The state of the art, p.12
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       The State of the Art, p.12

           Iain M. Banks
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  I always did that, and always felt the same twinge of regret, even fear, knowing I was leaving our safe haven . . . but I soon settled, and enjoyed the trip down, riding through the atmosphere in my absurd motor car. The ship switched on the stereo again, and played me ‘Serenade’ by the Steve Miller Band. Somewhere over the Atlantic, off Portugal I think, and just at the line, ‘The sun comes up, and shines all around me . . .’ guess what happened?

  All I can suggest is that you look again at some picture of it, half black with a billion scattered lights and streaks of dawning colour; I can’t describe it further. We fell quickly.

  The car landed in the middle of some old coal workings in the unlovely north of France, near Béthune. By that time it was fully light. The field around the car popped and the two small platforms under the auto appeared, white slivers in the misty morning. They disappeared with their own ‘pop’s as the ship displaced them.

  I drove to Paris. Living in Kensington I’d had a smaller car, a VW Golf, and the Volvo was like a tank after that. The ship spoke through my terminal brooch telling me which route to take to Paris, and then guided me through the streets to Linter’s place. Even so it was a slightly traumatic experience because the whole city seemed snarled up with some cycle race, so when I eventually arrived in the courtyard just off the Boulevard St Germain, where Linter had an apartment, I was in no mood to find that he wasn’t there.

  ‘Well, where the hell is he?’ I demanded, standing on the balcony outside the apartment, hands on hips, glaring at the locked door. It was a sunny day, getting hot.

  ‘I don’t know,’ the ship said through the brooch.

  I looked down at the thing, for all the good that did. ‘What?’

  ‘Dervley has taken to leaving his terminal in his apartment when he goes out.’

  ‘He -’ I stopped there, took a few deep breaths, and sat down on the steps. I switched my terminal off.

  Something was going on. Linter was still here in Paris, despite the fact that this was where he’d been sent originally; his stay here shouldn’t have been any longer than mine in London. Nobody on the ship had seen him since we’d first arrived; it looked like he hadn’t been back to the ship at all. All the rest of us had. Why was he staying on here? And what was he thinking of, going out without taking his terminal? It was the act of a madman; what if something happened to him? What if he got knocked down in the street? (This seemed quite likely, judging from the standard of Parisian driving I’d encountered.) Or beaten up in a fight? And why was the ship treating all this so matter-of-factly? Going out without your terminal was acceptable enough on some cosy Orbital, and positively commonplace in a Rock or onboard ship, but here? Like taking a stroll through a game park without a gun . . . and just because the natives did it all the time didn’t make it any less crazy.

  I was quite certain now there was much more to this little jaunt to Paris than the ship had led me to believe. I tried to get some more information out of the beast, but it stuck to its ignorant act and so I gave up and left the car in the courtyard while I went for a walk.

  I walked down the St Germain until I came to the St Michel, then headed for the Seine. The weather was bright and warm, the shops busy, the people as cosmopolitan as they were in London, if a little more stylishly dressed, on average. I think I was disappointed at first; the place wasn’t that different. You saw the same products, the same signs; Mercedes-Benz, Westinghouse, American Express, De Beers, and so on . . . but gradually a more animated flavour of the city came through. A little more of Miller’s Paris (I’d zipped through the Tropics the previous evening, as well as crossing them that morning), even if it was a little tamed with the passing of the years.

  It was a different mix, another blend of the same ingredients; the traditional, the commercial, the nationalist . . . I rather liked the language. I could just about make myself understood, at a fairly low level (my accent was formidable, the ship had assured me), and could more or less read all the signs and advertisements . . . but spoken at the standard rate I couldn’t make out more than one word in ten. So the language in the mouths of those Parisiens was like music, one unbroken flow of sound.

  On the other hand, the populace seemed very reluctant to use any other language save their own even when they were technically able to, and if anything there seemed to be even fewer people in Paris willing and able to speak English than there were Londoners likewise equipped to tackle French. Post-Imperial snobbishness, perhaps.

  In the shadow of Notre Dame I stood, thinking hard as I looked at that dull froth of brown stone which is the façade (I didn’t go in; I was fed up with cathedrals, and by that time even my interest in castles was flagging). The ship wanted me to talk with Linter, for reasons I couldn’t understand and it wasn’t prepared to explain. Nobody had seen the guy, nobody had been able to call him, and nobody had received a message from him all the time we’d been over Earth. What had happened to him? And what was I supposed to do about it?

  I walked along the banks of the Seine with all that cluttered, heavy architecture around me, and wondered.

  I remembered the smell of roasting coffee (coffee was soaring in price at the time; them and their Commodities!), and the light that struck off the cobbles as little men turned on taps inside the sidewalks to wash the streets. They used old rags slung in front of the kerbs to divert the water this way and that.

  For all my fruitless pondering, it was still wonderful to be there; there was something different about the city, something that really did make you feel glad to be alive. Somehow I found my way to the upstream end of the Ile de Cité, although I’d meant to head towards the Pompidou Centre and then double back and cross by the Pont des Arts. There was a little triangular park at the island end, like some green fore-castle on a seaship, prow-facing those big-city waters of the dirty old Seine.

