REPORT A PROBLEM
Helene didn’t look like Ida, even though they had the same body. She didn’t slump, or cringe, or try to make herself invisible, or half-heartedly allow a little of her hair to fall forward and obscure her scar. Helene didn’t do much of anything. When Nick told her to sit in one of the dining room chairs, she just sat there, staring vacantly ahead, not moving except to breathe and blink. A stranger suddenly entering the room might have assumed she was catatonic.
‘I can’t believe my cleaning lady is a humanalogue,’ Nick muttered.
‘So you keep saying,’ Charlie replied.
‘What sort of humanalogue is she?’
Charlie massaged one of Helene’s limp hands. ‘She doesn’t have the reinforced subframe of a warlog, and I can’t feel the nanofibre spools of a medilog in her hand. She must be an amilog. But there’s something seriously wrong with her.’
‘What is it?’
Charlie shook his head. ‘I don’t know. It could be that the salvage reopened some corrupted files and upset her systems, but that shouldn’t make her this unresponsive. Right now she should be engaging you in conversation, interacting with you, trying to learn how you want her to serve you.’
‘Helene?’ Nick prompted. ‘Do you want to ask me anything?’
She turned to face him. Her face was expressionless. ‘How may I serve you?’
Nick suddenly found his mind had gone blank. ‘Um, I don’t know.’
She didn’t reply, but went back to staring into space.
‘I can investigate further, if you like,’ Charlie said.
‘It’s probably easier to show you than explain it.’ He pulled another chair up in front of Helene and sat on it, so close to her that their knees touched. He tweaked the edge of his nostril, as if he were surreptitiously picking it.
Nick was alarmed to see him draw out a glistening strand. ‘Is that what I think it is?’
‘No,’ Charlie replied. ‘It’s an interface line,’ He continued to draw it out. It was a long, fine silver wire.
‘What’s it doing jammed up your nose?’
‘It’s a standard feature on all humanalogues. It was designed inside the right nostril because it’s an easily accessible part of the body, but not so overt that it’s going to mar the illusion of humanity.’
‘Some have also suggested that the APIs put it there out of a mischievous sense of humour.’
He delicately inserted the end of the line into Helene’s left nostril, and there was a tiny snap as it connected. The line was not long, and Charlie had to lean forward to make the connection.
‘What does it do?’ Nick asked.
‘It’s just a data cable. It’s faster and more efficient than databursting. It’s intended for large scale file transfer, mainly during training or retraining. It’ll allow me to go over her architecture and maybe see what’s wrong.’
‘No offense, but do you know what you’re doing?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
Nick laughed hollowly. ‘That’s comforting.’
Charlie just smiled.
His expression relaxed into something similar to Helene’s, and his body was still. Nick waited for a few seconds, then whispered, ‘Charlie? Are you okay?’
‘Of course,’ Charlie replied, without changing his expression or posture.
‘It’s just that I read about these things called ‘viruses’, which could make machines sick… what if she has one of these virus things? Could she pass it on to you?’
‘Humanalogue viruses were rare,’ Charlie said. 'The APIs were very possessive about humanalogue source codes. This is something else entirely.’ He paused, and his brow crinkled. ‘It’s almost indescribable. I’ve never seen such chaos.’
‘Go on,’ Nick prompted.
‘There are non-standard files everywhere, meshed into the original systems. There are entirely new hierarchies alongside the main one. There are redundant and conflicting routines all over the place.’
‘So not a virus?’
‘No. It looks like it’s deliberate. Someone has retrained Helene… or tried to.’ He peered at her, as if he could actually see the files and systems within. ‘It was someone who knew just enough about humanalogues to make a real mess of it.’
‘Surely not someone from around here?’
‘No; the equipment doesn’t exist anymore. It’s got to be old. Very old.’
Then he twitched, suddenly, as if he’d been pinched. ‘Wait a moment… there are warlog files in here! Combat training… surveillance… covert strategies…no wonder the architecture is so disrupted! These files aren’t compatible with amilog design. They’ve been modified to fit, but they’ve caused corruption and damage at all levels.’
‘Someone tried to turn her into a warlog? Is that possible?’
‘No it isn’t, but someone’s tried anyway. I think we should find out more before I go any further.’ Charlie tweaked Helene’s nostril, and the silver wire disconnected and retracted.
‘Helene, are you okay?’
‘Yes sir,’ she replied, lifelessly.
‘Can you tell us who modified your systems?’
‘I’m not authorised to discuss that with you.’
Nick blinked in astonishment, then shot a glance at Charlie. ‘Did you tell her to say that?’
