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Charlie pulled one of the crystal wineglasses out of its box and skimmed some water out of a puddle on the floor. It was filthy, but the amilog eagerly accepted it.
‘What’s your name?’ Charlie asked.
The amilog drained the glass and held it out for more. Charlie obliged him. He drank again. Even with the water, his voice, when he spoke, came out cracked and breathy. ‘My name is Atu.’
‘And you’re an amilog?’ Nick asked.
Atu nodded. He cast his eyes around the room, taking in the darkness and the dusty boxes, and he said, ‘Is Mary here?’
‘No,’ Nick replied. ‘Who’s Mary?’
‘Mary owns me. I’m sure she was here. Has she just left?’
‘You’ve been in here for a very long time,’ Charlie said. ‘We don’t know how long. What was the year when you were switched off?’
Atu thought. It seemed to take a lot longer than it should have. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘Well, who was the Governor?’ Nick asked. ‘That would be a start. Do you remember that?’
‘Governor?’ Atu echoed blankly.
‘You know, the leader. Of the government.’
Atu shrugged apologetically. ‘I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t leave the house much.’
‘Come on, Atu,’ Nick urged. ‘You must have heard something. At this point anything would be useful.’
Atu furrowed his brow, as if to demonstrate that he was doing his best to remember. Eventually he said, hesitantly, ‘Well, I don’t know if this helps, but a month or two ago I overheard Mary’s nephews talking about someone named Sulio. They thought he could be asked to help them with something. It sounded like he was a politician. Does that tell you anything?’
‘I remember a Chief Sulio,’ Helene said. ‘He was a local warlord.’
‘I don’t remember him,’ Charlie countered.
‘As I said, he was a local warlord. His reign was brief and his influence didn’t extend as far as Laurelton. His power predates the Dominion.’
‘How long ago was that?’ Nick asked.
‘A hundred and twenty years,’ Helene replied. ‘Maybe a hundred and twenty five.’
‘You’re kidding! Atu’s been in here more than a hundred and twenty years?’
‘That would seem to be the case. It also means that this Mary, and her nephews, will have been dead for many years.’
Atu twitched, and the wine glass slipped out of his fingers and splintered on the concrete. ‘Mary’s dead?’
‘If a hundred and twenty years have passed, she must be,’ Helene replied, without a hint of emotion.
‘And Oren and Tyler? Are they dead too?’
‘Everyone you knew must be dead by now, Atu,’ Nick said. ‘I’m sorry, but over a century has passed.’
‘But then who owns me? I must have been inherited by someone. Are you related to the family?’
‘No. We’re just the ones who found you. Nobody’s been here in decades, at least.’
A firm, determined note crept into the amilog’s voice. ‘I need to find out who my owner is as soon as possible.’
‘It’s not that simple, not after a hundred and twenty years or more,’ Charlie told him. ‘In the short-term, it might be wisest if Dr Ostin invokes the United Nations Convention on the Salvage of Self-Directed Artifacts. It’s provisional and can be revoked if the case is contested.’
‘What?’ Nick cried. ‘You want me to salvage another humanalogue? I can’t do that!’
‘Because… well, you know. Three humanalogues! Even the Governor doesn’t own three humanalogues!’
Charlie stiffened. ‘I think you mean two,’ he said, pronouncing each word distinctly. ‘First Helene, and now Atu. I believe that makes two.’
Nick silently cursed himself. ‘Yes, two. Of course. That’s what I meant.’
‘There’s no law limiting the number of humanalogues you can own.’
‘Yeah, but I haven’t gotten used to owning one yet, much less two.’
Charlie relaxed, and gave a minute shrug. ‘Suit yourself. I will switch him off again and put him back behind the boxes. Maybe his owners will turn up in another hundred years.’
‘Okay, okay, Charlie, I take your point. I don’t appreciate the attitude, but I take it. We can’t just leave him here to rot. Please invoke that United Nations thing for me.’
