The Net Caster (Part Nineteen)
It was only when Agatha said, ‘Does it disturb you?’ that I realised I was standing still.
‘Yes, it disturbs me. It disturbs everyone in the Serenity. We learn to live with the disturbance, with being always disturbed.’
She frowned. ‘It makes no sense. This system is hostile to biological life.’
‘Most biologicals born in the Serenity choose to stay here,’ I told her. ‘Other systems seem…flat, by comparison.’ I thought of the drowsy hedonism of the Aphrodite, the daily slog of life in the Klondike, the shallow whimsicality of the Kraken. ‘If we do settle elsewhere, it tends to be the Dune. Where life is equally disturbing.’
She looked at me. ‘Net Casters don’t settle anywhere.’
‘No,’ I said.
I’d heard about Hannat’s transparent vehicles – even the inhabitants never seem sure whether these are a sign of complete openness or overwhelming suspicion. Agatha led me to a small two-seater. We don’t have those on Donwhe – any private vehicles are rare there. Everyone uses communal transport.
I watched while she programmed in our destination. ‘Are you going to tell me where we’re going?’
‘My instructions do not include that.’
The Healing Centre was set amidst large rock gardens of the kind found throughout the Serenity. Most of the rocks on Donwhe are grey, flecked with veins of sparkling silver. The predominant stone on Hannat seemed to be a deep blue threaded with veins of black; passing through the gardens reminded me of pictures my mother showed me of spider webs on Earth.
I am not sure why it felt good to turn out of the rock gardens onto a standard flat transitway. There has never been any evidence of anything like a spider in any of the diaspora systems.
Despite, or maybe because of, its congenital madness, the biological population of the Serenity chooses to standardise its architecture and its public design. Before long the transitway began to curve, smoothly, for no perceptible reason in this flat landscape. The buildings either side may have been faced with the black-veined blue stone, or a synthetic substitute, but their shape told of their function, as it would have done on Donwhe or Rusalu or Lagu. To the left I saw the gently rotund frontage of an Academy, its windows stretching from ground to roof. This would be the public face of the establishment; behind it, grouped around spacious grounds, would be the Junior, Middle and Senior Academies themselves, gently curving, undulating buildings enfolding their students with reassurance. Inside, the top of each ground to roof window would have a rigid rolled up shield ready to drop at the press of a button on the emergency pack carried by each Academy AI.
I looked to the other side of the transitway, to the straight frontages and crenellated roofs of a series of government buildings. There were no residential dwellings or retails. The buildings all looked fresh and their stone glistened in the crisp air. Hannat was apparently following the latest in Serenity town planning: put all the public buildings, whether they housed students or valuable records, away from the private ones.
The transitway curved again. The numbers of buildings dwindled and eventually gave way to formally laid out rock gardens. As we swung into another curve, the rounded shapes of private buildings, homes and retails, became visible in the distance.
Further distant still, the shards sought the sky.
The transitway was quiet. A few vehicles passed on the other side and I could see a couple up ahead of us.
Agatha glanced at the vehicle’s vispanel.
‘Everything OK?’ I asked.
‘I have received instructions to stop and make contact with the occupants of the vehicle following us.’
I craned to see the vispanel. ‘Who are they?’
‘They will be your escort from here on.’
Agatha steered the vehicle onto the emergency track beside the transit way. We glided to a stop. A few seconds later the other vehicle slid in front of us, blocking any exit.
‘Who are you handing me over to?’
‘I have received instructions,’ she said.
The doors of the other vehicle, a four-seater, opened. Two male figures got out and started walking towards us. They were dressed in the dark grey gowns and black boots of government officials.
‘Who are they? Agatha? You said you were programmed to protect me!’
‘I have received new instructions.’
The door locks whirred. One of the figures came level with my door and pulled it open. ‘Please get out of the vehicle.’
She sat motionless, looking straight ahead.
‘Are they going to kill me?’
‘I do not have that information.’
The male bent down and took my arm. ‘Please. Get out of the vehicle.’
I obeyed. The male holding my arm was an older bio. His companion was younger, with no trace of a tattoo. Both had the fair skin of the Serenity, and the older had spoken in the clipped local diction.
The door of the vehicle gently closed. The younger male bent down to speak to Agatha.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ I felt weary rather than afraid. Weary, and abandoned.
The older male said, ‘We are your escort.’
I nodded towards Agatha. ‘She’s my escort.’
‘She’s needed elsewhere. There have been some complications.’
The younger male straightened. ‘He hasn’t been told anything yet.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘He hasn’t.’ I looked at them both. ‘Complications?’
‘Unexpected circumstances,’ the older one said.
‘It’s a fucking blight, isn’t it?’ I shouted at Agatha. ‘It’s a fucking blight and you’re handing me over to Bio’s.’
‘It isn’t a blight,’ the older one said. ‘For once the Unified have done their job. They’re looking for you on Hannat.’
After a minute I said, ‘I’d feel safer with her than you.’
‘You’ll be safe where we’re taking you,’ said the younger one.
They bundled me into the back of their vehicle, locked the doors and the younger one steered the vehicle back onto the transitway. I leaned forward for a glimpse of the vispanel. The two seater didn’t move. I watched until the transitway curved again and it was lost to sight.
‘Can you tell me where we’re going? Or who you are?’
‘We’re your escort.’
I slumped back in the seat. ‘This place we’re going – is Hamish Mansoorian there?’
I turned my face to the flat landscape, and the dance of light in the sky which indicated that the Crystal Mountains were somewhere over the horizon. We seemed to be getting closer to the shards, but I knew that in this landscape that could be an optical illusion. We were passing large retails, and soon rounded dwellings and raised pediways lined the transitway. It reminded me of Rusalu; in Donwhe communal transport runs through the surface tunnels right into the Domes. There is no gradual increase in habitation. You are either wending your way through a deserted landscape, or you are in the bustle of the Dome.
We followed a narrow curve to the left. We were now in the heart of a residential district and buildings towered above the transitway. All of them were faced with blue, black-veined stone that was too regular to be natural; the pattern of black threads was particularly dense, and the veins seemed almost to pulse. However therapeutic the air and mountains, I could not see that these structures would heal either mind or body.
The vehicle glided to the left again, and after a few minutes the buildings were less high and there were fewer people on the pediway. These dwellings were mainly three storeys at most, and were fronted by large rock gardens. In amongst the blue I caught glimpses of glittering grey stone from Donwhe, soft pink from Rusalu and the pale green of Lagu. Whoever lived here could afford to commission bespoke synthetics.
We turned off the transitway onto a narrower pathway, which led up to a two storey dwelling. The blue facing was dotted with Donwhe stone, with the octagonal windows framed by Rusalu pink. The wooden door slid open as we came to a halt, and a figure stepped onto the pathway.
I waited for the doors to unlock, and got slowly out of the vehicle.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Of all the diaspora worlds in all the universe…’
‘I’ll wait until you tell me exactly what’s going on,’ I said, ‘and then I’m going to kill you.’
To be continued...