Feersum EndjinnIain M. Banks
Table of Contents
Iain Banks came to widespread and controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation. Iain Banks lives in Fife, Scotland.
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Find out more about lain M. Banks and other Orbit authors by registering for the free monthly newsletter at www.orbitbooks.net
‘The standard by which the rest of SF is judged’ Guardian
‘A mordant wit, a certain savagery and a wild imagination’ Mail on Sunday
“Spectacular ... the field needs his energy, skill and invention’ The Scotsman
‘Gripping, touching and funny’ TLS
‘Dazzlingly original’ Daily Mail
‘Sharp, witty, comprehensively terrifying’ Observer
‘Banks is a phenomenon ... writing pure science fiction of a peculiarly gnarly energy and elegance’ William Gibson
‘There is now no British SF writer to whose work I look forward with greater keenness’ The Times
‘Banks has rewritten the libretto for the whole space-opera genre’ The Times
‘Poetic, humorous, baffling, terrifying, sexy — the books of lain M. Banks are all these things and more’ NME
‘Staggering imaginative energy’ Independent
By lain M. Banks
THE PLAYER OF GAMES
USE OF WEAPONS
THE STATE OF THE ART
AGAINST A DARK BACKGROUND
LOOK TO WINDWARD
By Iain Banks
THE WASP FACTORY
WALKING ON GLASS
THE CROW ROAD
A SONG OF STONE
THE STEEP APPROACH TO GARBADALE
IAIN M. BANKS
Published by Hachette Digital 2010
Copyright © Iain M. Banks 1994
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious, other than those clearly in the public domain, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
eISBN : 978 0 7481 1001 8
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For the Daves
Then, it was as though everything was stripped away: sensation, memory, self, even the notion of existence that underlies reality —all seemed to have vanished utterly, their passing marked only by the realisation that they had disappeared, before that too ceased to have any meaning, and for an indefinite, infinite instant, there was only the awareness of something; something that possessed no mind, no purpose and no thought, except the knowledge that it was.
After that came a rebuilding, a surfacing through layers of thought and development, learning and shape-taking, until something that was an individual, possessing a shape and capable of being named, woke.
Buzz. Buzzing noise. Lying on something soft. Dark. Try to open eyes. Something sticking. Try again. Light flash shaped 00. Eyes feel open, un-gummed, but still dark. Smells; at once vital and decadent, lush with death-life, stirring some memory, recent and forever-far at the same time. Light comes; a small . . . searching for the name of the colour . . . a small redness hanging in air. Move arm, hand coming up; right arm; noise of skin on skin, feeling coming with it.
Arm, hand, finger: rising, positioning, eyes focusing. Red patch of soft light disappears. Press on it. Arm shaking, feeling weak; falls back to side. Skin on skin.
Noise of buzzing, something sliding again but not skin on skin; harder. Then light from behind/above. The small red light has disappeared. Then movement; darkness above/around sliding back, face neck shoulders chest/arms trunk/hands in light now; eyes blinking in light. Light grey-pink, shining down; blue-brightness through hole in curved cliff above/around.
Wait. Rest. Let eyes adjust. Songs around, wall around/ above (not cliff; wall), curving round, curving over (ceiling; roof). Hole in wall where the brightness is called a window.
Lie there, turning head to one side; another hole, glimpsed over shoulder; goes down to ground, and called doorway. Daylight there beyond, and the green of trees and grass. Floor beneath where lying; pressed earth, light brown with a few small stones set in it. The song is birdsong.
Get up slowly, arms back, resting on elbows, looking down towards feet; woman, naked, colour of the ground.
Ground is quite near; might as well stand up. Sit up further, swivel (dizzy for a moment, then steady), then feet/legs over side of ... of ... tray thing that has appeared out of hole in wall of building, tray thing lying on, and then . . . stand.
Hold onto tray, legs feeling funny, then stand properly, unaided, and stretch. Stretch feels good. Tray slides back into wall; watch it go, and watch part of wall slide down to cover hole that was there, hole came out of. Feel . . . sadness, but feel ... good, too. Deep breath.
