REPORT A PROBLEM
As Nick walked across the back lawn it seemed to telescope out. It probably wasn’t the troopers at the front door, he thought. Atu wouldn’t have time to announce them. The only announcement of their presence would be the screech of tyres on the street, the splintering of the doorframe and the muzzles of their guns pressed against his forehead.
But there were other forces in the Dominion, quieter but no less malevolent. The secret police, who had no name but whose existence Nick never doubted for a second. Or the private goons of the Governor’s cronies. Or Mr Smith.
As he entered the house he could hear the murmur of Charlie’s voice in the living room. He walked slowly through the kitchen with trepidation like a hand tightening its grip on his throat. Through the doorway he could see Charlie’s back, but the visitors were out of his line of sight. Charlie looked relaxed and calm, but then Charlie always did. He could have been talking to the Governor himself and remained as cool as an autumn evening.
Nick stepped into the living room, and Charlie turned to face him. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Your colleagues are here.’
It was Ron and Dina. Not troopers, or secret police, or Mr Smith. Of course, Nick thought. Having three humanalogues in the house was making him paranoid.
‘Hi Nick,’ Ron said. ‘We just thought we’d drop by and say hello.’
‘Is this a bad time?’ Dina asked. ‘You look a little pale.’
Nick smiled weakly. ‘Sorry. I guess I’m a bit jumpy, having foreigners in the house. You know what the authorities are like. I keep expecting some sort of problem.’
‘You mean ‘foreigners’ as in plural?’ Ron said. ‘I noticed someone darting out back when Charlie opened the door.’
‘Er, yes,’ Nick said vaguely.
Ron persisted. ‘So are you setting up a hotel here or something?’
‘No. They’re… friends of Charlie’s.’
‘Colleagues, actually,’ Charlie said.
‘Well aren’t you just the dark horse,’ Dina chided. ‘How many foreign scientist friends have you been keeping secret from us?’
‘It’s…’ Nick quickly marshaled his thoughts to develop some clever, plausible explanation, but inspiration was not forthcoming. ‘It’s, ah, a long story. What are you guys doing over this way, anyway?’
‘What, your friends can’t drop by to visit you?’
‘Of course not. I mean, of course you can. I was just wondering.’
Ron glanced at Dina, then said, ‘We were both at a loose end, and we haven’t been seeing so much of your down at the lab. It’s just a social call. We’re not interrupting anything, are we?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘Well then, I guess there’s nothing to stop you offering us a drink, is there?’ Ron said. He was holding his hat, and fidgeted with it pointedly.
There was no way out of it, Nick decided. ‘I’m sorry, I’m being as rude as all hell. Why don’t you take a seat and I’ll put your hats in the hallway.’
‘Yeah,’ Ron said, with his usual sledgehammer subtlety. He tossed his hat to Nick, then dropped himself into a comfortable sprawl on the couch.
Dina fumbled with the pin holding her own hat in place. It was an impractical thing, small and fashionably beaded, but the way it framed her face brought out a soft, feminine sweetness which was usually hidden in the lab.
‘New hat?’ Nick asked.
Dina smiled. ‘Yes. It’s nice of you to notice.’
‘It’s very pretty. It suits you.’
‘So, are you going to introduce us to these colleagues of Charlie’s or what?’ Ron said.
It was too late to pretend that they were out, or maybe somehow unavailable. ‘Yeah, sure,’ Nick said, and glanced at Charlie. ‘Do you want to find them and call them in?’
If it was a bad idea, Nick reckoned, Charlie could be relied upon to try and put him off. But the warlog just nodded and strolled into the kitchen.
Left with his friends, Nick had no idea what to say to them. Everything that he’d done recently, everything that occurred to him to say, somehow revolved around the humanalogues. He fiddled with the cuff buttons on his shirt.
Then it suddenly occurred to him that both Ron and Dina had met Ida at the house on previous occasions – what if they recognised her in Helene? He fought down a sudden rush of panic.
‘You never told us how you met Charlie,’ Dina said, perhaps simply to break the silence.
‘Oh, you know,’ Nick tried to sound insouciant, but to his own ears his voice had a nervous squeak to it. ‘I found out about his work and wrote to him, he wrote back, and we just fell into corresponding.’
‘I’m surprised you never mentioned him before,’ Ron added.
‘It’s not a big deal. I never expected to actually meet him in the flesh. He was just a professional acquaintance.’
Dina’s expression said that she was satisfied with this explanation. Ron’s didn’t. ‘Still,’ he said, ‘I can’t see why you haven’t been bringing him in to…’
Charlie came back into the room, and at first Nick thought that this was why Ron suddenly stopped talking. Then he too saw Helene, and he understood. He had forgotten how arresting she could be when she first entered a room.
‘Dina Mallery, Ron Jones, this is my associate, Helene Morrow,’ Charlie introduced.
Helene smiled vivaciously. Dina politely shook her hand. It took Ron a few seconds to unfreeze, then he jumped off the couch and took her hand is if it were a precious work of art.
‘It’s a very great pleasure,’ he said huskily.
