The Net Caster (Part Five)
I paid for an hour in the second class Stopover Suite, showered, shaved, wished I hadn’t shaved because the picture on the Square showed me clean shaven and a bit of stubble might have helped, and put on my new Aphrodite clothes. I don’t like trouser legs. I get that they’re good in cold climates (though even then they look better with a decent gown on top) but the purpose of the flimsy leg coverings standard in the warmer parts of the Aphrodite defeats me. They stop the flow of air around the skin for one thing and, aesthetically, most biological legs are best hidden under flowing robes. If I was minded towards conspiracies, I would say that it’s evidence of Designer AI having a laugh.
Aphrodite clothes provide no hiding place for male biologicals. The tops are waist length and button down the front, and the jacket that goes over the whole ensemble is fitted. If whisky is the zenith of the Aphrodite’s general obsession with Pre-Event Earth, male clothing is the nadir.
I couldn’t even use my own coat. Too heavy for the climate, too at odds with the rest of me.
I wrapped my own clothes in the packaging from the Retail, lay down on the exceedingly firm and easily cleanable daybed, and brought out those options for another look.
I wondered how long I had before they put a block on Hamish’s CashTab. I had already decided against trying to get to another system – they would be checking all the flights. Assuming I could get out of the stellarport, my best bet would be to disappear into Cytherea and buy myself a little time to –
I looked at the black case holding the tools of my trade. It was also my method of communication and the way the Agency could find me. If I started operating it, they would be able to get a fix. It’s supposed to be a safety measure – Casters are not always the most popular people around. If the case is activated and the Caster does not respond to three signals in a row, they come looking for you. I didn’t suppose they’d even bother sending the signals for me.
But the only way I could solve this was by finding Hamish. And the only way I could do that was to cast a Net. They wanted me for at least conspiracy to murder, which is the death penalty in all systems except Serenity, so I might as well find Hamish and kill him, and go to my demise satisfied.
If I tucked myself away in some little known corner of Cytherea, off the tourist track and with as few people as possible to add to my trace, then there was just a chance I could cast the Net and get out before they reached me. How I would then go about reaching Hamish was another matter.
I checked the news Square again. I was still headlining. It said someone had discovered I had been falsifying castings for some time, protecting people who paid me well for the service.
Hamish couldn’t be doing this by himself. He would need people placed high up in the Agency to establish this kind of a set up. The speed with which the information was getting out there indicated that everything had been in place and ready. I started to wonder exactly when Hamish had decided that I was to be his scapegoat. I went back over my last assignment, the trip to the Klondike, the pure chance that had made me pick that particular StarMotel. There had been vacancies in other StarMo’s. I had put a message through to another one initially, but the woman who replied reminded me of my sister, never a happy comparison, so on a whim I’d moved on to the next on the list.
Short of Hamish planting women who looked like my sister in every other StarMo in the area, my choice had been completely random.
My hour was up. I paid the AI attendant for a Stopover locker and deposited the package of my own clothes. It would be found eventually, but it was one less thing for people to notice. I would have to hope that a small black case would not attract particular attention in a stellarport.
I made my way back to the concourse, my eyes firmly fixed on the main exit, unable to avoid the feeling that all other eyes were fixed firmly on me.
Cytherea’s sky was a pale china blue and its two suns were radiating a gentle, caring heat. The atmosphere is perfectly breathable in most parts of the Aphrodite: no domes, no ungainly tubes leading from buildings to surface cars. My skin – what was accessible through the Aphrodite clothes – was caressed by the famous lavender scented Cytherean air. It isn’t natural lavender. There’s no natural lavender on Cytherea or anywhere else in the Aphrodite. But there are strategically placed airborne diffusers throughout the system, so that the relaxing and wholly artificial scent of lavender permeates the memory of those who have visited the Cluster, fragrancing recollections of less relaxing, less wholesome and equally artificial holiday pursuits, and lapping gently round the edges of the decision making process for their next trip. Apparently various scents were tried before lavender was chosen as the most conducive to happy thoughts. It is another brilliant project designed by AI who can never experience its results.
