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Surface Detail

Iain M. Banks


  Consider Phlebas

  The Player of Games

  Use of Weapons

  The State of the Art

  Against a Dark Background

  Feersum Endjinn



  Look to Windward

  The Algebraist


  Surface Detail


  The Wasp Factory

  Walking on Glass

  The Bridge

  Espedair Street

  Canal Dreams

  The Crow Road


  Whit A Song of Stone

  The Business

  Dead Air

  The Steep Approach to Garbadale



  Published by Hachette Digital

  ISBN: 978-0-748-11733-8

  All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2010 by Iain M. Banks

  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.

  Hachette Digital

  Little, Brown Book Group

  100 Victoria Embankment

  London, EC4Y 0DY


  Also By Iain M. Banks































  Dramatis Personae


  For Seth and Lara

  With thanks to Adèle


  “This one might be trouble.”

  She heard one of them say this, only ten or so metres away in the darkness. Even over her fear, the sheer naked terror of being hunted, she felt a shiver of excitement, of something like triumph, when she realised they were talking about her. Yes, she thought, she would be trouble, she already was trouble. And they were worried too; the hunters experienced their own fears during the chase. Well, at least one of them did. The man who’d spoken was Jasken; Veppers’ principal bodyguard and chief of security. Jasken. Of course; who else?

  “You think so … do you?” said a second man. That was Veppers himself. It felt as though something curdled inside her when she heard his deep, perfectly modulated voice, right now attenuated to something just above a whisper. “But then … they’re all trouble.” He sounded out of breath. “Can’t you see … anything with those?” He must be talking about Jasken’s Enhancing Oculenses; a fabulously expensive piece of hardware like heavyduty sunglasses. They turned night to day, made heat visible and could see radio waves, allegedly. Jasken tended to wear them all the time, which she had always thought was just showing off, or betrayed some deep insecurity. Wonderful though they might be, they had yet to deliver her into Veppers’ exquisitely manicured hands.

  She was standing, flattened, against a flat scenery. In the gloom, a moment before she had spread herself against the enormous backdrop, she had been able to make out that it was just painted canvas with great sweeps of dark and light paint, but she had been too close to it to see what it actually portrayed. She angled her head out a little and risked a quick look down and to the left, to where the two men were, standing on a gantry cantilevered out from the side of the fly tower’s north wall. She glimpsed a pair of shadowy figures, one holding something that might have been a rifle. She couldn’t be sure. Unlike Jasken, she had only her own eyes to see with.

  She brought her head back in again, quickly but smoothly, scared that she might be seen, and tried to breathe deeply, evenly, silently. She twisted her neck this way and that, clenched and unclenched her fists, flexed her already aching legs. She was standing on a narrow wooden ledge at the bottom of the flat. It was slightly narrower than her shoes; she had to keep her feet splayed, toes pointing outwards in opposite directions, to stop herself from falling. Beneath, unseen in the darkness, the wide rear stage of the opera house was twenty metres further down. If she fell, there were probably other cross-gantries or scenery towers in the way for her to hit on the way down.

  Above her, unseen in the gloom, was the rest of the fly tower and the gigantic carousel that sat over the rear of the opera house’s stage and stored all the multifarious sets its elaborate productions required. She started to edge very slowly along the ledge, away from where the two men stood on the wall gantry. Her left heel still hurt where she’d dug out a tracer device, days earlier.

  “Sulbazghi?” she heard Veppers say, voice low. He and Jasken had been talking quietly to each other; now they were probably using a radio or something similar. She didn’t hear any answer from Dr. Sulbazghi; probably Jasken was wearing an earpiece. Maybe Veppers too, though he rarely carried a phone or any other comms gear.

  Veppers, Jasken and Dr. S. She wondered how many were chasing her as well as these three. Veppers had guards to command, a whole retinue of servants, aides, helpers and other employees who might be pressed into service to help in a pursuit like this. The opera house’s own security would help too, if called on; the place belonged to Veppers, after all. And no doubt Veppers’ good friend, the city Chief of Police would lend any forces requested of him, in the highly unlikely event Veppers couldn’t muster enough of his own. She kept on sliding her way along the ledge.

  “On the north side wall,” she heard Veppers say after a few moments. “Gazing up at varied bucolic backdrops and scenic scenes. No sign of our little illustrated girl.” He sighed. Theatrically, she thought, which was at least appropriate. “Lededje?” he called out suddenly.

  She was startled to hear her own name; she trembled and felt the painted flat at her back wobble. Her left hand flew to one of the two knives she’d stolen, the double sheath looped onto the belt of the workman’s trousers she was wearing. She started to tip forward, felt herself about to fall; she brought her hand back, steadied herself again.

  “Lededje?” His voice, her name, echoed inside the great dark depths of the fly carousel. She shuffled further along the narrow ledge. Was it starting to bend? She thought she felt it flexing beneath her feet.