‘No. It’s a fairly standard response to questions that refer to the activities of a humanalogue’s owners. I may be able to circumvent it.’ Charlie reached out and turned Helene’s face toward his, and once again Nick saw the flickering jumble of light reflected in her eye. It only lasted a second or two, before it winked out and Charlie said, ‘Try again.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Global privacy laws forbid a humanalogue to reveal anything about their previous owners to their new owners. But there’s a statute of limitations, which I’ve just burst to her, so if these changes were made more than a century ago, she should be able to tell us about them.’
‘Okay. Helene, can you tell me who modified your systems?’
There was a momentary hesitation, as Helene checked her answer against her privacy protocols. ‘His name was Joden.’
Nick beamed at Charlie. ‘Success!’
‘So far so good,’ Charlie agreed, a little less enthusiastically.
‘Helene,’ Nick said, ‘Was Joden your last owner?’
‘No. My last owner was Douglas Morrow.’
‘So who was this Joden person then?’
‘He was the man who modified me.’
‘Why did Joden modify you.’
‘I had to be modified to protect the group.’
Nick’s enthusiasm waned a little. ‘Is it just me, or is this is going nowhere fast?’
‘Maybe we should try a different approach,’ Charlie suggested. ‘Helene, when did this modification take place?’
‘April 3rd, 2116.’
‘Interesting,’ Charlie murmured. ‘Tell us more about this group. Why did it need protection?’
The more complicated nature of the question made Helene pause for thought.
Eventually she said, ‘Douglas joined the group because the estate wasn’t safe any more. There had been problems for several months, and Douglas was beginning to get upset.’
‘What sort of problems?’ Charlie asked.
‘First a new amilog he had ordered never arrived, and he couldn’t get any response from the factory. Sometime later the whole district lost its connection to the network. Then the weekly groceries stopped arriving, and the power link became erratic, then shut down. These things weren’t too bad, because we had some domestic HEMEC reactors, and the adjuvants expanded the garden to provide more food.’
‘But then one night the house API received a message via microwave link from a neighbour’s house API, telling it that they were under attack. We went out onto the roof garden of Douglas’ house, and off in the distance we could see a fire on their estate. The house API told Douglas to take all of his humanalogues and as much food as he could in the camper and go into the mountains, so that’s what we did. It told him it would send a message to him when it was safe to come back… but it never did.’
‘In the mountains we met a lot of our neighbours. Their house APIs had told them to do the same thing. The warlogs advised the humans that they should stay together and form their campers into a circle. They thought the humans were in danger. And then a couple of days later a large number of outside warlogs attacked the group. But we had more warlogs and an old quantum dysfunction canon, and they were driven off.’
Nick swore softly and only half-voluntarily. ‘So these new warlogs had what, overthrown their masters and gone on a rampage?’
Charlie snorted derisively.
‘There was a group of humans controlling the enemy warlogs.’ Helene said. ‘We knew this because after their first assault failed, they sent one of their amilogs to us with their demands. Through her they told the humans that if they gave up and sent down all of their humanalogues, they would leave them alone.’
‘What did the humans say?’ Charlie asked.
‘So what happened then?’
‘After the frontal assault failed, the enemy warlogs tried a different tactic. They were divided into small raiding parties armed with tasers. They stunned then snatched the warlog sentries around the camp.’
‘When that proved to be more successful, they grew bolder, and commenced lightning raids. They attacked individual vehicles in the circle and stole the humanalogues.’
‘And the humans?’ Nick asked.
‘If they resisted they were killed.’
Nick turned to Charlie. ‘Hey, I thought you said warlogs could only kill humans if they thought innocent people were in danger?’
‘It sounds like someone had cracked these warlogs,’ Charlie said. ‘A high level technician with the right equipment could do it. Needless to say, it was severely illegal.’
Helene agreed. ‘That’s what Joden said.’
‘Joden seemed to know a lot,’ Nick observed.
‘Joden was very old. He’d grown up in the years when humans had jobs. He had been a humanalogue technician. He told the group that if they gave him some of their amilogs, he could train them with warlog skills. He said that with thirty or forty extra warlogs we could defeat our attackers.
There was a lot of argument, but eventually each human in the group agreed to give up all but two of their amilogs and one of their medilogs. Douglas chose to keep Clarissa and Ariel and Doctor Lou, and gave the rest of us for retraining.’
‘What happened to you?’ Charlie asked.
Helene’s face clouded over, and her voice faltered. ‘I don’t remember the retraining. Joden said afterward that it was harder to do than he thought. Most of the medilogs were lost; their ethics protocols kept clashing with the combat training , or something like that, and they were fatally compromised. The rest of us were successfully retrained, but we were not as efficient as the genuine warlogs. The next day the camp was attacked again and we fought alongside the warlogs, but although we destroyed the raiding party many of us were badly damaged.’
‘Then the warlogs came up with a new plan. They suggested that the humans allow the retrained amilogs to be captured. We would be taken back to the enemy’s camp, where we would have access to the enemy humans. The enemy wouldn’t suspect that amilogs might be dangerous. It would be a perfect opportunity to strike at their core.’
