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The State of the Art, Page 20

Iain M. Banks

  Two of them had him on the ground, kicking and struggling. I heard him cry out once as I moved towards them, but I recall no other sound. Whether it was really as silent as I remember it, or whether I was simply concentrating on the sense that yielded the most information, I don’t know. I caught the heels of one of them, and pulled, heaving him out and up, cracking his face against one boot where I’d stuck it out to meet him. I threw him out of the way. The other one was already up. Lines seemed to be bunching up at the side of my vision, and throbbing, making me think about how much time the first one had had to regain his balance if not his knife. I realized I wasn’t doing this the way you were meant to. The one in front of me lunged. I stepped out of the way, turning again. I hit him on the head while I looked back at the first one, who was on his feet, coming forward, but hesitating at the side of the one I’d hit second, who was struggling up against the wall, holding his face; dark blood on pale skin.

  They ran, as one, like a school of fish turning.

  Linter was staggering, trying to stand. I caught him and he clutched at me, gripping my arm tightly, breath wheezing. He stumbled and sagged as we got to the red and white light outside the little restaurant. A man with a napkin stuffed in the top of his vest opened the door and looked out at us.

  Linter fell at the doorstep. It was only then I thought of the terminal, and realized that Linter was gripping the top of my coat, where the terminal brooch was. The smells of cooking came out of the open door. The man with the napkin looked cautiously up and down the alley. I tried to prise Linter’s fingers free.

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘No.’

  ‘Dervley, let go. Let me get the ship.’

  ‘No.’ He shook his head. There was sweat on his brow, blood on his lips. A huge dark stain was spreading over the fawn coat. ‘Let me.’



  ‘No. Don’t.’

  ‘Lady? Want me to call the cops?’

  ‘Linter? Linter?’


  ‘Linter! ’

  When his eyes closed his grip loosened.

  There were more people at the restaurant door. Somebody said, ‘Jesus.’ I stayed there, kneeling on the cold ground with Linter’s face close to mine, thinking: How many films? (The guns quieten, the battle stops.) How often do they do this, in their commercial dreams? (Look after Karen for me . . . that’s an order, mister . . . you know I always loved you . . . Killing of Georgie . . . Ici resté un deporté inconnu . . .) What am I doing here? Come on lady.

  ‘Come on lady. Come on, lady . . .’ Somebody tried to lift me.

  Then he was lying beside Linter looking hurt and surprised and somebody was screaming and people were backing off.

  I started running. I jabbed the terminal brooch and shouted.

  I stopped at the far end of the alley, near the street, and rested against a wall, looking at the dark bricks opposite.

  A noise like a pop, and a drone sinking slowly down in front of me; a business-like black-body drone, the inky lengths of two knife missiles hovering on either side above eye level, twitchy for action.

  I took a deep breath. ‘There’s been a slight accident,’ I said calmly.

  6.3: Halation Effect

  I looked at Earth. It was shown, in-holo’d, on one wall of my cabin; brilliant and blue, solid and white-whorled.

  ‘Then it was more like suicide,’ Tagm said, stretching out on my bed. ‘I didn’t think Catholics -’

  ‘But I cooperated,’ I said, still pacing up and down. ‘I let him do it. I could have called the ship. After he lost consciousness there was time; we could still have saved him.’

  ‘But he’d been altered back, Dizzy, and they’re dead when their heart stops, aren’t they?’

  ‘No; there’s two or three minutes after the heart stops. It was enough time. I had enough time.’

  ‘Well then so did the ship. It must have been watching; it was bound to have had a missile on the case.’ Tagm snorted. ‘Linter was probably the most over-observed man on the planet. The ship must have known too; it could have done something. The ship had the control, it had the real-time grasp; it isn’t your responsibility, Dizzy.’

