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It was a cheerful tune, full of jaunty good humour. It sounded simple, but as it progressed an astute listener would discern the surprising key changes, the clever little syncopations, and the instrumental flourishes that marked it apart from the musical herd. The instruments each had vivid personalities; the swaggering trumpet, the friendly, lumbering bass, the wry trombone, and keeping the others in line like a mother hen carefully guiding her chicks, the irrepressible piano.
It carried lightly on the afternoon breeze, and when it came into Nick’s hearing, it stuck him in the chest like a cold, steel knife.
He was feeling out of sorts already, despite having begun the day well. As expected, Professor Rian had cornered him as soon as he arrived at the lab and demanded to know what he was going to do about the door that Renai had destroyed. Of course Rian knew that there was no money left in their budget, and no doubt he wanted Nick to beg for emergency funds. It gave Nick immense satisfaction to pull a wad of notes out of his pocket and count them out into Rian’s hand. The look of astonishment on his face was priceless.
He told Ron and Dina, and was further gratified by their relief and excitement. When they asked where it had come from, he simply smiled and told them that fortune had been kind to him. They assumed he had just taken a lucky and extravagant bet at the races. He did not tell them that it was a very small fraction of the fortune he had been given in a battered old shoebox.
But after that, his day went downhill. He could not concentrate on the work at hand. It was suddenly mundane and tedious, an unbearable waste of time.
He did not want to be pressure testing the valves on his primitive robot, or punching precise patterns of holes in paper tape for hours. At home he had the most brilliant manifestations of Golden Century technology just sitting there, waiting for him. He had originally thought that Charlie could help him with his robot, but he was coming to realise that the information the humanalogues held was far more exciting than anything his own fumbling research could uncover. He looked around his lab and saw electric motors and copper wire, but his mind was on HEMEC reactors and pseudoalumtitanium.
He had excused himself from the lab as early as he reasonably could, and turned down Ron’s suggestion of an after work drink. He had probably been a little abrupt, he realised. He consoled himself with the thought that if Ron and Dina had three humanalogues living in their houses, they’d be in a hurry to get home too.
That was the thought he used to console himself, but it was not a hundred percent successful. And it only got worse as he walked up his street and heard “Crazy August Nights” drifting from the open windows of his house.
He opened the front door and followed the sound into the living room. Atu was sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading a book. Scattered around him were other books, some magazines, and the sleeves from half a dozen records. As he walked in Atu looked up and greeted him with a broad grin. ‘Hey, Nick, I was wondering when you’d get home.’
‘Hi, Atu. Could you turn that off please?’
‘Sure.’ Atu was seated in front of the record player, and he leaned back and lifted the stylus off the disc. The music disappeared.
‘What are you doing?’ Nick asked.
‘I’m trying to catch up on the last hundred years,’ Atu said. ‘I found these books in a cupboard in the spare room, when I was looking for some more clothes.’ He held up the book he was reading so Nick could see the cover.
Nick saw the title, his heart skipped a beat, and the pain brought on by the music was washed away by a sudden ripple of fear. ‘Woden’s Almanac?’
‘Yeah. You have to wade through a lot of useless statistics, but every now and then there’s something useful.’
‘And these books were in a box upstairs?’
‘Yeah. What’s wrong? You don’t mind me reading them, do you?’
‘To be honest I didn’t even know I had them,’ Nick admitted. ‘They’re… well, they’re not exactly illegal, but they’re not something good Dominion citizens have in their homes.’
‘Really?’ Atu said. ‘They seem pretty harmless. They go out of their way every time they mention your Governor to make sure we know that he’s the greatest thing in the history of government.’
‘One thing you’ll need to learn about our society, Atu, is that the government doesn’t need a reason to do any of the things it does.’
Atu’s brow crinkled. ‘What do you mean?’
Nick sighed, as he often did when forced to dwell on the Dominion. ‘I think it was about six years ago. The government decided that there was something wrong with a volume of Woden’s Almanac from two or three years earlier. They demanded that it be recalled, and it was. But a couple of weeks later the publisher just disappeared, and most people got the message that it wasn’t smart to have any Woden’s Almanacs in your house.’
‘But you do,’ Atu said. ‘If you didn’t buy them, where did they come from?’
‘My grandmother used to collect them. She bought the very first one when she was about my age and she got them right up until she died, which if I remember correctly was the same year they stopped printing them. I guess they were all in a box in one of her back rooms, and when I inherited all her stuff they just got included.’ He bit his lip nervously. ‘I should really get rid of them.’
‘It’d be a shame,’ Atu observed. ‘Like I said, they’re really useful. I found out what happened to Mary.’
Nick started. ‘You did?’
‘Yeah. Have a look at this.’ Atu picked up another volume and handed it to Nick. Its pages were yellow with age, and the binding was cracked. Nick leafed through it. He cast his eyes over pictures of women caught in stiff poses, wearing long, old-fashioned dresses, and photographs of new cars that had been old and obsolete before he was even born, and advertisements for long-forgotten products in quaint packaging. Atu had bookmarked a page entitled ‘One Hundred Years of Care: the story of Calahan Pharmaceuticals.’
