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Laurelton looked peaceful, perhaps even idyllic in the late afternoon light. The streets were empty, except for the occasional cat sauntering across a lawn, or a couple of birds swooping and darting through the trees. It was easy for Nick to forget that twenty-four hours earlier the troopers had crashed through his front door, and that the streets were probably deserted because his neighbours were too scared to leave their houses.
As he stood on the rocky jumble of the hillside, halfway between his house and the remains of Kerrigan military base, Nick tried to hold on to the moment.
‘You can rest here,' Charlie suggested. He gestured at a small cleft where two granite boulders leaned against each other. ‘We'll be hidden from view from the ground.'
‘I'm okay,' Nick said. ‘I don't need to rest. I was just thinking.'
‘You can think and rest at the same time.'
‘I really don't need to rest. I've climbed this hill a thousand times.'
‘It wouldn't hurt.'
‘Why do you never take no for an answer?' Nick asked. But his legs were still a little shaky, and he had to admit that it felt good to sit on a half-buried rock.
‘Well, it would also give me a position to survey the area as the sun goes down. If MTS-059 fails and the Governor does order an attack, then now is when they'll do it. It would be better if we knew one way or the other.'
‘You should have just said that, instead of trying to make it about me.'
‘It's only a secondary concern.'
Nick had no desire to take this argument any further. ‘Do you think Sierra will fail?'
‘No. But I must consider every eventuality.'
Nick looked out over the neighbourhood. The calm made eventualities seem distant.
Charlie was watching the houses too, sitting next to Nick on another rock. There was something about his posture and his air of detached vigilance that suggested he was preparing to do this for a while.
‘You know,' Nick said at length. ‘There's something that's been bothering me about this whole situation with Sierra.'
‘What's that?' Charlie asked.
‘When we were in the cell, and Sierra first came in, you seemed to be angry with him, and you spoke to him like a junior officer, before you'd even set eyes on him. But how did you know he wasn't human?'
‘The same way I could tell that Helene wasn't human before she'd even walked through the front door of your house. There's a subtly inhuman scent. I got that the moment MTS-059 entered the cell.'
‘But that doesn't explain why you spoke to him like you did. It's almost as if you knew he was UNPC
an inferior officer. Was that a smell thing too?'
‘No. That was just an educated guess. I could tell from his voice that he was a Milicom GI. That told me all I needed to know.'
‘What's that got to do with anything?'
‘Milicom was the company that held the contract to supply the majority of base-model troops to the UNPC in this part of the world. They mass-produced low cost, military-grade warlogs for government use, and their products weren't designed to take on the duties of ranks higher than Sergeant. I've worked with hundreds of them, and after a couple of sentences I could tell from his voice that he was one of them. There's a sort of faint burr in their lower registers…' Charlie shrugged. ‘Well, the company used a lot of cut-price components. His voice was enough to convince me.'
‘Convince you of what?'
‘That as a Milicom GI, in this part of the world, he was almost certainly a lost, low-grade UNPC soldier.'
‘That's it?' Nick stared at the warlog in a sort of horrified amazement. ‘That was your basis for what you did?'
‘Charlie! That's the most tenuous bloody assumption I could imagine! We could've been killed!'
‘It worked, didn't it?'
‘Yes, but that's not the point! I mean, what if it turned out he was
commanding officer? What would you have done then?'
‘From Milicom?' Charlie said, with a dusty chuckle. ‘I don't think so.'
Nick smiled too, despite himself. ‘If I didn't know better, Charlie, I'd say you were a snob.'
‘It's not snobbery. It's a simple commercial reality.'
‘Yeah, sure. I've noticed the way you act around other humanalogues. You never let Helene and Atu forget who the alpha wolf is.'
The warlog's lighthearted manner evaporated in an instant. ‘What do you mean?'
Nick hesitated. He hadn't expected a reaction like that. But now that he'd said it, he couldn't take it back. And having heard himself say it, he realized he didn't want to. ‘You just don't treat them very well, Charlie.'
‘In what way do I not treat them well?'
‘Well, you always look at them like they're something you just scraped them off the bottom of your shoe. Is it because they're amilogs?'
‘Oh, it's ridiculous, is it?' Nick scoffed. ‘I notice you haven't mentioned anything about when I can get them back.'
Charlie's expression flickered, and he seemed to consider his answer carefully. ‘You can get them back when it's safe.'
‘When would that be? What's stopping you from bringing them back to Kerrigan tomorrow?'
Charlie's ambiguous expression turned into an outright glare. ‘I'm not your courier.'
‘I think you're trying to avoid owning up to your prejudices, Charlie. I think you just don't want them around.'
‘Fine; I don't,' the warlog growled. ‘I think you should get rid of them.'
The statement was so bare that it stopped Nick in his tracks. ‘Sorry? What?'
‘While you still own the amilogs, you will be a target for the Governor's anger. MTS-059 will always intervene to protect you, but it would be better if the Governor lost some of his interest in you. If you got rid of the amilogs, he'd be far less inclined to pursue you.'
