The Net Caster (Part Four)
I went back to the café, ordered another coffee and replayed the Square several times.
There was nothing left of the StarMo, or anyone in it. So that story wouldn’t fool the authorities for long. They would be casting a Net for Hamish within hours, if they hadn’t started already. Even if they couldn’t pick up a proper trace, they would have enough to know that he was alive, that somewhere out there his particles were still interacting with others. Eventually they would cast for everyone who had been in the StarMo, based on the register logged with the Klondike Transit Authority. Everyone. Including the only one who got away.
I considered my options. Only a few hours ago these had revolved around having a good breakfast and possibly confronting Hamish. Now it was a choice between presenting myself and a slab of incriminating evidence to the local authorities, or looking guilty by hiding until I could have a proper conversation with my employing Agency. Who might also be sceptical. Casters do go rogue; the skills are worth a fortune on the open market.
What was it the AI girl had said? Even I couldn’t trace the money back to Hamish. Anyone could have left me that CashTab.
There was an update on the news Square. They had uncovered a motive for the explosion. One of the guests was a politician who was particularly and savagely opposed to any form of AI rights. The speculation was that he had come to this small, comfortable and out of the way StarMo for an illicit weekend with a Pleasure AI. Rather than shooting him, someone had decided his demise was worth an entire StarMo of collateral damage, including the unsuspecting AI.
And Hamish Mansoorian had known it was coming.
Who had Hamish sold his soul to? AI supporters? I thought of the girl. It had been known before: biologicals who got so far into AI rights they fell in love. In some ways a lone and narcissistic personality like Hamish fitted the profile, but somehow I couldn’t see any finer emotion trumping his pragmatism. No, it would be something considerably more complex.
Perhaps Hamish had burned down the Reichstag.
It’s an old trick. Do something reprehensible, then make it seem as though your enemies have done it. The Reichstag phrase comes from Pre-Event Earth history – the aspiring dictator Adolf Hitler burned down a symbolic government building and successfully blamed his political opponents. Repression of opponents, swift victory for Adolf. Not that I thought Hamish was Adolf. Hamish was the guy Adolf paid to light the match.
Was the whole StarMo thing a set-up from start to finish? A lot of trouble to go to for just one spouty politician.
I thought of how worried Hamish had been about my presence at the StarMo. Of course. Whoever was employing him had been able to promise there would be no Net cast for him, or that it would be done by someone who was either corrupt enough or inept enough to concur that he was dead.
A promise from pretty high up, then. From someone after more than just one spouty politician.
There was another update on the Square. ‘This is the biological individual the authorities are seeking in connection with the explosion at the StarMotel. We understand that the authorities have called in their most expert Net Casters…’
Yep. My face was the one looking out at me from the Square.
I tried not to stare round the concourse. Travellers walked quickly and slowly, stood tense and relaxed, ate, inspected the Retails, talked, sulked, kissed, argued and browsed their Squares. And any minute now one or several would look up from a Square, glance aimlessly around, and think, hey, that guy over there…
I needed to ditch the gown. It wasn’t common around here, particularly not crumpled and grubby. I’d already got a few looks. But how mad would I be to walk into a Retail, bold as brass, and buy new clothes?
I told my brain not to panic, to think logically. Logically, Retail AI, occupied with customers frittering away their holiday credits on stellarport souvenirs, would not have caught up on the latest news. With luck, by the time they – and their customers – were turning to each other to say, ‘I’m sure it was him. Do you think it was him? I’m sure it was him,’ Hamish’s money would have taken me far, far away.
Leaving a trace as wide as Orion’s belt.
I started across the concourse. Too fast. Too slow. Fuck it, what pace is normal? While keeping my eyes firmly fixed on my Retail of choice I managed to nearly fall over a small child zooming a toy stellarship across the concourse floor. The parents glared at me.
‘Sorry…sorry…’ and my mind’s eye saw my trace spike towards the heavens.
The AI in the clothing Retail had the mahogany skin colour most prevalent in this section of the Aphrodite. I’ve never been sure about giving AI the local pigmentation. In theory it makes them more part of the community and encourages biologicals to accept them as such. Let’s gloss quickly over the highly evolved bio psyche that only feels comfortable with machines of the right colour.
The AI boy smiled politely, with no hint of wariness. ‘Can I help Sir? Is Sir seeking anything special?’ He looked me up and down.
I smiled back. ‘Lost luggage,’ I said. ‘It’s gone to the Klondike. I need something…’ I gestured helplessly at my stale gown.
The AI shook his head and tutted. ‘You know, Sir is the third person to have come in here with that problem in as many days. You can’t believe it, can you? How simple can it be to send luggage to the right destination? Is Sir looking for similar?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘When in Rome…’
The AI looked blank. I reflected that not everyone was brought up by a mother who lectured on Pre-Event Earth culture.
And was jolted by the disconnect. I meant, not everyone was programmed by someone whose mother lectured on Pre-Event Earth culture.
‘I’m looking for local style,’ I said.
Quarter of an hour later I was feeding Hamish’s Tab into the check-out slot, a neatly packaged collection of local clothes tucked under my arm. I fully expected the check-out to flash some lurid green error sign at me, possibly with an image of Hamish laughing his head off, but it went through smoothly. I noticed the AI watching me, and realised that using cash to pay this amount was unusual, even in the Aphrodite.
I smiled again. ‘Thank you,’ I said.
The AI inclined his head. ‘Sir is very welcome. I hope Sir’s luggage is soon located.’
Out on the concourse, I glanced back. Either the AI was staring out of the window in stand-by mode, waiting for the next customer, or he was still watching me.
To be continued…