I joined a surprisingly short queue for taxis. Ahead of me were two young women with a lot of very smart luggage, and a fractious family whose youngest child looked like she was one of the ten percent who are jump intolerant. She was more or less green and kept swaying.
I reached the head of the queue and tried to look a lot calmer than I felt. One thing going for a fugitive is most people’s assumption that exciting things happen somewhere else. The guy with the black case might look like that criminal on the news Square but it’s not likely now, is it? Until they hear that the criminal has actually been sighted in the area, after which pretty much anyone with an approximate resemblance must be him. Between those two states, there is a window of opportunity for escape. The fugitive’s problem is having no idea of the size of the window.
A pastel blue car pulled up next to me and the rear door swung smoothly upwards. Then I remembered. Aphrodite taxis don’t have drivers. They’re fully automated. You get in, tell them where you want to go, and they take you.
But I didn’t know where I wanted to go. You can’t ask a taxi for suggestions.
If I turned round and left the taxi standing, people would notice. They would wonder.
I got in.
‘Welcome to Cytherea,’ said the taxi. It was a male voice with a pleasant tenor timbre and just the slightest reassuring hint of local accent. ‘Today do you wish to identify as Sir, Madam or non-specific Passenger?’
Passenger, where would you like to go?’
I thought. The taxi waited patiently.
‘The Pleasure Quarter,’ I said.
‘Very well,’ said the taxi, politely. ‘Biological or AI?’
‘The journey to the AI Pleasure Quarter will take approximately fifteen to thirty standard minutes, depending on traffic conditions. The fare will be ten Cytherean shillings. Passenger, please place your Cash or Credit Tab in the payment slot.’
I slid Hamish’s Tab into the slot on the panel in front of me and waited.
‘Thank you,’ said the taxi. ‘Kindly fasten your seat belt.’
As we drew smoothly away from the stellarport, I saw a gold coloured vehicle come to a halt outside the main entrance and several uniformed figures tumble out with alacrity. I wondered if they would have a way of recalling the taxi, but nothing interrupted our journey. It was a pretty safe bet, though, that I would not be making any other purchases with Hamish’s CashTab.
The stellarport, like all stellarports, was some way out of the city, and the journey time told me that the AI Pleasure Quarter must itself be on the very outskirts. There are no such things as AI Pleasure Quarters in any other system, as far as I’m aware, but in the Aphrodite they’re a tourist attraction. The bio Pleasure Quarters are just for sex, as usual, but the AI use theirs for things they don’t get the chance to do elsewhere. I’d heard about them, but all my previous visits to the Aphrodite had been on business, no time for pleasure bio or AI, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Whatever it offered, there was a chance I could hide among the AI and avoid too much bio contact, thus reducing my trace. It was a pretty feeble hope, but the only one currently available.
We drove along an apparently endless boulevard. They like boulevards in the Aphrodite. It’s part of their identity, like the Klondike tunnels or the Kraken canoes. Pre-Event Earth again. There’s no reason why a transitway between a stellarport and a city should be bisected by white walled troughs failing to contain enthusiastic exuberances of flowers, or why it should be edged by tall wrought iron lamps that are pure illusion - it’s an intersystem-standard transparent transitway illuminated from below. But the Aphrodite likes its boulevards. They give the tourists confidence they’ve come somewhere classy, and that they are already in the city itself, rather than in a mobile limbo between travel and arrival.
The taxi said, ‘Passenger, which section of the Quarter is your preference?’
‘List the options.’
‘Visual, dramatic, musical, culinary, sexual.’
‘Culinary.’ I hadn’t eaten since Hamish’s fine dinner the night before. There was no time for other appetites.
‘Passenger, you will find cuisine to suit all tastes,’ the taxi assured me.
I would just have to hope that some of it was free.
To be continued…