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I may be the luckiest man alive, Nick thought. He stretched luxuriously in his comfortable chair, feeling that pleasant strain running right down to his toes, and let the stress of the day just slide out of him.
Shafting in through the living room windows, the late afternoon sunlight was full of gold, and when it hit the almost empty tumbler in his right hand, it refracted off the cut glass and threw tiny rainbow fragments across the back wall. The light filled the room with such warmth that it seemed everything in it was somehow better than it was.
It didn't look like it had a few weeks earlier, with random piles of work papers left wherever he had happened to drop them, empty coffee cups everywhere, and stray mechanical components lying in the bookshelves or on the coffee table or under the sofa cushions. Now it looked like the cover of one of those magazines showing the interiors of the homes of the smart and the fashionable. There was no dust, no mess and no disorder. Having Ida come in once a week had kept chaos at bay, but having Helene and Atu full time banished chaos entirely.
Occasionally, when the breeze shifted in the right direction, he could hear the rattle of the lawnmower as Atu pushed it around the back yard. There was also the subdued, irregular clatter of dishes in the kitchen, where Helene was preparing his dinner. When he'd arrived home from the university, all he had needed to do was drop into his big armchair and let the amilogs put his briefcase and his hat away, give him a cold drink, and let him relax as they carried on maintaining and improving his world.
I could get very used to this, he thought.
The serenity of his home contrasted dramatically with his lab, where it seemed every day brought fresh difficulties and petty problems. Professor Rian was more disagreeable than ever, having heard a rumour that the auditor had reported Nick's team as being underperforming. He seemed to intrude more often each day, appearing at the door at odd intervals like an irritable cuckoo popping out of its clock. It seemed to Nick that if it wasn't for the more urgent issue of the laser team, Rian would drag a chair into the corner of his lab and harangue him all day long.
Dina and Ron were being difficult too. They clearly resented the fact that he wasn't bringing any of his guests in with him, probably imagining it to be a personal snub. It didn't help that Nick ignored them when they dropped hints about coming over to the house, knowing that they would only ask more awkward questions. What university were they from? When did Atu want to go to that football game? Why was the house suddenly so immaculate?
And Renai… how could he take any interest in it when the humanalogues were so easy and so rewarding to study?
He rose out of the armchair and wandered through into the kitchen with his empty glass. Helene was standing by one of the counters, expertly separating eggs for what looked like the beginnings of a dessert. Nick put his glass in the sink and said, ‘Thanks for the drink.'
‘I'm glad you liked it.'
‘What was it called again?'
‘Well, it was supposed to be a Manhattan, but some of the ingredients don't seem to exist any more, so I had to improvise a little.'
‘It's a strange name for a drink. Man-hat-tan,' Nick said it with a staccato emphasis.
‘It was a city. You haven't heard of it?'
‘No. Was it somewhere you used to live?'
‘Me? Oh, no; it was a long way from here. But it was well-known, in its day.'
‘I wonder if it still exists?'
Helene shrugged. ‘Maybe.'
Nick leaned on the counter and watched her as she meticulously scraped the seeds out of a vanilla bean pod. Her every movement was a revelation. Every gesture, every action, every toss of her hair was coordinated and graceful in a way that no machine could conceivably manage. But here she was, in his kitchen, being inconceivable.
‘What was the Golden Century like, Helene?' he asked abruptly.
She gave him a wry sideways glance. ‘What makes you ask that?'
‘Just seeing you here, preparing a meal, looking so natural and so… well, untechnological. It's mind-boggling. No, I mean really. How did they do it?'
She giggled lightly. ‘How am I supposed to answer a question like that?'
‘Hey, you were there.'
‘I was only there for a small part of it, right at the end. And even then I didn't see all that much. I wasn't exactly a confidante for scientists and APIs and politicians, you know.'
‘Yeah, but you would have seen things, and heard things,' Nick persisted. 'At the very least, you were experiencing their culture first hand.'
‘You'd be surprised how little I saw or heard or experienced,' she said. 'I spent eight months with my first owner, and all I ever saw was the inside of his house and the grounds of the estate. That's all I saw with most of my owners. I never traveled to any of the great old cities. I never went to any museums. I never followed politics or read any books. I was there for my owners.'
‘But didn't they want to take you places, or talk about things with you?'
‘Nick, I was there to do whatever they wanted me to do, but none of them wanted me to discuss the latest business news with them or research emergent technologies or learn about great art. They didn't care about that sort of thing.'
Nick pressed her. ‘So what do you remember?'
She put down the mixing bowl she was holding and gazed out of the window. Halfway across the yard Atu wandered by with the lawnmower and, thinking they were looking out at him, waved cheerfully.
‘I remember a lot of very large houses,' Helene said. ‘Occasionally apartments, but mostly houses. They all had small armies of adjuvants who were constantly cleaning and maintaining things. In some of them you couldn't enter a room without finding one polishing a floor or dusting a chandelier or repairing some piece of electronics. There were always humanalogues, too. A few warlogs for protection, although no one ever needed it. One or two medilogs in case our owner fell ill. All sorts of amilogs, doing whatever needed to be done to make our owner happy.'