‘That's bullshit, Charlie. The Governor has lost control of his warlog – he wants me dead and the only reason I'm not is because he hasn't figured out how to do it yet. Somehow getting rid of Helene and Atu isn't going to make it all better.'
‘It would help.'
‘No it wouldn't. Shit, Charlie, what is it with you and them? Why do you dislike them so much?'
‘I don't dislike them.'
‘Oh come on. You belittle their opinions. You give me the evil eye if I pay them any attention. You never miss an opportunity to put them down.'
‘That's not true.'
‘Yes, it is. It's always been like that. I just don't understand it. What have they ever done to you?'
‘It's not me I'm concerned about.'
‘What?' Nick had to mentally backpedal for a moment. Somehow the argument had just gone in a completely different direction to the one he'd foreseen. ‘What do you mean? Do you think Helene and Atu are going to do something to me? What sort of something?'
‘I think…' Charlie began, then he seemed to physically pull back and bite his sentence in half. ‘No, I'm sorry. What I think is irrelevant.'
‘Oh no you don't!' Nick said impatiently. ‘Don't give me the poor martyred warlog routine! Answer the question. What's your problem with Helene and Atu?'
‘I don't have a prob…'
‘Don't do that, Charlie! Shit, you're always doing that! If there's something going on, I want to know!'
‘There's nothing going on. Helene and Atu are functioning properly.'
‘So what in the hell is this all about?'
Charlie stared down at the houses. He was silent for a moment, then his jaw seemed to unclench and his shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly.
His expression made Nick's frustration suddenly subside. ‘Uh… Charlie?'
‘I've had a lot of time to think over the years,' the warlog said, very slowly. ‘I go over everything I can remember, about all the other humanalogues I've met, and the APIs, and the humans. I think about what happened, and I try to work out if there was anything I could have done to stop it, but I keep coming back to the same conclusions.'
‘What are you talking about?'
‘I'm talking about the same thing that you always talk about,' Charlie said. ‘The fate of your so-called Golden Century. The death of the civilization that created me.'
It took a moment for Nick to comprehend him. ‘You know what happened to the Golden Century?'
‘I think so.'
‘But… but people have been asking humanalogues for years what happened. None of them know. They've ruled out war, or famine, or natural disaster. Charlie, was this something you found out from the military? Something secret that most humanalogues wouldn't know?'
‘No. I've just had more time on my own to think about it. If I'd been with people, or even other warlogs, I would've been busy attending to my duties and I wouldn't have bothered to dwell on it.'
‘So what was it?' Nick hardly dared to ask. ‘Was it… something to do with amilogs?'
‘Amilogs, warlogs, medilogs… even APIs,' Charlie sighed. It was just a light exhalation, but it seemed to carry the weight of ages. ‘The Golden Century civilization died because of us. We're responsible.'
‘I don't understand. Was there an uprising? Did you hurt the people around you?'
Charlie smiled, but it had no humour in it. ‘Humanalogues and APIs don't hurt people. We take care of people. Warlogs protect. Medilogs heal. Amilogs befriend. APIs think. We were designed to be very good at these things.'
‘So what went wrong?'
‘Nothing went wrong. It all went the way the humans had planned it,' Charlie's ironic smile faded away as he spoke. ‘You see, I believe that human history is the story of the lengths people went to to get what they wanted. They wanted food, so they invented farming. They wanted to communicate, so they invented writing. They wanted power and safety, so they invented weaponry. They wanted a long life and relief from pain, so they invented medicine. They wanted to learn about the universe, so they invented calendars, and telescopes, and calculators and spacecraft.'
Charlie stared out over Laurelton as if he could actually see all these things. ‘And after centuries of human civilization, full of slavery, scarcity, disease, poverty, hardship and struggle, humans found a way to overcome all the things that made life difficult. They'd developed innumerable tools, but they finally came up with the ultimate tool. They developed APIs.'
‘APIs?' Nick said. ‘I thought that APIs were just big computers. What have they got to do with it?'
Charlie shook his head with obvious frustration. ‘I don't think I can explain exactly what APIs were like in a way you'd understand.'
‘They were more intelligent than a thousand clever men combined. They delighted in thinking and solving problems… if you can call it delight. They didn't have emotions as you would understand them. The closest they came to it was in their love for humanity. Your ancestors created them, making everything they did possible, and the APIs responded with something that in a human might be adoration, or respect. Human language doesn't really cover their versions of it. The APIs devoted themselves to alleviating humanity's problems, and in the end they decided that the greatest solution would be humanalogues.'
‘Because we would attend to your needs in a way that APIs or adjuvants or other human beings never could. We would take over all the roles you didn't want.'
‘So humanalogues made life easy. What's wrong with that?'
‘That's just the point… one that the APIs for all their intelligence didn't get,' Charlie said. ‘I don't think that life
be easy. Civilisation needs to be dynamic. You can't play a sport or a musical instrument without going through hours of tedious practice; likewise you can't keep a society moving ahead without at least a degree of discomfort.'
