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The State of The Art c-4

Iain M. Banks

  The State of The Art

  ( Culture - 4 )

  Iain M. Banks

  The first ever collection of Iain Banks's short fiction, this volume includes the acclaimed novella, The State of the Art. This is a striking addition to the growing body of Culture lore, and adds definition and scale to the previous works by using the Earth of 1977 as contrast. The other stories in the collection range from science fiction to horror, dark-coated fantasy to morality tale. All bear the indefinable stamp of Iain Banks's staggering talent.

  Iain M. Banks — The State of The Art

  Road of Skulls

  The ride’s a little bumpy on the famous Road of Skulls…

  'My God, what’s happening!' Sammil Mc9 cried, waking up.

  The cart he and his companion had hitched a ride on was shaking violently.

  Mc9 put his grubby hands on the plank of rotten wood which formed one of the cart’s sides and looked down at the legendary Road, wondering what had caused the cart’s previously merely uncomfortable rattling to become a series of bone-jarring crashes. He expected to discover that they had lost a wheel, or that the snooze-prone carter had let the vehicle wander right off the Road into a boulder-field, but he saw neither of these things. He stared, goggle-eyed, at the Road surface for a moment, then collapsed back inside the cart.

  'Golly,' he said to himself, 'I didn’t know the Empire ever had enemies with heads that big. Retribution from beyond the grave, that’s what this is.' He looked forward; the cart’s senile driver was still asleep, despite the vehicle’s frenzied bouncing. Beyond him, the lop-eared old quadruped between the shafts was having some difficulty finding its footing on the oversized skulls forming that part of the Road, which led… Mc9 let his eyes follow the thin white line into the distance… to the City.

  It lay on the horizon of the moor, a shimmering blur. Most of the fabled megalopolis was still below the horizon, but its sharp, glittering towers were unmistakable, even through the blue and shifting haze. Mc9 grinned as he saw it, then watched the silent, struggling horse-thing as it clopped and skidded its way along the Road; it was sweating heavily, and beset by a small cloud of flies buzzing around its ear-flapping head like bothersome electrons around some reluctant nucleus.

  The old carter woke up and lashed inaccurately at the nag between the shafts, then nodded back into his slumber. Mc9 looked away and gazed out over the moor.

  Usually the moor was a cold and desolate place, wrapped in wind and rain, but today it was blisteringly hot; the air reeked of marsh gases and the heath was sprinkled with tiny bright flowers. Mc9 sank back into the straw again, scratching and squirming as the cart bucked and heaved about him. He tried shifting the bundles of straw and the heaps of dried dung into more comfortable configurations, but failed. He was just thinking that the journey would seem very long, and be uncomfortable indeed if this outrageous juddering went on, when the crashes died away and the cart went back to its more normal rattling and squeaking. 'Thank goodness they didn’t hold out too long,' Mc9 muttered to himself, and lay down again, closing his eyes.

  …he was driving a haycart down a leafy lane. Birds were chirping, the wine was cool, money weighed in his pocket…

  He wasn’t quite asleep when his companion — whose name, despite their long association, Mc9 had never bothered to find out — surfaced from beneath the straw and dung beside him and said, 'Retribution?'

  'Eh? What?' Mc9 said, startled.

  'What retribution?'

  'Oh,' Mc9 said, rubbing his face and grimacing as he squinted at the sun, high in the blue-green sky. 'The retribution inflicted upon us as Subjects of the Reign, by the deceased Enemies of the Beloved Empire.'

  The small companion, whose spectacular grubbiness was only partially obscured by a covering of debatably less filthy straw, blinked furiously and shook his head. 'No… me mean, what "retribution" mean?'

  'I just told you,' Mc9 complained. 'Getting back at somebody.'

  'Oh,' said the companion, and sat mulling this over while Mc9 drifted off to sleep again.

  …there were three young milkmaids walking ahead of his haycart; he drew level and they accepted a ride. He reached down to…

  His companion dug him in the ribs. 'Like when me take too many bedclothes and you kick I out of bed, or me drink your wine and you make I drink three guts of laxative beer, or when you pregnanted that governor’s daughter and him set the Strategic Debt Collectors on you, or someplace doesn’t pay all its taxes and Its Majesty orders the first born of every family have their Birth Certificates endorsed, or…?'

