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Occasionally he would be jolted into consciousness as someone pushed him through a door or pulled him out of a vehicle. Images and sounds would jangle together, surrounded by pain, then the darkness would fall again. At length, it was simply the persistent ache that roused him. At first all he took in was a concrete floor. The next time he felt the chair underneath him, and the fact that he was tied to it. The time after that he raised enough energy to move his head and see the pock-marked concrete walls. Consciousness wavered, and seemed inclined to stay.
He ached all over, in some places more than others, with sudden stabs here and there where he could dimly see blood on his clothes. He was sitting in a steel-framed office chair, with his arms locked behind him and fastened by what felt like handcuffs. It was cool and quiet, and a dank smell hung in the air.
Nick listened, because that seemed to be the least painful thing to do. He could hear water dripping into a puddle. Occasionally there were footsteps that rose and faded somewhere outside. He sometimes thought he could hear someone sobbing far away.
Something was there, just on the edge of his field of vision. It took him a while to muster the energy, but at length he turned his head sufficiently to see. It was Charlie, sitting next to him, in an identical office chair, with his hands fastened behind the seat back. The only difference was that, instead of steel handcuffs, his arms were bound with iron chains. Similar chains fixed his feet to the chair legs.
‘Charlie,' Nick whispered.
The warlog made no response. Nick looked more closely. Charlie's eyes were open, staring at the floor. His chest was still.
‘Charlie,' Nick whispered again. He could see scorch marks across the warlog's face, and jagged burns in his shirt and pants. In places it looked like his hair had fused together.
The memory of the accident came crawling back. Charlie had pushed Nick out of the car a split second before it collided with the power pole. He had almost certainly saved Nick's life. But he had taken the full force of the impact, and then been electrocuted by falling wires.
‘Charlie, come on, wake up,' Nick insisted. He tried to twist himself so that he could nudge the warlog.
But the sudden movement caused such pain that he gasped and blacked out again.
When he came to, it was impossible to tell if seconds, minutes or hours had passed. The cell was windowless, lit by a single dim bulb in the centre of the ceiling. Charlie remained as perfectly motionless as before.
‘Charlie, I know you're in a bad way, but if you could give me some sign that you can hear me…' Nick began, but he had to bite off the end of his sentence. He could hear his own voice rise and start to crack with panic.
There was no doubt about it; he was in the Governor's dungeons, the realm of Mr Smith. Atu and Helene were either hidden away or captured. Ron and Dina would be unaware that anything was wrong, and when they found out, they would be lucky if they too were not arrested and dragged in. Charlie was a scorched shell, looking less like a human being than he ever had before. There was no one to come to Nick's rescue. He was totally alone. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, to push the fear that was welling up inside back down.
There was a sudden but faint squeal, like a heavy door being opened, and it forced Nick back to the here and now. He peered painfully over his shoulder, expecting to see the door opening, and Mr Smith or some other agent of the Governor coming through. But the door remained shut. The squeal stopped, and a moment later it became a minute chirp, trilling for a second or less, then pausing, then trilling again. It sounded like a tiny bird trapped somewhere in the cell.
He looked around, but except for himself and Charlie, the cell was utterly empty.
The chirp suddenly rose in pitch, then cut out completely. Nick glanced at Charlie, but was still dead and motionless. A rational part of his mind told him that an unexpected noise could not be his salvation; it was just a water pipe squeaking against a bracket behind one of the walls. It was not a bird. It was not Ron tunneling through from outside. His fate was sealed, and his life was over. He'd been doomed from the moment he'd helped Charlie out from under the fallen concrete at Kerrigan base. No one went against the Governor and survived.
But just as he accepted this, he heard a sound that couldn't be explained away. It was a series of seven notes, rising up the musical scale, with a clarity that was very distinct and totally unnatural. He stared at Charlie. He was as lifeless as a doll, but the sounds had unquestionably come from him.
‘Charlie, can you hear me?' he whispered. The warlog gave no more response than his chair did.
‘Charlie!' Nick's whisper became an urgent hiss. The faint glimmer of hope only made the panic tighter. ‘Charlie! Wake up! Damn it, do something! Please, Charlie! Anything!'
Charlie's chest didn't rise or fall. His lips didn't move. His eyes didn't blink, and his voice didn't come. But something else said, ‘Please standby.'
It was a strange, small, alien voice, without accent or inflection. It seemed to come from Charlie, but it didn't come out of his mouth.
‘Charlie? Is that you?'
There was a long pause. ‘Please standby,' the little voice said, exactly as it had before. The individual words were spat out distinctly, as if they bore no relation to each other, and they were all tinged with an electric burr.
‘Hello? Can you hear me?'
Another eternity passed. ‘Please standby.'
It was likely that this fragment was just Charlie's last breath. It was a meaningless polite plea, made as the shattered remains of his architecture collapsed under the strain of starting up again. But Nick couldn't endure having hope snatched away after it had flickered at him. ‘C'mon Charlie, you worthless piece of junk! Respond!'
‘Initialisation complete,' said the voice. ‘Switching to field service mode. Update required.'