‘Of course,’ Charlie said, with a tight little smile. He crouched in front of Atu and placed his fingers on the amilog’s chin, maneuvering his face so that they could make firm eye contact. Atu squirmed and looked to Nick. ‘Are you sure this is legal?’ he asked plaintively.
Charlie drew his face back. ‘If this civilisation had a network and electronic databases, we could determine your last owner’s beneficiaries within seconds, but it doesn’t, so we can’t. Under the circumstances this is the most legal salvage you’re likely to get. I am an authorised agent of the United Nations.’
Atu still appeared dubious, but he looked Charlie in the face, and said, ‘Okay then. Go ahead.’
Flickering fragments of light glinted in his eyes for a moment. He took it all in, and when the flickering stopped, Charlie released him. He dropped his gaze to the floor. When he raised it again, it was focused on Nick.
‘I bet I’m making a terrible first impression,’ the amilog said with a shy smile.
‘Not at all,’ Nick replied.
‘That’s nice of you to say, but I know I must look like hell. My skin is like old vinyl.’
‘Never mind. It won’t take long to fix. If you can just keep your eyes shut for the next twenty four hours, I’d really appreciate it.’
Even after several days with Charlie, Nick was still a little thrown by humanalogues making jokes. ‘Actually, Atu,’ he said, ‘I’d like to see how a humanalogue self-repairs. But you know, I never thought that an amilog would be sensitive about these things.’
‘Well, you are my new owner. I want to look my best for you.’
‘It doesn’t matter to me what you look like,’ Nick said, ‘Just as long as you work.’
Then a thought occurred to him, one that he didn’t like at all. ‘Hey, Atu, you don’t think I’m a mitch, do you?’
‘A mitch?’ Atu repeated. ‘I don’t even know what a mitch is.’
‘Well, it’s a guy who… well…let’s see...’ Nick said, and he suddenly realised that he couldn’t think of a synonym that wasn’t too embarrassing to mention.
‘Mitch is a local colloquialism for homosexual,’ Charlie said, helpfully taking the embarrassment on himself. ‘It derives from the Mitchellites, a masculinity cult that gained a large following in this area around a century ago.’
‘It does?’ Nick said.
‘Yes. It’s not entirely accurate, but that’s the way the local language has evolved.’
‘Ah,’ Atu nodded. ‘And it’s a pejorative word?’
‘In this culture, yes. Homosexuality is not openly discussed.’
‘Although oddly enough their understanding of gender equity is comparatively advanced.’
‘Hey, will the two of you please stop discussing my culture like it’s an anthropology specimen?’ Nick said indignantly.
‘Sorry, Dr Ostin,’ Atu said, ‘but things can change a lot in a hundred and twenty years. I’ll take me a while to catch up. And no.’
‘No, I don’t think you’re a mitch.’
‘Good,’ Nick said, although he had to fight down the suspicion that Atu had only just made that judgment.
‘We should take Atu and the warlog and get out of here,’ Charlie advised. ‘This is not a good place to be this late at night.’
Atu rose to his feet, swaying gently. Despite his youthful looks he moved like a frail old man. He leaned on Helene and she helped him shuffle to the door. He noticed the dead warlog, and said, ‘What happened to Byron?’
‘Do you mean this warlog?’ Nick asked. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Oh. When did that happen?’
‘We don’t know. It looks like it was a long time ago.’
‘I hope Mary was okay without him. He was her last warlog.’
‘We’ll have to see if we can find out.’
Charlie bundled the remains of Byron into a sheet and slung it over his shoulder. They left the room via the door in the safe, and Helene replaced the panel. Atu moved slowly, and Nick had to catch him twice as he momentarily lost his balance. They got him into the car, and the ruined warlog safely stowed, with Charlie satisfied that no one had seen them.
As he drove away, Nick realised that even though he was in a car full of people, he was the only living thing.
He glanced into the rearview mirror, and watched Atu watching the world outside the window.
‘It must look a lot different,’ Nick said.
‘It was a shanty town the last time I drove through,’ Atu said, in an absent tone of voice. ‘At least I think it was. I’m having trouble remembering the last few months. Mary told me I was sick.’