  I walked into the park, hands in pockets, just wandering, and found some curiously narrow and austere - almost threatening - steps leading down between masses of rough-surfaced white stone. I hesitated, then went down, as though towards the river. I found myself in an enclosed courtyard; the only other exit I could see was down a slope to the water, but that was barred by a jagged construction of black steel. I felt uneasy. There was something about the hard geometry of the place that induced a sense of threat, of smallness and vulnerability; those jutting weights of white stone somehow made you think of how delicately crushable human bones were. I seemed to be alone. I stepped, reluctantly inquisitive, into the dark, narrow doorway that led back underneath the sunlit park.

  It was the memorial to the Deportation.

  I remember a thousand tiny lights, in rows, down a grilled-off tunnel, a recreated cell, fine words embossed . . . but I was in a daze. It’s over a century ago now, but I still feel the cold of that place; I speak these words and a chill goes up my back; I edit them on screen and the skin on my arms, calves and flanks goes tight.

  The effect remains as sharp as it was at the time; the details were as hazy a few hours afterwards as they are now, and as they will be until the day I die.

  3.2: Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality

  I came out stunned. I was angry at them, then. Angry at them for surprising me, touching me like that. Of course I was angry at their stupidity, their manic barbarity, their unthinking, animal obedience, their appalling cruelty; everything that the memorial evoked . . . but what really hit me was that these people could create something that spoke so eloquently of their own ghastly actions; that they could fashion a work so humanly redolent of their own inhumanity. I hadn’t thought them capable of that, for all the things I’d read and seen, and I didn’t like to be surprised.

  I left the island and walked along the right bank down towards the Louvre, and wandered through its galleries and halls, seeing but not seeing, just trying to calm down again. I glanded a little softnow4 to help the process along, and by the time I came to the Mona Lisa I was quite composed again. The Giaconda was a disappointment;
too small and brown and surrounded by people and cameras and security. The lady smiled serenely from behind thick glass.

  I couldn’t find a seat and my feet were getting sore, so I wandered out into the Tuileries, along broad and dusty avenues between small trees, and eventually found a bench by an octagonal pond where small boys and their pères sailed model yachts. I watched them.

  Love. Maybe it was love. Could that be it? Had Linter fallen for somebody, and was the ship therefore concerned he might not want to leave, if and when we had to? Just because that was the start of a thousand sentimental stories didn’t mean that it didn’t actually happen.

  I sat by the octagonal pond, thinking about all this, and the same wind that ruffled my hair made the sails of the little yachts flutter and flap, and in that uncertain breeze they nosed through the choppy waters, and banged into the wall of the pond, or were caught by chubby hands and sent bobbing back out again across the waves.

  I circled back via the Invalides, with more predictable trophies of war; old Panther tanks, and rows of ancient cannons like bodies stacked against a wall. I had lunch in a smoky little place near the St Sulpice Metro; you sat on high stools at a bar and they selected a piece of red meat for you and put it, dripping blood, on a grid over an open pit filled with burning charcoal. The meat sizzled on the grill right in front of you while you had your aperitif, and you told them when you felt it was ready. They kept going to take it off and serve it to me, and I kept saying, ‘Non non; un peu plus . . . s’il vous plait.’

  The man next to me ate his rare, with blood still oozing from the centre. After a few years in Contact you get used to that sort of thing, but I was still surprised I could sit there and do that, especially after the memorial. I knew so many people who’d have been outraged at the very thought. Come to think of it, there would have been millions of vegetarians on Earth who’d have been equally disgusted (would they have eaten our vat-grown meats? I wonder).

  The black grill over the charcoal pit kept reminding me of the gratings in the memorial, but I just kept my head down and ate my meal, or most of it. I had a couple of glasses of rough red wine too, which I let have some effect, and by the time I was finished I was feeling reasonably together again, and quite well disposed to the locals. I even remembered to pay without being asked (I don’t think you ever quite get used to buying), and went out into the bright sunshine. I walked back to Linter’s, looking at shops and buildings and trying not to get knocked down in the street. I bought a paper on the way back, to see what our unsuspecting hosts thought was newsworthy. It was oil. Jimmy Carter was trying to persuade Americans to use less petrol, and the Norwegians had a blow-out in the North Sea. The ship had mentioned both items in its more recent synopses, but of course it knew Carter’s measures weren’t going to get through without drastic amendment, and that the drilling rig had had a piece of equipment fitted upside down. I selected a magazine as well, so arrived back at Linter’s clutching my copy of Stern and expecting to have to drive away. I’d already made tentative plans; going to Berlin via the First World War graves and the old battle grounds, following the theme of war, death and memorials all the way to the riven capital of the Third Reich itself.

  But Linter’s car was there in the courtyard, parked beside the Volvo. His auto was a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud; the ship believed in indulging us. Anyway, it claimed that making a show was better cover than trying to stay inconspicuous; Western capitalism in particular allowed the rich just about the right amount of behavioural leeway to account for the oddities our alienness might produce.