‘Update of what?'
The voice seemed to think about it. ‘Please update combat situation.'
The wave of relief that swept over Nick made him giddy.
It didn't sound like Charlie, but nobody else would talk about ‘combat situations'. ‘We've been captured by the troopers,' he told the warlog. ‘I think we're in the cells under the Governor's palace. What's going on?'
The voice said nothing.
‘Hello? Charlie?' Nick paused, then whispered tentatively, ‘Is… is there someone else there?'
The longest seconds of Nick's life crawled by, then the voice said, ‘Update accepted.' After a moment of apparent consideration, it added, ‘Please do not be alarmed. This unit has been severely damaged during a live combat scenario. Auto-repair functions have been initiated. Please standby.'
‘Who are you? Are you… are you still Charlie?'
It seemed that the little voice never said anything without lengthy thought. Eventually it said, ‘Operational identity ‘Charlie' recognized and confirmed.'
Nick swallowed his excitement, for fear that it would make him hysterical. ‘I thought you were dead.'
‘Incorrect,' the voice said, almost primly.
‘You don't sound like yourself,' Nick observed.
‘Primary communications systems are offline. Communications are currently routed through the CMP 4000DX Command Series Secondary Communications Processor. In the absence of qualified technical personnel, communications must be processed through this routine.'
‘So this is some kind of back-up voice?'
‘The Secondary Communications Processor is an emergency system for maintaining basic communications functions in the event of primary communications failure.'
‘How soon until your primary communications systems come back?'
‘Unknown. Please standby.'
‘Charlie, I don't think you understand just how much danger we're in. We're in the worst prison in the Dominion.' Nick shivered involuntarily, and he had to force the next words out. ‘They're going to kill me.'
The Secondary Communications Processor was apparently not set up to offer reassurance. Nick wondered how he could encourage it to see the urgency of the situation.
Then he heard footsteps.
They were outside the room, somewhere behind him, and these ones didn't pass by. A key scraped in the lock, and door swung open.
‘Doctor Ostin,' said a chilling voice. ‘It's good to see that you're still with us.'
Mr Smith strolled around so that Nick could see him. His customary black clothes were covered by a long apron, stained with the rust-coloured marks of old blood. His face wore an expression that, for him, probably passed as pleasant goodwill.
‘I was told that your injuries were not life threatening. I had my doubts, but here you are, quite alive.'
Nick tried not to look at him.
‘I should have trusted our medic,' Mr Smith sighed. ‘I'm told many things that turn out not to be true, and perhaps it's made me a little cynical.' He crouched down so that he could look Nick directly in the eye. ‘You, for example, told me that you'd never even met a live humanalogue, and what do I find? You've had one hiding in your house all along. And a warlog at that. Words cannot express my disappointment, Dr Ostin.'
‘I'm sorry,' Nick said, because he suspected silence would only antagonize Mr Smith.
‘Ah, that's very encouraging. Perhaps you're not beyond redemption after all. As for your friend here…' He looked at Charlie with a sad gaze. ‘This is not what we wanted at all. He's not very formidable right now, is he? You'd never think that he single-handedly killed almost everyone in Beta team.' He reached up and casually flicked one of Charlie's eyes. Nick flinched reflexively but Charlie's stare stayed frozen.
‘He's dead,' Nick muttered.
‘Yes,' Mr Smith said. ‘Probably. But you should never underestimate a warlog, Dr Ostin. We all did, and look what happened. You remember, don't you?'
‘That's why we thought it safest to keep him chained up.' He arched one eyebrow meaningfully. ‘One never knows what may happen.'
‘What are you going to do to me?' Nick whispered.
‘Oh, there's plenty of time to worry about that later. General Sierra will want to speak with you when he gets here, but after that, you and I will have all the time in the world to get to know each other better. I am looking forward to it. However I do hope that you'll be more cooperative this time.'
‘Yes,' Nick's voice came out like a ghost.
‘I'm very glad to hear it. It's good to know that your poor parents taught you well, Dr Ostin. At least by example, if nothing else.' He smiled again, in a way that made Nick shiver, then took his leave. The door shut with a firm thud, and his footsteps slid away into silence.
‘Did you hear all that?' Nick murmured.
‘Confirmed,' Charlie's little voice replied. ‘Please advise identity of previous speaker.'
‘That was Mr Smith.'
The voice paused, then said, ‘Please advise status of ‘Mr Smith'.'
‘Enemy combatant,' Nick hissed. He hoped that this phrase carried some military weight.
He was making progress. But Nick couldn't afford to let the warlog alone. ‘How are the repairs coming along?'
There was no answer. Nick growled a curse under his breath. But it occurred to him, after a moment of thought, that the voice might respond better to its own language. ‘Okay. Um… report repair status.'
‘Reinitialising HEMEC reactor in… eight seconds,' the voice said briskly.
Nick counted out the seconds, then listened very carefully. There was a slight, muffled, rising whine, a click, a tinny two-tone chime, and a brief, falling whine.
‘Reinitialisation failed,' the voice reported. ‘Please standby.'
