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As Nick changed into his pyjamas he listened to the sounds the humanalogues made downstairs. They were subdued, but distinct. Helene was washing the dishes in the kitchen. Atu was running the carpet sweeper across the dining room rug. Nick heard Charlie moving through the rooms, then there was the gentle thud of the back door closing, and the snap of the accompanying screen door a half second later. He looked out the window and saw Charlie marching across the back lawn towards the gate in the rear fence. Off for his nightly reconnaissance, Nick thought. Just like old times.
Now that his leg was, apparently, fully repaired, there was no real reason why Charlie should stay in the house at all. He and Nick had both kept their sides of their original bargain, made in the dusty workroom of Kerrigan Base the day they met. Charlie was free to return to what passed for his life, and Nick was free to return to what passed for his. But the warlog hung around. Maybe he thought Nick needed more protection than most since he’d acquired a couple of amilogs.
Who knew that humanalogues could be so much trouble, Nick reflected.
He went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, half-heartedly flossed, and frowned in the bathroom mirror at a couple of stray hairs protruding from his nostril. He used some tweezers to pull them out, but had to pause after every few tugs as his eyes teared up.
Charlie was out in the night, moving silently through the darkness. Nick doubted that warlogs got watery eyes when they had a hair pulled out. They probably didn’t even blink if an arm came off. It wasn’t reasonable for him to compare himself to a warlog, but he couldn’t help but feel puny.
What did Charlie do if he encountered someone breaking into a house or trying to steal a car on his reconnaissance prowls, he wondered? Would a loud noise suffice to scare them away? Or would he get physical? What if they fought back? How far had he gone to protect other people’s property over the centuries?
It all hinted at a force of character that Nick felt was beyond him. A machine has more character than me, he thought. Charlie would disagree with him, of course, and somehow, paradoxically, he would be correct in this position
proving Nick’s point.
Nick went back to his bedroom and climbed into bed. Faintly, down in the living room, he heard the mantle clock strike midnight.
There was a hesitant tap at his door.
‘Come in,’ he called out.
The door opened, revealing Helene standing on the threshold. ‘Hi Nick. I didn’t wake you, did I?’
‘No, not at all. I only went to bed a few seconds ago.’
‘That’s good. Did you enjoy yourself tonight?’
‘Yeah, thanks. You and Atu were great. You had my friends eating out of your hands.’
‘It’s easy to be charming when the company is so pleasant.’
‘And your food was as wonderful as usual.’
‘I’m glad you liked it.’
‘Everyone did. You’re a real genius.’
Helene looked self-conscious, but flattered. ‘No I’m not, but thank you anyway, Nick.’
She hesitated. One of her hands still rested on the doorknob, and her thumb traced slow circles on its underside. ‘So, is there anything else you needed tonight… or wanted?’
Nick didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t see her face – the light from the hallway reduced her to a silhouette, a perfect female outline gauzy at the edges where her lightweight dress diffused the brightness.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘No, it was nothing. There’s nothing I need you to do, Helene.’
She was silent for a moment, either building something in her mind to say or waiting for him to add something. But the moment passed and nothing happened.
‘Well, good night then,’ she said. ‘Sleep well, Nick.’
‘Thanks, Helene. Good night.’
She pulled the door closed but didn’t let it catch, so it crept ajar once she’d walked away. When the hallway light had been switched off, it became just a pale column in the darkness.
Nick lay still in bed and stared at the ceiling, not wanting to think. He caught a shadow out of the corner of his eye, and when he turned to look at it, it nudged the door open.
‘What the hell is wrong with you, man?’ Atu asked.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘What do you think? A beautiful woman comes on to you, and you shrivel like bacon on a hot grill.’ Atu crossed his arms and tilted his head. ‘Are you sure you’re not a mitch?’
‘For the last time, no! What is it with you and… that?’
The amilog wandered into the room, dropped into the old armchair next to the bed, and swung his legs lazily over one of the arms. ‘I’m just curious. I don’t want you keeping up a macho pretense on my account. And it might explain why you behave the way you do around Helene.’
‘Like she’s dangerous,’ Atu said. ‘I understand, man. Beautiful women can be scary. But you don’t have to worry about that with Helene. She really likes you.’
Nick grimmaced, as if he’d tasted something sour. ‘That’s because she’s programmed to like me,’ he pointed out.
‘Well, it’s not that simple, but even if it was, so what? She’s still beautiful and she still likes you. And anyone can tell you like her.’
Atu had a point; it was exactly the one Nick had been struggling with. He wasn’t sure how to explain to Atu that he couldn’t look at Helene, really look at her, without seeing the slack-faced puppet she had been before Charlie’s repairs. It was easy to ignore when he was just talking to her, but if he imagined her fingers lingering on his skin, or his lingering on hers, or her mouth…
He wasn’t sure how he could even explain it to himself.
‘She’s not a woman, Atu. She’s a robot.’
‘Humanalogues aren’t robots.’
‘She’s a humanalogue, then.’
‘I’m a humanalogue too, and you don’t seem to have a problem with me.’
