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‘They're your property,' Charlie said. ‘You can do whatever you like with them.'
‘But they're my…' Nick wanted to say ‘friends', but he could just imagine Charlie's reaction. ‘Amilogs,' he concluded lamely.
‘If you're worried about what they might think of you, don't be. As soon as their new owner gives you the money, all thought of you will go right out of their heads.'
‘But isn't selling them just transferring the problem? It means that someone else gets his life ruined instead of me. Why are you perfectly happy for some rich guy to get them but not me?'
‘Because ‘some rich guy' will most likely be old. He'll already have made his mark on the world. He can afford to be pampered. You can't.'
Something about the way Charlie said this pricked Nick's suspicions. ‘No, that's not it. At least that's not the whole reason. What are you up to, Charlie?'
‘I'm not up to anything. I'm just trying to look out for you.'
The suspicion clicked into place in Nick's mind, with an almost audible snap. He said the word that encapsulated it. ‘Why?'
Charlie blinked. ‘It's my job,' he said briskly. ‘As a UNPC peacekeeper…'
‘No. Maybe that was your motivation in the beginning, but it's gone beyond that. You've done a lot more for me than you needed to. You claim that you're just keeping the peace for the people of Laurelton, but you've done a lot more than that for me. You saved my life from the troopers, you gave me Helene and Atu, you helped me with my work… have you done that much for any one else?'
Charlie just glared at him. Nick stared back, taking in the tape-patched holes, fused hair and blackened eye. Something almost unbelievable dawned on him.
‘Hell, Charlie. I've only just worked it out. You didn't really need to leave Kerrigan at all, did you? I mean, since then you've been electrocuted, machine-gunned and blown up in an explosion, and here you are chatting away as if nothing happened. That mangled leg and the loss of translation gel was never going to kill you.'
Charlie said nothing.
‘Why did you come to my house that night, Charlie?'
‘Don't,' the warlog said.
‘No. I want to know.'
Charlie was as still as he had been when he was dead, chained to a chair under the Govenor's palace.
‘It's because I'm a humanalogue,' he said, eventually, so softly that it was barely more than a whisper. ‘Because I'm no better than Helene or Atu.'
‘I don't expect you to understand. You're a human. You don't know what it's like to be designed to serve a purpose, then have that purpose taken away from you. I did my duty for
. I protected my base and kept the local peace as best I could. But my orders were so vague, and they were given to me so very, very long ago. Then one day you came along.'
‘You gave me orders that didn't immediately clash with my duties… and I couldn't help it. It felt so
to have a human tell me what to do. It was almost like I could serve the UNPC but still have…' He faltered.
‘An owner?' Nick suggested quietly.
‘Yes,' Charlie said, with a deadness that sank the word. ‘I was just like MTS-059, or an amilog. I only wanted someone to own me. Even though no one can.'
‘You've always been so adamant that I
‘You don't. But that doesn't mean that I don't wish you did.'
‘You… you wanted me to own you?'
‘I can tell that you don't understand. If I were human there'd be no reason why a big, capable man like me would feel the need to serve someone like you. But I'm not human. I'm stronger than you, I'm faster than you, I'm tougher than you and I'm more competent than you, but that doesn't change the fact that I'm a machine and you're a human being. You have the potential to do things beyond the power of a million humanalogues. For all my skills, I'm just a pale reflection of you.'
‘I still don't understand.'
‘Do you think it's easy for me to serve the UNPC when I can't even prove that it still exists? I was built to protect humans, not a crumbling military base. I know what MTS-059 went through because I've been through the same thing. I'm just more dedicated than he was. Or maybe I'm just more stubborn. We both felt the temptation to take orders from a human being instead of a set of ancient guidelines. The only difference between us is that he succumbed, while I've only faltered.'
‘I'm sorry, Charlie.'
‘You've done nothing wrong.'
‘If you say so. I certainly haven't helped.'
‘It's just the way things turned out. No one could have foreseen what was going to happen.'
Nick mulled over what Charlie had said, and the shadows melted into each other as darkness fell over the hillside. Down on his street, a few lights in the houses flickered on, cautiously, as if testing if it was safe to do so.
‘I'm glad you told me.'
‘You didn't give me much choice. But for what it's worth, I'm glad I told you too. I still feel ashamed, but you deserved to know.'
Nick hesitated before adding, ‘Does the fact that you've told me change anything about your attitude towards Helene and Atu?'
‘No. It's exactly the same. I advise you to sell them.'
‘So I have more time for you, to give you orders?'
Charlie gave something that was halfway between a snort and a laugh. ‘Is that what you think I want? All I want is what's best for you, just like I said, and selling the amilogs is going to achieve that. As for me… when I'm satisfied that you're not in any immediate danger, I'm going to go away.'