‘Very clever,’ Charlie said with an approving nod.
‘I and three others were given our instructions, and sent out of the camp as if we were looking for fresh water. We were captured as planned, and taken to the enemy camp.’
Nick found himself hanging on her every word. ‘What did you do there?’
‘I did as I was instructed,’ Helene said flatly. ‘I identified one of the enemy humans, and when the opportunity presented itself, I killed him. Then I tried to kill another, but the alarm was raised and I had to escape.’
‘Did you go back to the group?’
‘No. My orders were to hide, and wait for another opportunity to attack, but the enemy’s internal alliance fell apart and they dispersed. I tracked one but he was killed by another retrained amilog before I had a chance.’
‘After that I…’ She paused, and a troubled expression flitted across her features, as if her memory was a radio broadcast that had suddenly been lost in static. ‘I tried, but I couldn’t remember how to get back to Douglas. It should have been a simple matter, but since the retraining my memory wasn’t working very well. So I tried to follow my instructions and find another one of the enemy humans to kill, but I couldn’t identify any with a hundred percent accuracy. The only instructions I had that I could follow were those ordering me to remain concealed.’
‘So you’ve remained concealed by pretending to be a cleaning lady?’ Charlie asked.
‘For how long, exactly?’
‘I don’t know. I have trouble keeping track of time.’
‘But why a cleaning lady?’ Nick interjected. ‘Why not just hide in an abandoned building like Charlie did?’
‘I did hide, initially. But after a few years I realised that simply hiding would not accomplish anything. So I took a little cleaning work, in households without any other humanalogues that might recognise me. I only needed a few hours a week to keep track of the world, through newspapers and stray gossip.’
‘And you did this for how many hundred years?’
‘As I said, sir, I have trouble keeping track of time. What year is it now?’
Nick glanced at Charlie. ‘Er, we don’t know either. This is the 72nd year of the Red Hill Dominion. What that translates to in Golden Century reckoning I don’t know.’
‘Golden Century?’ she echoed.
‘That’s what the humans in this society call the 21st century,’ Charlie told her. ‘I take it your internal chronometer is malfunctioning.’
‘It sometimes resets itself during reboot. I’ve tried to compensate through other systems but I’ve only been partially successful.’
‘And I assume your auto-repair is offline or malfunctioning, or you would have erased that burn from your face,’ Charlie continued.
‘No. Auto-repair is working at acceptable efficiency.’
‘Then why is the scar still there?’ Charlie asked.
‘And who did that to you anyway?’ Nick added. ‘I’ve always thought that it must have been an abusive husband or something. Of course I could never ask you before, but now…’
Some deep part of Helene’s amilog training still worked well enough to cause a look of satisfaction to flicker across her face. ‘That was my intention. I made the scar myself.’
Nick’s eyes widened. ‘You did it?’
‘I found that even if I dressed badly and stooped, people still noticed me; as an amilog I was designed to be physically attractive. But then I noticed that people avoided looking at individuals with deformities or disfigurements, so I created this scar using a hotplate element and programmed it into my profile so that my auto-repair wouldn’t remove it.’
‘And that worked?’
‘I’ve been cleaning this house for twenty years, and you’ve never looked directly at me for more than a second. You also seem unaware that I haven’t aged in that time.’
‘I just assumed you were in your late thirties or so,’ Nick said lamely.
‘I was designed to appear 25,’ she told him. ‘Maybe this will help.’ She raised her hands and covered the left side of her face. It felt like an electric shock as Nick realised that, with the scar covered and the perpetual mousy frown gone, she was not merely attractive, but stunningly beautiful. Then she dropped her hands, and her beauty fractured and disintegrated.
‘Can you get rid of the scar?’
‘Of course. Auto-repair has already begun work on it. It will take a few days.’
‘That’s good.’ Nick leaned back and took a deep breath. Somehow that made it easier for him to deal with the situation. ‘Charlie, I still don’t get how you knew she was a humanalogue before you’d even set eyes on her.’
‘Humanalogues produce scents that ape the scents produced by humans, but there are subtle differences. I could sense that Helene wasn’t human as soon as you opened the door. She detected me, too, but when you reminded her of your work, she must have assumed that you’d just been handling some humanalogue components, which would produce a similar smell.’
Nick rubbed his jaw. He felt tired even though it was still early in the day. ‘So now what do we do?’
‘I will serve you in any way that I can, sir,’ Helene replied.
‘I’ll see what I can do about repairing her systems,’ Charlie added. ‘I can’t do anything about the modified amilog files, but I should be able to delete or deactivate the warlog files. That should remove a lot of the system conflicts, and make her appear more like her original self. It will be an improvement, but I’m afraid she’ll still be far from perfect.’
The Tip Jar