Neither of them recognised her.
‘And this is one of our research students, Atu Calahan,’ Charlie said. Atu beamed his sunny white smile, and they shook his hand. When that smile drifted over to Dina, she suddenly became very shy and self-conscious, like a schoolgirl meeting a teacher on whom she has held a long, secret crush.
Nick had to bite his tongue to keep from smirking at them both.
He poured his guests some drinks while they spoke with Helene and Atu. Ron was full of questions, asking Helene where she had come from, what she was researching and, most importantly, how long she planned to stay in the Red Hill Dominion. At first Nick was alarmed, but alarm gradually turned to admiration as she nimbly deflected these questions, changing the subject into related areas where there was less need for specifics, without Ron becoming aware that she had done anything other than answer his questions.
All she had to do was sit on the couch, beautiful and poised, laughing lightly at anything less than serious, touching Ron’s knee or the back of his hand every so often to make him instantly forget what it was he’d asked her.
Atu did the same whenever Dina asked him a question, but mostly he spoke first, to ask her about her life, skillfully taking what she said and moulding it into a new question. After a while he could throw words and concepts back at her that made it sound as if he really was a research student.
Nick didn’t participate much. He just sat back and marveled at the amilogs’ social mastery. Charlie too took little part in the conversations, unless Helene or Atu pulled him in to qualify or justify something, in which case he would nod, smile, and say as little as possible to oblige. Otherwise he sat in his chair, letting the amilogs take care of the situation. It was their milieu, after all. Unless someone suddenly produced a gun, a warlog wasn’t really needed.
Nick grew so relaxed that he didn’t flinch when Helene asked if Ron and Dina were staying to dinner.
He only realized the implications when Ron and Dina accepted and Helene stood up to excuse herself.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘If we’re going to have dinner, someone needs to cook it,’ she said, and looked to Dina. ‘Isn’t that just like a man? I swear they all think meals mysteriously fall out of magic refrigerators on demand.’
‘Would you like a hand?’ Dina offered.
‘Thanks, that’d be a godsend. And you can give me all the dirt on Nick and Ron and shatter my illusions.’
Dina giggled, and she and Helene retreated into the kitchen, talking animatedly.
There was a moment of silence in the living room. Then Ron turned to Nick and said, ‘Well, I can see why you haven’t been coming in to the lab much.’
‘It’s not like that, Ron.’
‘Oh. You mean… sorry, Charlie, are you and Helene involved?’
Charlie smiled thinly. ‘No. We’re associates, that’s all.’
Ron glanced at Atu, who just laughed. ‘No.’
‘So we come back to you, Nick. You have what may well be the most stunning woman in the Dominion living in your house, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you spending less time at work?’
‘I’m not that shallow, Ron. It’s just easier to work from home with three other people than to drag them all down to the lab.’
‘Easier? How is it easier? How are they going to learn about what we’re doing if they stay cooped up in this house? Helene and Atu haven’t even see Renai yet!’
‘They don’t need to see Renai,’ Nick said. ‘Their expertise is mainly theoretical, more along the lines of design philosophies.’
‘Charlie said it was the most sophisticated robot he’d ever seen,’ Ron countered. ‘You don’t think that maybe they’d like to see it too?’
At this point Charlie decided to step in. ‘Actually I said that it was the most sophisticated robot since the New Deal Collective.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘We’ve studied relics that are older and more advanced than the machines the Dealers built, so we’re acquainted with technology greater than your robot. In any case, Helene and Atu don’t really deal with engineering. Have you heard of the Berkeley model of hierarchical reasoning systems?’
‘Well, that’s their current project. Your robot doesn’t use anything even remotely similar.’
It was plain that Ron wasn’t really satisfied, but he didn’t push the matter.
He just glared at the remains of his drink, swirled it around in the glass, and muttered, ‘It just doesn’t seem fair to keep guests locked up inside a house, that’s all.’
There was an uneasy silence. Then Atu said, ‘You know, there is something I’d like to see while I’m here.’
‘What’s that?’ Nick asked.
‘A football game. I know, I know, it’s not the most important thing in the world, but I’ve missed most of the season at home, and I heard something about a team called the Red Hill Raiders. Do you know if they’re any good?’
Ron’s eyes lit up as if someone had pressed a button, and any animosity was suddenly forgotten. How did Atu know, Nick wondered, as Ron delivered his well-practiced homage to the Raiders’ forward line. Did he pick up the name of the team from his study of Woden’s Almanac? Or had he been listening to the radio or watching the television while Nick was out? Or had he just overheard a chance remark from Ron’s conversation with Helene… which might explain how he guessed that Ron was their most devoted fan? Nick couldn’t tell. But the move had worked beautifully.
Atu nodded enthusiastically at Ron’s dissection of the Raiders’ strengths, and asked irresistible questions about Vin Youssef’s injury worries or Tommy Loyd’s fitness. By the time Dina came in to ask Nick to open some wine, it seemed that Ron had found a new best friend.
As they moved into the dining room, Nick gripped Atu’s elbow and said, very softly, ‘I’m worried that you’re encouraging Ron too much. Sooner or later he’s going to start asking you about your ‘home’ teams.’
