The state of the art, p.11
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       The State of the Art, p.11

           Iain M. Banks
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  ‘Uh . . . right,’ I said, still trying to work out exactly what the ship was talking about.

  ‘Hmm,’ the ship said.

  When the ship says ‘Hmm’, it’s stalling. The beast takes no appreciable time to think, and if it pretends it does then it must be waiting for you to say something to it. I out-foxed it though; I said nothing.

  But, looking back at what we were talking about, and what we each said we thought, and trying to imagine what it was really about, I do believe that it was then it decided to use me as it did. That ‘Hmm’ marked a decision that meant I was involved the way I was in the Linter affair, and that was what the ship was really worried about; that which, all evening, during the meal and afterwards, slipping in the odd remark, the occasional question, the ship was really asking me about. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was just sleepy and full and contented and warm and lying there talking to thin air, while the remote drone sat on the arm of the couch and talked to me.

  ‘Yes,’ sighed the ship at last, ‘for all our data and sophistication and analyses and statistically correct generalizations, these things remain singular and uncertain.’

  ‘Aw,’ I tutted, ‘it’s a hard life being a GCU. Poor ship, poor Papageno.’

  ‘You may mock, my little chick,’ the ship said with a sort of fakedly hurt sniffiness, ‘but the final responsibility remains mine.’

  ‘Ah, you’re an old fraud, machine.’ I grinned over at the drone. ‘You’ll get no sympathy out of me. You know what I think; I’ve told you.’

  ‘You don’t think we’d spoil the place? You seriously think they’re ready for us? For what we’d do to them even with the best of intentions?’

  ‘Ready for it? What does that matter? What does it even mean? Of course they aren’t ready for it, of course we’ll spoil the place. Are they any more ready for World War Three? You seriously think we could mess the place up more than they’re doing at the moment? When they’re not actually out slaughtering each other they’re inventing ingenious new ways to massacre each other more efficiently in the future, and when they’re not doing that they’re committing speciescide, from the Amazon to Borneo . . . or filling the seas with shit, or the air, or the land. They could hardly make a better job of vandalizing their own planet if we gave them lessons.’

  ‘But you still like them, I mean as people, the way they are.’

  ‘No, you like them the way they are,’ I told the ship, pointing at the remote drone. ‘They appeal to your sense of untidiness. You think I haven’t been listening all the times you’ve gone on about how we’re “infecting the whole galaxy with sterility” . . . isn’t that the phrase?’ ‘I may have used that form of words,’ the ship agreed vaguely, ‘but don’t you think -’

  ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered thinking now,’ I said, levering myself off the couch. I stood up, yawning and stretching. ‘Where’s the gang gone?’

  ‘Your companions are about to watch an amusing film I found on-planet.’

  ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I’ll watch it too. Which way?’

  The remote drone floated up from the couch arm. ‘Follow me.’ I left the alcove where we’d eaten. The drone turned round as it meandered through curtains and around chairs, tables and plants. It looked back at me. ‘You don’t want to talk to me? I only want to explain -’

  ‘Tell you what, ship. You wait here and I’ll hit dirt and find you a priest and you can unburden yourself to him. The Arbitrary goes to confession. Definitely an idea whose time has come.’ I waved at some people I hadn’t seen for a while, and kicked some cushions out of my way. ‘You could tidy this place up a bit, too.’

  ‘Your wish . . .’ the remote drone sighed and stopped to supervise the cushions, which were dutifully re-arranging themselves. I stepped down into a darkened, sound-shrouded area where people were sitting or lying in front of a 2D screen. The film was just starting. It was science fiction, of all things; called Dark Star. Just before I stepped through the soundfield I heard the remote drone behind me sigh to itself again. ‘Ah, it’s true what they say; April is the cruellest month . . .’

