The Net Caster (Part Twenty-Six)
The Supervisor said, ‘It can be done. Yes, we need specific data to search for an individual, but in these circumstances, we wouldn’t be searching for an individual. We would be searching for evidence of another form of biological life. The government has been doing it for years.’
‘The surplus results,’ I said. ‘But why the secrecy?’
Madam banged her glass on the table. ‘Is this boy completely stupid or terminally naïve? It’s government. They decide what it is or is not appropriate to tell those they govern. And in this case, they are completely and utterly right. Send a message through the systems that the home planets are disintegrating beneath our feet. Send a further message that we have found alien life which may or may not be hostile. Our friends in the Unified may be effective, up to a point, but it would require full scale military action to control that panic.’
No-one disagreed with her.
‘This argument,’ she said, ‘this dispute, this fight for control, whatever you want to call it, must be held in secret. A wholesale panic would be disaster for everyone.’
‘Which is why Madam is with us,’ said the Unified officer. ‘Corruption at her level requires a control of people and events which would be difficult to maintain in a panic, or in the last gasp of the habitable worlds. So she pays our bills. Which is why her lackey – ‘ the officer nodded at Hamish, ‘ - is sitting there at the head of the table. Money talks.’
Again, no-one disagreed. Hamish looked calm, as though nothing new had been added to the conversation.
Madam emptied her glass. ‘Who else would fund you? Who else could pay for equipment for your Casters to hack into the Agency systems? Who else could put enough money up front to guarantee security for the families of all these high minded martyrs to the cause? Who else could fund your assassin AI, or give our Unified friend here enough money to ensure the evacuation of a wanted fugitive from the Pleasure Quarter, under the noses of every officer in Cytherea? Or buy the explosives you all agonised so much about using?’
‘Why did you use them?’ I asked. ‘It doesn’t make sense. If you’re wanting to keep all this secret, two incidents of mass murder aren’t going to help.’
In the silence Madam said, ‘Go on then. Explain your little smoke and mirrors trick to him. And then one of you, any of you, dare to question my morality.’ She held out her glass towards Hamish, and he filled it once more.
It was the member of the Serenity Assembly who spoke. ‘The man at the Star Motel,’ he said. ‘He was getting too close.’
‘He knew what you were doing?’ I asked.
The Assembly member looked uncomfortable. ‘He had links, with some… enterprises, and he began to hear rumours about other connections, that other people had, with Madam…’
The Unified officer snorted. ‘He began to notice things. He was corrupt himself, and he had a nose for an oddity, a whiff of money coming from where it shouldn’t. Whatever else he was, he wasn’t stupid.’
‘Why not just have Agatha assassinate him?’ I asked.
They were looking at me, curiously. ‘The assassin AI. That’s how she was known,’ I said.
‘Really?’ said the Unified officer. ‘I didn’t think they gave the killing machines names. That was the plan, to have the AI kill him and make it look like AI rights people.’
‘Why AI rights?’
‘There are a number of people,’ said Hamish, ‘who are uncomfortable with the increasing humanisation of AI.’ He looked at the Unified officer. ‘Some people have more than one agenda.’
‘They’re machines,’ said the officer. ‘They ought to look like machines. One of these days they’ll all learn to remove or cover up that tattoo, and get round the speech pattern, just like the Assassins. And then…’
‘And then what?’ I asked. ‘The Assassins didn’t learn to circumvent the speech patterns, they were programmed that way. They didn’t remove the tattoos, they weren’t given them.’
‘You can see it here, in the Serenity,’ the officer said. ‘Children brought up to trust AI more than bios.’
‘Children here owe their lives to AI,’ I said. ‘Without AI, bios couldn’t live in the Serenity.’
‘But that’s just here,’ she said. ‘It isn’t the same in the Dune or the Klondike or the Aphrodite. Certainly not in the Kraken. The AI there are just tools. Machines that do things. But now we’re programming them to sing songs and run restaurants and think they can emigrate to another system. If we are thinking of moving onwards, and of maintaining the cohesion of the diaspora when we do it, we have to keep hold of what makes us biological. What makes us human. We should stop making pretend humans. Damn it, we’ve even stopped calling ourselves humans. We call ourselves biologicals now. We define ourselves against them.’
I looked round the table again, and they looked back at me. ‘But – we’re the ones who are doing it. It isn’t their fault.’
The Unified officer looked impatient. ‘Of course it isn’t their fault. They’re machines. It’s the idiots who want them to look more human, act more human, feel more human, that we have to stop. We are either alone out here in the universe, or one day we will have to hold our own against another species, maybe more than one. Either way, we need to hold on to what is precious and unique about being human. You can’t mimic that. You shouldn’t mimic that.’
‘So you murdered people, humans, to promote the cause of a unique human identity?’
The Kraken Representative said, ‘The AI put in too much explosive. It was meant to blow up one room and cause some other minor damage.’
‘Rubbish,’ I said. I turned to Hamish. ‘You sent her to get me out because you knew the whole thing was going up.’
The Kraken Representative’s hands fluttered round her face.
I kept looking at Hamish. ‘And what, the explosion in the Pleasure Quarter was also meant to be smaller? Or more time given to evacuate? But the nasty AI got it wrong? Was that the story that time, as well?’
There was a murmur around the table.
‘I didn’t know the whole StarMo would go up,’ he said. ‘I sent her to get you because it was important that you escaped. I had to make you believe you had to go.’
‘And the Pleasure Quarter?’
Hamish sounded weary. ‘The timing was wrong. They were all supposed to be in the Drama Quarter when it went off.’
I didn’t know if I believed him. ‘Why me, Hamish? You had it all set up. Why did you have to make me part of it?’
Melanie said, ‘We have a team of Casters based in the Serenity – ‘
‘No,’ I said. ‘I want him to tell me.’
‘This is no time for personal quarrels, Net Caster,’ said Madam.
I sat, quietly, waiting for Hamish to speak.
‘I wanted you on board,’ he said. ‘You’re one of the best.’
‘You didn’t think to ask me?’ I glanced at Melanie and the Supervisor. ‘None of you thought to ask me?’
‘It’s not something you just put in a message and beam across the airways,’ the Supervisor said. ‘You’re always out in the field. You choose to be out in the field. If you’d spent more time back at base…’
I said to Hamish, ‘If you didn’t know I was coming to your StarMo, how did you manage to get all that information out on to News Squares within hours of the explosion? ‘
‘It isn’t difficult,’ said Hamish. He looked at Madam. ‘With the right connections.’
‘So it was just chance,’ I said. ‘Just pure chance.’
‘No,’ said Hamish.
I saw Melanie make a small, frightened movement.
‘What?’ I said.
To be continued...