Breath makes noise, then cough ma
kes noise, and . . . voice is there. Clear throat, then say:
Slight startle. Voice makes a feeling in throat and face. Touch face, feel . . . smile. ‘Smile.’ Feel something building up inside. ‘Face.’ Still building. ‘Face smile.’ And still. ‘Face smile good alive hole red wall me look door doorway sun garden, ME!’
Then the laughter comes, bursting out, filling the little stone rotunda and spilling out into the garden; a small bird hurtles into the air in a commotion of leaves and flies away upon a wake of song.
Laughter stops. Sit on floor in the building. Feeling empty inside; hunger. ‘Laughter. Hunger. Me hungry. I am hungry. I laugh; I was laughing, I am hungry.’ Get up. ‘Up.’ Giggle. ‘Giggle. Get up and giggle, me. I learn. I go now.’
But turn and look at inside of building; the curved walls, stamped-earth floor, the polished rectangular stones with lettering on them which are set into the walls, some of them with little cups/baskets/holders. Not sure which one was the one with the tray and the little red light now; not sure which one came from, now. Sadness, a little.
Turn again and go to door and look out over shallow valley; trees and shrubs and grass, a few flowers, stream in bottom of valley.
‘Water. I thirst. I have thirst, I am thirsty; I will drink. Go for drink now. Good.’
Leave the birth-place vault.
‘Sky. Blue. Clouds. Walk. Path. Trees. Bush. Path. Other path. Sky again. Hills. Oh! Oh; shadow. Fright. Laugh! Bigger bush. Flat grass. Thirsty; mouth dry; think stop talk now. Ha-ha!’
On the morning of the one hundred and forty-third day of the year which by the new reckoning was called second-last, Hortis Gadfium III, the chief scientist to the pan-alignment clan Accounts/Privileges, sat on a steel girder and looked up at the almost-finished bulk of the new Great Hall oxygen plant number-two liquifier unit, and shook her head.
She watched a crane swing a palleted load of steel-plate towards the workers waiting on the summit of the structure, while above the crane’s delicate web-work the ponderous mass of a lufter drifted, engines droning, delivering a new batch of supplies. She looked around at the swarm of human-scale toil that was the new oxygen works, where engines laboured and variously puffed, grumbled and hummed, where machines crawled, floated, rolled or just sat, where chimerics sweated, strained, lifted and pulled, and where humans too laboured, shouted or simply stood scratching their heads.
Gadfium drew one finger through the layer of dust on the girder beneath her, then held the begrimed finger up to her face and wondered if in that smudge there lay a nano-machine capable of creating within the day machines which would create machines which would create machines that would give them all the oxygen they would ever need, and by the end of the season, not by the end of next year. She wiped her finger on her tunic and looked up again at the number-two liquifier unit, worrying whether it would ever work properly, and, if it did, whether there would be any workable rockets for it to supply.
She gazed towards the Hall’s three vast windows, where - beneath high, rainless ceiling-cloud - sunlight shone slanting down in great broad bands of dust-struck radiance, illuminating a swathe of landscape a few kilometres away and sparkling on the towers and domes of Hall City, two thousand metres beneath the pendulously extravagant architecture of the Lantern Palace.
It was bright outside, and on such days you could deceive yourself that all was still well with the world, that there was no threat, no shadow on the face of the night, no remorseless, system-wide, approaching catastrophe. On such days one might persuade oneself that it was all a huge mistake or mass hallucination, and that the view last night, when she had stood outside the observatory dome above the darkened Palace, had been a figment of her imagination, a dream that had not vanished or been properly sorted by her waking mind, and so which lived on, as nightmare.
She stood up and walked back to where her junior aide and research assistant were waiting, conversing quietly in the midst of the oxygen works’ constructive chaos and looking about occasionally with a kind of disparaging indulgence at the undignified physical clamour such mere technology required. And, Gadfium didn’t wonder, probably amusing themselves discussing what the old girl was doing, not wanting to linger any longer than absolutely necessary at this building site.