  I wished I could accept Tagm’s moral subtraction. I sat down on the end of the bed, head in my hands, staring at the holo of the planet in the wall. Tagm came over, hugged me, hands on my shoulders, head on mine. ‘Dizzy; you have to stop thinking about it. Let’s go do something. You can’t sit watching that damn holo all day.’

  I stroked one of Tagm’s hands, gazed again at the slowly revolving planet, my gaze flicking in one glance from pole to equator. ‘You know, when I was in Paris, seeing Linter for the first time, I was standing at the top of some steps in the courtyard where Linter’s place was, and I looked across it and there was a little notice on the wall saying it was forbidden to take photographs of the courtyard without the man’s permission.’ I turned to Tagm. ‘They want to own the light!’

  6.4: Dramatic Exit, Or, Thank You And Goodnight

  At five minutes and three seconds past three AM, GMT, on the morning of January the second, 1978, the General Contact Unit Arbitrary broke orbit above the planet Earth. It left behind an octet of Main Observation Satellites - six of them in near-GS orbits - a scattering of drones and minor missiles, and a small plantation of young oaks on a bluff near Elk Creek, California.

  The ship had brought Linter’s body back up, displacing it from its freezer in a New York City morgue. But when we left, Linter stayed, in a fashion. I argued he ought to be buried on-planet, but the ship disagreed. Linter’s last instructions regarding the disposal of his remains had been issued fifteen years earlier, when he first joined Contact, and were quite conventional; his corpse was to be displaced into the centre of the nearest star. So the sun gained a bodyweight, courtesy of Culture tradition, and in a million years, maybe, a little of the light from Linter’s body would shine upon the planet he had loved.

  The Arbitrary held its darkfield for a few minutes, then dropped it just past Mars (so there was just a chance it left an image on an Earth telescope). Meanwhile it was snapping all its various remote drones and sats away from the other planets in the system. It stayed in real space right up till the last moment (making it possible that its rapidly increasing mass produced a blip on a terrestrial gravity-wave experiment, deep in some mountain-mine), then totalled as it dispatched Linter’s body into the stellar core, sucked a last few drones of Pluto and a couple of outlying comets, and slung Li’s diamond at Neptune (where it’s probably still in orbit).

  I’d decided to leave the Arbitrary after the R&R, but after I’d relaxed on Svanrayt Orbital for a few weeks I changed my mind. I had too many friends on the ship, and anyway it seemed genuinely upset when it found out I was thinking of transferring. It charmed me into staying. But it never did tell me whether it had been watching Linter and me that night in New York.

  So, did I really believe I was to blame, or was I kidding even myself? I don’t know. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.

  There was guilt, I recall, but it was an odd sort of guilt. What really annoyed me, what I did find hard to take, was my complicity not in what Linter was trying to do, and not in his own half-willed death, but in the generality of transferred myth those people accepted as reality.

  It strikes me that although we occasionally carp about Having To Suffer, and moan about never producing real Art, and become despondent or try too hard to compensate, we are indulging in our usual trick of synthesizing something to worry about, and should really be thanking ourselves that we live the life we do. We may think ourselves parasites, complain about Mind-generated tales, and long for ‘genuine’ feelings, ‘real’ emotion, but we are missing the point, and indeed making a work of art ourselves in imagining such an uncomplicated existence is even possible. We have the best of it. The alternative is something like Earth, where as much as they suffer, for all that they burn with pain and confused, bewildered angst, the
y produce more dross than anything else; soap operas and quiz programmes, junk papers and pulp romances.

  Worse than that, there is an osmosis from fiction to reality, a constant contamination which distorts the truth behind both and fuzzes the telling distinctions in life itself, categorizing real situations and feelings by a set of rules largely culled from the most hoary fictional clichés, the most familiar and received nonsense. Hence the soap operas, and those who try to live their lives as soap operas, while believing the stories to be true; hence the quizzes where the ideal is to think as close to the mean as possible, and the one who conforms utterly is the one who stands above the rest; the Winner . . .