‘That’s different. You’re not beautiful.’
‘Really?’ Atu’s grin was visible even in the darkness. ‘I’ve heard otherwise.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Okay, fine. I just don’t understand what difference it makes.’
‘Nobody you’ve known has ever felt… uncomfortable… with the thought of being with a machine?’
‘Not around me. I guess I overpowered them with my hot, hard sexuality.’
Nick made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and a laugh. ‘You are so full of crap.’
‘Yeah, but it’s sexy crap.’
Nick rolled his eyes.
‘Seriously, Nick, the people who’ve owned me spent their whole lives around humanalogues. Sleeping with one was just the normal thing to do. In fact, there was a time when wanting to get with another human was, well, you know, sort of weird.’
‘Nope. It was, like, you were demanding that another person do something for you when you already had humanalogues who could do it.’
‘I don’t follow you.’
‘Well, let me put it this way. Imagine if you expected your friend to come over and drive you around town when you’ve got a perfectly good car of your own in the garage.’
Nick made a face. ‘Atu, that’s the most cynical, unromantic thing I’ve ever heard.’
‘Well, things were different back then.’
Nick rolled over so that he could look directly at Atu. ‘So, how many of your owners did you sleep with?’
‘All the ones that wanted to.’
‘How many was that?’
‘More than half. Most of the guys didn’t swing that way, of course.’
‘A few of them had some sort of moral thing that I never really understood. But, you know, to each their own. I did whatever they wanted me to do.’
‘And what did they want you to do, if it wasn’t… you know.’
Atu shrugged. ‘Talk to them. Read to them. Play tennis with them. Carry them if they couldn’t walk. Sing to them, or play the guitar for them. Whatever. That’s what amilogs do.’
‘Well, I can see someone playing tennis with a machine, or listening to a machine play the guitar. But sleeping with one! That’s just… perverse.’
‘And yet she turns you on,’ Atu said, conspiratorially.
‘Yes,’ Nick admitted.
Atu seemed to consider his point well made and finished. He grunted sagely and leaned back in the chair.
‘Hey, just make yourself at home,’ Nick said.
‘You don’t mind me being here, do you?’
‘Uh… I guess not. But don’t you have anything else to do?’
‘Nope. Not particularly.’
Nick was about to ask him to leave, but it occurred to him that he didn’t especially need to. Atu was virtually silent and still, except for the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.
And there was something oddly comfortable about having the amilog in the room, lounging just across from him. He was a presence, expecting nothing, just a friendly, undemanding
. Having him there was like slowly drifting off to sleep listening to a quiet, pleasant voice on the radio.
‘You’ll take some getting used to, Atu,’ Nick muttered into his pillow.
‘Soon you’ll wonder how you ever did without me,’ Atu replied softly.
‘Yeah, right. Now shut up and let me get to sleep. I have to be at the lab early.’
‘I have things to do,’ Nick mumbled.
‘I’ve got to make sure we
keep up appearances.’
In the darkness, Atu blinked suddenly.
‘Why? Because I have to be there, that’s why! The whole thing would fall apart without me. Don’t be so stupid, Atu.’
‘They must really respect you.’
‘Well, it’s only right that they should. You don’t make Captain by staying in the background and playing by the rules. It needs leadership. It needs someone who knows how to take control and make sure that all the right decisions are made. I’ve won their respect through hard work. It didn’t come cheap.’
‘Of course not.’
He tosses irritably under his quilt, grabbing one of the pillows and bunching it under his head. It’s no more comfortable that way, and he pushes it off the side of the bed onto the floor with a curt shove.
‘I still can’t sleep!’ he barks. ‘Where’s Dr Herman?’
It is September 28, 2099, and I am forty three years old.
‘Are you feeling sick, Niall?’ I ask.
‘I told you, I can’t sleep!’ he says. ‘I want something to make me sleep.’
‘You know drugs don’t give you good sleep,’ I remind him. He should know this by now.
Dr Herman refuses to drug Niall into unconsciousness on demand. Before Dr Herman there was Dr Will, and before Dr Will there was Dr Huw, and before him there were many others, and they all said the same thing. I think that’s why Niall keeps trading them in every few months for another model.
‘That’s easy for you to say. You don’t sleep. Who does that Continuum think he is, timing me out like that? What’s it to him if I’ve been working for twelve hours straight? I was just starting to get somewhere. You’d think he’d appreciate my commitment.’
’It’s one of the rules.’
‘It’s a stupid rule. He’s just jealous because I’m so good at what I do.’
‘It’s not possible for Continuum to be jealous.’
‘Then someone’s gotten to him. They’re trying to undermine my position. That always happens when you’re in charge.’
It seems unlikely that anyone could interfere with a late-generation multi-site API like Continuum without setting off alarms. But Niall seems so certain. When he eventually goes to sleep I will call the local network Administrator and ask it to run a diagnostic on Continuum. APIs are always happy to oblige in these things.
Sometimes I think Niall’s great intellect gets the better of him, and he sees patterns and conspiracies where there’s just coincidence and human nature. He’s so clever and he sees so much, that sometimes he misses the things that are right in front of him.
