The Net Caster (Part Two)
Hamish always did know how to make an entrance, although I was surprised to see the gown. He made a point of wearing local costume, and he would look rather good in the layered tunic and trousers favoured by males in this colder part of the Klondike. I presumed the gown was for my benefit.
He stepped into the room, raising his arms to show a bottle of amber liquid in his right hand and two glasses in his left. I acknowledged him and them with a nod.
He said, ‘Of all the StarMo’s in all the systems in all the universe, you have to walk into mine.’
I got up off the bed. ‘Very good. I hear Pre-Event Earth culture is very fashionable these days.’
He grinned, set the glasses down on the occasional table and held out the bottle. ‘Thought you might like.’
I peered closer. ‘Where the hell did you get that?’ They say that the whisky produced in the Aphrodite Cluster is as good as any ever produced on Earth, although as no-one has been able to taste Earth whisky for over four hundred years, I don’t know how They’re so sure. It’s also rare and tooth-achingly expensive.
‘Friend of a friend.’ He filled both glasses. ‘Your health, sir.’
I sipped. It was rich, and honeyed, and tasted like gold. ‘My compliments to your friend. What the hell are you doing here, Hamish?’
‘I’m running a rather successful business. And you? Casting a Net, I assume.’
I inclined my head.
He said, ‘Is it for me?’
There were many reasons why someone might be casting a Net for Hamish Mansoorian, but no reason at all why he should so blatantly acknowledge the fact. I studied him. In the ten years since I had last seen him he seemed to have aged about three, thanks either to those naturally wonderful cheekbones or to a high class body sculptor. But there was a weariness in his brown eyes and a tension in the way he held himself, so at odds with the easy, lithe grace I remembered. Ten years ago his question would have been meant facetiously, maybe even tauntingly. Now it was serious.
I said, ‘I would hardly be here in your StarMo if I was.’
He said, ‘How did you know where to find me?’
I considered. There was something in Hamish’s life which made him think that a Net Caster had come looking for him, specifically, that I had come looking for him. For the moment I had the advantage, a rare experience in anyone’s dealings with Hamish. He didn’t know that I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, and I didn’t intend for him to find out.
‘You leave a pretty big trace, Hamish, however hard you try. Big enough for a Net Caster to find, any rate.’
‘Only if they’re the best.’ He raised his glass.
‘Compliment accepted, gratitude exchanged, it will do you no good at all.’ I leant forward. ‘You’re in trouble, Hamish. We need to talk about it.’
The weary eyes flickered into shrewdness. Something in my face, my voice, my body language, had blown it. The world was deprived of a great psychologist when Hamish Mansoorian decided to be a dodgy businessman.
He smiled. ‘When have I not been in trouble? The first day you saw me, five years old and snot dripping from my nose, I was in trouble for putting a Leekan beetle down the back of Het Grayling’s tunic. Then you were in trouble because you laughed so much you wee’d yourself, and we both finished our first day at Junior Academy waiting for our parents in the Principal’s office. Your mother never forgave me.’ He raised his glass again. ‘Good days.’
They weren’t, over all, but I let the rose tinted reminiscence pass.
I surrendered. ‘I’m not here for you, Hamish.’
He said, ‘But you are working on a casting. Are you intending to do it here?’
‘You know I can’t tell you that.’
‘You leave a pretty big trace yourself, you know.’
I said, ‘You don’t want me here?’
‘I’m not particularly keen on having my StarMo identified with a casting.’ There was an edge to his voice. The time for shared reminiscence had passed.
I didn’t particularly want him to throw me out. It was too late, I was too comfortable, and now too curious.
‘Hamish, even Casters have nights off.’
He waited for more.
‘I’m going somewhere, you know I don’t travel well, the longer I stay in suspension the worse it gets. I prefer to do it in short jumps. Aphrodite Cluster to the Klondike Rim, the Rim to here. Yes, I knew you were here,’ - no point in surrendering entirely – ‘and I hoped we could meet and talk. I didn’t contact beforehand because I didn’t want you to have time to find an excuse.’
‘Why would I want an excuse?’
‘I’m a Caster. You’re a…businessman. There could be all kinds of reasons you’d want an excuse. Like I said, you leave a big trace.’ I tried another move. ‘I haven’t forgotten Junior Academy either.’