  They always had too many stories, I believe; they were too free with their acclaim and their loyalty, too easily impressed by simple strength or a cunning word. They worshipped at too many altars.

  Well, there’s your story.

  Perhaps it’s as well I haven’t changed very much over the years; I doubt that it’s much different from what I’d have written a year or a decade later, rather than a century.15

  It’s funny the images that stay with you though. Over the years one thing has haunted me, one dream recurred. It really has nothing to do with me in a sense, because it was something I never saw . . . yet it stays there, nevertheless.

  I didn’t want to be displaced, that night, nor did I want to travel out to somewhere remote enough for a module to pick me up without being seen. I got the black-body drone to lift me from the city; right up, darkfielded, into the sky in the midst of Manhattan, rising above all that light and noise into the darkness, quiet as any falling feather. I sat on the Drone’s back, still in shock I suppose, and don’t even remember transferring to the dark module a few kilometres above the grid of urban light. I saw but didn’t watch, and thought not of my own flight, but about the other drones the ship might be using on the planet at the time; where they might be, what doing.

  I mentioned the Arbitrary collected snowflakes. Actually it was searching for a pair of identical ice crystals. It had - has - a collection; not holes or figure break-downs, but actual samples of ice crystals from every part of the galaxy it has ever visited where it found frozen water. It only ever collects a few flakes each time, of course; a saturation pick-up would be . . . inelegant.

  I suppose it must still be looking. What it will do if it ever does find two identical crystals, it has never said. I don’t know that it really wants to find them, anyway.

  But I thought of that, as I left the glittering, grumbling city beneath me. I thought - and I still dream about this, maybe once or twice a year - of some drone, its flat back star-dappled, quietly in the steppes or at the edge of a polynya off Antarctica, gently lifting a single flake of snow, teasing it away from the rest, and hesitating perhaps, before going, displaced or rising, taking its tiny, perfect cargo to the orbiting starship, and leaving the frozen plains, or the waste of ice, once more at peace.

  7: Perfidy, Or, A Few Words From ‘The Drone’

  Well, thank goodness that’s over. I don’t mind telling you this has been an extremely difficult translation, not helped at all by Sma’s intransigent and at times obstructive attitude. She frequently used Marain expressions it would be impossible to render accurately into English without at least a three-dimensional diagram, and consistently refused to redraft or revise the text to facilitate its translation. I have done my best, but I can take no responsibility for any misunderstanding caused by any part of this communication.

  I suppose I had better note here that the chapter titles (including that for Sma’s covering letter, and this) and sub-titles are my own additions. Sma wrote the above as one continuous document (can you imagine?), but I thought it better to split the thing up. The chapter titles and sub-titles are, incidentally, also all names of General Contact Units produced by the Infracaninophile manufactury in Yinang Orbital which Sma refers to (without naming) in Chapter Three.

  Another thing; you will notice that Sma has the gall to refer to me simply as ‘The Drone’ in her letter. I have humoured her matronizing whim quite long enough, and now wish to make clear that my name is, in fact, Fohristiwhirl Skaffen-Amtiskaw Handrahen Dran Easpyou. I am not self-important and it is irresponsible of Sma to suggest that my duties in Special Circumstances are some sort of atonement for past misdeeds. My conscience is clear.


  (Drone, Offensive)

  PS: I have met the Arbitrary, and it is a much more pleasant and engaging machine than Sma would have you believe.


  OR: The Present and Future of Species HS (sic) Considered as The Contents of a Contemporary Popular Record (qv). Report Abstract/Extract Version 4.2 Begins (after this break);

  No one likes to think about what No one likes to think No one likes to think about what might happen happen in the event of your Large Tax-Free Bonus Tax Free Bonus but have you provided for your family should your Tax Free Bonus Home Fire Alarm will protect your family Large Tax Free better than almost any competing product product Will not Better than almost any product Can you afford not to be without this inexpensive Easy Credit Terms Available Easy Easy Easy Credit Terms Available Will not damage carpets.