  I went up the steps and pressed the bell. I waited for a short while, hearing noises within the flat. A small notice on the far side of the courtyard caught my attention, and brought a sour smile to my face.

  Linter appeared, unsmiling, at the door; he held it open for me, bowing a little.

  ‘Ms Sma. The ship told me you’d be coming.’

  ‘Hello.’ I entered.

  The apartment was much larger than I’d anticipated. It smelled of leather and new wood; it was light and airy and well decorated and full of books and records, tapes and magazines, paintings and objets d’art, and it didn’t look one little bit like the place I’d had in Kensington. It felt lived in.

  Linter waved me towards a black leather chair at one end of a Persian carpet covering a teak floor and went over to a drinks cabinet, turning his back to me. ‘Do you drink?’

  ‘Whisky,’ I said, in English. ‘With or without the “e”.’ I didn’t sit down, but wandered around the room, looking.

  ‘I have Johnny Walker Black Label.’


  I watched him clamp one hand round the square bottle and pour. Dervley Linter was taller than me, and quite muscular. To an experienced eye there was something not quite right - in Earth human terms - about the set of his shoulders. He leaned over the bottles and glasses like a threat, as though he wanted to bully the drink from one to the other.

  ‘Anything in it?’

  ‘No thanks.’

  He handed me the glass, bent to a small fridge, extracted a bottle and poured himself a Budweiser (the real stuff, from Czechoslovakia). Finally, this little ceremony over, he sat down. Bahaus chair, and it looked original.

  His face was calm, serious. Each feature seemed to demand separate attention; the large, mobile mouth, the flared nose, the bright but deep-set eyes, the stage-villain brows and surprisingly lined forehead. I tried to recall what he’d looked like before, but could only remember vaguely, so it was impossible to tell how much of the way he looked now had been carried over from what would be classed as his ‘normal’ appearance. He rolled the beer glass around in his large hands.

  ‘The ship seems to think we should talk,’ he said. He drank about half the beer in one gulp and placed the glass on a small table made of polished granite. I adjusted my brooch. ‹ ‘You don’t think we should though, no?’

  He spread his hands wide, then folded them over his chest. He was dressed in two pieces of an expensive looking black suit; trousers and waistcoat. ‘I think it might be pointless.’

  ‘Well . . . I don’t know . . . does there have to be a point to everything? I thought . . . the ship suggested we might have a talk, that’s -’

  ‘Did it?’

  ‘- all. Yes.’ I coughed. ‘I don’t . . . it didn’t tell me what’s going on.’

  Linter looked steadily at me, then down at his feet. Black brogues. I looked around the room as I sipped my whisky, looking for signs of female habitation, or for anything that might indicate there were two people living here. I couldn’t tell. The room was crowded with stuff; prints and oils on the walls, most of the former either Breughels or Lowrys; Tiffany lampshades, a Bang and Olafsen Hi-fi unit, several antique clocks, what looked like a dozen or so Dresden figurines, a Chinese cabinet of black lacquer, a large four-fold screen with peacocks sewn onto it, the myriad feathers like displayed eyes . . .

  ‘What did it tell you?’ Linter asked.

  I shrugged. ‘What I said. It said it wanted me to have a talk with you.’

  He smiled in an unimpressed sort of way as though the whole conversation was hardly worth the effort, then looked away, through the window. He didn’t seem to be going to say anything. A flash of colour caught my eye, and I looked over at a large television, one of those with small doors that close over the screen and make it look like a cabinet when it isn’t in use. The doors weren’t fully shut, and it was switched on behind them.

  ‘Do you want -?’ Linter said.

  ‘No, it’s -’ I began, but he rose out of the seat, gripping its elegant arms, went to the set and spread its doors open with a dramatic gesture before resuming his seat.

  I didn’t want to sit and watch television, but the sound was down so it wasn’t especially intrusive. ‘The control unit’s on the table,’ Linter said, pointing.

  ‘I wish you - somebody - wish you’d tell me what’s going on.’

  He looked at me as though this
was an obvious lie rather than a genuine plea, and glanced over at the TV. It must have been on one of the ship’s own channels, because it was changing all the time, showing different shows and programmes from a variety of countries, using various transmission formats, and waiting for a channel to be selected. A group in bright pink suits danced mechanically to an unheard song. They were replaced with a picture of the Ekofisk platform, spouting a dirty brown fountain of oil and mud. Then the screen changed again, to show the crowded cabin scene from A Night At The Opera.

  ‘So you don’t know anything?’ Linter lit a Sobranie. This, like the ship’s ‘Hmm’, had to be for effect (unless he liked the taste, which has never been a convincing line). He didn’t offer me one.

  ‘No, no, no I don’t. Look . . . I can see the ship wanted me here for more than this talk . . . but don’t you play games too. That crazy thing sent me down here in that Volvo; the whole way. I half expected it not to have baffled it either; I was waiting for a pair of Mirages to come to intercept. I’ve got a long drive to Berlin as well, you know? So . . . just tell me, or tell me to go, all right?’

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