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The scar on Helene’s face was almost gone. The angry red burn that had so brutally deformed her was now just a pale pink spiral, more like an avante garde effect with makeup than an injury. Inscrutable mechanisms embedded in her skin had imperceptibly smoothed out the scar tissue.
Charlie’s work on her programming had been less successful. At random moments her original beauty flickered into life, but it was always brief, flitting away almost as soon as it appeared. Otherwise she tended to stare, and her face sagged into an almost cretinous expression when she wasn’t engaged in something.
Nick found himself glancing at her every few seconds. The glow of the dashboard lights was flattering, and she seemed always to be on the verge of suddenly transforming from a dull-eyed drone into a radiant princess. It didn’t happen, of course, and he had to constantly jerk his eyes back to the road. He hadn’t driven in months, and the Highliner resented that. It coughed and sputtered if Nick pushed the accelerator a little too hard or took a corner a little too fast. It had taken Charlie ten minutes under the hood just to get it to start.
As he sat hunched over the steering wheel, Nick reminded himself that he hadn’t had time to really consider what salvaging Helene would mean to his lifestyle. It had taken him nearly a day to realise that she would be living in his house. Having Charlie as a long-term house-guest was one thing. Having a strange woman, who his neighbours may or may not recognise as his cleaning lady, was another entirely. At least until her scar healed, he was only allowing her outside under cover of darkness, and then only when necessary.
There was also the matter of Ida.
Ida had had no friends or family, and had kept to herself. Even so, people like clients and neighbours would notice that she had disappeared, and report it to the police. A day after her unmasking, at Charlie’s suggestion, Nick had sent Helene back to her apartment to collect her things and give her notice to her landlord. She told him that she was moving to the country to take care of a sick relative, and he seemed to accept that.
She came back to Laurelton with a few old dresses, some soap, a heavy, battered scrapbook, and a shoebox.
When Nick had opened the shoebox, he’d found just under a thousand dollars in crumpled, small denomination bills. Helene explained that she’d needed to work for money to maintain her disguise as a cleaning lady, but she only used it for rent and some new clothing every few years. She earned far more than she needed, and it was something of a nuisance. She got rid of most of it through anonymous donations to various local charities, but kept a little bit back for emergencies. Of course, she said, the money was now his, to do with as he pleased.
And a thousand dollar windfall is the least of her surprises, Nick thought.
'Turn right here,' Helene said. Nick eased the Highliner into the corner.
He’d been interested to see what an amilog kept in a scrapbook, but he hadn’t had time to look at it. He’d mentioned to her, quite casually, that Charlie had lost some of his crystalline matrix and that he needed a dead humanalogue to cannibalise for it’s pseudoalumtitanium. And without batting an eyelid, Helene had offered to take them to one.
'It’s in a secret place,' she’d told him, for a moment appearing almost playful.
Helene led them to a derelict apartment building, then down some narrow steps. ‘It’s down here.’
‘How do you know about this?’
‘I was living next door when this building was being constructed, about a hundred and thirty years ago. I remembered how big the basement was when they excavated it. Then about forty years ago I worked for a man living in this building, and the first time I went down to the basement, I realised that its internal dimensions did not match the ones I remembered.’
The lock on the basement door was broken, and it opened easily.
The basement was large, dark and musty. Nick reached for the lightswitch, but there didn’t seem to be one. Charlie lit the hurricane lantern he’d brought from the house.
The concrete floor was strewn with drifts of broken glass, splintered boards and scraps of paper. Most of the smaller fittings had been torn out, leaving just the hulking mass of an old boiler, some broken steel lockers and a massive iron safe.
‘It looks like this place has been cleaned out,’ Nick said.
‘This area has,’ Helene replied. ‘But as I said, the internal dimensions don’t match the external ones.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean there’s another space behind this back wall.’
‘I don’t see a door,’ Charlie said, holding up the lantern and playing the light across the rough brickwork.
‘It’s hidden. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to keep the room secret.’
Helene took them to the safe. It was the size of a large steamer trunk, and its door was open revealing an utterly empty interior. Helene crouched and walked inside it. She fiddled with some protrusions at the back, then lifted the whole back panel out. Beyond it was blackness and a dank smell.
‘Well I’ll be damned,’ Nick muttered.
They squeezed through the safe and into the hidden room. It was not deep, but it seemed to run the full width of the building. The back wall was stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of different sizes and shapes. Large and irregular objects covered with dust sheets filled the rest of the space.
‘What is this?’ Nick asked.
‘It’s a storage room,’ Helene said. ‘It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here since I discovered it forty years ago. I think someone built it, hid their things in it, and then forgot about it.’
Nick tentatively lifted the edge of one of the dust sheets. Underneath it was a billiard table. Mice had eaten some of the felt, but it seemed otherwise sound. He lifted another sheet and uncovered a baby grand piano.
‘You were looking for a dead humanalogue,’ Helene reminded him. ‘It’s here.’ She swept a sheet off a lump resting on a pile of crates.