  Mc9, who was well used to his companion employing the verbal equivalent of a Reconnaissance By Fire, held up one hand to stem this flood of examples. His companion continued mumbling away despite the hand over his mouth. Finally the mumbling stopped.

  'Yes,' Mc9 told him. 'That’s right.' He took his hand away.

  'Or is it like when—?'

  'Hey,' Mc9 said brightly. 'How about I tell you a story?'

  'Oh, a story,' beamed his companion, clutching at Mc9’s sleeve in anticipation. 'A story would be… ' his grimy features contorted like a drying mudflat as he struggled to find a suitable adjective. '… Nice.'

  'OK. Let go my sleeve and pass me the wine to wet my throat.'

  'Oh,' Mc9’s companion said, and looked suddenly wary and doubtful. He glanced over the front of the cart, past the snoring driver and the toiling beast pulling them, and saw the City, still just a distant shimmer at the end of the Road’s bleached ribbon of bone. 'OK,' he sighed.

  He handed the wineskin to Mc9, who guzzled about half of what was left before the squealing, protesting companion succeeded in tearing it from his grasp, spilling most of the remainder over the two of them and squirting a jet of the liquid spattering over the neck of the snoring driver, and on out as far as the head of the horse-like animal (which lapped appreciatively at the drops spilling down its sweat-matted face).

  The decrepit driver woke with a start and looked around wildly, rubbing his damp neck, waving his frayed whip and apparently fully expecting to have to repel robbers, cut-throats and villains.

  Mc9 and his companion grinned sheepishly at him when he turned to look down at them. He scowled, dried his neck with a rag, then turned round and relapsed into his slumber.

  'Thanks,' Mc9 told his companion. He wiped his face and sucked at one of the fresh wine stains on his shirt.

  The companion took a careful, dainty sip of wine, then twisted the stopper firmly back into the gut and placed it behind his neck as he lay back. Mc9 belched, yawned.

  'Yes,' his companion said earnestly. 'Tell I a story. Me would love to hear a story. Tell I a story of love and hate and death and tragedy and comedy and horror and joy and sarcasm, tell I about great deeds and tiny deeds and valiant people and hill people and huge giants and dwarfs, tell I about brave women and beautiful men and great sorcerorcerors… and about unenchanted swords and strange, archaic powers and horrible, sort of ghastly… things that, uhm… shouldn’t be living, and… ahm, funny diseases and general mishaps. Yeah, me like. Tell I. Me want.'

  Mc9 was falling asleep again, having had not the slightest intention of telling his companion a story in the first place. The companion prodded him in the back.

  'Hey!' He prodded harder. 'Hey! The story! No go to sleep! What about the story?'

  'Fornicate the story,' Mc9 said sleepily, not opening his eyes.

  'WAA!' the companion said. The carter woke up, turned round and clipped him across the ear. The companion went quiet and sat there, rubbing the side of his head. He prodded Mc9 again and whispered, 'You said you’d tell me a story!'

  'Oh, read a book,' mumbled Mc9, snuggling into the straw.

  The smal
l companion made a hissing noise and sat back, his lips tight and his little hands clenched under his armpits. He glared at the Road stretching back to the wavering horizon.

  After a while, the companion shrugged, reached under the wineskin for his satchel and took out a small, fat black book. He prodded Mc9 once more. 'All we’ve got is this Bible,' he told him. 'What bit should me read?'

  'Just open it at random,' Mc9 mumbled from his sleep.

  The companion opened the Bible at Random, Chapter Six, and read:

  'Yeah yeah yeah, verily I say unto you: Forget not that there are two sides to every story: a right side and a wrong side.'

  The companion shook his head and threw the book over the side of the cart.

  The road went ever on. The carter snuffled and snored, the sweating nag panted and struggled, while Mc9 smiled in his sleep and moaned a little. His companion passed the time by squeezing blackheads from his nose, and then replacing them.