  I: Irreversible Neu(t)ral Damage

  Absolutely not it’s a good idea I told her I said dear these days you’ve got to look out for number one; go for it, honey. Don’t you take any shit about BMW Three Series with discreet spoilers and those bulky overweight mega-diaries with your whole Yuppie life inside those ribbed covers, choosing your Hyper Hyper jacket to go with the new leatherbound you just got Is that a Diver’s Watch, do you dive? No is that a Pilot’s Briefcase can you fly? Are you sure this is real Perrier? A degree with cloister cred, designer tampons and open-plan toilets. Don’t know anybody with AIDS yet. This the powder room? Na it’s a good good idea I told her go for it honey; cancel BUPA if you have to - feeling all right are you? Get a smear done first, ’course - and sell the Gas shares; remortgage with my cousin he’ll see you right and set it up if you want; show these fucking Grauniad reading wankers what you think of them; a Unit Trust investing only in South Africa, the nuclear and defence industries and tobacco related products products is a great idea. At least you know where you are lets do lunch and talk about it. By the way, is it true about Naomi and Gerald?

  II: The Base Of The Iceberg

  (smell) The crunched up packets of cheap cigarettes, black stencil writing on yellow covers they call them crush-proof in the US all crushdup. The line of dripping washing nappies, socks, nappies, blouse - needs a couple of buttons - more nappies, trousers - from the Oxfam shop - nappies (Intrusion: The economies of scale: stuff the big pinkwhite Pampers box and the E9000 gigasize economy/Family Family Family box of powder into the GTi Don’t forget the Comfort. Now then where were we Oh Yes), nappies (smell), tights, nappies, more tights more nappies drip drip drip onto the sheets of newspaper on the floor (the string runs from broken light fitting to the hook holding the faded notice about fire procedure and no guests after ten You are expected to vacate the room for six hours per day Prams must be taken up to rooms Do NOT leave prams in stair wells No cooking in room This door should be should not be wedged open kept locked at all times the building is occupied. Fire proof). The remains of Wimpy meals and McDonald’s Complete Family meals and Kentucky Fried Chicken soup in a Basket and Brightly Coloured Shakes and Wendy meals and French Fries (smell) and more French Fries (smell) and a Doner Kebab (small); junk food funk food junk food fast food for those who queued seven hours at the DHSS today spent the

  (meanwhile christ rushed off our feet so busy oh fuck another three-bottle lunch! . . . Did I pay that with the company card? Yeah a Vodaphone on the firm next month Oh dear late again . . . Let’s share a taxi) [fst fwd] and the tins of beans the cider bottles cough medicine tampon packets (plus VAT) baby food jars If you dip the French Fries (plus VAT) in the baby food it makes it last longer won’t stop crying feel like hitting her sometimes I know, she’s sick a
gain (smell) and I’m late again (sic) what a state fast forward

  III: Beat Me Up, Scotty

  of course there’s the spin-offs; Gemini gave us non-stick frying pans, or was it Chuck Yeager? fst fd Well anyway of course there’ll be peaceful applications the solar-powered television on my watch would run off the space-based lasers

  IV: Hocus, Pocus, Mucus

  . . . that he did, on or about the date given above, wilfully, and while in full possession of his faculties, walk under a ladder without due care and attention, step on the cracks in the pavement (1,345,964 other offences to be taken into consideration), break a mirror (statutory penalty seven years), fail to finish his meat course at dinner (thus incurring a period of rain on the following day of unspecified duration; see attached forensic meteorological report), spill approximately 211 grains of household sodium chloride (common salt: NaCl) without thereafter propelling said same household sodium chloride over and above left shoulder despite supplies of same being freely available, to the furtherance of the Devil’s works, and, farther, did, in the presence of several God-fearing witnesses, good men and true, with malice aforethought open an umbrella within a household, as defined by the Household (Definition) Act of the Year of Our Lord . . .