It wasn’t pretty. It was, ostensibly, a man in his late twenties or early thirties. He had short, gingery hair and lean features. His left side was smashed and shredded, and both his legs were missing.
Charlie slid his fingers down the ruined side. ‘It looks like he was crushed, probably by a tank or a heavy tractor. I don’t think his HEMEC reactor will be salvageable. But for my needs there’s more than enough crystalline matrix left undamaged.’
‘What sort of humanalogue is he?’ Nick asked.
‘Oh, he’s definitely a warlog,’ Charlie replied. ‘I think one of his optics may be salvageable too. That could come in handy.’
‘Have you been through all these other boxes?’ Nick asked Helene. ‘There could be other technology in them.’
‘I didn’t search any of the boxes,’ she said.
Nick pulled at the top of a box, and the cardboard, weakened by age and damp, tore off in his hands. Inside he could see gilt-edged china dishes nestling between layers of soft cloth. He opened the top of another box and found a set of heavy silver candelabra.
‘Wow!’ he said.
‘That’s not technology,’ Charlie observed.
‘No, but it must be worth a fortune. This place is a treasure trove!’
‘This is not your property. You should leave it alone.’
‘The warlog isn’t our property either.’
Charlie didn’t offer any response, but his expression was considerably less than happy.
‘This stuff has obviously been lying here undisturbed for decades,’ Nick continued. ‘The people who owned it are probably long dead. Why can’t I salvage it the same way I salvaged Helene? Hey, wineglasses! I think they’re crystal.’
‘There’s a difference between salvaging some spare parts off one warlog and the opportunistic looting of a whole storeroom.’
‘That sounds like a very fine line, Charlie,’ Nick replied. ‘I don’t think it’s a consistant…’ Nick leapt back as if he’d been electrocuted. He collided with the piano with a thud that made its strings echo dully.
‘What’s the matter?’ Charlie demanded.
Nick shivered, as if it would release enough fear to allow him to speak. ‘There’s a body. Behind these crates.’
Charlie peered into the space where Nick had been searching. There was a cubby hole between the boxes, and inside was a man-sized shape, tightly wrapped in a tarpaulin. The tarpaulin had torn at one point, and a hand lolled out of the tear.
‘You’re right,’ Nick said unevenly. ‘We don’t know who owns this place. People don’t get this rich doing things legally. Maybe we should just take the warlog and leave.’
‘Relax,’ Charlie murmured. ‘This is another humanalogue.’
‘What? Another one? How can you tell?’
‘Because it’s obviously been years since this room was disturbed, and if that hand was human it would have decayed beyond recognition by now. Help me pull it out and we can have a better look at it.’
Gingerly, Nick helped Charlie maneuver the body out from behind the boxes, and Charlie lifted it onto the billiard table where they could look at it properly. The tarpaulin crumbled in their hands, and the cotton sheet underneath it pulled apart like a spider’s web.
‘Why would anyone wrap up a dead humanalogue like this?’
‘I don’t think it is dead,’ Charlie replied. ‘It’s just switched off.’
‘I didn’t know you could switch humanalogues off.’
‘It was an option, if owners were going away for a long time. Their humanalogues would usually be wrapped in plastic sheeting to keep the dust off. Or a tarpaulin, in this case.’
He pulled the last fragment of cotton away. Underneath was a young man, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his skin dusted with cotton fibres and specks of tarpaulin. A few silverfish scattered as Charlie raised the lantern over him. Mould grew across part of his face.
Nick felt as if they had just desecrated a grave.
‘He’s been a here a very long time,’ Charlie commented. ‘There’s some degradation on the skin, but if we can reactivate him, he should be able to repair it.’
‘So he’s just been stored while his owner was away? Is that all? That seems like a waste of a humanalogue.’
‘It does,’ Charlie agreed. ‘The other possibility is that he was malfunctioning. His owner may have decided that it was safer to switch him off.’
‘That’s not comforting.’
‘It wasn’t meant to be.’
Nick peered more closely at the body.
As well as dust and insect droppings, his skin was criss-crossed with fine lines, where the plastic had decayed and started to crack. Despite that, underneath the grit and the damage, Nick could see that he had once been very good-looking. ‘I think this is an amilog.’
‘Most likely,’ Charlie said. ‘I could feel for nanofibre spools or a warlog subframe, but it would further damage the skin. The aesthetics are enough to tell us he’s an amilog.’
‘Well, an amilog couldn’t be too dangerous, even if it is malfunctioning, could it? Not with a warlog around to stop it?’
‘I’m happy to try reactivating him, if that’s what you’re asking,’ Charlie replied. ‘If he’s been here long enough you may even be able to salvage him like you did with Helene. But I can’t promise anything. You’ll also need to go back to the house to get some clothes for him. These will fall apart as soon as he moves.’ He pushed his fingers across the amilog’s chest, and the fabric of his T-shirt tore like tissue paper.