  …they had stopped at the ford through the shady brook, where the milkmaids were eventually persuaded to come for a swim, dressed only in their thin, clinging…

  Actually, the horse-like beast pulling the cart was the famous poet-scribe Abrusci from the planet Wellit-isn’tmarkedonmychartlieutenant, and she could have told the bored companion any number of fascinating stories from the times before the Empire’s Pacification and Liberation of her homeworld.

  She could also have told them that the City was moving away from them across the moor as fast as they moved towards it, trundling across the endless heath on its millions of giant wheels as the continuous supply of vanquished Enemies of the Empire provided more trophies to be cemented into place on the famous Road of Skulls…

  But that, like they say, is another story.

  A Gift from the Culture

  Money is a sign of poverty. This is an old Culture saying I remember every now and again, especially when I’m being tempted to do something I know I shouldn’t, and there’s money involved (when is there not?).

  I looked at the gun, lying small and precise in Cruizell’s broad, scarred hand, and the first thing I thought — after: Where the hell did they get one of those? — was: Money is a sign of poverty. However appropriate the thought might have been, it wasn’t much help.

  I was standing outside a no-credit gambling club in Vreccis Low City in the small hours of a wet weeknight, looking at a pretty, toy-like handgun while two large people I owed a lot of money to asked me to do something extremely dangerous and worse than illegal. I was weighing up the relative attractions of trying to run away (they’d shoot me), refusing (they’d beat me up; probably I’d spend the next few weeks developing a serious medical bill), and doing what Kaddus and Cruizell asked me to do, knowing that while there was a chance I’d get away with it — uninjured, and solvent again — the most likely outcome was a messy and probably slow death while assisting the security services with their enquiries.

  Kaddus and Cruizell were offering me all my markers back, plus — once the thing was done — a tidy sum on top, just to show there were no hard feelings.

  I suspected they didn’t anticipate having to pay the final instalment of the deal.

  So, I knew that logically what I ought to do was tell them where to shove their fancy designer pistol, and accept a theoretically painful but probably not terminal beating. Hell, I could switch the pain off (having a Culture background does have some advantages), but what about that hospital bill?

  I was up to my scalp in debt already.

  'What’s the matter, Wrobik?' Cruizell drawled, taking a step nearer, under the shelter of the club’s dripping eaves. Me with my back against the warm wall, the smell of wet pavements in my nose and a taste like metal in my mouth. Kaddus and Cruizell’s limousine idled at the kerb; I could see the driver inside, watching us through an open window. Nobody passed on the street outside the narrow alley. A police cruiser flew over, high up, lights flashing through the rain and illuminating the underside of the rain clouds over the city. Kaddus looked up briefly, then ignored the passing craft. Cruizell shoved the gun towards me. I tried to shrink back.

  'Take the gun, Wrobik,' Kaddus said tiredly. I licked my lips, stared down at the pistol.

  'I can’t,' I said. I stuck my hands in my coat pockets.

  'Sure you can,' Cruizell said. Kaddus shook his head.

  'Wrobik, don’t make things difficult for yourself; take the gun. Just touch it first, see if our information is correct. Go on; take it.' I stared, transfixed, at the small pistol. 'Take the gun, Wrobik. Just remember to point it at the ground, not at us; the driver’s got a laser on you and he might think you meant to use the gun on us… come on; take it, touch it.'

  I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think. I just stood, hypnotized. Kaddus took hold of my right wrist and pulled my hand from my pocket. Cruizell held the gun up near my nose; Kaddus forced my hand onto the pistol. My hand closed round the grip like something lifeless.

  The gun came to life; a couple of lights blinked dully, and the small screen above the grip glowed, flickering round the edges. Cruizell dropped his hand, leaving me holding the pistol; Kaddus smiled thinly.

  'There, that wasn’t difficult, now was it?' Kaddus said. I held the gun and tried to imagine using it on the two men, but I knew I couldn’t, whether the driver had me covered or not.

  'Kaddus,' I said, 'I can’t do this. Something else; I’ll do anything else, but I’m not a hit-man; I can’t—'

  'You don’t have to be an expert, Wrobik,' Kaddus said quietly. 'All you have to be is… whatever the hell you are. After that, you just point and squirt: like you do with your boyfriend.' He grinned and winked at Cruizell, who bared some teeth. I shook my head.

