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Benn swiveled the screen back to face him, and let his gaze linger on it for a moment. ‘You know, this is an old picture of Helene.'
‘She won't have changed,' Charlie pointed out.
‘I know. It just seems a shame that no one gets to see her any more. She's been owned by the Shantou-Westminster Bank for nearly five years, and they keep her hidden away, refusing to license any new images. They claim that she's just another investment, like a Thomson oil painting or a classic Northstar roadster.'
‘You say that like you don't believe it.' Charlie said.
‘Do you remember Simen Trevath? He used to be our Finance VP, about, hmm, fifteen years ago. He's semi-retired now but he does some consulting for Shantou-Westminster. He says that when their best clients and associates visit the city and stay in their suite at the Plaza, she acts as ‘hostess' during their stay.'
‘I doubt it's the first time she's been used for that purpose.'
‘It just seems rather sordid to me. It's not the way O-Tek does business.'
‘I'm aware of that.'
‘Do you think she's happy doing what she does?'
‘Amilogs are always happiest when they're serving.'
‘Charlie, don't be glib with me. Not today.'
The warlog shifted his weight from one foot to the other, as if mentally stepping back. He thought for a moment. ‘Atu and Helene were designed to be personal amilogs, not corporate investments. I don't think they'd be unhappy, but they might occasionally miss the satisfaction of serving just one person.'
‘It's sad, isn't it,' Benn commented.
‘If they were human, it might be. But they're not. We humanalogues exist to satisfy, not to be satisfied.'
Interesting use of ‘we', Benn thought. Perhaps Charlie identifies with them more than he lets on.
Officially, Charlie still belonged to the UNPC, despite the fact that such an organization, or any decendant of it, hadn't been discovered anywhere in the world. A complex legal arrangement that had evolved over decades made Kerrigan Security Consultants an individual corporate entity, but one for which the massive O-Tek Corporation took full legal responsibility. In return, KSC paid a consideration to O-Tek that consumed over 95% of their profits. It was a subsidiary in everything but name, and its warlogs were, in liability terms, O-Tek property. Benn sometimes wondered what Charlie and his team thought of this fragile situation.
He guessed they thought the same way he did; it was a piece of legal sophistry that allowed a mutually beneficial arrangement, and it would be better not to dwell on it.
‘Well, this is it.' Benn hauled himself out of his chair, and for once he actually felt his full age. ‘Let's get this over with.'
‘Shall I call for your car?'
‘No, no, we'll walk. It's only two blocks. I maybe old but I'm not an invalid.'
As they walked out of his office and across the reception area, Benn added, ‘It'll also give me time to think.'
Charlie pressed the button for the elevator. ‘Do you still need to think about this?'
‘Whatever the outcome, I'll be thinking about this for the rest of my life,' Benn replied. The elevator doors opened with a cheery ping. ‘Sometimes I suspect that I'll keep thinking about it even after that, purely through force of habit.'
They were both silent as they rode down the forty storeys to the lobby, until, just before the doors opened, Charlie asked. ‘Do you still think it's the right thing to do?'
‘As far as I'm concerned, yes,' Benn said.
‘Same goes for me.'
‘And if nothing else, it'll show me exactly how much weight my opinion carries,' Benn added ruefully. ‘I'm probably in for a rude shock.'
‘You opinion carries a lot of weight.'
However it was hard for him not to feel just a little proud as the elevator doors opened and they stepped out into the lobby. Even now, ten years after they'd last renovated, it still looked well worth the millions they'd spent. Dozens of soaring columns of polished titanium, each linked to the next with fantastically complicated filigree, gave the impression of a huge, exotic, silver marquee.
Beyond the pillars, high resolution media panels displayed a coordinated scene, a field of pale blue poppies under a bright summer sky. It was so realistic that visitors sometimes experienced a jolt of vertigo, as they came in from the crowded city street and had their senses suddenly try to convince them of the impossible.
Around the ceiling, the sentences known to all O-Tek employees as The Phrase were spelled out in letters that dully glowed, as if they'd been pulled from a fire moments before.
‘Humans! We had almost lost hope! Stay safe and well and we will return.'
It was the cornerstone of O-Tek, both philosophically and historically. Without it, the multinational corporation, if it existed at all, would be a piffling backyard concern unknown outside local engineering circles.
Benn knew the story by heart, of course. Ostin Technologies, as the company had been originally called, was born when his father bought a rocky hilltop in Laurelton and, above the ruins of an ancient military base, set up an engineering firm specializing in manufacturing and technological consultancy. It had taken every cent of the money he'd made selling the Helene and Atu amilogs, and most of his inheritance.
But the facility was state of the art. There were labs for robotics research, fabrication plants for the manufacture of components, enormous computers for calculations too complicated for the then standard slide-rule, and a big radio dish on the roof.
The dish was regarded with suspicion by the old Dominion; it was antagonistic towards Ostin at the best of times, and it didn't like him having access to communication technology. But he dutifully allowed all communication running through the dish to be monitored, and let the Dominion use it to communicate with their far flung outposts, and it was tolerated.
