REPORT A PROBLEM
It took Mr Smith some time to find the file he wanted. It always did, for they were numerous, and their organization baroquely complex. He was continually requesting the appointment of an assistant to help him with orders, errands, heavy lifting and providing an extra pair of hands in his more active interviews, but even if this appointment was approved, such an assistant would never have access to the department's records. It was his area alone. To an outside observer, his archive was simply a room containing a set of compacting file cabinets, all filled with identical, off-white manila folders.
Each folder represented a man or woman who had been interviewed by the department, and they were cross-referenced by date, affiliation and outcome. However it was Mr Smith, and Mr Smith alone, who understood the nuances of the system, the subtle relationships between the case files. A file spelt out a person's name, what had been done to them, and what they had confessed, but mere words on paper could not adequately express the degree to which some had shown initial defiance, or how some had broken almost instantly, or how some had tolerated pain but proven susceptible to fear.
He had them grouped together in his mind, forming an infinitely more complex tapestry of emotion and human frailty. He regarded the official records as a mere adjunct to the more subtle and textured archive he carried in his memory.
The file he wanted was not active, and therefore not easily placed. He eventually found it on one of the lower shelves, slightly affected by mildew in one corner, but still perfectly legible. He read a few notes from the first interview sheet in the folder, and an image of the subject sprang to mind, as crisp as a photograph.
Mr Smith smiled in satisfaction. If memory served him, as it invariably did, the subject had not been a particularly interesting interviewee. But for his current purposes that was immaterial, or, indeed, even disadvantageous. In his experience interesting people tended to think for themselves and show initiative, and if this subject had shown any of that there might be cause for concern.
He tucked the folder under his arm, taking care not to get any mildew on his jacket, then left the archive room. He whistled lightly as he made his way up the long, curving ramps to the surface.
The ground floor of the palace was filled with people and noise. They were mostly administrative staff, security personnel, and supplicants waiting for an audience with the Governor, and their movements echoed off the marble floors and vaulted ceilings. As usual, they scurried out of his way as soon as they saw him. As he climbed the palace's grand central staircase he got his security pass ready, but at the head of those stairs, and at the head of the next, and even at the doors to the Governor's personal suite, the guards averted their gazes and waved him through.
In the Governor's suite, the floors were carpeted with soft, expensive rugs, and the rooms were largely deserted, so the quietness was palpable. The few people he did see, in the distance down some long corridor or through an open doorway, were moving briskly, efficiently, and almost silently.
He entered the main conference room, expecting to have a moment or two to go over the file. But despite the fact that he was early, the others were already there. General Sierra stood at the windows, looking out. The Governor sat in his chair at the head of the conference table.
‘Oh. Was the meeting time changed?' he asked.
‘The General and I got here early,' the Governor said. ‘It always pays to be ahead of time.'
Mr Smith found the comment incongruous, given that the Governor prided himself in being ostentatiously late for every meeting. He was wise enough not to mention it.
‘Are you injured, Governor?' Mr Smith asked. Franklen was holding his arm out at an awkward angle, while his medilog dabbed at his elbow with a cotton swab.
‘It's nothing, just a scratch. This is what I get for having combat practice with men half my age.'
‘Even men half your age should know how to help you train without injuring you. Is this a matter I should be investigating?'
‘You're being paranoid, Mr Smith. In training, you get hurt sometimes. Let it go. I just want to get to the point of this meeting.'
‘Yes, Governor,' Sierra said as he turned from the windows. ‘You made it clear that you wanted to be informed as soon as we learnt anything new about the Laurelton humanalogue. Well, we believe we've made some significant discoveries.'
‘Is it a warlog?' Franklen demanded. The eagerness in his face was unmistakable.
‘We're not sure yet,' Sierra replied. ‘I'll show you what we've got.'
He twitched the cord that lowered the window blinds, sinking the room into twilight. Then he reached over to a slide projector that had been set up on the conference table, and switched it on. On the opposite wall, a monochrome picture of two men appeared. They were both young, casually dressed, and glancing at the camera with solemn expressions, as if it had interrupted them in the middle of a serious conversation.
‘The man on the right is our suspected humanalogue owner, Dr Nick Ostin,' Sierra said.
‘And the man on the left?' the Governor asked.
‘We're not certain yet, but there's a strong possibility that he's the humanalogue.'
The Governor was staring at the screen, as if through sheer willpower he could cause it to tell him everything he wanted to know. ‘What makes you so sure he's a humanalogue?'
‘Apparently Ostin has introduced him as a colleague visiting from outside the Dominion. Any foreigner entering Red Hill has to register with our Office of Foreign Affairs. I've checked, and they have no record of anyone matching his description.'
‘So maybe he's just an illegal immigrant.'
‘That's possible, but it seems unlikely that Ostin would have both an illegal immigrant and an unregistered humanalogue living in his house. We suspected Ostin's possession of a humanalogue long before we obtained this picture and learned about this man. The fact that he and Ostin are trying to cover up his background suggests that he is the humanalogue.'
‘How did you get this photograph?' Franklen asked.
