The Net Caster (Part Eighteen)
She stood up. ‘There are clothes in the cupboard and drawers. The ablutions room is down the corridor on the left.’
‘What is this place?’ I asked.
‘It’s a Healing Centre.’
The bare room. The absence of pictures, of anything that might disturb an already broken mind. Not all blight survivors survive intact.
‘Why have you brought me here?’
‘It’s private,’ she said. ‘There are not many visitors.’
‘I suppose not,’ I said. I sat up onto the edge of the bed and ran my hands over my face, fingering the fresh growth of beard. ‘How long have I been here?’
‘Nearly a week.’
‘What? You kept me drugged for a week?’
‘You were particularly ill when you came out of suspension. Even for someone with your sensitivities.’ Hamish’s briefing again. ‘The doctors thought it would be better if you stayed asleep.’
‘Doctors? Your doctors? Doctors who don’t mind having a wanted man on their premises? How did you get me out of Cytherea?’
She sat down again and told me about the Ambulance Pod and the obliging doctor.
I said, ‘Healing Centres are for a specific purpose. How did you get me in this one?’
‘I can’t answer that question. Would you like me to call a nurse to help you to the ablutions room?’
‘No,’ I said. I stood up, swayed, and grabbed at Agatha the waitress assassin for support. ‘Yes,’ I said.
They sent a junior nurse, a young male bio whose gentle manner and easy smile spoke well of his training in ministering to the afflicted. If he recognised me he gave no indication. I wondered how much attention the news reports had received here in the Serenity. We have always been pretty self-contained. We don’t get many tourists, although there are always those willing to play the odds for a glimpse of the glittering, needle pointed ice shards that thrust their way out from the core to reach for the pale blue sky. The shards vary in height but all are several times taller than any bio and some dominate the landscape around them. They do not melt. None of the inhabitable planets in the Serenity is particularly warm; the sun’s light is a metallic white that chills the mind as well as the body. But it is still a sun, and round the site of a shard there is ordinary rock and the occasional stub of vegetation and, where it is possible to walk in the open, bio’s can do so needing nothing more than a good Serenity overcoat. But the shards do not melt. Occasionally they crack, tearing the air with a grating primeval howl, and then they crumble, littering the ground for miles around with diamonds of hard, pure ice. And then, they melt. In the space of a day, a structure which has stood for as long as bio’s have lived on the planet has liquefied and sunk into the surface, on its way back to the core.
I grew up on Donwhe, the outermost habitable planet. The air is not breathable and so we live in domes, in my case one of the medium sized satellite domes a day’s surface-tunnel ride from Central. As a young child my only view of the shards was through the transparent tunnel walls, but when I was ten our Academy took us on a holiday to Rusalu, the innermost planet, where the air is breathable. For the first time I felt a sharp breeze on my skin, and saw the sky unmediated by layers of impermeable transparent safetyplex. And I saw shards up close (as close as we were allowed to get, some way from touching distance) and realised that I had never really seen them at all before. Their glitter has a cold, brooding fierceness that terrifies and diminishes the watcher. Tourists from other systems are not allowed even as close as we, the children of Serenity, are permitted. They view through the windows of transports, open mouthed and pointing, and always asking why they can’t go nearer. They’re told something about preservation and, just in case someone has the idea of coming back on their own to get closer, there is a veiled hint that proximity to the shards can bring on something like your own personal blight. It’s rubbish – no-one has ever been able to establish a connection between the shards and the blight – but it works, and it means that the tourists don’t have an experience of glittering malevolence to add to their already ambivalent feelings about the Serenity.
Even the water in the Serenity is always chilly, and I was grateful to be quickly dried and helped into a soft undergown, thick gown and foot coverings of synthwool, and a pair of lined boots. I thought briefly about the lens in the ceiling while I dressed, and how Agatha had previously entered the room the moment I stirred. I smiled at the memory of how she had turned her back while I dressed in the StarMo, and wondered if she was doing the same during her observation of me here.
And felt the disconnect. The machine Agatha would have no reason to look away. Any back turning had been done by her, in her assumed role as a service AI, to show respect for biological sensitivities.
Sure enough, she came in the moment I was dressed.
‘Are you feeling better?’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘Then we can proceed.’ The question had been one of pragmatism rather than concern.
‘Proceed with what?’
‘Instructions. There is a vehicle waiting for us outside.’
I looked out of the octagonal window. ‘Where are we?’ I knew we were not on Donwhe or Lagu: there was no transparent Dome between us and the sky. From my memory of that Academy trip, the sun looked too big for Rusalu. ‘Are we on Hannat?’ I had never been to Hannat.
‘We should take in the Crystal Mountains while we’re here. Everyone who comes to the Serenity goes to see the Crystal Mountains.’
I thought she gave me an amused look. And wondered if she was programmed to be amused.
Outside, the chill air had an astringent purity. Within the System, Hannat is known as the healing planet. Apart from the beauty of the Crystal Mountains and the half frozen Krael Sea, some bio’s believe that the air itself is therapeutic. After my first few breaths I could believe it: my nostrils dilated and darting fingers of cold flicked my brain cells back to full function.
In the distance a cluster of three monumental shards tore the air and commanded sky and landscape.
To be continued...