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Charlie motioned for Nick and Helene to come to him, bringing them into the shadows away from the kitchen window. Then he edged them silently into the living room, and drew Atu into the group. The west-facing windows captured the last rays of the sunset, but not enough to illuminate where they were standing.
‘Be silent,' Charlie murmured, in a barely audible undertone. ‘And don't move.'
Nick stared at the windows, and strained his ears to hear. He could make out the faint noise of birds chittering in the trees outside, and even more distantly, the drone of an aeroplane.
It seemed absolutely normal, and Nick fleetingly wondered if this was some bizarre ruse of Charlie's. Then it struck him; the two sounds he couldn't hear were cars going by on the street, and the neighborhood children playing in their yards. Just as he realized this, the barest suggestion of a shadow flitted across the living room windows.
‘Charlie…' Nick whispered. One of the boards on the porch creaked gently.
The front door slammed inwards, cracking off its hinges and flinging bits of the lock across the floor, and men surged in. Nick saw at once that they were troopers.
They were identical in black uniforms that soaked up the meager light, with identical black assault rifles and identical hard, lean faces. They moved fast. The leading trooper was only a few steps inside when he identified Nick and, without breaking stride, raised his weapon.
Nick looked to Charlie and began to cry out, but the warlog was already in motion. He reacted as if he had been planning it all for months, moving with choreographed precision. He stepped forward, stooping and reaching, pulling a flat brass ashtray off the coffee table and flicking it with a precise, economical gesture.
At the same time, his foot came up and caught the underside of the table, suddenly flipping it into the air.
The ashtray struck the leading trooper in the throat, snapping him off his feet so that he crashed to floor like a dead weight. The next trooper didn't have time to react before the edge of the coffee table cracked across the bridge of his nose and drove him headfirst into the wall. Charlie caught his rifle before it hit the floor.
He didn't take any time to examine the weapon. He strode to the front door and fired.
There was a scream from outside and something fell through the porch railings with a splintering crunch. Charlie fired again into the gloom, and there was another cry, and the bang of a body being thrown against a vehicle. Charlie darted back into the living room, and a half second later a spray of bullets tore through the doorway where he'd been standing. The front door splintered and puffs of plaster exploded out of the walls. Charlie strode back to Nick. He didn't even pause as he stepped over the lead trooper, who was scrabbling frantically at his crushed trachea.
He grabbed Nick by the upper arm without breaking stride, almost jerking him off his feet. ‘We must leave now,' he said, as he half-dragged him through the kitchen. ‘Do exactly as I tell you. The amilogs too.'
With a fluid movement he snatched the keys to Nick's car off the hook on the kitchen wall. He paused at the back door for a second, scanning the darkening garden, then marched Nick outside and through into the garage. He released him and said, ‘Get in. Atu, unlatch the doors. Push them on my signal and then jump into the car.'
Nick climbed in on the passenger side. Helene slipped into the back seat. Atu hurried around to the garage doors and flipped up the catch holding them shut. Charlie paused with his fingers on the ignition, listening carefully.
Nick listened too. He thought he could hear darting footsteps, barely audible on the gravel drive. He could definitely hear an intermittent moan, laden with pain, coming from somewhere in the front yard.
Charlie nodded to Atu, and at the same moment hit the ignition. The engine hacked for a second, like an old man clearing his throat, then roared to life.
Atu shoved the doors open, and Charlie threw the Highliner into gear. Atu barely had time to leap onto the running board as the car blasted out of the garage. Nick had a momentary glimpse of a figure, deep black against the darkened sky, throw up its hands and try to step back before the car clipped it and sent it cannoning into the side of the house.
The street seemed to be full of large black cars and angry shouts. As the Highliner skidded onto the road, Charlie reached out and forced Nick's head down below the window sill.
A second later a hail of bullets raked the side of the car. Nick watched as fragments of the dash disintegrated and spun away, and odd puckering holes suddenly appeared in the leather upholstery of the seat back. Hundreds of glass slivers showered over him. Helene screamed, Atu cried out wildly, but Charlie just shoved the accelerator down, wrenched at the steering wheel, and slew the car out onto the main road.