In reply, General Sierra switched the next slide. It showed a middle-aged woman tightly hugging Ostin and smiling at the camera. ‘The pictures were arranged by our operative when her suspicions were aroused.'
‘Who is she?'
Mr Smith stepped forward and tossed the manila folder he'd been carrying onto the table. ‘Her name is Lizibeth Rosetree. She's been a low-level informant for some years. Ordinarily her access to information is extremely limited, but she seems to have stumbled onto something significant here.'
The Governor peered at the image on the screen. ‘Is she reliable?'
‘For what she is, yes.'
‘What do you mean?'
‘Miss Rosetree is not a trained agent. I interviewed her about ten years ago in the course of a sweep of the local artistic community.'
‘I don't follow,' Franklen said.
Mr Smith recalled the interview and let the richer, more evocative details drift through his mind. ‘Miss Rosetree proved to be one of those people who breaks almost instantly during questioning. When one of these people comes along, I like to remould them into informants. The transformation can be quite remarkable. The only downside is that they can sometimes be a little too diligent, imagining sedition or dissent where none exists.'
‘Do you think that's what's happened here?'
‘No, I don't. All she has done is confirm our suspicions about Dr Ostin.'
‘She seems to be pretty friendly with him.'
‘Dr Ostin's father was the jazz musician Benny Ostin. Miss Rosetree used to sing with his band. She didn't even know that we were interested in Dr Ostin, but like I say, sometimes our informants can be a little over-zealous.'
‘Did she think this other guy was a humanalogue?'
‘No, but that's the whole point of humanalogues. They look perfectly human. She was reporting him as a suspicious character.'
‘So what do you think? Is he or isn't he?'
Sierra flicked back to the original slide. ‘We don't have any proof yet.'
‘I'm only asking for your personal opinion, General.'
‘I believe he is a humanalogue,' Sierra replied. ‘But the only way we're going to be one hundred percent sure is after physical examination and interview.'
‘And you can't tell what sort of humanalogue he is?' the Governor asked.
‘Well, he looks too young to be a medilog, which leaves his being a warlog or an amilog. He could easily be a warlog; he's got short hair, a good physique, a clean-cut face…'
‘That's true,' Mr Smith interrupted. ‘But when Miss Rosetree contacted us, she said that he'd been singing karaoke in a nightclub. What sort of warlog sings karaoke?'
‘She also said he had a strange name,' the General replied. ‘It sounded like a military designation.'
‘What was it?'
‘The agent who took her call couldn't be sure, because there was a lot of background noise from the nightclub. He said it sounded like ‘R-2'.'
‘So what you're saying,' the Governor muttered dangerously, ‘is that you still don't know. We can't go ahead until we're sure. Is there anybody here who can even take a decent guess?'
The doctor glanced briefly at the picture. ‘That's definitely an amilog,' he said, and he returned his attention to the Governor's elbow.
Franklen, Sierra and Mr Smith were speechless for a moment, as if the slide projector or the table had suddenly ventured an opinion.
‘What makes you say that?' the Governor demanded at length.
‘His name is Atu, not R-2,' the doctor replied. ‘He was built by a company called Humatron, and as I recall he has an exceptionally fine singing voice.' He paused, then added, ‘Please keep still, sir. I can't bandage your arm properly if you keep moving it.'
‘Forget my arm!' the Governor shouted. ‘How do you know who he is?'
‘I saw him perform at a party.'
‘Which party? I haven't taken you to any parties! When was this?'
The medilog paused as he pulled up the memory from some rarely accessed archive. ‘It was long before I came into your possession, sir. It was a birthday party. I was there attending to my then owner, Mrs Gracechurch. Atu sang an acapella song with four other amilogs. At that time he was owned by a rather flamboyant South African, and I overheard him telling a woman that Atu was a Humatron product. Unfortunately he didn't give a model number, so I can't tell you more than that.'
‘And this was when?'
‘Oh, it was a very long time ago. Nearly five hundred years.'
‘Why the hell didn't you mention this earlier?'
If he'd still had the power of complex facial expressions, the doctor would probably have looked shocked. ‘It's not my place to get involved in your affairs. I only spoke now because you made a general enquiry.'
The Governor glowered for a moment, then said, ‘Damn it all... at any rate, that settles it. We can take this amilog without delay.'
‘With respect, Governor, I'm not sure that you can trust your medilog's memory,' Sierra said.
The General looked uncomfortable. ‘Well, you know yourself how badly he's malfunctioning.'
‘My corrupted systems do not include my archived memories, General Sierra,' the doctor replied mildly.
‘He's identified the humanalogue by name and manufacturer, and it squares with everything else we've learnt. Nobody wishes he was a warlog more than me, General, but the evidence is looking pretty compelling.'
‘But if he
wrong, this could get very ugly very quickly.'
‘I'm prepared to take that chance. Every minute we delay takes us closer to the time Ostin realises how much that thing is worth.'
‘You think he wants to sell him?'
‘Damn straight, and to the highest bidder. That's what I'd do in his position. Once he leaves Ostin's control, he'll probably become a lot harder to find and retrieve. I don't want to risk that.'