  2.3: Unwitting Accomplice

  It was about a week later, when I was due to go back on-planet, to Berlin, when the ship wanted to talk to me again. Things were going on as usual; the Arbitrary spent its time making detailed maps of everything within sight and without, dodging American and Soviet satellites and manufacturing and then sending down to the planet hundreds upon thousands of bugs to watch printing works and magazine stalls and libraries, to scan museums, workshops, studios and shops, to look into windows, gardens and forests, and to track buses, trains, cars, seaships and planes. Meanwhile its effectors, and those on its main satellites, probed every computer, monitored every landline, tapped every microwave link, and listened to every radio transmission on Earth.

  All Contact craft are natural raiders. They’re made to love to be busy, to enjoy sticking their big noses into other people’s business, and the Arbitrary, for all its eccentricities, was no different. I doubt if it was, or is, ever happier than when doing that vacuum-cleaner act above a sophisticated planet. By the time we were ready to leave the ship would have contained in its memory - and would have onward-transmitted to other vessels - every bit of data ever stored in the history of the planet that hadn’t been subsequently obliterated. Every 1 and 0, every letter, every pixel, every sound, every subtlety of line and texture ever fashioned. It would know where every mineral deposit was buried, where all the treasure as yet undiscovered lay, where every sunken ship was, where every secret grave had been dug; and it would know the secrets of the Pentagon, the Kremlin, the Vatican . . .

  On Earth, of course, they were quite oblivious to the fact they had a million tonnes of highly inquisitive and outrageously powerful alien spaceship orbiting around them, and - sure enough - the locals were doing all the things they normally did; murdering and starving and dying and maiming and torturing and lying and so on. Pretty much business as usual in fact, and it bothered the hell out of me, but I was still hoping we’d decide to interfere and stop most of that shit. It was about this time two Boeing 747s collided on the ground in a Spanish island colony.

  I was reading Lear for the second time, sitting underneath a full-size palm tree. The ship had found the tree in the Dominican Republic, marked to be bulldozed to make way for a new hotel. Thinking it might be nice to have some plants about the place, the Arbitrary dug the palm up one night and brought it aboard, complete with its root system and several tens of cubic metres of sandy soil, and planted it in the centre of our accommodation section. This required quite a lot of rearranging, and a few people who’d happened to be asleep while all this was going on woke to be confronted with a twenty-metre high tree when they opened their cabin doors, rising up in what had become a great central well in the acc section. Contact people are used to putting up with this sort of thing from their ships, however, and so everybody took it in their stride. Anyway, on any sensible calibrated scale of GCU eccentricity, such a harmless, even benign prank would scarcely register.

  I was sitting within sight of the door to Li’ndane’s cabin. He came out, chatting to Tel Ghemada. Li was flicking Brazil nuts into the air and running forward or bending over backwards to catch them with his mouth, while trying to carry on his side of the conversation. Tel was amused. Li flicked one nut particularly far and had to dive and twist under its trajectory, crashing into the floor and sliding into the stool I had my feet up on (and yes, I do always loaf a lot onboard ships; no idea why). Li rolled over on his back, making a show of looking around him for the Brazil nut. He looked mystified. Tel shook her head, smiling, then waved goodbye. She was one of the unfortunates trying to get some sort of human grasp of Earth’s economics, and deserved all the light relief she could get. I recall that all through that year you could tell the economists by their distraught look and slightly glazed-looking eyes. Li . . . well, Li was just a wierdo, and forever conducting a running battle with the finer sensibilities of
the ship.

  ‘Thank you, Li,’ I said, putting my feet back on the upended stool. Li lay breathing heavily on the floor and looking up at me, then his lips parted in a grin to reveal the nut caught between his teeth. He swallowed, stood, pulled his pants halfway down, and proceeded to relieve himself against the trunk of the tree.

  ‘Good for the growth,’ he said when he saw me frowning at him.

  ‘Won’t be any good for your growth if the ship catches you and sends a knife missile to sort you out.’