‘Are you hurt?' he demanded.
‘No,' Nick said automatically, but for a moment he was too shocked to tell. He sat up and looked down at his body.
He was covered in broken glass but there was no blood. ‘No, I'm fine. I think.'
Charlie glanced in the rear vision mirror. ‘Helene?'
‘I'm okay…' she gasped. ‘But Atu's hurt…'
Nick turned around. With some difficulty, Helene had opened the rear door and pulled Atu inside. There were a lot of small holes in his white T-shirt, and each one leaked a viscous trail of pale blue fluid. It was smeared all over the seats and Helene's hands. He tried to raise his head and look at Nick, but it seemed to twist and jerk of its own accord.
He opened his mouth but no sound came out, except for a brief, inhuman buzz.
‘Charlie! Atu's been hit!'
‘Atu is not important,' Charlie said in a voice like steel. He spurred the Highliner harder, lurching deftly through the busy commuter traffic.
‘Helene, can you do anything?'
She fluttered her hands helplessly. ‘I don't know! I was never trained for this!'
‘Atu!' Nick cried. ‘Atu, can you hear me?'
The amilog did seem to hear him, but his only response was an uncoordinated shudder. He tried to speak, again, but all that came out was a dribble of translation gel.
‘Atu!' Nick repeated.
She looks frightened. I can't do this to her.
‘Stay with me, Atu. Everything's going to be okay.'
Response chart: Re62%, Fe16%, Co15%, Ap6%, Im3%. Re62% =arm (right) connection Type 26D.
What was that?
I reach out and touch her arm. ‘I know there's something wrong with me.' Mary bites her lip and tries not to cry.
TIMESTAMP: 07/07/2529 and I am four hundred and seventy two years old.
‘Where am I?' I don't remember WARNING! File Track Error! Diagnostic234 = On how I got Failure Sector S78JJ00923 rerouting to S78JJ00915 here. What is all this?
Input (VX) ‘You're in a secret place. It's not safe for you back at the house.'
ID Input origin = WARNING! ID Failure! Reinitialising database…
My mind is full of words I don't understand. I'm scared Illegal Fe71% ID Input origin = ‘Mary' (Value:1)
‘Why not, Mary?'
She shakes her head, and I try to steady myself as the car skids around a cornWARNING! COGNITION ERROR! REINITIALISE PATHWAY WR983! WARNING! REINITIALISATION = FAIL.
‘There's a lot going on. That freak Mitchell seems to get more followers every day. And you're sick, Atu. I need to find someone to help you.'
Response chart: Re60%, Fe18%, Co14%, Ap7%, Qu3%. Output (VX): ‘I just need some time to restore.'
‘No, my love, it's more than that. You need help. There's a medilog over in Briarville who's supposed to have some amilog repair skills. I'll get him to help you, I promise.'
‘What's going to happen to me?'
She struggles for a moment to make the words come out. ‘You're going to go to sleep… just for a short time. If you stay awake you're only going to get worse.'
Response chart: Re54%, Fe23%, Co13%, Ap9%, Qu3%. Output (VX): ‘Sleep? You mean shut down?'
‘It's the only way to protect you, Atu.'
‘But I don't want to be ap-pa-pa-pa-part from you,' I say. I'm unable to control the stutter. It's Failure Sector BB902-08: Error resolved frightening her… What are all these words and numbers? Sectors and Warnings and Failures?
Oh no. No no no no no. It can't be. They're my thoughts! My processes! I shouldn't be able to sense WARNING! CASCADE ERROR! ConcShell efficiency = 99.2%! them. Please, Lara, help me! WARNING! ID Failure! Reinitialising database… Owner status = ‘Mary' (Value:1 ERROR! 26) WARNING ID Failure! Reinitialising database… Owner status = ‘Nick' (Value:1)
‘Charlie, we can't let Atu die!'
‘I doubt he'll die. Try using the stuffing from the seat upholstery to plug the holes in his chest. He'll function better if you can conserve his translation gel.'