He smiled and stood up. ‘It’s good to see you again. Really. I’m sorry you didn’t contact before because then I could have cleared the evening for you. But duty calls and I have to go and check accounts, and inventories for tomorrow, and make sure the housekeeping rota looks sensible.’ He walked to the door.
‘Your bottle,’ I said.
‘Compliments of the house. If I don’t see you before you go, have a good trip.’
And he was gone.
Every single biological thing in the universe leaves a trace. Sometimes the traces are small; if you spend your whole life on a farm in the outer reaches of the Klondike, your trace won’t be massive. It might be deep, but its scope will be very limited. The interactions of your DNA with the DNA of others, or with the quantum particles or waves of everything that exists, will be confined to a small area. No-one would need a Net to establish your past patterns of behaviour, or predict your future ones. If, say, your farm decides to offer rooms to passing travellers, or opens a shop offering fake local pottery or patchwork (I really have been around too long) to the tourists, then faint echoes of your trace may turn up in theirs, but only enough to confuse an inexperienced Caster on a first job.
But those who spend their lives travelling from system to system, crisscrossing the starways for virtuous or nefarious purposes, they leave a trace like a spider’s web. If you want, not to find the person, but to find their previous patterns and estimate their future ones, you need a Net Caster.
A lot of people still seem to think Casters are some kind of magicians, and a Net is a mysterious physical thing made up of sub atomic particles, dark matter and a little bit of stardust, that floats around until it finds its target and then drops down and holds them in filigree gold and silver strands. In fact a Net is a mathematical calculation carried out at the quantum level, a series of complex algorithms devised by the cleverest AI that biologicals could invent, and even the Casters don’t really understand how it all works. All we know is, the AI who devised the program can’t operate it because they can’t fully interpret the results. Having no biological irrationality, they can’t extrapolate how past patterns might predict future ones, other than assuming the subject will just repeat the same pattern if it worked before, or not if it didn’t. They devised it, but it’s alien to them: not being biological, they leave no trace.
A successful Net must be cast in a place where the trace is really strong, usually somewhere the target has recently visited. It gives the program something to lock on to, a bit like a bloodhound in Pre-Event Earth detective stories. Like I said, it’s not about finding the target. It’s about evidence gathering. You wouldn’t normally do it from someone’s home, or even their StarMo, because you wouldn’t want them to know what you’re doing. You don’t cast a Net to find out what someone wants for their birthday.
At the sub-atomic quantum level time becomes hazy, fluid even, and if you pick up a strong enough trace, and apply the algorithms correctly, you can follow it just far enough into what we call the future to give you evidence of where your target is going and what they are going there for. It isn’t profiling, and it isn’t prediction, it’s collecting evidence across what some call dimensions, or planes of existence, or even multiple universes. Whatever you call them, their boundaries start to crumble in front of a quantum calculation.
Casting is a mathematical tool, no more, but a damn powerful one. Freelance casting is illegal throughout all systems. You have to have a licence, and you have to work for a recognised body which itself holds a licence to employ Casters. You also have to have the equipment; you can’t cast a Net with a wrist-vid. Here’s a tip. If some individual in a bar says they can trace your lover’s past movements and predict their future ones for a knock down price, own state of the art equipment used – don’t. Just don’t.
I poured myself another glass of Aphrodite Cluster hooch and considered the options.
- Go to bed, read Driftglass, pay my bill next morning and leave (after what I suspected would be an above average breakfast)
- Cast a Net for Hamish. Illegal, as no-one had commissioned it. I’ve been at this long enough not to arouse undue suspicion in the normal way, but if Hamish were to drop some kind of anonymous allegation to the local gendarmes, the Authority would do a check and not even I would fool a full scale scan of activities
- Put in a request to the Authority to cast a Net for Hamish. I have sufficient reputation for them to take my word it was needed, but the actual casting would be given to someone else, because the traces for Hamish and me were already linked
- Be open and ask Hamish what the hell was going on
Neither 2 nor 4 seemed particularly sensible, so I decided to adopt a chunk of 1 (go to bed with Driftglass and have a damn fine breakfast) and decide in the morning what would follow.
I woke in the darkness to find a shape standing at the end of my bed.
To be continued...