The Net Caster (Part Twenty-Four)
In the silence, Hamish pulled out a chair and sat down. After a moment I followed suit. He clasped his hands in front of him, the fingers twisting together. I had never seen Hamish uncomfortable before, apparently unsure where to begin.
In the end it was Melanie who spoke, directly to Madam. ‘It is not a slogan,’ she said. ‘Working to maintain law and order throughout the systems, it is not a slogan. It is, genuinely, what motivates Casters.’ She looked steadily at Madam. ‘It suits people like you to believe we are neither particularly intelligent nor particularly creative, little more than components of the machines we use and the calculations we perform. But you are wrong. We interpret. We make connections. We can make an assessment, an accurate assessment, of what you will do and where you will go. And even you, Madam, the wealthiest biological in the systems, cannot do that. If you want to fight us, you must use us. If you want to stay one step ahead of us, you must employ one of us to tell you what that one step should be.’
Madam looked back at her. ‘You are nothing without your machinery.’
‘No, and neither are you. None of us is. We depend on our machines. From these little black cases that we Casters carry, that carry who we are, to whatever processes launder your money, Madam, to the AI standing out there waiting to protect us against ourselves. We cannot live without them.’
‘You believe in AI rights?’ said Madam.
Melanie smiled. ‘You are too intelligent to think that is even a valid question. There is no such thing as AI consciousness. No such thing as AI rights, or responsibility.’ She glanced at me. ‘However much we may want there to be.’
She had always been able to see me, to know what I felt. It was one of the reasons our relationship failed.
Melanie said, ‘My colleague is no fool, Madam. As our friend from the Unified said, you have all put yourselves to a lot of trouble on his account.’
Madam continued to scrutinise her for a moment, then sat back with a smile. ‘There are some people I would prefer to be with me rather than against me.’ She looked round the table. ‘In this company, that equates to you and Mansoorian. I reserve judgement about your colleague.’ She raised her glass, again, to the company.
‘I cannot say I would never wish to consider myself with you, Madam,’ said the member of the Serenity assembly.
‘Only with my money,’ she said, sipping her wine.
Hamish raised his hand. ‘Whatever our differences, we agree on our immediate purpose, which is to capture control of the Net programme from the government.’
‘That’s what this is all about?’ I said. ‘You want to control the Net programme?’
‘No, that isn’t what it’s about,’ said Hamish, ‘but that is something we have to do to achieve what it’s about.’
‘Looking for alien life?’
The Kraken Representative leant forward ‘Progress. And safety.’
I looked at Hamish.
He placed his hands flat on the table. ‘For some time there have been signs that biological occupation may be slowly destroying the diaspora planets. Here in the Serenity, the shards are becoming increasingly unpredictable. More of them are crumbling, and new ones are erupting, at a much faster rate than we have seen before. About half the clusters that have been here since bios first arrived have disappeared in the last five years. They have been replaced by larger clusters with taller individual shards, but they seem to be more unstable. About a quarter of the new clusters have also crumbled within two years of erupting. The ones that replace them are larger and taller still.’
‘What have bios got to do with the eruption of the shards?’ I asked.
‘We don’t know, but we do know that it is only happening on the inhabited worlds. Observations from uninhabited worlds show no such developments.’
I said, ‘Does it matter? Bios have lived with the shards for centuries.’
‘When the new shards erupt,’ he said, ‘they do so almost fully formed. A shard hundreds of feet high can materialise in the space of a few hours, with no prior warning. No trace tremors beforehand. In Lagu, one cluster of five shards erupted in the middle of a Dome. Within hours they penetrated the outer skin.’
‘That’s impossible,’ I said. ‘The shards are made of ice. They would shatter.’
He said, ‘They did not shatter. Attempts were made to destroy them, but they failed, and the Dome was penetrated. Over three thousand biologicals died.’
‘Why didn’t they evacuate?’
‘They did,’ said Hamish. ‘It was a satellite Dome with only three tunnels out. They got about half the people away. Shortly afterwards, they were afflicted by blight.’
‘No-one’s ever found a connection between the shards and blight.’
‘There was a similar coincidence on Rusalu,’ said the Supervisor. He was also a child of the Serenity. ‘It may be that the increasing instability of the shards and the violence of the eruptions…’ He shook his head.
‘There has been increased geological activity throughout the Dune,’ said Melanie. ‘A number of volcanic eruptions and surfacequakes. It’s always difficult to get information out of there, but those of us with family connections…’ she stopped.
The Kraken Representative started to blink. ‘We have experienced a rising of the waters on all the inhabited planets. There seems to be no reason for it. Lives have been lost. We have always lived on the water, or near the water, and treated it with respect. It shapes our culture. Now,’ her hands fluttered to her face, ‘it is turning against us. Our home is no longer safe.’
The Serenity Assembly member shifted in his chair. ‘And this is the problem. The idea that the inhabited worlds are somehow ‘turning against’ us. Kraken whimsy helps no-one.’
The woman blinked furiously. ‘And wilful refusal to accept the evidence all around us does?’
‘What matters here is fact,’ said Hamish. ‘In the Klondike they have seen abrupt changes in the atmosphere in some parts of the system. Domes have cracked in some places. One Dome collapsed completely. Whether caused by a natural phase of planetary development, or as a result of our engineering of the environments, the inhabited worlds are showing signs of destabilisation, to the extent that it may threaten biological existence.’
‘There are no such signs anywhere in the Aphrodite Cluster,’ said the Assembly member. ‘And the Aphrodite is probably the most engineered environment of any of the inhabited worlds.’
‘Even if the Aphrodite remains stable,’ said Hamish, ‘it is directly affected by what is happening on the other worlds. The systems are interlinked, and must remain so. The cohesion of the diaspora must be maintained at all costs. The Aphrodite cannot exist by itself.’
The Assembly member nodded, with resignation, as though accepting an unacceptable fact.
I looked at Hamish. Who had replaced the dodgy businessman, the charming, self-serving rogue I had known since childhood, with this stern creature who delivered lectures to the powerful?
‘What do you mean, the Aphrodite cannot exist by itself?’ I asked.
To be continued...