The Net Caster (Part Seven)
The moving crowd was getting closer.
‘There is a possible security issue,’ said the officer, ‘and it’s my job, and my officers’ job, to get you out of any possible harm’s way.’
The young man took a step toward her. ‘Are you AI? Lift that cap up and show me. Are you AI?’
The woman said, ‘There are no AI officers in the Unified Police.’
‘It’s true,’ I told him. ‘They don’t let AI into the Unified.’
His belligerence was giving way to uncertainty.
‘I think we ought to do as she says,’ I said. ‘Because I think you may be right about that bomb.’
The first wave of the mob reached us. Half walking, half running, they obeyed the urging of the Unified officers, heading in the designated direction and holding on tightly to whatever lay between themselves and panic. I joined them. Their eyes darted to my face, but they were not looking for the fugitive from the StarMo. They were looking at my forehead, seeking any trace of an Irrevocable Tattoo.
Ahead of us, another of Aphrodite’s wrought iron structures was just becoming visible: a pretty archway, with some sort of banner hanging from it. The gateway to the Drama section, presumably.
The questioning young man was still beside me. ‘Why don’t they just take us out of here?’ he said in a low voice. The diamond-braided officer had obviously made an impression. ‘Why are they just sending us to another load of AI? They could send in spyrocraft to pick us up.’
As if on cue, the airy whish of spyroblades came faintly from the sky. I looked up into the deep mauve which is full darkness throughout the Aphrodite. A line of tiny lights was moving towards us.
‘Perhaps there’s nowhere to land back there,’ I said.
His head jerked in agreement, and he managed a grin of relief. ‘They’ll be taking us to Delany Circus,’ he said. ‘You know, that big arena thing where they do the adaptations. You could land a fleet there.’
‘There you are, then.’
He said, ‘They killed that woman in the Kraken.’
‘Do you think they want to take over? The AI?’
I said, ‘AI can’t want to do anything. They do as they’re programmed.’
He shook his head. ‘They took over Earth.’
If I could have spared the breath I’d have sighed loudly. ‘That’s a myth,’ I said. ‘That’s fragments of old Pre-Event tales mixed with the fact that after the Event there was no-one to maintain proper programming. The AI they had were very primitive and the bio’s lost control of them.’ Mother, you would be proud of me.
‘It’s the same thing,’
‘No, it isn’t,’ I said.
He looked ahead to the iron archway. ‘I wouldn’t trust them. Although that guy they’re looking for, the StarMo guy, he’s a bio. He’s one of those net casters. They’re all bio’s, aren’t they?’
‘I believe so,’ I said. I felt my fingers lock round my black case, held in the hand nearest him.
‘They say he did it to murder that politician. They say he was in love with some AI. Fucking pervert.’
I wondered if the young man had ever found his way to other parts of the AI Pleasure Quarter.
We were now close enough to read the banner drooping gracefully from the archway: Tonight Only In Delany Circus – Grain of Sand Theatre Company Presents Cage of Brass. I saw their production of Aye and Gomorrah last time I was in the Serenity system. It wasn’t bad. I was guessing this One Night Only would have to be postponed.
I thought of the AI restauranteurs, actors, singers, painters and prostitutes, watching their customers climb into spyrocraft and wondering when, if ever, they would return. If they had been programmed to act and sing, they must have been programmed to feel disappointment and loss.
I thought of the AI saving up for those tickets out of the Klondike.
I had a decision to make. I needed to break away from the main group while it was still a fairly chaotic mass, before it reached Delany Circus and was marshalled into smaller groups for the spyrocraft. It might be possible to slip away down one of the side streets, although they were annoyingly well lit in the purple darkness. The Aphrodite thought of everything for the comfort and safety of its tourists. Except for the possibility of murderous AI.
First I needed to ditch my companion, the only person who would notice I was missing. Sooner or later, when he got away from the Pleasure Quarter and took time to think, he would almost certainly look at a news Square and realise who he had been next to. But the Cytherean Unified had other things on their minds at the moment, and by the time he had told them, and they had formulated a plan of action, I might just have had time to cast a net for Hamish and get out.
We were coming up to one of the side streets. I looked round. There were no officers at this particular corner.
I stopped moving and doubled up, clutching my chest.
The young man stopped beside me. ‘What is it?’ Behind us people muttered as they negotiated their way round.
‘I have an artificial heart,’ I gasped. ‘I think there’s some interference…maybe the AI are putting out a signal…’
He was prepared to believe it. He took my arm and looked round. ‘I’ll find someone.’
‘No, no, you go on. I’ll just stop here at the side for a moment. I’m sure one of the officers will help.’
‘I don’t like to leave you.’
‘There’s nothing you can do. The officers will be carrying emergency assistance kits, they always do. I’ll be fine.’ I started moving towards the corner.
My companion said, ‘I expect the ERVs will be along in a minute. They'll be able to take you.’
I could hardly tell him that being bundled into an Emergency Response Vehicle was the last thing I required.
'You take care,' he said.
He moved away, glancing back briefly. I felt guilty at the concern in his eyes.
I slipped into the side street and ran, keeping my eyes firmly on the curve up ahead which would take me out of sight of the boulevard. I wondered what I would say if I met anyone, particularly one of the Unified. They would hardly take the heart story from someone running full pelt.
As I rounded the curve I heard a shout behind me.
I kept running. An alley opened up to my left and I bolted down it. I was running past high walls and suddenly realised I was also going past doors, old fashioned Pre-Event doors with handles, presumably leading into the backs of restaurants and cafes. I stopped, twisted the handle on one. Locked. I tried the next. Locked. I could hear more voices in the distance behind me. I ran again, stopped again, twisted a handle.
And fell through into darkness.
I needed to lock the door. My clumsy fingers found no key in the lock and no bolt.
I peered. I could see walls on either side, painted white, not far apart. I was in some sort of corridor. There was no furniture, nothing to push against the door.
I sat against one of the walls. I was finished. They would come for me and find me and I could tell them all I wanted about the deviousness of my old friend Hamish Mansoorian. As far as they were concerned, Hamish was a dead man and I was the one who killed him.
The building gave a small shudder. From somewhere on the boulevard, or in a side street, a massive explosion reverberated into the purple Cytherean night.
To be continued…