Opening Sectors Y24JJ01028 to Y24JJ05633. Rerouting Cognition Functions tagged ERROR.
‘Mary? Are you there?'
‘Yes, my love
No, Atu, it's me, Nick!
Just lie back and close your eyes. You know what to do. I won't be gone for long, I swear.'
Initiating SHUT DOWN Priority = 1.
‘Atu, stay with us! Come on!'
ID Input origin = ‘Nick' (Value:1) SHUT DOWN Priority = ABORT!
There are tears in her eyes as she draws the brown paper over my face. Wait, there's no paper. I'm in Nick's car. What happWARNING! COGNITION ERROR! REINITIALISE PATHWAY ZF717! HOLD! Reroute Cognition Functions tagged ERROR complete. Cognition Diagnostic001 =… 100%. Reinitialising…
‘I've been shot,' Atu said.
‘No shit,' Nick replied.
‘Don't worry, Nick. I don't think they hit anything important.'
‘Are you kidding? You were twitching like you were having a fit. And you called me Mary.'
‘I know. I'm sorry. I've been having…problems with my memory. The shock of the bullet wounds must have set me off again.'
He dragged himself up into a sitting position. ‘I think I'm okay now.'
‘Maybe we can get Charlie to link with you again. He can check.'
‘We have other priorities,' Charlie said tersely.
‘I didn't mean right now,' Nick retorted.
Charlie turned the car off the road and up a side street, then veered into a laneway between a couple of industrial buildings. About halfway down he stopped the car and killed the lights, but left the engine running.
‘Why have we stopped?'
Charlie turned and looked Nick in the eye. ‘I think we should let the amilogs out here.'
‘Here? Why here?'
The warlog paused before answering. ‘Those troopers back at the house weren't paying a social call. They would have killed you if I hadn't been there to stop them. I don't know why, but it looks like the authorities want you dead. By now they'll know that at least one of your ‘visitors' is a warlog, and that will only make them more determined. We can't go back to the house. You can't go back to the university. We can't even stay in this car for too much longer. We've got to escape while we still can.'
‘All the more reason to take the amilogs with us.'
‘Nick, listen to me very carefully. They're a liability. They'll attract attention, they'll slow us down, they'll distract you and they won't be any use if we are attacked again. Every minute they're with us reduces your chances for survival.'
‘But Atu's hurt. We can't just dump him in some alley.'
‘Atu will be fine.'
‘But if people see him, they'll know he's an amilog. He's patched up with car upholstery stuffing!'
‘You can give him your jacket. That should cover most of the holes.'
‘But where will they go?'
‘We're in Harriswell right now. Underwood is the next suburb that way. Tell them to go back to the hidden basement room where we found Atu. I can't think of anywhere where they'll be safer.'
‘What are they supposed to do when they get there?'
‘They can wait. Once I get you to safety, we can worry about how to get them back.'
‘But what if they're discovered?' Nick protested. As he said it he realized it wasn't an argument, but an imprecation. Charlie merely shook his head.
‘Charlie's right,' Atu said in a small, weak voice.
‘Atu…' Nick began.
‘No, he is right. We amilogs aren't designed for this sort of thing. We'll only slow you down.'
‘But what if I can't get back to you?'
‘I don't want to go either, Nick,' Helene said. ‘But I can't bear the thought that I might be putting your life in danger. Atu and I just aren't worth the risk.' She opened the rear door and climbed out. Atu struggled out after her.
Nick pulled off his jacket and passed it out the window to Helene. ‘When you get to the basement, just wait there until Charlie comes to get you.'
Helene leaned down so that she could look at him eye to eye. ‘How long do you think that will be?'
‘I don't know.'
‘It may be some time,' Charlie growled.
Nick swallowed, and it suddenly felt as if his world were falling down around him. ‘If he hasn't come for you within a week or so, I want you both to…to shut down. Like Atu was when we found him.'
He couldn't help but remember that Atu had been that way for a hundred and twenty years. The idea that it could happen again sent shivers down his spine.