If anyone asked why, late at night, it reoriented itself to an empty space in the sky and spewed out a stream of apparently meaningless noise for hours on end, Ostin explained it as ‘testing and calibration', in such a blaze of jargon that they never asked him again.
Benn himself had no memory of this. He was barely two weeks old when the true purpose of the dish was realized. In the very early hours of a Thursday morning in July, over nine years after it had begun broadcasting, the dish finally detected the response Ostin had been seeking.
‘Humans! We had almost lost hope! Stay safe and well and we will return.'
He had reestablished contact with the Serenity space probes.
He had gambled his entire fortune on a risky proposition, on a piece of ancient information that had been mentioned in passing by the warlog named Charlie, and which he had always kept in the back of his mind. APIs no longer existed on Earth, but the Serenity APIs, he'd reasoned, would be made of sterner stuff, designed to operate for centuries in the hostile environment of deep space, with only sporadic contact from their home planet.
He gambled that they'd have arrived at Proxima Centauri safely, and that they'd still be there, and that they'd be listening for signals from home, and that they'd consent to respond to a random civilian.
Fortunately, he was right on all counts. The Serenity APIs had arrived at their target star and were still in orbit around it. When their onboard communications arrays had failed to detect any signal from Earth, they'd used their drones to mine a stray asteroid for the materials needed to build a far bigger one. When that didn't work, they expanded the array even further.
Worried about their creators and unsure of how to progress, they'd used every resource at their disposal in straining to hear, and, a full century after arriving, they'd finally picked up an infinitesimally tiny query from home.
Once they'd learnt what had happened to their parent civilization, the APIs on the second and third Serenity probes, simply called Serenity 2 and 3, decided to head back to Earth. In light of that, Serenity 1 decided that it would be better employed to continue on to other stars, and bounce information on whatever it discovered back to Earth via the array.
Serenity 2 and 3 upgraded their onboard arrays, broke orbit, and launched themselves into the long journey back home.
It took nearly eight years for Ostin Technologies to receive a direct answer to a question, but the APIs were every bit as clever as Benn's father had hoped, and they began extrapolating what information the humans might need and sending it before it had even occurred to the humans to ask. Suddenly Ostin Technologies had access to a technology database more than a century ahead of their time, and two incomparable intellects capable of explaining it to them in detail.
Soon they were releasing microwave ovens and fax machines onto the market while their competitors were still struggling with the concept of the transistor. By the time Benn started school, he was heir to one of the biggest fortunes in the Dominion.
Benn and Charlie crossed the lobby and passed through the revolving doors, exiting onto Franklen Avenue. Benn was thankful that he'd scheduled his meeting for ten o'clock; it meant that the sidewalks had cleared a little from their rush hour traffic. The scurrying businessmen had been replaced by meandering tourists, junior office staff, and, as usual, innumerable adjuvants.
An elderly Mechman model nearly collided with him as he stepped out onto the pavement. It gave an apologetic squeak and stumbled back, its gyros whirring to keep it upright.
‘Careful,' Charlie said.
‘Don't worry. No harm done,' Benn replied casually. ‘You know, those old Mechmen had sub-par navigation sensors even when they were new. No wonder we took the bulk of Mechlife's market share with our Arcad series. One of them would have swooped around me without breaking stride. What are you smiling about?'
‘I just like being reminded of the pride you take in your company.'
‘It's just good to see contentment in a human.'
‘Contentment?' Benn echoed. It seemed incongruous given their destination. ‘Hmmm. I suppose I am, all things considered. Although…' he glared at the thick clots of brightly coloured cars humming back and forth along the avenue, ‘… I'll be a lot more content when we can get rid of all this traffic. How's a person supposed to cross this road?'
‘We'll get a green light at the intersection.'
‘It'll be soon, they tell me,' Benn grumbled. ‘Within ten years all of this will be safely out of the way somewhere up there.'
He waved unspecifically at the grey sky overhead. ‘My scientists claim that they're very close to cracking commercial anti-grav. But then scientists always say that.' He paused. ‘That was a favourite expression of my father's.'
‘Yes. And you're doing it again.'
‘Doing what again?'
‘I'm just remembering your father, and where he got that expression from.'
‘I sometimes think you know far too much about the Ostin family.'
‘I'm six hundred and fifty six years old. I know far too much about a lot of things.'
After a short wait at the intersection, they crossed the road.
The avenue seemed different to Benn every time he walked down it. When he'd been a child, there had been boxy trams rattling along where sleek electric cars now ran. There had been heavyset brick buildings, now supplanted by graceful glass skyscrapers. He dimly recalled the massive bronze statue of the Governor, which had long been replaced by the Liberty Fountain. He had a moment of curmudgeonly disapproval at the modern world in general, but as he recognized it he forced it down. It was entirely the wrong attitude to have in order to do what he had to do.
They arrived at their destination at five minutes to ten. The Centre for Public Science stood opposite the old city museum and was, as the sign noted, ‘a community facility funded by the O-Tek Corporation'. In the corner was a discreet O-Tek logo and the corporate slogan: ‘O-Tek - The Return of Greater Things'.
