
He cast his eyes over the rest of the mural. ‘I can take a guess at some of the others. The development of the first API. The Burning of Amsterdam after the Shiva Disaster. This one might be Sarah Gates at the launch of the Trident One undersea habitat. Perhaps that one’s the assassination of Joshua ben Shalom. I can’t be sure; these events took place before I was built.’
‘Still,’ Nick persisted, ‘I bet there are other things here you remember.’
He was looking at one of the largest displays; two vehicles parked behind a barrier of information panels.
The one on the left was, according to the panel text, a 2012 model Toyota Corolla hatchback. Its white paintwork was splotchy where historians had tried to restore it. Ripples in the glass of the windscreen showed that the windscreen was not original, but a painstakingly hand-made copy. Its tyres were carved wooden replicas; the original rubber would have rotted away centuries earlier. The dark windows didn’t allow visitors to see the seats or dashboard, but Nick suspected that they too were long gone. The whole machine rested on a steel framework, to prevent it collapsing under its own weight.
The other vehicle was a Lexus, circa 2088. The panel explained the lack of further information by saying that private cars of that era did not tend to have model names or numbers, as it was the fashion of the time for owners to take delivery of a chassis and components, then let their domestic adjuvants custom-build the body. This model was a thick torus of spun silver wire, three metres or so in diameter, with a ring of cracked red leather seats built into its inner surface. There was no sign of an engine, or controls, or even wheels.
‘I remember cars,’ Charlie said softly. ‘But I can’t tell you anything about them that you wouldn’t already know from elsewhere.’
‘But you were there!’ Nick protested.
‘Keep your voice down,’ Charlie muttered. Nick glanced around, chastised. There were perhaps a dozen other people in the gallery, but none within earshot.
‘Okay, okay. You would have been, what, nine years old when that Lexus thing was built?’
‘I was a UNPC soldier, then as now. I lived in military facilities and field camps. I never owned anything or bought anything. These things were consumer products – I was never a consumer.’
‘Sorry to go on about this,’ Nick persisted, ‘but there’s just a lot we don’t know, and you humanalogues are our best hope of finding out.’ He leant over a display case devoted to music. In it, lovingly displayed, were some badly discoloured compact discs, something called an I-Pod which historians had decided had something to do with music, although they couldn’t agree what, and a flek player. The text regretfully advised that none of the devices were functional.
‘So where are these dead humanalogues you told me about?’ Charlie reminded him.
‘Oh, they’re up the back. Come with me.’
At the very rear of the hall was a tall display case, positioned as the focal point of the collection. In it were two figures.
The woman wore a floor-length dress of dark velvet. She had thick auburn hair which fell in long curls almost to her waist, and smooth, cream-coloured skin. Her eyes were closed, and an enigmatic half-smile played on her lips, as if she were day-dreaming of some secret love. The fingers of her right hand toyed with a pendant hanging around her neck, while her left hand was discreetly tucked behind her. She was breathtakingly beautiful.
The man was dressed in a dark blue uniform, with black boots and a dark blue baseball cap. He had a broad stance, relaxed yet alert. He wore mirrored sunglasses and a determined scowl. In his arms he cradled a formidable black rifle.
Together, the two of them looked like a fairytale princess and her incongruously well-armed champion.
‘What do you think?’ Nick asked Charlie.
‘That’s a Parmenter JX-299,’ Charlie said, nodding at the rifle. ‘It was United States Army issue, 2064 to 2069. That warlog is wearing a French navy field uniform. The French navy never used the JX-299.’
Nick rolled his eyes. ‘I meant do you think you could salvage anything from them?’
‘Maybe I could, but I think the museum staff would disapprove. Peacekeepers are trained to keep the peace, not steal museum artifacts.’
‘Think of it as commandeering, not stealing,’ Nick said. ‘You said you didn’t need much. I don’t think they’ll miss it.’
‘I’m not comfortable with the idea at all. In any case, there’s something not quite right about these two.’
‘What do you mean?’
Charlie leaned over the barrier to see behind the female. ‘Yes. Look behind this one. What do you see?’
Nick leaned over the same way. ‘I don’t see anything. It’s too dark. Wait… there’s something wrong with her hand.’