‘Read this paragraph here,’ Atu said, pointing to a place on the page.
‘The company’s darkest hour came on its twentieth anniversary,’ Nick read aloud. ‘That was the year fire engulfed the Calahan mansion, killing family matriarch Mary Calahan, company executives Oren Calahan and Tyler Calahan, Tyler’s wife Sandra, three members of the company board, and a dozen servants. Under the strain of this terrible loss the company almost collapsed, but thanks to the resolve and tenacity of the remaining board members, it survived, and, in time, thrived anew. Calahan Pharmaceuticals had lost the living embodiment of its history, but the future still beckoned.’ Nick lowered the book. ‘Your Mary was Mary Calahan?’
Atu nodded. ‘Poor Mary. She thought something like that might happen.’
‘What? You don’t think the fire was an accident?’
‘I don’t know. I was pretty out of it towards the end, you know, with that malfunction that Charlie fixed. I can’t really remember much about what was going on. But Mary was a smart woman. She must have had a good reason to store all the family heirlooms, me included, in that secret room. And I worked out the dates: I think the fire was only a few months after I was switched off.’
‘Who could have done it?’
‘Again, I don’t know. It was an unstable time. There were armed guards at the factory, and Mary always seemed to be paying bribes, and the names of the politicians changed by the month. I wish I knew more about what was going on, but I wasn’t kept in the loop. It could have been a warlord who wanted their land, or a competitor who wanted them out of the business, or… well, it could even have been someone on the board trying to get control of the company. I guess we’ll never know.’
‘For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.’
‘Thanks, but we both knew she was dead. We just didn’t know how and when. Now we do, and I guess we move on.’
‘So did any of these books tell you who might inherit you?’
‘No. Mary, Oren and Tyler were the whole family. None of them had any children. Apparently the board kept the name as Calahan Pharmaceuticals after the fire, but according to another one of these books about twenty years ago they diversified and became Calahan Chemicals. Not that that makes any difference; I belonged to the family, not the company. You’re still my new owner.’
‘Their loss is my gain.’
‘Yeah. At least I hope so.’ Atu looked around at the piles of books and record sleeves, and grimmaced. ‘It looks like a bomb has hit this place. You sit down and relax and I’ll start getting all this stuff put away.’
Nick chuckled. ‘You call this a mess? You should see it when I’ve been at home all day.’
‘Are you sure? You didn’t look very happy when you came in just now.’
‘Oh, that was… something else. That song you were playing on the record player…’
‘I’m sorry; I didn’t think you’d mind.’
‘I don’t, not as such. It’s just that one, Crazy August Nights. It was one of my father’s. He was a musician. I guess it just hurts a bit to hear it.’
‘Charlie told me about your parents. I’m sorry.’
Nick shrugged, more for show than out of any conviction. ‘It’s okay. I don’t really listen to music much. Most of those records were his.’
‘Well, he had a pretty good collection.’ Atu sifted through the sleeves on the floor. ‘Although I can’t believe you still listen to Snap Panda. Shanghai Ska-Core hasn’t been big since the early 21st century.’
‘Ah, well, they obviously didn’t have the Musical Canon before you were switched off,’ Nick said. ‘Have a look at the discs on the right hand end of the shelves. The ones in the box sleeve.’
Atu looked as directed. ‘Hey, I know some of these. Umlaut. Apollo Four-Forty. The Dead Funksters. What’s this… Ella Fitzgerald?’
‘My parents bought the boxed set from Northern Music; it’s all there, all eighteen discs. It’s every original recording from the Golden Century that’s survived till today. The quality is terrible, but that’s what you get when it’s all copies of copies of copies.’
‘Man,’ Atu muttered as he flipped through the records, ‘no offence, but this is a poor excuse for a musical canon. I mean, you’ve got Ella, which is great, but she wasn’t a 21st century artist.’
‘Nope. Look here, there’s no Western Head, no Elysia Hayden, no Harry Mohammed Band… how can you have a musical canon of the 21st century without the Harry Mohammed Band?’
‘We only have a few records from that time, and a few CDs that were copied onto other mediums before the last CD players died. Some music just got lucky, I guess.’
‘Well, it sucks that you don’t have the Harry Mohammed Band, but somehow Celine Dion managed to survive the centuries,’ Atu commented, waving one of the records in the air dismissively.
‘Is it just me, or are you taking this personally?’
The amilog pushed the records back into the box, and looked momentarily embarrassed. ‘I like music, that’s all. I’ve had a lot to do with it over the years. It’s one of the things I’m good at. It’s like a hobby’
‘I didn’t know humanalogues had hobbies.’
‘Neither did I. It’s just sort of the way it turned out.’