‘Governor, if he is an amilog, then he's harmless.'
‘Harmless? He's been around for more than five hundred years, General. Who knows what he's seen and heard and learnt? Even if we just end up using him for spare parts for the doctor, he's worth keeping. I want the amilog taken immediately.'
‘Governor, I don't think you realise…'
‘Don't tell me what I do or do not realise!' Franklen bellowed, and he launched himself suddenly to his feet, knocking his medilog with his outstretched arm and causing the machine to topple against the wall. ‘Am I or am I not the Governor of the Red Hill Dominion? If I say I want the amilog brought in today, I want it done! You will send in your men, General, and they will take the amilog or die in the attempt. And if they do die in the attempt, then you will determine some other way to achieve your objective!'
‘And General, you will continue to do this until the amilog is here, or you yourself are dead. Do I make myself clear?'
‘Of course, Governor.'
‘Good. If this Ostin dipshit gives you any trouble, kill him. In fact, just kill him anyway. I don't want any hassle.' The Governor yanked at the end of the bandage hanging loosely on his elbow and roughly tucked it in. ‘Report as soon as you know anything further. As of now, this is your top priority. Both of you.' He glared at Sierra and Mr Smith in turn, then stalked out.
After the Governor had slammed the doors behind him, Mr Smith observed quietly, ‘You should know better than that by now. It doesn't pay to get him angry.'
‘I wasn't trying to get him angry,' Sierra replied. He walked around the table to help the doctor, who was still writhing against the wall, trying to get himself upright. He wheeled the medilog to the doors, opened them, and passed the trolley over the doctor's attendant, who was hovering outside. Then he closed the doors more gently than the Governor had.
‘So what are you going to do?' Mr Smith asked.
The General didn't answer immediately. He looked at the image on the wall of Nick Ostin and what the doctor had identified as an amilog. ‘I don't understand.'
‘You don't understand what?'
‘I was sure it was a warlog. You were there at Kerrigan. You remember what I found.'
‘There could be other explanations for that. Maybe some of the automatic defense systems were still operational, at least for a while… long enough to teach scavengers not to go near the base. Maybe it's just that people in Laurelton aren't great explorers. It's a very out of the way place.'
‘That's true,' Sierra said, without meeting Mr Smith's gaze.
‘You know, it's not inconceivable that someone might have lost an amilog there, all those centuries ago.'
‘And the evidence that he's an amilog is, as the Governor pointed out, pretty compelling,' Mr Smith added, gesturing at the picture of the two young men. ‘Personally I think he looks a little too cultivated to be a warlog. That's a face you'd see pouring you a drink, not fighting your enemies.'
The General said nothing, but continued to frown at the image.
‘You know you're going to have to do something.'
‘I'll arrange for Beta team to go in at dusk,' Sierra said, distantly. ‘If this Atu is just an amilog, they should be able to take him without a problem.'
‘And what about Ostin?'
‘I think the Governor was very clear on that matter.'
‘That may complicate things.'
‘I don't think he's given us any leeway. You heard him. He gave a direct order.'
‘Yes. And unfortunately, thanks to that mood he was in, it's not the sort of thing he's likely to forget.'
‘I was only trying to do my best for the Governor and the Dominion, Mr Smith.'
‘That's all we ever do, General Sierra. It's just that sometimes even our best isn't enough.'
Sierra switched off the slide projector and opened the blinds, flooding with conference room with the bright light of a fresh spring morning. He looked out at the view over the city that the windows afforded.
‘Why Beta team, General?' Mr Smith asked.
Sierra stayed with his back to him. ‘What's wrong with Beta team? The men are all very capable.'
‘I'm sure they are, but Alpha team are better. That's how they won their title. Indeed, I wonder why you yourself aren't going.'
The General breathed deeply for a moment. ‘If something goes wrong, both Alpha team and I will be needed here.'
‘You're not scared of this Atu person, are you?'
‘There's a difference between fear and caution, Mr Smith. You of all people should be aware of that.'
‘Touche,' Mr Smith said philosophically.
‘I'll be in my office if you want me. In the short term, you might want to set up some sort of holding cell for the amilog. I've never tried to take one by force. I don't know what he will do.'
‘It will be ready by nightfall.'
General Sierra looked as if there was something further he wanted to say, but he evidently changed his mind at the last moment, and simply strode out of the room.
Mr Smith watched him go, then, after a moment's thought, he collected Lizi Rosetree's file from the table. He rifled through it; as befitted someone who had broken almost before he'd entered her interview room, the file was brief. There was only one photograph and a few pages of notes. He read through them, but they didn't tell him anything that he hadn't already remembered quite clearly on his own.
Before he left the conference room himself, he opened the carousel on the slide projector and removed the two slides. He tucked them safely into his breast pocket. When he got back down to his office, he would create a new file for his archive room, and attach the two pictures.
The file would be for the amilog called Atu, of course; Dr Ostin wouldn't survive the night, so there was little point in creating a file for him. Just as General Sierra had never hijacked an amilog, Mr Smith had never interviewed one. It promised to be exceptionally interesting.
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