‘Yes, and I’ll bet it’s more than just her hand. She’s been burned.’ He crouched and peered at her feet. ‘Uh-huh. You can just see the scorch marks on her ankle. I guess that’s why they put her in such a long dress. She’s probably just a blackened ruin under there.’
‘Who would want to burn an amilog?’
‘Maybe the Mitchellites. Maybe she just got caught in an arson attack on her owner. Napalm could easily cause damage like that.’
‘So she’s no good?’ Nick asked.
‘Her crystalline matrix has probably melted and fused with plastic and dirt and other junk. It would be hard work finding enough pseudoalumtitanium to salvage. I suppose I could try, if I was desperate.’
‘Well, what about the warlog?’
‘Hmmm.’ Charlie cast his appraising gaze over the male humanalogue. ‘There’s something wrong there, too. See how his shoulders are a little too far back? And his fingers aren’t quite in alignment. And one of his knees is bigger than the other.’
‘What’s that on the floor of the case near his foot?’
Nick looked where Charlie was pointing. ‘It just looks like a bit of rag.’
‘Yes, it does,’ Charlie said enigmatically. He leaned out over the barrier again to peer at the humanalogue’s back. ‘There are more fragments behind him, and I think his spine is actually lumpy. I guess we’re too late.’
‘Too late? What do you mean?’
‘Someone has already gutted this warlog for his crystalline matrix, and then stuffed him with cotton waste. It makes sense when you think about it. Humanalogue spare parts are valuable commodities. They’re not doing anyone any good locked in a display case.
‘So where do you suppose his pseudoalumtitanium is?’
‘By now, probably inside another, working humanalogue. Either that or stockpiled by a humanalogue owner. Also do you notice that her eyes are closed and that he’s wearing sunglasses? Somebody’s probably taken their eyes too – humanalogue optic sensors are difficult to repair.’
Nick winced. ‘That’s gross. And thank you for spoiling all my illusions, by the way. These humanalogues have been on display for as long as I can remember, ever since I came in here as a little boy with my parents. Back then, I used to watch them very carefully.’
‘Why?’ Charlie asked.
‘I don’t know. It was as if, just maybe, they might suddenly come alive again. Now that I know that under their clothes they’re just charcoal and cotton stuffing…’ he shrugged, ‘they’re just dolls in a glass case.’
‘The genius of humanalogue technology was always in giving the illusion of life with plastic and metal.’ Charlie said. ‘You know we’re not human, but you can’t help reacting to us as if we were.’
Nick raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s a profound thought for a simple peacekeeper.’
‘I’ve had a lot of spare time to think over the centuries.’
Nick glanced across the room at the museum security guard. ‘It probably doesn’t look good for us to be loitering around this display. We’d better be going. Sorry that these two turned out to be duds.’
‘It’s no problem. I’ll find another source of pseudoalumtitanium somewhere.’
‘What about him?’ Nick gestured at an adjuvant in another case. It was a late model, richly and intricately fashioned in copper and pewter. It stood next to a club armchair, holding out a glass of liqueur on a silver tray to an invisible master. ‘Did adjuvants have any pseudoalumtitanium in them at all?’
‘No,’ Charlie replied, peering at the robot with a critical eye. ‘Pseudoalumtitanium was developed by the APIs specifically for use in humanalogues. Really, an adjuvant is just like your robot back in your lab; a big pile of wires and circuits and software. They’re just more complicated… by several orders of magnitude.’
‘Yeah, that’s about what I expected. Oh well.’ Nick smiled to himself. ‘You want to hear something funny?’
‘I’ve always thought this one looks sort of sad. It’s stupid, I know, but here he is, trapped in a glass box, with no one to take his drink.’
‘Adjuvants didn’t feel any emotions. They weren’t intelligent. They just did whatever humans or APIs told them to do. You may as well feel sorry for your radio or your car.’
‘What about humanalogues?’
‘Humanalogues are different.’
‘So you keep telling me.’
Charlie followed Nick as he walked out of the hall and across the foyer to the main doors. Nick noticed that as they passed the lesser galleries, Charlie paused, as if on the verge of asking Nick if they could go into them. But he apparently decided against it, and they both stepped back out into the city.
The Tip Jar