Atu smiled. ‘I’ve been doing this for five hundred years, Nick,’ he whispered back. ‘Have a little faith.’
Nick let go of Atu’s elbow and tried to force himself to relax.
The dinner was a great success, just like everything else the amilogs organised. From day one Helene had taken over the management of Nick’s house, stocking the cupboards and refrigerator with things he would never have thought to buy, things she gathered in out of the way shops and marketplaces. The cuisine she prepared was certainly unusual to Nick’s palate, but it was inevitably delicious. Her style was based on food fashions of earlier centuries, but fortunately Ron and Dina just assumed that these were foreign delicacies.
Nick didn’t have to say much. He didn’t
himself to say much. He just let the amilogs work their magic while he enjoyed his fennel and chive souffle. Who knew, he wondered, that the fennel that grew wild along the riverbanks of Red Hill was actually edible? He’d never even seen it at the greengrocer’s. Helene must have harvested it herself. It still tickled him to know that he was now eating Golden Century food every single day.
He looked around the dining room. He didn’t use it that much, and he suddenly noticed how shabby it was looking.
The table and chairs were antiques, made of mahogany, maybe slightly older than the house, inherited from his mother’s family. They were elegant and sturdy, but they needed repolishing. The wallpaper was twenty years old and starting to peel around the edges; the rug was older, and looked it. I really need to do something about this, he thought.
There was only one thing in the room that hadn’t belonged to his parents. In a frame on the wall next to the fireplace was a photograph of a man. He was leaning casually against what was probably a laboratory bench.
Next to him, a silver object the size a softball hovered a few centimeters above the benchtop.
The photograph was actually a magazine cover, from something called ‘Scientific American’, dated February 2044. There was text printed down either side of the picture; the largest portion, which seemed to relate to the man and the silver object, read ‘The Ups and Downs of Anti-Gravity’, with ‘Is Science Fiction’s Dream Finally Becoming Reality?’ in smaller type beneath.
Nick had paid an antiques dealer far more than he could afford for the picture. Once he’d seen it, he’d simply needed to own it.
There was something about the man’s face, a sort of genial wisdom, that struck a chord in Nick. It seemed to him to be the expression of a man who’d known that it was only a matter of time before his work yielded fruit. And of course it had yielded fruit, as the anti-gravity car sitting in the city museum mutely proved. The man encouraged Nick to believe that one day he too might offer a wise half-smile to a camera, and reassure others that science was progressing exactly as it should.
He just wished he knew who he was.
Looking up at the magazine cover, somehow preserved over the centuries while almost everything else had rotted or crumbled, he felt a sudden, irrational disgust for his house and his life. It was all so… parochial. By Dominion standards it was a large, comfortable house and a meaningful, comfortable life, but what were Dominion standards when compared to the Golden Century? They were squalid. A man like him five hundred years before would be sitting in a dining room full of furniture meticulously polished by adjuvants, with moving picture wallpaper and electronic music, eating delicacies like chocolate and tropical fruit.
Where did it all go, he wondered? The anti-gravity cars, the exotic foods, the adjuvants, the APIs and all that other Golden Century technology? Why had the unimaginably wealthy citizens of that glorious era suddenly lost it all? Why had they denied their descendents their prosperity and condemned them to centuries of struggle, hardship and violence?
The picture of the man with the floating silver bauble offered no answers.
At the evening’s end, after the superb dinner and more sparkling conversation provided by the amilogs, Nick escorted his guests out to Ron’s car.
‘You’ve been very quiet tonight,’ Dina observed.
‘Have I? I’m sorry. I just seem to be in one of those moods.’
‘Your new friends are real livewires. It must be great fun having them around.’
‘It is. I’m very lucky… to have met them, I mean.’
‘And I don’t care what you and Charlie think, you need to bring them down to the lab,’ Ron said. ‘I’m sure they could teach us something.’
‘I’m sure they could teach us a lot of things.’
‘Well there you go.’
As Ron and Dina climbed into the car, Nick said, ‘Look, I’ll see you at the lab tomorrow morning, okay?’
‘With Helene and Atu?’ Ron asked.
They drove away, and Nick wandered back up into the house. He leant wearily against the front door as he closed it behind him.
‘You’re going to have to tell them sooner or later,’ Charlie said.
‘Yeah, right, thanks Charlie. I’ll just tell them I have three humanalogues living in my house. And they’ll keep the secret and the Governor will never find out and he won’t send the troopers to take you all for himself and he won’t shoot me dead in the street for daring to get in his way.’
‘I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you.’
‘Thanks, but I still can’t tell them.’
‘The only alternative is not telling them, and how long do you think we can pretend that we’re foreign scientists? What sort of questions will people be asking when we’ve been here a month? Or a year?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’ll need to know soon.’
‘I don’t want to think about it right now, Charlie. I’m going to bed.’
‘You’re going to have to think about it,’ Charlie said as Nick climbed the stairs. ‘You can’t make responsibility go away by ignoring it. No one ever can.’
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