Judging by the expression on Helene's face, she was remembering exactly the same thing.
‘Send for us soon,' she said. Charlie muttered something about the time, and kicked the car into gear. As they pulled away Nick twisted around in his seat and watched the amilogs through the shattered rear windscreen. They both looked small and vulnerable, and utterly forlorn. He saw Helene mouth the words ‘I love you', then the car rounded a corner and they disappeared from view.
‘It's for the best,' Charlie said, after a few moments of silence.
‘That doesn't make it any easier,' Nick murmured.
The warlog nodded. ‘I understand. But right now we need to concentrate on you, and getting you out of Red Hill. We'll need to change cars. This bullet-riddled sedan isn't exactly inconspicuous.'
‘You mean steal one?'
‘It'd be the safest option.'
‘I hope you know how, because I don't.'
One of the vehicles going by in the opposite direction suddenly screeched its tyres and lurched into the traffic behind them. Flashing coloured lights flickered in the rear vision mirror.
‘Too late,' Charlie said, as if he'd been half-expecting such a thing. He gunned the engine and pushed the car faster.
They dodged between the other cars for a couple of blocks, then a second police car burst out in front of them from a side street. Charlie spun the steering wheel sharply, and they slid sideways though an intersection. They narrowly missed a Northern Trading delivery van, closely enough to see the driver's panicked face, before it careened into the side of a parked car.
The warlog flicked his eyes at the wing mirror. ‘He was wearing his seat belt. He's fine. You should put yours on.'
Abruptly, the traffic thinned, as if someone had turned off a tap.
Then they crested a hill, and the horizon was suddenly full of strobing lights. At least three police cars, and a low, ominous black trooper vehicle, blocked the road. Nick groaned, but Charlie just put his foot down. At the last possible second, he slew the car to the right, exploded through a picket fence, and roared off over a wide green swathe of grass. Nick got a glimpse of a sign reading ‘Paleshore Private Golf Course' illuminated briefly in the headlights.
There was a muffled, metallic crunch as one of the pursuing cars tried, and failed, to follow them.
‘Hold on,' Charlie ordered, as the Highliner tore up onto a raised putting green then thudded sickeningly back down onto a fairway. The branches of ornamental shrubs and small trees whipped at the side of the car as it barreled through.
Nick stared hopelessly out into the darkness. ‘Charlie? Tell me the truth. Are we going to make it?'
‘If motivation counts for anything, yes.'
‘And if it doesn't?'
‘I don't know. I was just trying to be reassuring. I may not be very good at it. I haven't had much practice over the last few centuries.'
‘Thanks for trying.'
The Highliner powered up an embankment and flattened another picket fence before crashing onto the road, causing a dozen startled motorists to wrestle their cars out of the way. For a moment, as Charlie drove hard up the new road, it seemed that they had shaken their pursuers. But all too soon a low black car loomed up behind them, then another. Nick heard a gunshot, and the wing mirror on his side shattered. A second shot tore a hole in roof. The third blew out one of the tyres, and the Highliner bucked like a startled horse.
The steel rim screamed against the road, and the car veered to one side.
Too much was happening; to Nick's eyes, time seemed to slow to a crawl. The car fishtailed wildly. Charlie fought with the steering for a second, then just let go of the wheel. He pushed himself sideways, across Nick's lap, and punched at the door handle. Almost as if out of thin air, a column of dark wood rushed up right in front of them.
Then there was a series of strangely prosaic sounds; thuds and cracks and sibilant shrieks, all together and all very loud.
Nick felt something hit him hard, then all he felt was the cool kiss of a dewy lawn. He couldn't move properly, for some reason, but he managed to roll over enough to see around him.
The car was unrecognizable. The power pole had sheared off at the base and lay across the roof. Downed power lines were dancing everywhere, spitting blue sparks. One of them was spasming, almost triumphantly, across Charlie's chest as he lay spreadeagled on the Highliner's hood. He twitched, and pale curlicues of smoke drifted from his clothes and his hair.
Then Nick descended into darkness.
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