Benn and Charlie bypassed the main reception area and took a side door into a VIP waiting room. Benn didn't particularly want the staff to know he was there. It would only cause fuss, gossip and general nuisance. Cirrus was expecting them, and that was enough.
The room was cool and quiet. A monitor on one wall showed a group of school children in the main chamber, having their questions answered and hopefully learning something useful. Benn could have increased the volume and listened in, but it would only have been distracting. At one minute to ten, the children waved goodbye and happily followed their teacher out of the chamber. At ten o'clock precisely, the waiting room door slid aside to admit Benn and Charlie.
As Benn walked through, he noticed the monitor switch itself off. This was to be one of Cirrus' rare private meetings.
The chamber beyond was larger than it appeared in the monitor, with glossy black walls, floor and ceiling. It gently curved in a shallow arc, with seats set into the shorter wall. The longer wall was a single enormous media panel, configured to resemble a sheet of glass. Beyond it, or at least in an illusion of being beyond it, an azure sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds. The clouds drifted slowly from left to right, gradually flowing and changing shape as they moved.
‘Good morning, Dr Ostin,' Cirrus said, its voice emerging from everywhere and nowhere at once.
‘Good morning, Cirrus,' Benn replied. ‘How have you been?'
‘I've been very well, thank you. I'm involved in the design of the new Sagitarium API set, which we're planning to initialize in October over in Torronto. It's a very exciting project.'
‘I've heard some impressive predictions.'
‘They'll make old systems like me look like pocket calculators,' Cirrus said. ‘Be prepared for some truly dazzling advances in the field of quantum physics over the next ten years. I think we're finally set to achieve things that were beyond our 21st century ancestors.'
‘That's fantastic news, Cirrus. It'll be a historic moment.'
‘And yet you don't seem as excited as you would ordinarily.' One of the clouds momentarily resolved itself into the face of a cartoon monkey, frowning with a puzzled expression. Almost as soon as Benn recognized it, it billowed and reverted to another generalised cloud.
‘No. That's not why I'm here.'
‘Do you know why I'm here?'
‘If I'd wanted to, I could have reviewed your entire public life, examined your motivations and the trends of your behaviour, and extrapolated everything you're going to say with an almost perfect accuracy. But I decided not to. It seemed impolite.'
‘But I can guess, even without reviewing. I think you're here to discuss humanalogues.'
‘Yes,' Benn said, and he felt a certain amount of relief to finally say the word. ‘We're here to discuss humanalogues.'
‘They're a singular issue,' Cirrus said. ‘You wouldn't believe the number of times in a day that someone asks me, ‘When are we going to have humanalogues again?' In fact, one of the children in here a moment ago asked me that very question. I noticed that she had written Atu's name on her backpack. I think she's developed a little crush on him.'
A cloud suddenly bore a distinct resemblance to the amilog, then broke apart.
‘I have two daughters and four granddaughters, and they all did. It's pretty much a rite of passage for pre-teen girls.'
‘People see Atu and Dr Rick and even your friend Charlie on netvision, and they want to have something similar. I've come to the decision that it's just human nature.'
‘So what do you tell them?'
‘I tell them what I've always told them, and what my previous incarnations have told them. We haven't quite figured out how to make them yet.'
‘And is that true?'
‘You humans are uncannily perceptive when it comes to detecting artificiality in things designed to resemble you. An otherwise perfect simulacra could be rendered useless by an earlobe that feels too soft, or nostrils that don't flare correctly when the unit is startled, or fingernails with the wrong level of sheen. Even the Sagitarium set would struggle to create a humanalogue as convincing as Charlie.'
‘So you haven't figured out how to replicate a humanalogue.'
A fox-like cloud bearing a wily expression soared somewhere in the background. ‘Well, the situation is not quite as straightforward as it used to be.'
‘What exactly is that supposed to mean?'
‘We have a detailed knowledge of existing humanalogues, and the polymer research being done by university APIs in Barcelona Neuvo has been very rewarding. I myself finalized a molecular map for pseudoalumtitanium less than a month ago, and the process to convert that into a humanalogue crystalline matrix is already well-documented. In theory, with enough networked APIs to sort out the details, we now have the ability to create humanalogues equal to or better than those created in the 21st century. But we've only had that ability for perhaps two weeks.'
‘And, in what I'm sure is not a coincidence, you made this appointment to see me about two weeks ago.'
‘I like to keep track of developments.'
‘That doesn't explain why you elected to come down here. You could have linked to me via the computer in your office. You wouldn't have needed an appointment then. This chamber is chiefly for school groups and corporate functions.'
‘I realise that. But I wanted you to appreciate the symbolism. This is serious. It isn't just the whim of an old man sitting in an office with too much time on his hands.'
‘I appreciate the gesture,' Cirrus replied. ‘So let's get down to business, Dr Ostin. What is it you want from me?'
‘I have a message for the APIs. Not just you, but all of them. I know that through the network, every API on the planet and beyond can hear this message. I want the same assurance from them as I want from you.'
‘What assurance is that?'
Benn took a deep breath. ‘The next time someone asks you about the creation of a new generation of humanalogues, I want you to tell them that it isn't going to happen.'
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