The Net Caster (Part Twenty-Two)
When settlers on the Serenity first began to realise that blights were part of life, they tried various measures to protect themselves and their families. For the richer, one of these was the construction of hidden chambers under their dwellings. When they realised that sealing adult members of a family in together was a guarantee of murder they took to locking the children away on their own, but of course the parents knew how to get in, so that didn’t work either. Eventually the process was handed over to household AI, who set the controls and held the access codes. Unfortunately the parents knew which AI held the secrets, and frequently destroyed expensive units in their frenzied attempts to retrieve the codes and destroy their children. A system of logging codes with local government administrators was tried, but no-one really believed that the details could be totally secure from official Bios, and no-one was happy about handing over access their homes to AI programmed by unknown government officials. Eventually the rich had to follow the poor in depositing their children in central spaces guarded by specially programmed AI, which at least ensured that the Academies were run to the best standards and had the highest level of protection available.
The dwelling we were in must have been older than I had thought, to have a chamber beneath it. It is also unusual to find one that is still accessible; most of them were sealed off years ago by families with too many collective memories of their failure.
The original chambers were no more than the size of a room at most; this one had been extended into a series of bays of varying size which looked to stretch underneath the entire house. We walked along a passage lined with the black-veined blue stone, low light coming from a continuous strip set into the ceiling. When I looked up I saw that the stone formed a seamless arch joining both sides, with the veins, clearly and strongly visible beside the light strip, slithering away into the nebulous curves linking ceiling with walls.
A stronger light was coming from a bay further along the passage. A male AI stepped out as we approached.
‘Good afternoon, Sir,’ he said to Hamish.
‘Good afternoon, Edward. Is everything prepared?’
‘As Sir requested.’
‘Including the food?’
‘According to Sir’s specifications.’
Hamish turned to me with his usual amiable grin. ‘I expect you’re hungry. I understand you haven’t been able to eat much since you arrived. They’ve been giving you nutrients but it’s hardly a decent meal.’
I remembered the warm, fluffy Cytherean rolls, and realised I hadn’t even thought about food.
‘I enjoyed running the StarMo,’ said Hamish, looking wistful. ‘We had a splendid restaurant. But of course, you know that.’
The handwritten menu. The waitress assassin.
The furnishings were incongruous. The same rich Dune floor coverings and wall tapestries as upstairs, with the central wall left bare and accommodating five images, apparently hand painted, of local scenery: two of the Crystal Mountains, one of the Krael Sea, and two of the house itself, front and back. The food was laid out on a heavy wooden sideboard, complete with three bottles of wine. In the middle of the bay was a large round table encircled by chairs, with a player and earinput neatly laid at every place.
‘Conference, trial or party?’ I asked Hamish.
‘Do try the food,’ he said. ‘The others will be here shortly, but there’s no reason to wait. I would think your need is greater than theirs.’
Now the food was in front of me, I was hungry. I loaded a plate with several crescent shaped pastries and spoonfuls of a mixed salad concoction shiny with dressing. The crescent shape is typical of Hannat – plain for savoury fillings and elaborately decorated for sweet. On Donwhe we have round pastries for savoury and triangular for sweet, and on Rusalu their savouries are triangular, just to confuse things, and they have squares for sweet. Lagu does all sorts of shapes and sticks labels on them so you know what’s what. I brought some Rusalu pastries back from the Academy trip for my parents. My father reckoned the fillings were better than ours and for some time afterwards he pestered their cook AI to make Rusalu rather than Donwhe pastries, but she could never get the ingredients locally.
It was a long time since I had had a Serenity pastry of any kind.
Hamish handed me a glass of wine. That wasn’t local; the Serenity is not known for its wine. I had heard of Hannat mead, and Donwhe produces a decent cider, but wine is an expensive import from the Aphrodite or the Klondike – the latter’s rich, robust reds go down particularly well. You can get bottles of the thin, misty Kraken wine more cheaply but, honestly, who would want to?
This was a strong, perfumed white from one of the central Aphrodite growers. I raised my glass to Hamish and then took just a few sips. Aphrodite wine is heady and my glass had been generously filled.
Footsteps and voices became audible from the end of the passage. The older government official led in a group of five, with his younger colleague bringing up the rear. Just behind him was the gold uniform and heavy emerald braid of a top rank Unified officer.
I turned to Hamish.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘She’s one of ours.’
‘Not yours, Mansoorian,’ the officer said.
Hamish inclined his head. ‘Wine?’
The group was spreading round the table. A thin, pale female Bio dressed in a floating Kraken tunic said, ‘I understood this was a crisis.’ Her transparent eyelashes flickered as she blinked. ‘This hardly looks like a crisis, Mansoorian.’ She blinked directly at me. ‘Is this your Net Caster?’
‘Don’t you keep up with the news in the Unified Assembly?’ said the police officer. ‘His face has been all over every bulletin for the last ten days.’
‘Which is why you should never have brought him here, Mansoorian.’ I recognised the sharp tones and weary face of one of the longest standing members of the Serenity Assembly. He sat down and looked with disapproval at my food. ‘This is fundamentally his crisis. He could put us all at risk.’ He turned to the police officer. ‘We pay you precisely to ensure that this sort of situation doesn’t arise.’
‘I am not a paid lackey – ‘ the officer began, but I no longer heard her. I was looking towards the person who had come into the bay behind the member of the Serenity Assembly.
After Hamish, there was Melanie. We trained together. We had the usual student sexual relationship and for a while considered having children together, but neither of us wanted to be the Close Parent and neither of us could afford the fees to have a child brought up separately. Melanie eventually abandoned the idea of children altogether. She was a brilliant Caster and I had always assumed she would become one of the senior figures in the Agency.
She was wearing a deep red gown. It was odd seeing her out of her usual fitted Dune costume. She sat down and placed her black case on the table. I leaned forward to speak to her, and then saw the person sitting down next to her.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘You caused us no end of trouble when you decided to activate your signal. We’d assumed you wouldn’t be stupid enough to open the case when you were on the run and supposed to be hiding from the Agency itself.’
I sat back in my chair. My former lover and my supervisor at the Agency looked across the table at me. Behind me, the Unified officer and the member of the Serenity Assembly were still arguing as they helped themselves to pastries, and the Representative from the Kraken was anxiously wiping away a spilled wine drop from the table surface.
I looked at Hamish. I began to laugh from fatigue, shock, grief, and an overriding terror of being locked down here in this cellar on the Serenity with a group of disparate and apparently ill-matched Bios. The others fell silent, and my laugh echoed off the blue stone ceiling, wrapped itself in the wall tapestries, and tumbled out of the opening to the bay.
Someone else was standing in the opening.
To be continued...