  ‘I can see what Mr ’ndane is doing and I wasn’t going to dignify his actions with as much as a comment,’ said a small drone, floating down from the foliage. It was one of a few drones the ship had built to follow a couple of birds that had been in the palm when it was hoisted up to the ship; the birds had to be fed, and tidied up after (the ship was proud that so far every dropping had been neatly intercepted in mid-air). ‘But I do admit I find his behaviour slightly worrying. Perhaps he wants to tell us what he feels about Earth, or me, or worse still, perhaps he doesn’t know himself.’

  ‘Simpler than that,’ Li said, putting his dick away. ‘I needed a piss.’ He bent down and ruffled my hair before plonking himself down at my side.

  (‘Urinal in your room packed up, has it?’ muttered the drone. ‘Can’t say I blame it . . .’)

  ‘I hear you’re off back to the wilderness again tomorrow,’ Li said, crossing his arms and looking seriously at me. ‘I’m free this evening; in fact I’m free now. I could offer you a small token of my esteem if you like; your last night with the good guys before you go off to infiltrate the barbarians.’

  ‘Small?’ I said.

  Li smiled, made an expansive gesture, with both hands. ‘Well, modesty forbids . . .’

  ‘No, I do.’

  ‘You’re making a dreadful mistake you know,’ he said, jumping up and rubbing his belly absently while looking in the direction of the nearest dining area. ‘I’m in really fine form at the moment, and I really ain’t doing anything tonight.’

  ‘Too right you aren’t.’

  He shrugged and blew me a kiss, then skipped off. Li was one of those who just wouldn’t have passed for Earth-human without a vast amount of physical alteration (hairy, and the wrong shape; imagine Quasimodo crossed with an ape), but frankly I think you could have put him down looking as normal as an IBM salesman and he’d still have been in jail or a fight within the hour; he couldn’t have accepted the limitations on one’s behaviour a place like Earth tends to insist on.

  Denied his chance to go amongst the people of Earth, Li gave informal briefings for the people who were going down to the surface; those who would listen anyway. Li’s briefings were short and to the point; he walked up, said, ‘The fundamental thing to remember is this; most of what you encounter will be shit.’1 And walked away again.

  ‘Ms Sma . . .’ The small drone floated over and settled into the hollow left by Li’s behind. ‘I was wondering if you would do me a small favour when you go back down tomorrow.’

  ‘What sort of favour?’ I said, putting Regan and Goneril down.

  ‘Well, I’d be terribly grateful if you’d call in at Paris before you go to Berlin . . . if you wouldn’t mind.’

  ‘I . . . don’t mind,’ I said. I hadn’t been to Paris yet.

  ‘Oh good.’

  ‘What’s the problem?’

  ‘No problem. I’d just like you to drop in on Dervley Linter. I think you know him? Well, just pop by for a chat, that’s all.’

  ‘Uh-huh,’ I said.

  I wondered what the ship was up to. I did have an idea (wrong, as it turned out). The Arbitrary, like every ship I’ve ever met in Contact, loved intrigues and plots. The devices are forever using their spare time to cook up pranks and schemes; little secret plans, opportunities to use delicate artifices to get people to do things, say things, behave in a certain way, just for the fun of it. The Arbitrary was a notorious match-maker, perfectly convinced that it knew exactly who would be best for each other, always trying to fix the crew placements to set up as many potential couples or other suitable combinations as it could. It occurred to me that it was up to something like this now, worried that I hadn’t been sexually active recently, and perhaps also concerned that my last few partners had been female (the Arb always did have a distinctly heterosexual bent for some reason).

  ‘Yes, just a little talk; find out how things are going, you know.’

  The drone started to rise from the seat. I reached out and grabbed it, set it down on Lear on my lap, fixed its sensing band with what I hoped was a steely glare of my own and said, ‘What are you up to?’