‘We can wrap him up in one of these sheets,’ Nick said. ‘I want to stay and watch you activate him.’
‘It doesn’t look like much,’ Charlie countered. ‘And if he is malfunctioning, the experience might be… unsettling for a human.’
‘I’m not a little kid, Charlie. I’m a robotics engineer. I’m not going to get scared by a faulty machine.’
‘I said unsettled, not scared.’
‘Whatever. I’m staying.’
‘I really don’t think that’s wise.’
Something shifted in Charlie’s expression, and he folded his arms. ‘Fine. You reactivate him then.’
‘I’ll try to reactivate him, if you want, but only on condition that you go back to the house and get him some clothes.’
‘You can’t do that!’
‘I can and I will. I’m doing you a favour on the condition that you leave while I do it. It seems fair to me.’
Nick opened his mouth to speak. But I’m the human here! he wanted to say. You have to do what I tell you! You can’t make deals with me! But he knew that Charlie would regard all this as irrelevant. The only orders he’d obey would have to come from the UNPC.
‘Okay, you win,’ he snapped. ‘But I’m not happy about this! I’m a scientist! I can…’
‘We’ll expect you back within the hour.’
Nick climbed out through the secret door and strode outside. The car creaked hesitantly back into life, and he swung it in the direction of home.
Anger prickled him as he drove. Charlie was always so calm, so reasonable, so understated. Nick always found that if they disagreed, he could explain the situation to him, and he would acquiesce. He had a certain stubbornness, like clinging to his delusion that the UNPC still existed, and that it might drop an order on him at any second. But he’d never simply refused to do something that Nick asked him to do.
Nick considered just stopping off somewhere close to Underwood and buying some new clothes. That way he could race back to the basement and get there after Charlie had started and it was too late for the reactivation process to stop. But it was getting late, and the only businesses still open were bars and restaurants. In the Golden Century, he thought bitterly, they would have had automated stores open twenty four hours a day. Or a robot delivery van could bring him a new suit at three in the morning, if he wanted.
‘I hate living now,’ Nick muttered.
He pulled up outside his house and left the car running as he ran inside. He found some trackpants, a sweatshirt and sneakers from his high school days, and darted back outside. He raced back to Underwood as fast as the Highliner and his fear of the police, or, worse, the troopers, would allow.
The street was still deserted. He walked down the steps and into the deep gloom of the basement. He was halfway across the room when he heard a sudden noise that made his skin crawl. It was a cry, on the verge of becoming a scream.
It sounded almost like a man, but it had deep elements of something resolutely inhuman in it. It was a sound that his ears heard as a cry, but which was produced in no natural way. The sound scattered into a vibrato mess, then abruptly ceased.
Nick had a sudden and very annoying suspicion that Charlie had been right.
He crept through the safe, into the pool of light cast by the lantern, which Helene held high over the other two humanalogues. Charlie and the male amilog sat on boxes, nose to nose, with Charlie’s interface line strung between them.
As Nick entered Charlie disengaged the line and stood up.
‘That was quick,’ he observed.
‘I didn’t want to miss anything. Anything I was allowed to see, anyway.’ Nick said tersely. ‘So did it work?’
‘Oh yes, it worked,’ Charlie said. ‘I believe he was switched off because of a malfunction, just as we suspected. There was a small fault in one of his core cognition routines; harmless in itself, but it had corrupted other sections of the routine and ruined the whole system. When he was deactivated, I doubt he could even recognise his owner.’
‘Can you fix him?’
Charlie smiled. ‘I already have. The damaged routine is a core training element, common to almost all humanalogues. I simply replaced his with a copy of mine. There may be some residual errors in related systems, but his diagnostics will find and repair those in time. Any faults should be too minor for a human to notice.’
They had cleaned the amilog’s face, although a little mould still clung to his ear, and there was green slime in his hair where some filthy water had soaked it. Without warning his chest began to move, mimicking human breath.
The first few exhalations were harsh and shuddering, blasting bits of cotton and insect debris out of his mouth and nostrils. Then he calmed, and began to breathe normally. He shifted and straightened in his seat. His eyelids flickered, jerking up and down as if they were rubbing awkwardly against his eyes. The blinking slowed, and his head twitched abruptly. He looked at Charlie, then at Helene, and finally at Nick. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse sigh.
‘His saliva reservoirs are dried out,’ Charlie said. ‘Give him a moment.’
The amilog tried again, but with no better luck. There was an intent expression on his face, as if he was struggling to say something more than just hello. Nick crouched in front of him and leaned close.
The amilog gave another dusty gasp . Nick thought he heard ‘Where…’
‘You want to know where you are?’ he guessed. ‘You’re in a basement in Underwood. We found you here.’
The amilog shook his head. He paused, apparently drawing moisture from somewhere else in his body. He leaned forward so that Nick could hear his faint voice.
‘Where’s Mary?’ he whispered.
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