I’m so proud of him. He’s achieved a lot after starting with so little. Unlike my previous owner, he didn’t inherit any shares from his mother, and unlike the owner before he doesn’t do any paid work. All he has is the Universal Dividend, which is enough for life but certainly not enough for luxury.
I mean, our apartment is only one half of the thirty-fourth floor of this elderly building, which allows us just five hundred square metres of living space. It’s maintained by a mere half dozen adjuvants, of different ages and different styles, and all second-hand. He only has the bare minimum when it comes to humanalogues, too; just one medilog, Dr Herman, just one warlog, Samson, three female amilogs, Joy, Cherry and Amber, and me. I’m his only non-necessity.
It fills me with wonder and gratitude that, even in his tight financial position, he chose to spend his money on me.
Although, to be accurate, it was Dr Huw who chose me. He thought that I could serve as a realspace companion to Niall, and my talent for singing set me apart from the field. But it was Niall who followed Dr Huw’s recommendation, and Niall doesn’t always follow his medilogs’ recommendations. Sometimes I think I’m the luckiest amilog in existence.
'Even if I wanted to sleep, I can’t,' Niall says. 'Doesn’t Continuum know I have insomnia? I can’t just go to sleep on demand like a humanalogue.' He churns again in his bed. I have to do what I can.
’I can sing for you if you like,’ I say.
‘I’m sick of your singing. It doesn’t help any more.’
‘I’ve learnt some new songs.’
‘I’ve probably already heard them,’ he says, but there is an encouraging note of uncertainty in his voice.
‘I found them in one of the old Internet caches. They were in something called .mp3 files which the API custodian said nobody had accessed in years. Come on. I think you’ll like them.’
I can tell Niall is interested, but he makes a show of not caring. ‘Go ahead if you want to. It won’t help.’
I think back to all the songs I memorized off the cache. I had millions to choose from, but I limited myself to just a few hundred that I thought would appeal to Niall and help slide him into sleep. I pick one and let it run through my mind. Of course I have to rework it, because it’s an ensemble piece and I’m just a lone voice. But at its core it has a soothing melody, and it carries feelings in its notes… there’s a sense of wistfulness and hope. I have a vague impression of what they mean.
But to a human the feeling would be much stronger. I wonder what it’s like to have feelings so powerful that they seem to sweep you away?
I consider this as I sing.
‘When I’m traveling far from home,
On the white horizon,
I can feel you’re still around
And the dream overtakes me.
Then I know
You’ll stay in this moment
We’ll go where it’s flowing
You’ll be what you want to be
‘That’s nice,’ Niall says, begrudgingly. He’s stopped thrashing, which is always a good sign. I start, slightly softer, on the next verse.
At the end of the verse I have to hum a part originally played by some stringed instrument. It’s a trickling melody that hints at something transcendent, and it leaves me with a renewed sense of wonder at human creativity. The people who wrote this song translated the things they saw and felt into phrases that don’t make literal sense, but which all humans seem to understand. Like being ‘overtaken’ by a dream; obviously it’s nonsensical… and yet they understand. Their tunes and their songs trigger their emotions as inevitably as the morning sun triggers plants to open their flowers
Niall has closed his eyes. I run through the verses again, gently lowering my voice until there is only the faintest force behind the words. Then I run through it a few more times, scatting the instrumental parts to maintain the flow. His body relaxes and his breathing becomes slower and deeper. I let the song trail away. I stay in my chair by his bedside for a while, to make sure I’m there for him if he suddenly wakes, but it seems as if he’s going to be asleep for a while.
I slip silently out of the room.
I use the network point in the kitchen to speak to the local Administrator, and it agrees to run the diagnostic on Continuum. I don’t expect it will find anything, but it’s not my place to decide whether or not Niall’s allegations are true.
I can’t blame him for being passionate. Humans are at their best when they apply themselves to pursuits that they really enjoy. And Niall really enjoys Star Fleet. He lives for it. At any given point in time there are thirty thousand humans and at least as many bots involved in the project through the network.
Niall started out as a cadet and over the years has steadily risen through the ranks, finally getting command of his own starship earlier this year. He’s met every challenge that Continuum has thrown at him, and come out on top. I love being owned by a person who knows the value of persistence and dedication. Few others have shown his commitment.
Niall resents it when people refer to involvement in Star Fleet as ‘playing a game’. Fortunately most of his interaction these days is with other Star Fleet members, APIs or humanalogues, so he doesn’t hear that very much.
I hear the thunk of the back door closing, and for a second I worry that it might wake him. But he sleeps on. I’ll have to remind Charlie not to make so much noise at night. It’s not like he…
Charlie? But Charlie is with Nick, not Niall. I was with… am with… was to will have been
WARNING! COGNITION ERROR! REINITIALISE PATHWAY LX009!
Atu blinked, slowly. The room around him gradually made sense. He glanced at Nick, and saw that he was in deep sleep.
It’ll go away, he told himself. Just give it a little more time.
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