  ‘Nothing!’ the machine protested. ‘I’d just like you to look in on Dervley and see what the two of you think about Earth, together; get a synthesis, you know. You two haven’t met since we arrived and I want to see what ideas you can come up with . . . exactly how we should go about contacting them if that’s what we decide to do, or what else we can do if we decide not to. That’s all. No skullduggery, dear Sma.’

  ‘Hmm,’ I nodded. ‘All right.’

  I let the drone go. It floated up.

  ‘Honest,’ the ship said, and the drone’s aura field flashed rosy with bonhomie; ‘no skullduggery.’ It made a bobbing motion, indicating the book on my lap. ‘You read your Lear, I’ll jet off.’

  A bird flashed by, closely followed by another drone; the one I’d been talking to tore off in pursuit. I shook my head. Competing for bird shit, already.

  I watched the bird and the two machines dart down a corridor like the remains of some bizarre dogfight, then went back to . . .

  Scene IV. The French camp. A tent.

  Enter with drum and colours, Cordelia, Doctor, and soldiers.

  3: Helpless In The Face Of Your Beauty

  3.1: Synchronize Your Dogmas

  Now, the Arbitrary wasn’t actually insane; it did its job very well, and as far as I know none of its pranks ever actually hurt anybody, at least not physically. But you have to be a bit wary of a ship that collects snowflakes.

  Put it down to its upbringing. The Arb was a product of one of the manufacturies in the Yinang Orbitals in the Dahass-Khree. I’ve checked, and those factories have produced a good per cent of the million or so GCUs there are blatting about the place. That’s quite a few craft2, and as far as I can see, they’re all a bit crazy. It must be the Minds there I suppose; they seem to like turning out eccentric ships. Shall I name names? See if you’ve heard of any of this lot and their little escapades: The . . . Cantankerous, Only Slightly Bent, I Thought He Was With You, Space Monster, A Series Of Unlikely Explanations, Big Sexy Beast, Never Talk To Strangers, It’ll Be Over By Christmas 3, Funny, It Worked Last Time . . . Boo!, Ultimate Ship The Second . . . etc etc. Need I say more?

  Anyway, true to form, the Arbitrary had a little surprise for me when I walked into the top hangar space the next morning.

  Dawn was sweeping like an unrolled carpet of light and shadow over the Northern European Plain and pinking the snowy peaks of the Alps while I walked along the main corridor to the Bay, yawning and checking my passport and other papers (at least partly to annoy the ship; I knew damn well it wouldn’t have made any mistakes), and making sure the drone following me had all my luggage.

  I stepped into the hangar and was immediately confronted by a large red Volvo station wagon. It sat gleaming in the midst of the collection of modules, drones and platforms. I wasn’t in the mood to argue, so I let the drone deposit my gear in the back and went so sit in the driver’s seat, shaking my head. There was nobody else about. I waved goodbye to the drone as the automobile lifted gently into the air and made its way to the rear of the ship over the tops of the other devices in the Bay. They glittered in the brightness of the hangar lights as the big estate, wheels sagging, was pushed above them to the doorfields, and then into space.

  The Bay door started to move back into place as we dropped beneath it and turned. The door slid into place, cutting off the light
from the Bay; I was in perfect darkness for a moment, then the ship switched on the auto’s lights.

  ‘Ah, Sma?’ the ship said from the stereo.



  I remember sighing. I think I shook my head again, too.

  We dropped in blackness, still inside the ship’s inner field. As we finished turning, the Volvo’s headlights picked out the slab-sided length of the Arbitrary, showing a very dull white inside its darkfield. Actually it was quite impressive, and oddly calming.

  The ship killed the lights as we left the outer field. Suddenly I was in real space, the great gulf of spangled black before me, the planet like some vast droplet of water beneath, swirled with the pinpoint lights of Central and South America. I could make out San José, Panamá City, Bogotá and Quito. I looked back, but even knowing the ship was there I could see no sign that the stars it showed on its field skin weren’t real.

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