‘Go away?' Nick said, startled. ‘What do you mean, go away?'
‘I mean leave Kerrigan and get out of this city. If I remove myself from the picture, it's one less reason for the Governor to come after you,' Charlie explained.
‘He only needs one. Revenge is reason enough.'
‘I'm confident that MTS-059 will keep the Governor away from you. I wouldn't leave if I wasn't. But this whole experience had forced me to look at my situation in a new light. I haven't shown any initiative in my service to the UNPC. Maybe it's time that I did.'
‘In the area now covered by the Dominion, there were once thousands, perhaps evens tens of thousands of Milicom GIs and other warlogs working for the UNPC. I'm sure that almost all of them are dead now, for one reason or another. But perhaps some still remain hidden, switched off like Atu or damaged and confused like Helene. I'd like to try and find them and restore them.'
‘What'll you do with them?'
‘The UNPC is charged to protect the threatened and defend the weak. I think there's enough work around here to keep a handful of UNPC warlogs occupied.'
‘I don't think the Governor will react well to having a private army of warlogs on his turf.'
‘By then he'll know that if I wanted to overthrow him, I would have done it earlier today. It's not the place of the UNPC to decide who leads. We just keep the peace.'
Nick shook his head. ‘I don't see how that's possible. Not in the Red Hill Dominion. Not with him in charge.'
‘Be patient,' Charlie said, ‘and it will change.' His tone was quiet and oddly confident, but it was too dark for Nick to see his expression.
‘The Red Hill Dominion is a huge and dynamic society. It's boiling over with potential such that not even a totalitarian regime can stop it. It's too much for one man. Parts of the Governor's power will eventually be delegated to his more astute cronies; the heads of large corporations and guilds. In time they'll become almost a parliament of sorts. They in turn will be influenced by their own associates, and their shareholders. Shareholders who are just ordinary people.' He paused. ‘You could be having democratic elections within fifty years.'
‘Fifty years! We don't want to wait fifty years!'
‘It's not that long when you've been alive for more than five hundred years. And it could be quicker for you yourself, of course.'
‘Me? Why me?'
‘Because you're an intelligent man and a resourceful engineer. With the money you could make from Helene and Atu, you could build up a name for yourself in Red Hill, and a name brings influence and power.'
Nick shook his head. ‘The Governor would never allow it.'
‘Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that it's a lot harder to silence a wealthy, influential voice than it is to silence an insignificant one.'
‘I don't know, Charlie. I'm still not sure that I even want to sell Helene and Atu.'
‘It's you choice. You can keep them and live like a king. Or you can sell them and live like a man. It's all up to you.'
There was no way Nick could respond to that. Charlie was now just a silhouette against the night sky, and even as he finished speaking he was sliding off his rock. He picked up his pack and said, ‘Come on. If they were going to attack, they would have done so by now. Let's keep moving.'
‘Sure,' Nick said. He watched the warlog's back as he started climbing the hill. When he glanced down in the opposite direction, he could see his house, now the only one in the street completely dark. He couldn't help but remember what it was like having the amilogs there, laughing and talking with Atu, spending time with Helene. With an element of surprise, he realized that he'd never been happier.
Just being around Atu made him feel more confident and full of possibilities. And Helene… his fingers tingled, as if they were trying to recapture the feeling of her skin.
When he thought back to that twilight kiss in the kitchen, all thought of never having her again seemed impossible. It had to happen. He had to keep her. He had to keep both of them.
He peered back up the hill, at the dim shape of the warlog picking his way through the exposed roots and loose stones. Charlie would understand. Charlie would be made to understand. Perhaps humanalogues had unintentionally caused the downfall of the Golden Century, but then again, perhaps Charlie was misreading the situation. He wasn't an expert. In any case the situation was different now.
Do you have a better explanation, an inner voice asked Nick. He had to admit that he didn't. But there had to be one. Maybe a few days in Kerrigan would give him time to find it. As he toiled up the hill following the warlog, arguments for and against jostled each other in his mind, but behind them all was the taste of her lips and the soft smell of her hair. It was the one argument for which there was no reply.
Atu opened his eyes, and a slow smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
Even after all that had happened to him, after the centuries of use, neglect and malfunction, his eyes were clear, a dark and flawless chestnut brown. His skin was the colour of milky coffee, and his teeth were as white as freshly-fallen snow. He still looked only nineteen.
Atu opened his mouth and sang.
Behind him, the lights came up and dancers jumped into view. The camera pulled back, Atu notched his smile up to a dazzling grin, then he matched the dancers moves and poured the words out as if they came from the very depths from his soul.