Nick wondered if the humanalogues would ever cease to surprise him. He looked closely at Atu. The amilog’s skin was significantly improved, with only faint lines where major cracks had been before. It was the colour of milky coffee, umblemished and even. Now that he had cleaned up, Nick could see that his hair was thick and black, cut shorter than it had been that morning to ape the modern fashions. His eyes were a dark chestnut colour, and his teeth so white that when he smiled, everything else in the room seemed to darken by a degree or two.
He was not bulky but he seemed well-built, and every movement suggested he had the strength and agility of an athlete. He looked for all the world like a young man just growing into adulthood, with a healthiness and vitality that only people of that age can hold. His creators, many centuries gone, had captured the easy immortality of youth to perfection.
‘Why are you staring at me?’ Atu asked.
‘I’m staring at you because you’re an amazing artifact,’ Nick said. ‘You don’t just look human, you look more human than real humans. It’s… well, like I said, it’s amazing.’
Atu smiled, almost sadly, without flashing his dazzling white teeth, in a way that made him suddenly look very, very old. ‘For people who worship every little thing that came out of the 21st century,’ he said softly, ‘you really don’t seem to understand the breadth of their power and technology.’
Nick wasn’t sure how to answer that. He didn’t have to, however, as at that moment he heard a heavy tread on the stairs, and a moment later Charlie walked into the room.
‘Now this guy is the man!’ Atu announced, and suddenly he was a glib teenager again.
‘How so?’ Nick asked.
Atu jumped up and threw a friendly arm around Charlie’s shoulders. ‘He formed this three-way link with me and Helene and used our collective processing power to repair my skin in a fraction of the time it would’ve taken me. Who else would have thought to do that? Who else would even be
to do that?’
Charlie didn’t look flattered. ‘It was a simple procedure.’
‘You’re selling yourself short, Charlie,’ Atu said. ‘Tell Nick what you did.’
‘You already told him about the three-way link.’
‘No, I meant about Helene.’
‘What about Helene?’ Nick asked.
‘When we were in the three-way link, I had a chance to examine Atu’s systems more fully. I realised that the damaged and missing files in Helene’s architecture were still intact and uncorrupted in Atu’s. It was a time-consuming process to copy them across, but it was relatively simple.’
‘You mean you’ve fixed Helene too?’
‘More or less. There are still some slight faults, but they shouldn’t be discernable to human senses.’
‘What did I say, is this guy the man or what?’ Atu enthused.
‘He definitely does more than I ever could,’ Nick admitted. ‘So where is Helene now?’
‘She’s upstairs. She had to reinitialise after the transfer, and with so many new files it could take some time.’
‘Well, thanks for doing that, Charlie. Thanks for doing all of it. It’s not every day that someone fixes two damaged humanalogues for me.’
‘You don’t need to thank me.’
‘Yes, I do. I know you didn’t have to do it.’
Charlie didn’t look comfortable with praise. The effort to come up with some self-deprecation that didn’t sound like false modesty almost seemed to show on his face. In the pause in conversation, Nick heard another tread on the stairs.
Nick saw a delicate, high-heeled shoe, then another with a slim ankle, then a smooth, bare leg, then a flounce of apricot-coloured silk. Helene came slowly down the stairs and took a few uncertain steps into the living room
‘Hello Nick,’ she said, with a nervous glimmer in her voice. ‘Well, what do you think?’
Her hair had once been mousey brown, but although it didn’t look like it had been dyed or coloured, it now appeared rich and shining. She no longer wore it in a messy bun, but had it falling to her shoulders in exquisitely tousled layers.
Her eyes were green and gold, and seemed to sparkle under long lashes. Her skin was lightly tanned and immaculate. When she smiled at him, hesitantly, everything else suddenly became two-dimensional and unreal.
Nick heard Charlie as if he was speaking quietly from another room. ‘The repairs to Helene will require her to interact with you as if you’re meeting for the first time. She retains memories of the last few days, but how she interacts with you will have to be reformed based on her revised personality.’
Nick wanted to say something, but his brain couldn’t form any words.
‘Nick, are you okay?’ Atu asked.
Something almost coherent managed to force its way to Nick’s mouth. ‘You’re… you’re… incredible!’
Helene dropped her gaze and giggled self-consciously. ‘Thank you.’
‘No! Not incredible. I mean… you’re beautiful! You’re… wow! I don’t know what else to say!’ Many adjectives swirled through his mind, and they were all so inadequate as to be almost insulting.
‘I hope you don’t mind me wearing this dress.’ She gave a little half turn, and the silk swished across her skin like running water.
‘I’ve never even seen it before,’ Nick said. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘I didn’t think you’d like me wearing any of the clothes in your mother’s wardrobe, but this one was in a box under the bed in the spare room. I think it must have been a bridesmaids dress or something. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘No, no, of course not. It looks wonderful on you.’
Helene giggled again, delightedly, ‘It’s nice to wear something pretty again. Thank you, Nick!’
‘Hey, don’t thank me, thank Charlie.’
‘Thank you, Charlie!’
Charlie didn’t respond, and when Nick glanced at him, the warlog’s face wore a troubled expression that Nick had never seen before.
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