There probably had been no need for her to attend the site conference at all; the science in this project had long been settled and the burden of effort passed to Technology and Engineering; still, she was invited to such meetings out of politeness (and her rank at court), and she attended when she could because she worried that, in the rush to recreate technologies and processes which had been obsolete for thousands of years, they might have missed something, forgotten some simple fact, overlooked some obvious danger. Such an oversight might be quickly dealt with, but they had anyway so little time that any interruption at all to the programme might prove disastrous, and while in her lowest moments she sometimes suspected such an interruption was almost inevitable, she was determined to do all in her power to ensure that if it did befall them it would not be for want of any diligence on her part.
Of course, it would all have been a lot simpler if they had not been at war with the clan Engineers, headquartered (and besieged) in the Chapel, thirty kilometres away on the far side of the fastness, and three kilometre-high floors higher than the Great Hall. There were Engineers on their side - just as there were dissident Cryptographers, Scientists and members of other clans on the other side - but too few, and like so many Scientists Gadfium had had to shoulder the extra burden of trying to think on an industrially practical scale.
As for her desire simply to sit and look at the plant, that was probably a function of her doubt that what they were doing here was going to make any difference to their plight even if it went exactly according to plan; she suspected that subconsciously she hoped the sheer presence and scale of this industrial enterprise - and the physical energy of its creation - would somehow convince her there was a point to it all.
If that had been her wish, it had not been granted, and no matter how much of the oxygen works filled her field of vision, always lurking at the edge of her sight she seemed to see that hazy spread of darkness, rising from the night’s horizon like an obscene inversion of dawn.
‘Hmm?’ Gadfium turned to find her aide, Rasfline, standing a couple of metres away. Rasfline - thin, ascetic, stiffly correct in his aide’s uniform - nodded to her.
‘Chief Scientist; a message from the Palace.’
‘There has been a development at the Plain of Sliding Stones.’
‘An unusual one; I know no more. Your presence there has been requested and the relevant travel arrangements made.’
Gadfium sighed. ‘Very well. Let’s go.’
The piker swept out of the oxygen works and headed for East Cliff along a dusty, winding road filled with heavy traffic both machine and chimeric. The groomed, carefully landscaped parkland that had graced this part of the Great Hall for a thousand generations had been ripped up without a second thought when the Encroachment’s implications had - apparently - been driven home to the King and his more sceptical advisers; normally any such industry would have been banished to the inner depths of the fastness, where there was little natural light and objectionably ugly or effluent processes could safely be housed without disturbing either the view or the air, and where only the desperate or outlawed would ever choose to live.
Still - for all the outrage, and the suicides of a number of gardeners and foresters - when the King had decided such a plant must be built, and must be built quickly, and under the eye of the Palace, the earth-movers - themselves newly constructed for the purpose - had been sent in, and woods, lakes and glades which had delighted all castes and classes for millennia were levelled under their ploughs, scrapes and tracks.
The chief scientist watched the oxygen wor
ks disappear behind a wooded hill, until the construction site was marked only by a haze of smoke and dust hanging in the air above the trees. It would reappear as they headed out across the plain to East Cliff; the oxygen works was sited on a small plateau and so visible from almost everywhere throughout the ten-kilometre length of the Great Hall. Gadfium wondered again whether the real reason the King had had the works built here was to impress upon his subjects the full gravity of their situation, and give them a preparatory hint of the kind of sacrifices that would need to be made in the future. Gadfium shook her head, tapped her fingers on the seat’s wooden armrest and opened a vent by the side of the window to let the warm air in. She looked at the man and woman sitting opposite her.
Rasfline and Goscil had been with her since the start of the present emergency, ten years ago, when science had started to matter again. Rasfline epitomised the officer caste, and seemed to take pride in making himself as much like a machine as possible; in all those ten years he had never called Gadfium anything other than ‘Chief Scientist’ or ‘ma’am’.
Goscil - plump-faced, wild-haired, and whose tunic never seemed to quite fit properly or ever be entirely free from stains - had seemed to grow more dishevelled over the years, as though in response to Rasfline’s severe tidiness. She had uploaded some files from the oxygen works, and sat with her eyes closed now, reviewing this information and occasionally making small involuntary noises; tutting, hissing, snorting, humming. Rasfline set his jaw and looked away out the window.