‘You were malfunctioning,’ Charlie said bluntly.
‘I guess I was. I feel fine now, though.’
‘Charlie fixed you,’ Nick said.
‘Oh. Thank you, Charlie.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Charlie replied.
Nick thought he detected a coolness in Charlie’s voice. He couldn’t see why Charlie should be unfriendly to the amilog, but then he could never be quite sure what the humanalogue was thinking. In an effort to maintain the conversation, Nick said, ‘Atu is an unusual name.’
‘I was told it’s Fijian,’ Atu replied. ‘It has something to do with the first people in their creation myths.’
‘So you were built in Fijia? Where is that?’
‘It’s Fiji, not Fijia. It’s an island in the South Pacific.’
‘The APIs designed me to look Polynesian, but I was actually built by Humatron Enterprises in San Diego, California.’
‘And this Polynesia place is…’
Atu smiled. ‘The area around Fiji.’
‘So why were you designed to look Polynesian? Were they a powerful nation?’
‘No. It depends on who you ask. My trainers said the APIs were just being creative. But one of the APIs told me that it thought that the Polynesians were the most beautiful people in the world. It thought that an amilog should be beautiful.’
‘What model are you?’ Charlie said suddenly.
‘I’m a Humatron A2.’
‘When were you built?’
‘I completed my training on June 12th, 2056.’
‘Is that significant?’ Nick asked.
‘The very first humanalogue was completed on November 22nd, 2055. The APIs waited at least twelve months before they authorised mass production, but they did allow limited runs of experimental models. If Atu was created in mid-2056, that would make him one of those experimental models.’
‘We weren’t experimental,’ Atu corrected peevishly. ‘We were just individually made. The APIs hadn’t decided whether or not they wanted to mass produce humanalogues, so they made a few runs of boutique models to gauge public reaction.’
‘In any case,’ Charlie said, ‘it means that Atu is one of the very first humanalogues. In fact, he could easily be the oldest one still in existence.’
‘Don’t say that!’ Atu protested. ‘You make me sound like a museum piece!’
‘From a history perspective, you are,’ Charlie said.
‘Can you two please behave yourselves?’ Nick growled. ‘You’re like a couple of little kids.’
There was a moment of silence. Then Atu grinned and cried out, ‘Dad, Charlie’s on my side of the seat!’
Nick couldn’t help but laugh out loud, so hard that the car swerved. Charlie said nothing.
The car rode up onto the Paleshore Bridge, and the cabin was filled with the whoosh and hum of the tyres on the steel grating. Far below the river shone silver-black in the moonlight, as serene and imperturbable as it had been since before recorded history. It was the only thing in the vicinity older than Nick’s passengers.
He looked at Atu in the mirror. The amilog stared down at the water, with a curious, disengaged expression. He had to be a treasure trove, Nick realised, not just as a rare humanalogue, but as a nearly endless source of information.
He didn’t seem to be damaged like Helene, or secretive like Charlie. There was no end to what he could learn from a friendly, five hundred plus year old amilog.
'What are you thinking about, Atu?' Nick asked.
Moonlight makes the water glow, and there are tiny twinkles of red, white and amber.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
The air is full of music, strings and smooth bass swelling and falling like the waves below. There is also an occasional sound, a throbbing purr, as a dark shape cruises by, a little beneath us or a little above.
I draw my gaze up and focus on my reflection in the window. My hair has been waxed into a circle of spikes around my head like a crown. I am wearing black leather pants, and I have an expensive new mirror shirt. It catches the others in reflections that distort when I move.
I am fifteen days old, and I met my owner yesterday.
Annie’s friends don’t know how to react to me. They are trying to play it cool, but underneath their casual words and their playful little smiles they struggle to contain their curiosity and their envy.
