The Net Caster (Part Ten)
Voices were coming from along the corridor. Not in the corridor, not that clear. Possibly from the dining room.
I got to my feet and stood by the door, listening. Several voices, raised in argument, a mixture of male and female, but I couldn’t make out the words and there was no way of knowing if they were bio or AI. They didn’t sound like Unified officers – this was an argument between individuals. There was no-one in charge.
I looked back at the case. It was useless to me, a liability now it had my location. But leaving it here was a calling card, and there was also something desolate about abandoning the badge of my office, the symbol of who I was.
The voices sounded pretty occupied and they were not coming any closer. I crouched down, closed the case (there was no way I could close down the signal) and looked for somewhere to hide it. The office was spartan. These particular AI had not been programmed to feel the need for potted plants or photographs, or unnecessary furniture. But behind the door was a small synth wood cabinet, which opened to reveal a collection of cables attached to inputs, each with a yellow looped label bearing the pattern of an Irrevocable Tattoo.
AI charging cables. They each had their own.
I wedged the case in the cabinet and shut the door. There was no lock on it. Whoever came looking for me would find the case, but maybe not for a while.
I stepped back to the door. The voices were no longer quite so heated, which meant that the argument was on its way to being resolved, one way or another, and the participants would be thinking about whatever they were going to do next.
I took one of the flasks of water and started backing down the corridor. It could not have looked more suspicious, but I did not fancy having my back turned to them if they saw me. I kept my fingertips on the wall to guide me in the darkness, and only when I had reached the branch which led to the outer door did I turn round and run.
Out in the alley the air was acrid, with jarring notes of lavender. A couple of ERVs were still wailing their tune, and the sky was full of spyrocraft lights. Instead of going back the way I had come, I took the other direction down the alley, leading me back to the heart of the Culinary section. What had happened had happened. There was little chance of another explosion or attack by whoever was responsible. I counted on both the Unified and whoever was looking for me assuming that people would be leaving the section rather than going back into it.
I was alone in the alley and when I came to another of those winding side streets, it was deserted. Again it was too well lit for comfort, but I had no choice, and started to follow it away from the boulevard, keeping as near to the edge and the walls and courtyards of the restaurants as I could.
I couldn’t fathom – where were all the AI? Had I misjudged the authorities and everyone, AI and bio, had been evacuated? Crystal Forty-Two-Two-Nine had not said anything about evacuation, and Crystal Forty-Two-Two-Nine, I was sure, would be scrupulous about following instructions.
Would have been.
The unpleasant acrid lavender stench was getting more diffuse - I was moving away from the site of the explosion. It must have been on or very near the boulevard. I wondered if the information the Unified received had been deliberately misleading, causing them to herd the bio’s towards the danger, or whether there had simply not been enough information to make a proper choice.
I stopped and took a drink from the flask. The water tasted strange. I sniffed the flask, touched my lips with my tongue and realised that the taste was coming from me, from something on my lips. I held one of my hands up to the pretty wrought iron lamp. My skin was covered by a fine silver dust.
I stared at it. And thought: haz-bomb. What contaminants or disease was I taking in through my throat, my nose, my skin? Was that why it was so quiet? Had those nearest to the explosion already succumbed?
I thought: AI aren’t vulnerable to contaminants or disease.
And looked around in fear.
I threw the water flask away and kept walking.
Whatever the silver dust was, it did not seem to be slowing me down or interfering with my thought processes, which were now focusing on the strange case of Mr Hamish Mansoorian. I almost smiled. Whatever else they might pin on me, they couldn’t get me for the murder of someone who never existed.
But Hamish had existed and very probably did still exist. He was well known in certain circles. He had been mentioned in the news Square.
I grew up with him.
Either Hamish was some sort of super AI with the ability to flit between systems and drink Aphrodite whisky (and bleed when other kids hit him in the playground, and indulge in pissing contests with other adolescents) or he was important enough for someone with the highest access to erase not only his present and future, but his past as well.
I felt in the pocket of my wretched Aphrodite trousers. The basic Player was still there. I slipped in the earinput, set the Player for local content and waited impatiently for it to update. The explosion was the main headline. The Square showed the scene of devastation a few streets and alleys away from me, and told me that several dozen bio’s, on their way to the Drama section, had been caught in the blast. In the light of the wrought iron lamps and the spotlights of spyrocraft, devastated restaurants and cafes gaped onto the boulevard, rubble crushing the flowers in the synthceramic white troughs. Bio’s lay underneath and on top of the debris. From what I could see it had happened some distance behind where I had stood with my aggressively frightened companion, well away from the archway and its drooping banner. I thought, he’s OK. He’ll be in safe in some spyrocraft by now. I wondered if he would be worried about me, asking questions, gradually putting two and two together, although my face was no longer dominating the news.
Already they were linking the explosion with the StarMo and the assassination in the Kraken. Questions were being asked throughout the Unified Systems, said the Square, about the motives of those responsible, and it showed, on the boulevard only few streets from me, AI being silently loaded into ERVs.
That would explain the desertion of the alleys and side streets.
The news Square was showing me an aerial view of the scene, a sweep which was taking in the boulevard and its arteries, when I heard the whish of spyrocraft blades. It took me a few seconds to make the connection and start running, and turn into the next alley, dimly lit compared to the side street, and crouch down hoping they wouldn’t see me. No-one, bio or AI, was meant to be where I was at that moment.
Where the fuck was I going to go and what the fuck was I going to do?
To be continued...