The Net Caster (Part Fourteen)
My father could never understand my mother’s fascination with Pre-Event Earth. He felt that anything other than a mild interest in the origins of the diaspora was unhealthy; the Pre-Eventers had screwed everything up on an impressive scale, and had little to teach us. He used to get irritated when my mother showed me and my sister images of Pre-Event artefacts and encouraged admiration, and he blamed her when my sister dropped out of Senior Academy, was arrested for social unrest and then ran off to the Dune with a fellow arrestee to join the Returners. He and my mother died in a Serenity blight without ever seeing her again. His blame was unfair – our mother was never an advocate of Return to a dead Earth, just an admirer of the civilisations that flourished there and created us.
One of the childhood images I remember most is a picture of an elaborate dwelling with multiple large rooms, in one of which was a four poster bed. My mother told us how the curtains used to be drawn round to keep the occupants warm and also that, however romantic the idea might seem, four posters were originally designed to stop dust, debris and insects falling on to sleepers during the night. She used to say that the four poster was a prime example of something beautiful being created out of unpleasant necessity, and thus particularly representative of the original human spirit of invention and imagination.
My parents never visited the Aphrodite, and I am not sure to this day if my mother would have loved it or hated it.
Perhaps it was these associations, or possibly just the whisky and the food and the prospect of death in the morning, which caused my sleep in the four poster to be fitful and full of elaborate dreams in which my mother slumped against an office wall, Hamish strutted in the gold uniform of a Unified officer while declaiming lines from Cage of Brass, and a belligerent young man tried to herd a flock of electric sheep.
I woke in the soft light of Cytherea’s double sunrise, fully clothed and on top of the bed. I looked across at the table. The remains of my meal and the bottle of whisky were still there. I decided I may as well finish the whisky – numbness might help me face whatever full daylight would bring – but when I lurched my way off the bed and over to the table, I found myself picking up the flask of water instead. Drinking myself into a stupor would be giving in, depriving myself of any chance of either escaping or understanding what the hell had happened to me.
From the full length window I looked out onto a small courtyard. A wrought iron table, two chairs and several green synth ceramic flower crocks were catching the strengthening rays of the two suns. There were similar courtyards, with similar contents, to left and right. Incredibly, this den of AI assassins and mysterious bio’s was part of a terrace of residential dwellings, and an alley very much like those in the Pleasure Quarter divided this terrace from the one behind it, which presumably fronted on to yet another pretty boulevard.
If I could somehow climb down from the window and climb over the head-high wall at the back of the courtyard, I could escape down the alley.
Onto a boulevard.
With no money, nowhere to go and no idea of the layout of the city.
I made my way back to the four poster bed, collecting the bottle of whisky on the way.
When I next opened my eyes the two suns were high. I was still fully clothed and on top of the bed. The whisky bottle was empty, and what I hadn’t drunk was spread out in a damp patch on the bedcover, exuding a dull fragrance of curdled honey.
I was not numb. My legs and arms ached, my skin crawled, and a vice was tightening round my forehead. For all of which I was grateful. I was still alive.
I sat up. The tray and its contents had been cleared, and hanging on the door of the ablutions room was a grey gown with a white collar, and a white undergown. A pair of boots, foot coverings neatly tucked inside, was below.
They meant me to go to my fate looking decent.
I bathed, noting the bruises on my arms left by my escort of the previous night, and assorted scrapes and grazes on my hands, presumably the result of groping my way round the Pleasure Quarter. The dust from the explosion still stippled my skin, and left a grey scum on the lavender-scented water. I rinsed round the tub, refilled it and had another, cleaner soak. When I was finished I scrubbed my teeth with the Cytherean version of a mouth cleanser (basically a rigid rod with equally rigid fibres attached) and helped myself to some of the unguents lined up on a wrought iron shelf.
I was quite calm. Maybe that was the whisky, or delayed shock from the events of the night, or exhaustion. Whatever would happen, would happen; it seemed to me I had little hope of controlling anything in the world of waitress assassins and system hopping AI that Hamish had lassoed me into.
Was this his world? Was he one of the major players, or was he too trapped by events beyond his control? I thought of the mass slaughters at the StarMo and the Pleasure Quarter, and the brutal killing of the inconsequential government official. I could not conceive of the suave and charming Hamish as a murderer of the innocent, or even of the guilty. But I could see the pragmatic and self-interested Hamish aligning himself with whichever side he thought was going to win.
Whereas I had not even worked out what options were on offer.
Both the grey gown and the undergown were plain but of the highest quality and beautifully cut. They and the boots fitted perfectly. Someone either had an uncanny eye for measurements, or the clothes had come from someone who knew my size, and my taste.
I stood, gowned and booted, and looked round the room. I didn’t want to leave it. I didn’t want to face whatever was on the other side of the door. Perhaps I could just stay here. I wouldn’t make any trouble. I could just stay here, sleep in the four poster and eat what they brought me. Perhaps they’d let me out in the courtyard every now and then; I could sit at the wrought iron table in the nurturing sunshine, reading Delany, lulled by the lavender air and the fragrances of flowers, and the odd bottle of Aphrodite whisky.
I am not a hero. I am not a subversive. I liked being a Net Caster. I liked my craft and I liked the life it brought me. Did I mention I have children? I am a Remote Parent because of my occupation, which brings automatic exemption from Parental Responsibility unless otherwise requested. Their mother sends news and a new image of them every year to the Agency which employs me, but of course I have never met them and she has chosen to abide strictly by the rules and withhold all information about my identity. However remote, it is satisfying to know that something of me will go on. Just occasionally I wonder what I would have been like as a Close Parent.
I stood looking down at the courtyard and thought, I will never see another image of my children.
When I stepped out onto the landing the building was silent.
To be continued...