‘Charlie, you've got to try harder!' Nick whispered urgently, forgetting his resolution to try to speak like a machine. ‘If you don't get yourself back together, they're going to turn me over to Mr Smith. Do you understand what that will mean?'
‘Bypassing failed circuits. Switching to auxiliary. Reinitialising HEMEC reactor in… eleven seconds.'
Nick squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath. After eleven seconds the rising whine came again, there was a burst of random clicks, a bright little ping, and a gentle, almost inaudible hum.
‘Reinitialisation complete. HEMEC reactor efficiency at 20%. Repair schedule prioritized and activated.'
‘Only twenty percent?' Nick asked. ‘Is that bad?'
He looked across at Charlie, and was startled to see that the warlog's eyes had shut. He still wasn't breathing.
‘Report repair status,' Nick urged him again.
Nick stared at the wall. He didn't know if he was helping the situation or just distracting Charlie from his repairs. He did know that this was the single most important moment of his life: whether Charlie's repairs succeeded or failed would determine whether he himself lived or died.
He tried to focus on some detail in the room, just to steady himself.
He noticed that there was a little plastic plate set into the concrete curb where the wall met the floor. It was halfway between two faint white lines painted on the floor, and he could just make out the faded lettering on it. It said ‘Reserved – Vice-President (eMarketing)'.
Even in his time of greatest danger, when his life hung in the balance, the people of the Golden Century were there, with their baffling jargon and all their abandoned technology and their priorities that made no sense to anyone. Five centuries dead, and they still reached out to control his fate.
His career was based on reproducing their technology. His arrest was because of one of their artifacts. They had even built the prison he was in. He felt a burst of irrational anger, and even more than his longing for escape, he longed to get up and kick the plastic sign into dusty little fragments.
‘Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii,' Charlie said.
‘Niiiiiiick,' Charlie said, snapping the name off like a dry twig. His jaw opened and closed a few times.
‘Come on, Charlie. Stay with me.'
The warlog shuddered, his chest suddenly inflated, and he seemed to hyperventilate for a few seconds.
Then something, somewhere in his body reset itself, and his chest began to rise and fall in a normal rhythm. Every simulated muscle, from the large ones in his legs to the tiny ones in his fingers flexed, rattling the chains against the chair. A range of tics, some of them impossible for a human being, ranged across his face. He arched his back abruptly, as if he were trying to launch himself into the air, and the chains stood taut and groaned against each other. Then he slumped back, his head lolling against his chest.
‘Charlie? Are you okay?'
The warlog raised his head, and it bobbed and wobbled as if he were a tired old drunk. He turned his face to Nick. ‘No. I am very badly damaged. But I'm of more use to you now than I was thirty seconds ago.'
Nick grinned despite himself. ‘It's good to have you back.'
‘Thank you.' Charlie managed a smile too. Nick could see scorch marks on his teeth where electricity had arced across his mouth. One of his eyes was blackened where it had once been blue, and stray strands of hair seemed to have melted into his forehead.
But he was still the same person. His face slowly resolved into something approaching his usual soldierly expression.
‘There's no time to lose, Charlie. Sierra's on his way. We've got to get out of here.'
‘We're somewhere under the Governor's palace,' Charlie said, casting his unsteady gaze around the cell.
‘Yes, I know. I told you that.'
‘Yes. Don't you remember? You were talking to me in your emergency secondary voice, and you asked for an update.'
‘Ah, the Secondary Communications Processor. That explains it.'
‘It wasn't me you spoke to, not as you'd understand it.'
‘Then who was it?'
‘It was… my subconscious. Or at least my version of a subconscious. You were speaking with my core, before it re-established my personality and my… user interface, if you want to call it that.'
‘So you don't remember talking to me?'
‘The last thing I remember was pushing you out of the car before the collision. But somehow I know that the troopers captured us, and we're under the Governor palace, and Mr Smith was here. He thought I was dead. Is that right?'
‘It's strange that I know this, but I don't remember how.'
‘It's okay, Charlie. Don't let it worry you.'
‘That's easy to say, but I've never experienced anything like it before. It's very disconcerting.'
‘Charlie, you've got to focus. We have to escape.'
‘I hadn't forgotten.' He flexed his arms, testing the chains that bound him. ‘These chains are too heavy to break the links, and I can't get leverage to force the chair apart.' He twisted himself around so that he could see behind Nick. ‘If we shuffle around so that I can reach the back of your chair, I may be able to snap the links on your handcuffs.'
Nick wriggled his chair, gritting his teeth at the pain this caused. The metal feet scuffed against the concrete floor and made irregular loud screeches, but Nick didn't dare take things slower. At the same time, Charlie shuffled his own chair, and soon they were back to back. The warlog took hold of the bracelets on Nick's wrists and warned. ‘This may be painful.'
‘Not compared to the alternative.'
Charlie strained, and the handcuffs creaked. But at the same time, Nick heard footsteps.
‘Hurry!' he whispered.
But the handcuffs held, and a key turned in the lock on the door.
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