None of them own a humanalogue. A few have been introduced to one in a showroom or at a party, but most of them have only seen one at a distance. They pretend to be fascinated by their conversations with one another, but they are sneaking glances at me. They are trying to see if there is anything in me that they can relate to the machines they know. They think they will know how to treat me if they can recognise something of their household adjuvants in me. They are waiting for the subtle betrayal, anything that cries ‘inhuman’.
They won’t get it. I was trained by the best.
Annie is sitting beside me. I can’t stop looking at her and I can’t stop thinking about her. I only just met her and already she is my whole world. She doesn’t have the cheap, commodified beauty of an advertising model, but the imperfections of her face only highlight its underlying beauty. Her loveliness is not just an accident of genes or the work of cosmetics. It is a manifestation of her essential self, her kindness, her good sense, her confidence. I never suspected that love might feel this wonderful.
She slips her hand around my forearm and nestles against me. She is warm and soft. The fabric of her sleeve whispers on my skin.
The adjuvant driver banks the car, and we soar to the right. The exit sign is a floating island, designed to look like a grassy hillock. Reclining on it are three women with long, tumbling hair and diaphanous gowns, who smile and beckon and point to our destination. Their hair and clothes seem to billow in a gentle breeze. At this distance they look human, or humanalogue, but I know that they cannot be either.
They are just animated dolls, only sophisticated enough to identify and track incoming vehicles, then smile and beckon and point. Underneath their island a word drifts in slow circles. Sometimes the word is NIRVANA. Sometimes it’s GEHENNA. Sometimes it’s HEAVEN. Sometimes it’s HADES. Sometimes it’s ELYSIUM.
We land in the forecourt of a low building made of intricately carved stone and flexed media panels. The panels show wandering cloudbanks or sudden bursts of flame. The same words as appeared on the exit sign slip across the clouds and the fire, too quickly to read but slow enough to register subconsciously.
‘I have so been wanting to come here,’ says one of Annie’s friends. ‘It is absolutely the coolest. I feel like I’ve died and gone to…’ She suddenly realises what she is about to say, and they all burst into furious giggles.
‘They have just got to make that their new slogan,’ says another friend.
‘Places like this don’t have slogans,’ the first friend says airily. ‘It doesn’t even have a definite name. That’s what makes it so totally cool.’
The driver lets us out and takes the car away. It will come back for us when Annie summons it.
The club is large and dark. Dance music throbs from all directions. People sit at tables and talk and laugh and drink. Further away people dance on a huge dance floor, their bodies strobed by holograms and lasers. There are waiters serving drinks; the males are covered in gold paint, and have white wings fixed to their backs. Halos of light hover over their heads. The females are covered in red paint, and have long pointed tails and horns on their temples.
Annie leans over and whispers in my ear. ‘They have a game in this place.’
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘You have to try and guess who is human and who is a humanalogue. But don’t tell me because that would be cheating. I want to guess.’
I can already see three Humatron models. One of the males is a blonde B1. Another is an A2 like me, although he is bigger and designed to look older. There is also a female A3, one of the few from that line that made it past quality control before it was discontinued. I don’t recognise the manufacturers of the other humanalogue waiters, but they seem to comprise just under half the staff.
The waiter who seats us is human. After she goes to get our drinks, Annie says, ‘Okay, I’m pretty sure she’s a humanalogue. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to sculpt a body like that.’
‘And those breasts are too perfect to be real,’ one of her friends says. ‘If she was human and could afford to get them done that good, she wouldn’t be working here. Definitely a humanalogue.’
They all look at me. I just shrug and smile. Annie slaps my shoulder in mock anger, and they go back to trying to tell humanalogue from human.
She still isn’t quite sure about me. But later, when we are lying in her bed in the darkness, she’ll tell me all her secret things that she has not told anyone else, not even her family. She will tell me about that boy who tried to hurt her last summer, and she will tell…
But she hasn’t told me that yet.
So how do I know?
I don’t understWARNING! COGNITION ERROR! REINITIALISE PATHWAY AT103!
‘Atu, are you alright?’ Charlie asked.
The amilog looked away from the window. ‘I’m fine,’ he said. ‘Sorry, I was just thinking about something else.’
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