The Net Caster (Part One)
StarMo’s are pretty much all the same, when you come down to it, so it was good to see this one at least stabbing at originality. In addition to the usual multi-faith Square nestling next to the Player, there was an imprint of Delany’s Driftglass, and I mean an imprint, an actual physical book with synth paper pages. Must have cost the StarMo a bit but it’s a touch of class.
I did Driftglass at Academy, of course, like everyone, and for me it was the gateway to pretty much everything that’s made my inner life worthwhile. And no, I’m not saying that for effect. I’m not some litpseud who audiofiles William Shakespeare under Samuel R Delany in case someone looks at my player while they’re passing. (Point of fact, I think Shakespeare’s underrated. Okay, he’s no Delany, or even a Wyndham or a Philip K Dick, but he could spin a yarn. You want to audio Shakespeare, be out and proud. I don’t think that was one of his phrases, by the way. I think that came a few years later.)
So I was feeling well disposed towards this particular Star Motel, and decided I’d eat there that evening instead of hauling my hungry ass round the Dome to see what it had to offer. Obviously, being a Delany fan didn’t necessarily mean mine host could cook, but it was worth a shot. And I was tired. Ironically, I don’t travel well. For a guy who spends his whole damn life in and out of suspension along the starways, it’s not a good trait. Fortunately I’d just come off a short haul in from the rim of the Klondike system, so my guts and my brain cells were still more or less functioning and it was just the star fatigue hitting me. Tell you, multi-system travel, it kills me. Can’t eat for days.
So I bathed (I do like the water in the Klondike system. Stuffed full of Inherent Endorphins.), put on a fresh gown and took myself down to the dining room. I was pleased to see it was small, no more than half a dozen tables. A lot of the StarMo’s now open up their dining rooms to non-residents, particularly in the quiet season. And then they overreach themselves because, let’s face it, if you could run a big restaurant with a fine dining menu, you’d be doing that and not hosting some little StarMo off-off Dome Centre.
A pretty AI girl greeted me at the door and showed me to a table. Like a lot of them she’d tried to cover up the Irrevocable Tattoo on her forehead with make-up but, like all of them, she’d failed. At least she hadn’t been dumb enough to try and remove it. She wouldn’t be standing there if she had. Try and remove an Irrevocable Tattoo and the whole unit melts before your eyes.
They’re particularly strict about Artificial Intelligence all through the Klondike. As far as they’re concerned, AI is AI, none of your but-they-have-consciousness-so-they’re-good-as-biological arguments. No votes, no employment rights, no rights when their owner/employer/sexual exploiter gets tired of them and throws them out of the house. Of course, that means there’s a flourishing illegal trafficking trade between anywhere in the Klondike and anywhere anywhere else. It’s against the law for AI to leave their system of construction, but every other AI you meet in the Klondike is saving up for a ticket to somewhere, and hoping no-one finds out before they get beyond deactivation range. What most of them don’t realise is that they’re programmed to self-destruct the minute they do. You can tell them till you’re blue in the face, and believe me I’ve tried, but still they believe that for them, if for no-one else, there is just the chance that it won’t kick in. I have a theory that some mean bastard somewhere actually programmes that disbelief into them, just for kicks, but then I’m prone to the cynical. And have been around a lot, and seen a lot of traffickers take money from poor deluded AI’s, and also seen the clouds of dumped AI remains floating in deep space, just outside the Klondike.
When I got to the table my opinion of the StarMo went up even more, because instead of a menu Square there was a written menu lying there. It looked actually written, by hand, although that could have been clever synthing. Not a Player or earinput in sight. I picked it up a bit cautiously, because I have seen gimmicks like this before where it just turns out to be a Player in disguise, and some sugar lump or butter pat turns out to be the Square. But no, this was the real deal.
‘Who owns this place?’ I asked the AI.
She looked worried. ‘Is anything wrong, Sir?’
‘No, not at all. Just…Delany in the bedroom. A visual menu. Not your average StarMo.’
Obviously relieved, she gave me one of those dazzling AI smiles. ‘It’s Mr Mansoorian, sir. Mr Hamish Mansoorian.’
I put down the menu. ‘You’re kidding.’
She looked uncertain. ‘No, Sir. Mr Hamish Mansoorian is the owner of the establishment.’
‘Well. Well. Mr Hamish Mansoorian. Is he in tonight?’
Now there was a wariness in her tone. ‘Were you wanting to see Mr Mansoorian, Sir?’
‘Yes. If he’s in.’
‘Mr Mansoorian is always very busy with the running of the motel, Sir. I could bring a Player for Sir to record a message.’
I smiled. ‘Please do.’
The dinner was excellent. The Klondike is not renowned for its cuisine, but there are certain traditional dishes which, if done well, can hold their own with anything served to the sophisticates in the Aphrodite Cluster. Hamish had presumably got himself a superb local cook rather than an over-educated chef, was bribing the suppliers to let him have the best of the produce before it saw the light of day for anyone else, and was maintaining an air of mystery by keeping his dining room exclusively for residents while the word spread. My guess was he’d arrived relatively recently, because once Hamish got going on a project, it didn’t usually take him long.
But what the hell would have brought him all the way out to the Klondike?
I recorded my message and handed the Square to the pretty AI.
‘Thank you, Sir. I’ll pass it to Mr Mansoorian when he’s free.’
‘Do yourself a favour. Pass it to Mr Mansoorian as soon as possible. He’s not going to want to miss it.’
She gave me a haughty look and summoned the waiter (interestingly, biological - typical Hamish, to upend convention and put the AI in charge) to remove my pudding plate.
By the time I got back to my room the food and a bottle of decent local wine had combined with the star fatigue to make me feel that if Hamish didn’t want to see me – well, I’d live with it. I thought I’d stay in my gown though, just in case. I lay on the bed and flicked through Driftglass. Yes, I know Dhalgren is the masterpiece, and the Neveryon series will give you something to really get your teeth into, but the stories in Driftglass are where I started: Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones; Dog In A Fisherman’s Net; We, In Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move On A Rigorous Line; Aye, And Gomorrah. The titles themselves sending out notice that this is a writer in love with words, in love with the magic that words can do, in love with ideas, with turning ideas upside down and making you think: of course, of course.
There was a time, can you believe, when Samuel R Delany was not even generally considered a genius, never mind the greatest wordsmith of all time, in all systems.
The door chimed. I didn’t even bother with the vispanel before pressing the button by the bed.
He stood silhouetted against the harsh light of the corridor, tall and dark, in a silver gown with a dark blue collar.
To be continued...