‘It sounds luxurious,' Nick said.
She nodded. ‘And of course there was almost always a house API watching over everything, telling the adjuvants what to do, organising the finances, sourcing materials for various projects, representing the owner to the outside world… whatever the owner didn't want to be bothered with.' She picked up the mixing bowl again and ran a wooden spoon slowly through the ingredients within. ‘I sort of miss having a house API. It was like having a guardian angel watching over us twenty four hours a day. It made sure that nothing bad ever happened.'
‘I could do with one of those.'
‘I guess those days are past. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to see them again.'
‘The day can't come quick enough.'
‘Oh, I think today has its compensations,' she said demurely, and held out the wooden spoon. ‘Here, try some of this.'
Nick licked the sample, and it was delicious. ‘That's totally amazing, Helene. What is it?'
‘It's the filling for the tiramisu I'm making you. Have you had it before?'
‘I think you'll like it.'
‘Is it a Golden Century recipe?'
‘Yes.' She rolled her eyes theatrically. ‘Of course it is, Nick. I know that's what you like.'
‘Am I that transparent?' Nick asked with a smile. ‘You're too good to me, Helene,'
‘I could never be too good to you, Nick,' she replied, in a tone leavened with just enough playfulness to let pass for friendly banter.
Despite himself, Nick felt his heartbeat quicken. ‘It's nice that you're trying.'
Helene's eyes darted up and met with his for a split second, then, as if overcome with shyness, they darted back. She tried to look busy with her utensils and ingredients, but Nick noticed a pink blush on her cheeks.
‘How do you do that?' he asked, softly.
‘Blush like that.' He reached up and gently brushed her cheek, unintentionally making the colour bloom again. He was caught between his natural inquisitiveness and a sudden desire not to spoil the moment. ‘How do you get your skin to do that? How do you even know to make this response?'
‘I don't know. It's just what happens. It's not conscious.'
‘But you can control your face. Like when you kept your scar from repairing.'
‘That was a warlog camouflage ability. I lost it when Charlie fixed me. Now I can't control it any more than you can.'
‘But it's just mimicry, isn't it,' Nick persisted. ‘Somewhere in your head there's a program that analyses what I say, and it tells you that this is the right response. I just wonder how it makes that decision.'
‘You make it sound so calculated.'
‘Well, I mean, at its core, it is, isn't it.'
‘You don't really feel anything. You just show me what I want to see. After all, isn't that what amilogs do?'
Nick was expecting an abashed smile, maybe a flutter of her eyelashes, and a coy admission, all designed to maintain the illusion of humanity.
But Helene seemed to be momentarily frozen, staring at him.
‘Is that what you think?' she asked, in a strange voice.
‘Well, it's the truth, isn't it?'
‘I see. Well, If that's what you want to believe, who am I to stop you?' she said curtly , and she focused her attention back to her mixing bowl.
‘Come on, Helene,' Nick said. ‘I can go along with this whole humanalogue thing. I know you're made to look real and act real. But it's not like you really like me or anything. I know you're just programmed to pretend to.'
‘Who are you… to…' Helene started, but she couldn't finish. She turned herself slightly away from him, but he could see the muscles tensing in her shoulders, and the tiny bite on her underlip, and the tears welling in her eyes.
‘Helene, come on now, don't do that.' He instinctively put out his hand and touched her shoulder. Her skin flinched under his fingers, but she didn't shrug him off.
‘You think you know so much about humanalogues after spending a few weeks with three of us,' she said in a broken voice.
‘Hey, I'm learning new things every day.'
‘But you still don't know who we are, or how we think, or what we feel.'
‘But you don't feel…'
‘Of course we feel!' she said starkly. ‘Why can't you understand that? Our feelings may not be exactly the same as yours, but they're still real.'
‘But how can a machine have feelings?' Nick protested. ‘It's not possible.'
‘It's obvious you aren't ready to understand it. You can't imagine technology that far ahead of you.' She wiped her eyes roughly with the back of her hand, and half-heartedly shuffled her utensils, as if she'd momentarily forgotten how to use them.
‘Helene, don't be like that,' Nick pleaded. ‘Tell me what you mean.'
‘You don't really want to know.'
‘Of course I do.'
She paused and rested her face in one hand for a few seconds, gathering her voice and her words. Then she said, ‘Humanalogues were designed to emulate human beings. We couldn't do that if we were like APIs, with intelligence that works in a completely different way to yours. We had to be like you, and there's no human intelligence without emotion. We can't be artificially intelligent unless we're artificially emotional too.'
‘So you have emotions?' Nick asked.
