The Net Caster (Part Eleven)
The peering spyrocraft passed over me. I waited until the sigh of the blades had disappeared into the distance before I risked standing up.
I put the Player back in my pocket and looked up and down the alley. I started walking, but it hardly seemed to matter in what direction. It was only a matter of time. Once again the speed at which information was coming out hinted at the organisation behind events; someone could not only get the stuff out there, but also ensure that it played in exactly the way needed. I would not be the only idiot facing charges which had no basis in reality but would be backed up with the most solid evidence money could buy.
I arrived at another of the winding side streets. Presented to look like branches haphazardly meandering away from the boulevard, the streets were actually placed at regular intervals with, I realised, the exact same curve in the exact same place in each, and the exact same number of alleys leading off and linking them. There was nothing haphazard about bohemian Cytherea. At least in the Dune system they leave you in no doubt: metallic grey domes, flat grids of streets, functional buildings made of an impermeable plastic that barely bothers to mimic the indigenous redstone, and each member of the local gendarmerie carrying a personal arsenal on full display. There is very little need for the Unified Police in the Dune, unless it’s to rescue the inhabitants from their own public servants.
So, things might have been worse. I might have been waiting to be shot on sight in the Dune.
I started walking in what I guessed was the direction of the boulevard. I was now more frightened of the silver dust from a possible haz-bomb than I was of the Unified Police, too tired to think or plan anything more complicated than the actual process of putting one foot in front of the other.
A figure was standing, further along the street. It started walking towards me.
It wasn’t a Unified officer. The figure was familiar, and for a moment I struggled to bring my numbed faculties to bear.
‘No’ I said.
She smiled, inclined her head, and kept coming.
‘No. You can’t be here.’ I strained to see the details of her face. There was no sign of a Tattoo.
I understood. ‘You’re not AI.’
Without breaking stride she raised her arm in the light of those pretty, fake street lamps, and showed me the serial number etched just above her wrist.
Understanding faltered. ‘You can do that.’ The words were coming out of my mouth of their own volition, trying to help my brain interpret impossible information. ‘I know some bio’s do that. Fetishists. AI pretenders.’ She was within touching distance. ‘Or there’s two of you. You, and the one in the Klondike.’
‘No, there aren’t,’ she said, and she was right. No AI is exactly the same as another. Bio’s get deeply disturbed by the idea of a room full of identical AI. Each AI face is an amalgam of different bio facial characteristics, and none of the assemblies is identical.
We looked at each other in the brittle light. Instead of the neat waitress uniform she was in heavy trousers and a padded jacket.
‘Where the fuck is Hamish?’ I said.
She wasn’t alone. Two other figures had followed her down the street. No Tattoos, but what did that mean now?
‘You’re quite a hard man to keep track of,’ she said, as the two male figures took one of my arms each and began to escort me away from the boulevard. ‘If it hadn’t been for the fix from the case, we’d have been stumped.’
‘Did Hamish send you to find me?’ Then, ‘You have access to that signal?’ Then, ‘You work for the Agency?’
And then, ‘Did you plant the bomb?’
‘Not personally,’ she said. I had no idea which of the questions she was answering.
‘Is it a haz-bomb?’
‘Not as far as I’m aware.’
‘There’s this stuff…silver stuff…all over me.’
‘I take it you’ve never been in close proximity to an explosion before. It’s dust. Just dust. It isn’t silver. That’s the effect of these lamps. Not particularly good for bio lungs but it won’t kill you.’
The relief of what she was telling me mingled with concern that she knew so much about explosions and something, something else. A disconnect. Something, that my vanquished brain could not process, wasn’t right.
Something other than the obvious. ‘You can’t have come here from the Klondike. No AI can travel between systems.’
‘And yet,’ she said, ‘I have.’
I looked at my escorts. ‘These too?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It matters.’
She smiled. ‘Those too.’
We proceeded in silence. Their pace would have been too quick for me at any time; in my weakened state I stumbled and my breathing began to labour. The pressure on my arms increased. If necessary they would drag me along.
There were lights ahead of us, stronger lights. As we got nearer I realised we were approaching another boulevard, another regulation Aphrodite tourist pleaser. My companions showed no signs of concern, and the pace did not slacken.
The boulevard was deserted except for a single vehicle, its colour blanched by the street lamps, parked exactly at the point where we emerged from the side street.
I sat in the back between the two male AI, while the ex-waitress got in the front pilot seat.
‘Are you taking me to Hamish?’
She said, ‘What makes you think Hamish has all the answers?’
I said, ‘They’ve got spyrocraft sweeping the area. They’ll see anything that’s not an official vehicle.’
She said, ‘What makes you think this is not an official vehicle?’
I sat between the silent, motionless AI. If AI they were. I thought about my trip into the Culinary section, in the chatty pastel blue taxi.
And then I realised. She hadn’t once called me Sir.
To be continued...