The Net Caster (Part Twenty-Three)
‘I would have expected nothing less from you, Hamish Mansoorian,’ she said. ‘Everyone here could be dead in a few hours’ time, and you’re drowning their sorrows in pastry and wine. Hand me a glass or I’ll shoot you myself.’
Silence fell as she moved into the bay. I looked at the faces round me. All of them looked afraid.
I knew as well as they did who she was. Hers was one of the few faces that would be as familiar in the Dune as it was in the Aphrodite or the Serenity or the Kraken. Most of those who recognised her in any system would despise what she stood for. Some of them would admire it. All of them would fear it.
She was dressed in a pale blue gown with black threads woven through it, mimicking the Hannat stone that surrounded us. Her short silver hair was smoothed back from her face; the copious lines round her eyes, mouth and throat echoed the threads running through her gown. Bony, blue-veined hands were folded neatly in front of her. Her physical frame looked as though a breeze might lift and scatter it. Her grey eyes told you that no hurricane would dare.
Only Hamish seemed relaxed in her presence. The sound of the wine pouring into the glass echoed round the bay.
‘Madam,’ said Hamish, holding out the glass.
She moved round the table, took it from him, raised it, looked round the table and said, ‘Your health.’
No-one reciprocated, but there was a stirring of the air, as though a faint collective sigh had been released. Conversations began again in low voices.
Madam sat down next to me. ‘And so you are Hamish’s pet Caster.’
Madam nodded at Melanie and the Agency Supervisor. ‘Your colleagues here will verify, he has put all of us through a lot of trouble for you.’
‘Am I supposed to be grateful for being framed for murder?’
Her thin, wrinkled mouth flickered in a brief smile. She leaned back and said to Hamish, ‘You really were telling the truth. He has no ideology at all.’
‘I thought I had,’ I said. ‘I thought my ideology was using my skills and my talents for the benefit of law and order throughout the systems.’
‘That isn’t an ideology,’ she said. ‘That’s a slogan.’ She nodded at the Supervisor. ‘You taught him well.’
‘Do you know what one of my ambitions was?’ I asked her.
‘To cast a Net for me.’ She sounded bored. ‘The same as every Caster I’ve ever met. What a shame. From what Hamish said, I thought you were going to be something special.’
The Unified officer said, ‘I suppose now she is here, we can start.’
Hamish came and stood beside me at the table. ‘We can.’
The officer nodded at Edward. ‘Not with the AI here. And there are two more out in that passage.’
‘You know they have to be here,’ said Hamish.
‘Not right in here with us,’ said the Representative from the Kraken. ‘Surely, Mansoorian, you can’t expect any of us, but particularly someone from the Kraken, like myself, to trust AI now.’
‘I can vouch for their programming,’ said Hamish.
‘I hardly find that reassuring,’ she said, blinking at him.
‘I’m not staying down here without them,’ I said.
They looked at me in surprise, as though they had forgotten I could speak.
The Serenity Assembly member said, ‘He’s right. But this one doesn’t have to be right in with us. As long as they’re within earshot.’
‘Join the other AI, Edward,’ Hamish said.
Edward nodded and left the bay.
The Kraken Representative said, ‘The other AI, the one that was at the Healing Centre, what information did she carry about this house?’
‘None,’ said Hamish.
‘She must have had details of the location,’ said the Unified officer. She looked at me. ‘She was bringing him here.’
Hamish looked impatient. ‘We were beaming instructions to her while she was transporting him, one transitway at a time. That’s one of the advantages of using AI. Even if she had had the information, no-one could have accessed it. She was programmed to self-destruct in the event of any unauthorised attempt to access her circuits.’
‘You think the Unified don’t have technicians to match yours?’ said the officer.
‘Of course, but not, I would think, out in the field, on a search and pick up.’ He smiled. ‘Interesting that you refer to the technicians as ‘yours’ rather than ‘ours’.’
‘Don’t try and be clever with me, Mansoorian.’
Madam said, ‘Hamish can’t help being clever. Especially when the opportunity is handed to him so easily.’
The officer said, ‘If there was any doubt about my commitment, the fact that I am here, sitting at a table with you, Madam, should be proof of how far I am prepared to go for this cause.’
‘Cause,’ said Madam, pursing the wrinkled lips. ‘I wonder if we all see it as a cause.’
‘Some of us have sacrificed too much for it not to be.’ My Supervisor looked briefly at Madam, and then lowered his eyes.
Hamish said, ‘There need be no further concerns about the AI at the Healing Centre. She self-destructed, exactly as programmed.’
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
Hamish nodded at the older of the two officials who had brought me to the house.
The man cleared his throat, as though taken aback at having been asked to speak. ‘There is no response when we beam a signal to her.’
‘She may just not be responding,’ I said.
‘We have…someone, at the Healing Centre. They saw it.’
‘Are they sure it was her?’
The Representative from the Kraken looked at me with more warmth. ‘He is absolutely right. We need to be absolutely sure that this unit is destroyed. There must be no possibility that any part of it survives.’
‘There is no possibility,’ Hamish said.
‘Sending her back there was a risky thing,’ said the Representative. ‘Why did she not just stay with the Caster?’
‘As I said, we have someone at the Healing Centre. They also needed to be protected. They know far more than either the Caster or the AI.’
‘So what has happened to them?’ the Representative shrieked.
‘They are safe. The AI provided enough of a distraction for them to get away. Which was the intention. The AI had instructions to attack the Unified officers.’
‘To kill them?’ said the officer.
‘How many Unified were there?’ I asked.
‘Six,’ said the officer. ‘And how many did it kill, Mansoorian?’
‘Three,’ said the government official. ‘Our information is that the unit was then incapacitated by the remaining officers, and self-destructed. Nothing would be salvageable.’
The Kraken Representative shook her head, still not looking entirely satisfied.
‘The situation we have, therefore,’ said Hamish, ‘is that the Unified police, and those who control them – ‘ The officer raised her head, looked like she was about to speak, then thought better of it. ‘ – are aware that our fugitive friend here is on Hannat, and that he is not operating alone.’
‘I am not operating in any way whatsoever.’ I stood up, trembling. ‘I am only a fugitive because you made me one. You promised me answers, Hamish.’
He put his hand on my shoulder, as if to press me back down into my seat. I shook him off. ‘Now, Hamish. Now.’
‘For fuck’s sake,’ said Madam. ‘Tell the poor fool what he’s going to die for.’
To be continued...