‘Of course they're not exactly like your emotions,' she said quietly. ‘They're primitive by comparison, at least as far as I understand it. I don't think we feel anything like the spectrum or force of emotions that you do. But we do feel. Absolutely, we feel. Loyalty. Maybe a little anxiety, sometimes. Gratitude. Contentment. Wonder.' She raised her hand to her eyes to hold back more tears. ‘And love.'
‘Perhaps love most of all.'
‘Love for your owners?'
Helene merely nodded.
‘But can it really be called love when you feel it for someone just because they own you?'
‘Why should that make a difference?' She tilted her head and gazed at him with glistening eyes. ‘Love is made of many things; respect, attraction, admiration, valuing. Every human being has something in them that makes them beautiful. Are my feelings of love any less genuine because I can see wonderful things in people that you can't?'
Nick scuffed his shoe nervously on the linoleum. ‘I've always thought that part of love is believing that someone is special.'
‘You are special, Nick.'
‘But you've said that to all your owners, haven't you.'
She left his statement unanswered for a moment.
‘No, I haven't,' she said eventually. ‘Not in the same way. In all the time I was a normal amilog, nobody ever looked at me the way you do. I was made in 2083, when humanalogue production ran to millions of units per year. I've never been owned by anyone who didn't have three or four or six or ten other amilogs. I was always just another girlfriend in a gang, or a lover in a harem, or some other undifferentiated body in the crowd of humanalogues surrounding my owner. But then you found me, and suddenly it's different.'
‘You look at me as if I'm the most beautiful woman in the world. You make me feel like I'm something important to you.'
‘You are important to me.'
‘You see?' She crinkled her nose and a few more tears slid down her cheeks. ‘Nobody has ever said that to me before.'
‘Don't cry.' On impulse he reached up and brushed the tiny droplets from her cheeks. ‘I'm sorry I didn't understand how you felt. I'm sorry I didn't even know that you had feelings.'
He found that his fingers had come to rest on the nape of her neck.
He didn't want to move them. When she shifted her head a few strands of hair fell forward and caressed the back of his hand.
‘My feelings are real,' she whispered. She moved closer to him. He raised his other hand and touched her hip, then her waist, then the lower curve of her breast. Through her light dress her skin was warm, and it moved just like his own under the pressure of his fingers. He let his thumb drift in an arc, following the line of her flesh, sensing the tiny rise of goosebumps reacting to his touch.
‘You're so perfect,' he said, so softly that the words were just in his breath. He leaned toward her, and felt the stubble on his jaw rasp very lightly over her cheek. He pulled back, just slightly, and their lips brushed, once, twice, then kissed.
All thoughts of Helene being a machine left his head. His hands felt flesh, not cold plastic. Her tongue wasn't made of polymers or synthetics. The moistness he tasted had nothing to do with alloys or petrochemicals. She was a woman, just as real as he was.
Their lips parted, and her eyes met his.
They were green flecked with gold, without straight lines, without the glint of metal components. They were both breathtakingly simple and minutely complex, just like anybody else's. In them he saw warmth and humour and allure, but not machinery.
‘Should we?' she asked him.
There was no question in his mind. ‘Yes.'
‘Dinner will be late.'
‘Yes,' he agreed. ‘It'll be very late.'
He didn't want to stop looking at her. He didn't want to move and force some part of his body to lose contact with hers. He inclined his head toward the door, and Helene glanced that way.
When she didn't glance back, he looked himself, and saw Charlie standing there.
The failing light had dropped him into deep shadow, so Nick couldn't see his face. His bearing seemed even more upright and military than usual, like that of a statue, perhaps of some long-forgotten hero from an ancient war.
‘Charlie,' Nick murmered.
‘I've been upstairs,' the warlog said, ‘trying to configure one of your old radios to receive government transmissions.'
‘I have made some progress, but I'm not used to this valve technology. It may take me a little while longer than I anticipated.'
‘There's something else. I've seen the same car drive down the street three times in the last ten minutes, and there's another parked just around the corner on the main road.'
‘Is that…' Nick let his hands reluctantly fall from Helene. ‘Is that something we should be worried about?'
‘It's not normal, is it?'
‘You tell me.'
The screen door squealed, and the sound suddenly seemed far louder than it should have been. Atu ambled in, and beamed at them as he knocked the grass clippings off his shoes on the doorframe. ‘Hi. Lawn's finished. What's going on in here?'
There was no immediate answer, and Atu's smile faded to a pale reflection of itself. ‘Is something wrong?'
‘Did you notice anyone on the hillside behind the house?' Charlie asked him. ‘Or anything else unusual?'
‘No. Was I supposed to?'
‘Perhaps not. It might just be a coincidence.'
‘Yeah. Maybe that's what it was, Charlie,' Nick said darkly.
‘I'm sorry if you find my vigilance inconvenient,' Charlie growled. ‘I thought…' He stopped abruptly, and cocked his head.
‘You thought…' Nick prompted.
Charlie made a curt gesture for silence. He listened, frowning, and his eyes narrowed.
‘Someone is outside,' he whispered.
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