  “Lededje?” Veppers called again. “Come on now, this is becoming boring. I have a terribly important reception to attend in a couple of hours and you know how long it takes to get me properly dressed and ready. You’ll have Astil fretting. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”

  She indulged a sneer. She didn’t give a damn what Astil, Veppers’ pompous butler, thought or felt.

  “You’ve had your few days of freedom but that’s over now, accept it,” Veppers’ deep voice said, echoing. “Come out like a good girl and I promise you won’t be hurt. Not much anyway. A slap, perhaps. A minor addition to your bodymark, just possibly. Small; a detail, obviously. And exquisitely done, of course. I’d have it no other way.” She thought she could hear him smiling as he spoke. “But no more. I swear. Seriously, dear child. Come out now wh
ile I can still persuade myself this is merely charming high spirits and attractive rebelliousness rather than gross treachery and outright insult.”

  “Fuck you,” Lededje said, very, very quietly. She took another couple of shuffling, sliding steps along the thin wooden band at the foot of the flat. She heard what might have been a creak beneath her. She swallowed and kept on going.

  “Lededje, come on!” Veppers’ voice boomed out. “I’m trying terribly hard to be reasonable here! I am being reasonable, aren’t I, Jasken?” She heard Jasken mutter something, then Veppers’ voice pealed out again: “Yes, indeed. There you are; even Jasken thinks I’m being reasonable, and he’s been making so many excuses for you he’s practically on your side. What more can you ask for? So, now it’s your turn. This is your last chance. Show yourself, young lady. I’m becoming impatient. This is no longer funny. Do you hear me?”

  Oh, very clearly, she thought. How he liked the sound of his own voice. Joiler Veppers had never been one to fight shy of letting the world know exactly what he thought about anything, and, thanks to his wealth, influence and extensive media interests, the world – indeed the system, the entire Enablement – had never really had much choice but to listen.

  “I am serious, Lededje. This is not a game. This stops now, by your choice if you’ve any sense, or I make it stop. And trust me, scribble-child, you do not want me to make it stop.”

  Another sliding step, another creak from beneath her feet. Well, at least his voice might cover any noise she might be making.

  “Five beats, Lededje,” he called. “Then we do it the hard way.” Her feet slid slowly along the thin strip of wood. “All right,” Veppers said. She could hear the anger in his voice, and despite her hate, her utter contempt for him, something about that tone still had the effect of sending a chill of fear through her. Suddenly there was a noise like a slap, and for an instant she thought he’d struck Jasken across the face, then realised it was just a handclap. “One!” he shouted. A pause, then another clap. “Two!”

  Her right hand, tightly gloved, was extended as far as she could reach, feeling for the thin strip of wood that formed the edge of the scenery flat. Beyond that should lie the wall, and ladders, steps, gantries; even just ropes – anything to let her make her escape. Another, even louder clap, echoing in the dark, lost spaces of the carousel fly tower. “Three!”

  She tried to remember the size of the opera stage. She had been here a handful of times with Veppers and the rest of his extended entourage, brought along as a trophy, a walking medal denoting his commercial victories; she ought to be able to remember. All she could recall was being sourly impressed by the scale of everything: the brightness, depth and working complexity of the scenery; the physical effects produced by trapdoors, hidden wires, smoke machines and fireworks; the sheer amount of noise the hidden orchestra and the strutting, overdressed singers and their embedded microphones could create.

  It had been like watching a very convincing super-size holoscreen, but one comically limited to just this particular width and depth and height of set, and incapable of the sudden cuts and instant changes of scene and scale possible in a screen. There were hidden cameras focused on the principal players, and side screens at the edge of the stage showing them in 3D close-up, but it was still – perhaps just because of the obviously prodigious amount of effort, time and money spent on it all – a bit pathetic really. It was as though being fabulously rich and powerful meant not being able to enjoy a film – or at least not being able to admit to enjoying one – but still you had to try to re-create films on stage. She hadn‘t seen the point. Veppers had loved it. “Four!”

  Only afterwards – mingling, paraded, socialising, exhibited – had she realised it was really just an excuse and the opera itself a side-show; the true spectacle of the evening was always played out inside the sumptuous foyer, upon the glittering staircases, within the curved sweep of dazzlingly lit, high-ceilinged corridors, beneath the towering chandeliers in the palatial anterooms, around fabulously laden tables in resplendently decorated saloons, in the absurdly grand rest rooms and in the boxes, front rows and elected seats of the auditorium rather than on the stage itself. The super-rich and ultra-powerful regarded themselves as the true stars, and their entrances and exits, gossip, approaches, advances, suggestions, proposals and prompts within the public spaces of this massive building constituted the proper business of the event.

  “Enough of this melodrama, lady!” Veppers shouted.