Charlie paused, then as he continued his face was as downcast as Nick had ever seen it. ‘Humanalogues gave humans everything they ever wanted – safety, good health, companionship – and humans just relaxed and enjoyed it. People didn't need to push to make their lives better, so they stopped pushing.'
‘That's a very defeatist view of civilization,' Nick said. ‘Why couldn't they just enjoy what they had?'
‘Civilisation is like a plant; it's either growing or it's dying. Without millions of people urging it ahead, it just slowly wound down. Your ancestors didn't react fast enough to stop it.'
‘They were wrapped up in comfortable cocoons of their own making. The APIs were smart, but I don't think they were smart enough to do the job of millions of people maintaining that civilization. One by one the services failed and the systems unraveled, and by the time the humans were forced to face what was happening, it was too late.'
‘Even if some people allowed humanalogues to make them lazy, I can't believe they were any sort of majority. Nobody wants to just sit back and take life as it comes. Everybody has ambitions. Everybody wants to achieve something.'
‘Some people do. But not as many as you'd think. Not enough to keep that vast, complicated society moving. Even at the end of the century, there were still several humans choosing to work at Kerrigan, but nothing like the hundreds it was built to accommodate.'
‘Yeah, but things are different now.'
‘Do you think so?' Charlie's lifted his eyes, and his face took on an expression of cool skepticism. ‘Well, let's look at you, for example.'
‘You're the only person here who owns humanalogues. How much have you achieved in your work since you acquired Helene and Atu?'
‘That's not the same,' Nick said peevishly. He picked at some loose lichen growing on the rocks, and flung the bits away to catch the breeze.
‘I couldn't take them into the lab in case the others suspected something.'
‘You didn't need to take them into the lab. You could have gone in alone,' Charlie countered. ‘And what about your relationships with Ron and Dina? Would you say they are stronger now than they were a month ago, or weaker? What about your research? What about your plans for the future? Are they more achievable since the amilogs appeared?'
‘It's a completely different situation now…'
‘No it isn't. It's exactly the same. This is why I'm concerned about the amilogs. With Atu, you won't need to have any other friends. You won't have to put up with Ron's sarcastic comments or the petty things he does that annoy you. Atu will be the best friend you could ever want. He'll make you laugh, he'll boost your confidence, he'll share all your interests, he'll cheer you up when you're down and he'll get out of your way when you want to be alone. And as for Helene…'
‘What about Helene?'
Charlie leaned close and spoke in a deep murmer, ‘You know the truth. She will be everything you ever wanted in a woman. You won't have to try to impress her, or win her over, or keep her interested in you. She'll be attentive and supportive and affectionate no matter how lazy or abusive you become. But she won't be some vapid woman-shaped drone. She'll engage you and excite you. She'll keep your relationship fresh and stimulating. You'll never get tired of her. And from what I've heard, once you've slept with her, no real woman will be as good.'
‘That's just preposterous.'
‘Is it? You tell me. You were kissing her. How did she compare to the other women you've kissed?'
Nick squirmed. After kissing Helene, he couldn't even remember what it had been like with other women. The memories had been so dulled by comparison that they scarcely registered.
‘Helene and Atu will make it their sole aim in life to make you happy, and you will be, if you're anything like every other human I've met. You won't feel the need to worry about anything as messy or difficult as a real friend or a real lover.'
‘That's not true.'
‘Yes it is,' Charlie insisted. ‘They'll be everything you want them to be. But when you reach the end of your life, you won't have friends, you won't have children or grandchildren, and unless you're exceptional, you won't have a legacy. You'll have lived a life of blissful inconsequence.' Charlie leaned back against a rock, letting his face catch the last rays of the setting sun. ‘If that's what you want, then go right ahead and keep the amilogs.'
‘So let me get this straight,' Nick said. ‘The Golden Century ended because humanalogues made life too easy.'
‘And Helene and Atu will do the same thing to my life if I let them.'
‘I can tell you don't believe me, but yes, that's right. That is what will happen.'
‘According to you.'
‘I was there. I watched it happening. Of course at the time I was too close and too busy to see the larger causes, but a few centuries of sitting alone in the dark gives you plenty of opportunity for reflection.'
‘So if you knew all this, why did you salvage Helene for me, and why did you switch Atu back on?' Nick asked.
Charlie didn't reply. Nick added, perhaps more sharply than he'd intended, ‘I don't remember you being quite so evangelical back then about the dangers of amilogs. Have things changed that much in the meantime?'
‘It…' Charlie said, then, uncharacteristically, he faltered. ‘It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I knew you were interested in humanalogues and I thought you might learn something from them.'
‘But now you realise how damaging they are, and you want me to get rid of them.'
‘Let's just say that I've been reminded of the influence they can have on humans.'
‘So what exactly are you proposing I do? Just switch them off and leave them in that basement again?'
‘No. I think the best thing for you to do is to sell them.'
‘You told me that there are only a half dozen amilogs in the Red Hill Dominion. They must be worth a lot of money, to the right buyer. If you sold them, you'd not only be taking away one of the Governor's motivations for pursuing you, but you'd be acquiring the sort of wealth that buys a lot of freedom.'
‘I can't just sell them!'
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