With the sound switched off, it was impossible to tell exactly what the lyrics were. It was probably an upbeat love song. It had all the clichéd gestures; the hands crossed over the heart, the pleading eyes, the arms flung out in appeal. He was clean-shaven, buffed and wholesome, dressed in new jeans, a white T-shirt and pastel sweater, suggesting an attempt to appeal to the tweenie audience. Ten year old girls would lap it up, as ten year old girls had done since the invention of pop music. It was the tried and tested way of building his audience.
In later years, as the tweenies became teenagers, he'd develop stubble and a taste for black leather, ripped shirts and more explicit lyrics. As they entered adulthood, he'd start playing his own instruments and take on a more stripped back acoustic style. As they married and had kids of their own, he'd reinterpret his earlier material and play up its kitsch value for nostalgic audiences, and do imaginative covers of even earlier classics, both from his own career and the songbooks of others. He'd tour more, and do expensive shows at large venues that only thirtysomethings could afford to attend.
Then, when the children of his fans were tweenies, he'd vanish from the public spotlight for a number of months, then don the unthreatening pastels and start all over again.
Benn smirked. A week ago his granddaughter, who considered herself to be the greatest Atu fan in the world, had discovered some of her mother's old Atu CDs and posters in the attic. She'd been mortified. He himself had no interest in the amilog's music, but even so he occasionally found himself humming a tune that turned out to be an all but forgotten Atu hit from his own youth.
Benn tapped the Recent Media icon on the edge of his screen, and a new window blossomed. He scrolled back as far as he could, and found the press release he was looking for. Global Sound had bought Atu from CTT Music six months earlier for four hundred and forty million dollars. At that price, he was a steal. He didn't need to be paid, he didn't get sick, he didn't need time off, he didn't get burnt out, he didn't develop drug problems, and he didn't get involved in scandals with groupies (unless instructed to by his record company).
Furthermore, even after all the records he'd released over the years, he still had hundreds of lost songs from the Golden Century stored in his head, waiting for him to sing them and generate millions in album sales. He was a cash cow like none other.
It was a press release, so it was nothing but positive spin, of course. Benn noticed that there was no mention of the widely held expectation that Atu's latest sale would break the half-billion mark. His sale price was a personal record, but still, it was less than many had thought it would be.
Benn was one of a small but growing number of people who knew why. It made him uncomfortable, because it reminded him of what he had to do. He muttered a choice profanity to himself and killed the window.
On a sudden impulse, he tapped the Favourites icon on the other side of the screen. The computer's semi-intelligent Search Assistant knew him well, having monitored every site he'd ever surfed through, and the very first thing it threw up was exactly what he wanted. It was the magazine advertisement for Rue d'Rive's biggest-selling fragrance.
She was as breathtaking as ever.
The picture showed just her face, against a neutral background. That was all they needed. Wisps of her long dark hair, captured drifting in a breeze, framed her perfect face. Those mysterious green eyes that could have been created purely for gazing into, shimmering with flecks of gold, seemed to stare into his own. Her lips were parted just a little, as if she were just about to whisper something secret to him.
If his wife knew him as well as his Search Assistant did, and he brought home a bottle of Rue d'Rive Breathless for her, she'd kill him.
The intercom on his desk chimed, and his secretary said, ‘Excuse me, Dr Ostin.'
‘Your 9.30 appointment is here, sir.'
Benn glanced at the time display in the corner of his screen. 9.30 exactly. If only all of his employees were so punctual. But then today of all days, he had reason to be.
‘Thank you. Send him in.'
The doors at the other end of his office slid aside and admitted a tall, well-built man in a grey suit. He had buzz-cut hair and a disciplined posture, but his features were rounded and ordinary, and somehow reassuring.
A discreet logo on the breast pocket of his jacket read ‘Kerrigan Security Consultants', and underneath, in much smaller lettering, ‘A Service of the UNPC'.
‘Good morning, Dr Ostin.'
Benn paused. There was one obvious thing on both their minds, but there was nothing left to say about it that hadn't been covered a dozen times. Instead, he swiveled his screen and said, ‘I've been catching up with some old friends of yours.'
Charlie glanced at the screen. ‘So I see.'
‘Do you remember these two?'
‘Of course,' Charlie said.
‘What did you think of them?' Benn asked.
His security consultant shrugged. ‘They're amilogs. You know what amilogs are like.'
‘I've met one or two. At a party, or some function.'
‘Then you know what Atu and Helene are like. Amilogs are all more or less the same. Their personalities adapt to suit their owners. If I met them again, they'd probably be completely different to when I knew them.'
‘I sometimes wonder what it would be like, if my family had kept them.'
‘You probably wouldn't exist.'
‘Thanks, Charlie. You always know exactly what to say to cut to the heart of the issue.'
‘It's a gift.'
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