  'This is crazy, Kaddus. Just because the thing switches on for me—'

  'Yeah; isn’t that funny.' Kaddus turned to Cruizell, looking up to the taller man’s face'and smiling. 'Isn’t that funny, Wrobik here being an alien? And him looking just like us.'

  'An alien and queer,' Cruizell rumbled, scowling. 'Shit.'

  'Look,' I said, staring at the pistol, 'it… this thing, it… it might not work,' I finished lamely. Kaddus smiled.

  'It’ll work. A ship’s a big target. You won’t miss.' He smiled again.

  'But I thought they had protection against—'

  'Lasers and kinetics they can deal with, Wrobik; this is something different. I don’t know the technical details; I just know our radical friends paid a lot of money for this thing. That’s enough for me.'

  Our radical friends. This was funny, coming from Kaddus. Probably he meant the Bright Path. People he’d always considered bad for business, just terrorists. I’d have imagined he’d sell them to the police on general principles, even if they did offer him lots of money. Was he starting to hedge his bets, or just being greedy? They have a saying here: Crime whispers; money talks.

  'But there’ll be people on the ship, not just—'

  'You won’t be able to see them. Anyway; they’ll be some of the Guard, Naval brass, some Administration flunkeys, Secret Service agents… What do you care about them?' Kaddus patted my damp shoulder. 'You can do it.'

  I looked away from his tired grey eyes, down at the gun, quiet in my fist, small screen glowing faintly. Betrayed by my own skin, my own touch. I thought about that hospital bill again. I felt like crying, but that wasn’t the done thing amongst the men here, and what could I say? I was a woman. I was Culture. But I had renounced these things, and now I am a man, and now I am here in the Free City of Vreccis, where nothing is free.

  'All right,' I said, a bitterness of my mouth, 'I’ll do it.'

  Cruizell looked disappointed. Kaddus nodded. 'Good. The ship arrives Ninthday; you know what it looks like?' I nodded. 'So you won’t have any problems,' Kaddus smiled thinly. 'You’ll be able to see it from almost anywhere in the City.' He pulled out some cash and stuffed it into my coat pocket. 'Get yourself a taxi. The underground’s risky these days.' He patted me lightly on the cheek; his hand smelt of
expensive scents. 'Hey, Wrobik; cheer up, yeah? You’re going to shoot down a fucking starship. It’ll be an experience.' Kaddus laughed, looking at me and then at Cruizell, who laughed too, dutifully.

  They went back to the car; it hummed into the night, tyres ripping at the rain-filled streets. I was left to watch the puddles grow, the gun hanging in my hand like guilt.

  'I am a Light Plasma Projector, model LPP 91, series two, constructed in A/4882.4 at Manufactury Six in the Span-shacht-Trouferre Orbital, Ørvolöus Cluster. Serial number 3685706. Brain value point one. AM battery powered, rating: indefinite. Maximum power on single-bolt: 3.1x810 joules, recycle time 14 seconds. Maximum rate of fire: 260 RPS. Use limited to Culture genofixed individuals only through epidermal gene analysis. To use with gloves or light armour, access "modes" store via command buttons. Unauthorized use is both prohibited and punishable. Skill requirement 12-75%C. Full instructions follow; use command buttons and screen to replay, search, pause or stop…

  'Instructions, part one: Introduction. The LPP 91 is an operationally intricate general-purpose "peace"-rated weapon not suitable for full battle use; its design and performance parameters are based on the recommendations of—'

  The gun sat on the table, telling me all about itself in a high, tinny voice while I lay slumped in a lounger, staring out over a busy street in Vreccis Low City. Underground freight trains shook the rickety apartment block every few minutes, traffic buzzed at street level, rich people and police moved through the skies in fliers and cruisers, and above them all the starships sailed.

  I felt trapped between these strata of purposeful movements.

  Far in the distance over the city, I could just see the slender, shining tower of the city’s Lev tube, rising straight towards and through the clouds, on its way to space. Why couldn’t the Admiral use the Lev instead of making a big show of returning from the stars in his own ship? Maybe he thought a glorified elevator was too undignified. Vainglorious bastards, all of them. They deserved to die (if you wanted to take that attitude), but why did I have to be the one to kill them? Goddamned phallic starships.