  If it was just the three of them – Veppers, Jasken and Sulbazghi – and if it stayed just the three of them, she might have a chance. She had embarrassed Veppers and he wouldn’t want any more people to know about that than absolutely had to. Jasken and Dr. S didn’t count; they could be relied upon, they would never talk. Others might, others would. If outsiders had to be involved they would surely know she had disobeyed him and bested him even temporarily. He would feel the shame of that, magnified by his grotesque vanity. It was that overweening self-regard, that inability to suffer even the thought of shame, that might let her get away. “Five!”

  She paused, felt herself swallow as the final clap resounded in the darkness around her.

  “So! That’s what you want?” Veppers shouted. Again, she could hear the anger in his voice. “You had your chance, Lededje. Now we—”

  “Sir!” she shouted, not too loudly, still looking away from him, in the direction she was shuffling.


  “Was that her?”

  “Led?” Jasken shouted.

  “Sir!” she yelled, keeping her voice lower than a full shout but trying to make it sound as though she was putting all her effort into it. “I’m here! I’m done with this. My apologies, sir. I’ll accept whatever punishment you choose.”

  “Indeed you will,” she heard Veppers mutter. Then he raised his voice, “Where is ‘here’?” he called. “Where are you?”

  She raised her head, projecting her voice into the great dark spaces above, where vast sets like stacked cards loomed. “In the tower, sir. Near the top, I think.”

  “She’s up there?” Jasken said, sounding incredulous.

  “Can you see her?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Can you show yourself, little Lededje?” Veppers shouted. “Let us see where you are! Have you a light?”

  “Um, ah, wait a moment, sir,” she said in her half-shout, angling her head upwards again.

  She shuffled a little faster along the ledge now. She had an image in her head of the size of the stage, the sets and flats that came down to produce backgrounds for the action. They were vast, enormously wide. She probably wasn’t halfway across yet. “I have …” she began, then let her voice fade away. This might buy her a little extra time, might keep Veppers from going crazy.

  “The general manager is with Dr. Sulbazghi now, sir,” she heard Jasken say.

  “Is he now?” Veppers sounded exasperated.

  “The general manager is upset, sir. Apparently he wishes to know what is going on in his opera house.”

  “It’s my fucking opera house!” Veppers said, loudly. “Oh, all right. Tell him we’re looking for a stray. And have Sulbazghi turn on the lights; we might as well, now.” There was a pause, then he said, testily, “Yes, of course all the lights!”

  “Shit!” Lededje breathed. She tried to move even faster, felt the wooden ledge beneath her feet bounce.

  “Lededje,” Veppers shouted, “can you hear me?” She didn’t reply. “Lededje, stay where you are; don’t risk moving. We’re going to turn on the lights.”

  The lights came on. There were fewer than she’d expected and it became dimly lit around her rather than dazzlingly bright. Of course; most of the lights would be directed at the stage itself, not up into the scenery inside the fly tower carousel. Still, there was enough light to gain a better impression of her surroundings. She could see the greys, blues, blacks and whites of the painted flat she was pressed against – though she still had
no idea what the enormous painting represented – and could see the dozens of massive hanging backgrounds – some three-dimensional, metres thick, sculpted to resemble port scenes, town squares, peasant villages, mountain crags, forest canopies – hanging above her. They bowed out as they ascended, held inside the barrel depths of the carousel like vast pages in some colossal illustrated book. She was about halfway along the flat, almost directly above the middle of the stage. Fifteen metres or more still to go. It was too far. She would never make it. She could see down, too. The brightly shining stage was over twenty metres below. She tore her gaze away. The creaking sound beneath her desperately shuffling feet had taken on a rhythm now. What could she do? What other way out was there? She thought of the knives.

  “I still can’t—” Veppers said.

  “Sir! That bit of scenery; it’s moving. Look.”

  “Shit shit shit!” she breathed, trying to move still faster.

  “Lededje, are you—”

  She heard steps, then, “Sir! She’s there! I can see her!”

  “Buggering fuck,” she had time to say, then heard the creaking noise beneath her turn into a splitting, splintering sound, and felt herself sinking, being lowered, gently at first. She brought her hands in, unsheathed both knives. Then there was a noise like a gunshot; the wooden ledge beneath her gave way and she started to fall.

  She heard Jasken shout something.

  She twisted, turned, stabbed both knives into the plasticised canvas of the flat, holding on grimly to each handle as she pulled herself in as close as she could, her gloved fists at her shoulders, hearing the canvas tear and watching it split in front of her eyes, the twin blades slicing quickly down to the foot of the enormous painting where the jagged remains of the wooden ledge sagged and fell.

  The knives were going to cut right through the bottom of the canvas! She was sure she’d seen something like this done in a film and it had all looked a lot easier. Hissing, she twisted both knives, turning each blade from vertical to horizontal. She stopped falling and hung there, bouncing gently on the torn, straining canvas. Her legs swung in space beneath her. Shit, this wasn’t going to work. Her arms were getting sore and starting to shake already.