The Net Caster (Part Seventeen)
‘What?’ I said. ‘You set me up for murder so you can offer me a job?’
‘We set you up for murder so you could go on trial and be a very large nail in the coffin of the Net project,’ she said.
‘What about my coffin? Conspiracy to murder carries the death penalty in all systems – ‘
‘ – except the Serenity. I know. So you’ll be grateful we’re taking you there.’
After a moment I said, ‘To the Serenity?’
‘You’re going home, Net Caster,’ she said.
The Serenity system is the largest in the Union. Most of it is uninhabitable, defeating the engineering skills of the most sophisticated AI. Vast ice giants slowly circle its single sun, with only the four smaller worlds nearest that sun offering a home to the diaspora. And on each of the four, the presence of what we call the Serenity blight, the madness which takes hold of large numbers of sexually mature adults, periodically and apparently at random, and causes the population to drastically reduce its numbers by its own hand. The inhabitants of the Serenity are indeed serene; they know that if they choose to stay in their homeland their fate is entirely out of their control, and perhaps the real madness is that so many of them, like my mother and father, believe that living in the Serenity is worth it. My parents killed each other. I am grateful for that. They took no other lives.
Children in the Serenity never live with their parents. When we are very young we live in nurseries, tended by suitably programmed AI, and when we are old enough we board at our Academies, where more AI are always present. We always have our own spaces, and our parents visit us and we visit them and we have a home life, always with AI in attendance. The AI are our guardians. There is little warning when the blight strikes. Long ago the inhabitants of the Serenity agreed that children must be protected. They have not yet made the decision to stay in the Serenity.
I had not been back since I made the decision to leave.
‘It’s illegal to force anyone to go to the Serenity,’ I said. ‘You don’t know…’
‘You can appeal to the courts if you like,’ she said.
‘Why there? Is Hamish there?’
‘Who?’ she said.
I stood up, aware that I was shaking. ‘Don’t fuck with me. I don’t know what you did to that Cast, I don’t know what you’ve done with Hamish, but I grew up with Hamish Mansoorian, I saw Hamish Mansoorian just hours ago, even the fucking news Square told me Hamish Mansoorian is dead. I don’t care what you did to the fucking algorithms. And…’ I could barely stand. The sweat was pouring off me and nausea was rising. ‘And I don’t want to go to the fucking…’ I lurched against the table. I became aware of someone coming up behind me. I looked at the woman calmly standing there. She nodded to the someone, and my bruised arms were seized again. ‘No…’ I looked down at the table, and saw the remains of the two entirely herbal wraps she had given me to smoke.
They took me to the Serenity in an Ambulance Pod.
I didn’t find this out until later, of course. I was unconscious in the Pod when they unloaded it at the stellarport, and didn’t stir when the Duty Doctor did a routine inspection and passed me for loading onto the ship. Either the Doctor never watched news Squares or she had received a very hefty contribution towards her living expenses. She also passed me fit enough for Suspension, but they kept me drugged until long after we had disembarked, so at least I was spared the usual after effects. When I woke from my drug sleep, all I felt was head heavy and slightly disorientated.
I was in another bedroom, very different from the elaborate provision in Cytherea. Despite the physical disorientation, I knew where I was. Only the Serenity has those octagonal windows and curved walls. And I was in a round bed, and the door to the room was oval.
I looked round. The white walls were bare and the ice-blue stone floor had no covering. Besides the bed there was a plain synthwood cupboard, a set of drawers, and a single slatted chair. One of the octagonal windows was set into the wall just above the bed. If I raised myself slightly I could look outside. But I didn’t want to.
The oval door slid open at about the same time I became aware of the small lens looking at me from the ceiling.
‘Good morning,’ said the waitress assassin.
I allowed myself to look towards the window to gauge the light. It did indeed have the clear, hard edge of a Serenity morning.
‘I take it no bio’s were keen on this trip,’ I said.
She sat down on the slatted chair. ‘It was deemed more appropriate for AI.’
‘I suppose it could be handy to have a trained assassin around,’ I said. A thought struck me. ‘The children’s guardians. Are they assassins too?’
‘Not technically. As I understand it they’re specially programmed to defend the children, and will kill if necessary. They wouldn’t be much good if they didn’t.’
‘No,’ I said. There was only one blight during my childhood. The Academy went into lockdown and so we saw nothing, but heard a lot. My parents were visiting the Kraken on that occasion; my mother was giving a series of lectures and for once my father had agreed to go with her. Hamish’s parents had been at home and not on this occasion affected. His mother survived.
The waitress assassin had changed into local dress: a pale blue gown with darker embroidery on the sleeve cuffs and high collar, and dark blue boots. The black mark of an Irrevocable Tattoo sat squarely on her forehead. And her previously dark hair was now a light gold. No Serenity AI would have dark hair.
I nodded at the tattoo. ‘Why bother with that?’
She said, ‘The Serenity is probably the only system where AI are trusted more than bio’s.’
I said, ‘We don’t go round in a perpetual state of suspicion. I’ve never actually witnessed a blight. There was only one during my childhood and there have only been two since I’ve been adult.’
‘But when the system decides it’s time – ‘
‘That’s mystical crap,’ I said. ‘The system doesn’t decide anything. There’s something on the habitable worlds, something mineral they think, buried deep in the cores, and some combination of environmental factors brings it to the surface every so often.’
‘And they’ve never been able to identify it.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘And domes are no protection.’
‘It makes no sense that biologicals would choose to live here,’ she said.
‘And yet,’ I said, ‘we do.’
She inclined her head.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘There’s not enough of us to need numbers,’ she said. ‘We’re not part of a series.’
‘Will you kill me, Agatha, if I’m blighted?’
‘My instructions at the moment are to protect you should a blight occur, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.’
‘What circumstances would those be?’
‘It would take too long to go through all the permutations in my program,’ she said.
‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Are we going somewhere?’
To be continued...