The state of the art, p.15
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       The State of the Art, p.15
 

           Iain M. Banks
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  ‘What is the last resort?’

  ‘I don’t know; trail him perhaps, watch for a situation where the locals are about to find out he’s not one of them - in a hospital, say - then micronuke the place.’

  ‘What? ’

  ‘It’d make a great Mystery Explosion story.’

  ‘Be serious.’

  ‘I’m being serious. What’s one more meaningless act of violence on that zoo of a planet? It would be appropriate. When in Rome; burn it.’

  ‘You’re not really being serious, are you?’

  ‘Sma! Of course not! Are you on something, or what? Good grief, damn the morality of the thing: it would just be so inelegant. What do you take me for? Really!’ The drone left.

  I dangled my feet in the pool. The ship was playing us thirties jazz, in untidied-up form; crackles and hisses left in. It had gone on to that and Gregorian chants after a period - when I’d been to Berlin - of trying to make everybody listen to Stockhausen. I wasn’t sorry I’d missed that stage in the ship’s constantly altering musical taste.

  Also while I’d been away, the ship had sent a request on a postcard to the BBC’s World Service, asking for ‘Mr David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for the good ship Arbitrary and all who sail in her.’ (This from a machine that could have swamped Earth’s entire electro-magnetic spectrum with whatever the hell it wanted from somewhere beyond Betelgeuse.) It didn’t get the request played. The ship thought this was hilarious.

  ‘Here’s Dizzy; she’ll know.’

  I turned round to see Roghres and Djibard Alsahil approaching. They sat down at my side. Djibard had been friendly with Linter in the year between leaving the Bad For Business and finding Earth.

  ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Know what?’

  ‘What’s happened to Dervley Linter?’ Roghres said, trailing one hand in the pool. ‘Djib’s just back from Tokyo and wanted to see him, but the ship’s being awkward; won’t say where he is.’

  I looked at Djibard, who was sitting cross-legged, looking like a little gnome. She was smiling broadly; she looked stoned.

  ‘What makes you think I know anything?’ I said to Roghres.

  ‘I heard a rumour you’d seen him in Paris.’

  ‘Hmm. Well, yes, I did.’ I watched the pretty light patterns the ship was making on the far wall; they were slowly appearing brighter as the main lights went rosy with the ship’s evening (which it had gradually brought down to a 24-hour cycle).

  ‘So why hasn’t he come back to the ship?’ Roghres said. ‘He went to Paris right at the start. How come he’s still there? Isn’t going native is he?’

  ‘I only saw him for a day; less, in fact. I wouldn’t like to comment on his mental state . . . he seemed happy enough.’

  ‘Don’t answer then,’ Djibard said, a little slurred.

  I looked at Djibard for a moment; she was still smiling. I turned back to Roghres. ‘Why not contact him yourselves? ’

  ‘Tried that,’ Roghres said. She nodded at the other woman. ‘Djibard tried on- and off-planet. No reply.’

  Djibard’s eyes were closed now. I looked at Roghres. ‘Then he probably doesn’t want to talk.’

  ‘You know,’ Djibard said, eyes still closed, ‘I think it’s because we don’t mature the way they do. I mean the females have periods, and the men have this machismo thing because they’ve got to do all the things they’re supposed to do and so we don’t; I mean we don’t have things they do . . . what I mean is that there are all sorts of things that do things to them, and we don’t have that. Them. We don’t have them and so we don’t get ground down the way they do. I think that’s the secret. Pressures and knocks and disappointments. I think that’s what somebody said to me. But I mean it’s so unfair . . . but I don’t know who for yet; I haven’t worked that out, you know?’

  I looked at Roghres and she looked at me. Some drugs do turn you into a blabbering moron for the duration.

  ‘I think you know something you’re not telling us,’ Roghres said. ‘And I don’t think I’m going to coax it out of you.’ She smiled. ‘I know; if you don’t tell, I’ll say to Li that you told me you’re secretly in love with him and just playing hard to get. How about that?’

  ‘I’ll tell my mum, and she’s bigger than yours.’

  Roghres laughed. She took Djibard by the hand and they both stood. They moved off, Roghres guiding Djibard, who as she moved away was saying, ‘You know, I think it’s because we don’t mature the way they do. I mean the females -’

  A drone carrying empty glasses passed by and muttered, ‘Gibbering Djibard,’ in English. I smiled, and waggled my feet in the warm water.

  4.3: Ablation

  I was in Auckland for a couple of weeks, then Edinburgh, then back in the ship again. One or two people asked me about Linter, but obviously word got round that while I probably knew something, I wasn’t going to tell anybody. Still, nobody seemed any less friendly because of that.

  Meanwhile Li had embarked upon a campaign to get the ship to let him visit Earth without modification. His plan was to go mountain descending; have himself dropped on a summit and then make his way down. He told the ship that this would be perfectly safe security-wise, in the Himalayas at least, because if he was seen people would assume he was a Yeti. The ship said it would think about it (which meant No).

  About the middle of June the ship suddenly asked me to go to Oslo for the day. Linter had asked to see me.

  A module dropped me in woods near Sandvika in the bright, early morning. I caught a bus to the centre and walked up to the Frogner park. I found the bridge over the river which Linter wanted to use as a rendezvous, and sat on the parapet.

  I didn’t recognize him at first. I usually recognize people from the way they walk, and Linter’s gait had altered. He looked thinner and more pale; not so physically imposing and immediate. Same suit as in Paris, though it looked baggier on him now, and slightly shabby. He stopped a metre away.

  ‘Hello.’ I held out my hand. He shook it, nodded.

  ‹ ‘It’s good to see you again. How are you keeping?’ His voice was weaker sounding, less sure, somehow.

  I shook my head, smiling. ‘Perfectly well, of course.’

  ‘Oh yes, of course.’ He was avoiding my eyes.

  He made me feel a little awkward, just standing there, so I slid down off the parapet and stood in front of him. He seemed to be smaller than I remembered. He was rubbing his hands together as though it was cold, and looking up the broad avenue of bizarre Vigoland sculptures into the northern blue-morning sky. ‘Do you want to walk?’ he asked.

  ‘Yes, let’s.’ We started across the bridge, towards the first flight of steps on the far side of the obelisk and fountain.

  ‘Thank you for coming.’ Linter looked at me, then quickly away.

  ‘That’s all right. Pleasant city.’ I took off my leather jacket and slung it over my shoulder. I was wearing jeans and boots, but it was a blouse and skirt day really. ‘So, how are you getting on?’

  ‘I’m still staying, if that’s what you want to know.’ Defensively.

  ‘I assumed you were.’

  He relaxed, coughed. We walked across the broad, empty bridge. It was still too early for most people to be up and about, and we seemed to be alone in the park. The severe, square, stone-plinthed lights of the bridge went slowly by, counterpoints to the curves of the strange statues.

  ‘I . . . I wanted to give you this.’ Linter stopped, felt inside his jacket and brought out what looked like a gold-plated Parker pen. He twisted the top off; where the nib should have been there was a grey tube covered in tiny coloured symbols which belonged to no language on Earth. A little red tell-tale winked lazily. It looked insignificant, somehow. He put the top back on the terminal. ‘Will you take it?’ he said, blinking.

  ‘Yes, if you’re sure.’

  ‘I haven’t used it for weeks.’

  ‘How did you ask the ship to see me?’

  ‘It sends down drones to talk to me. I offe
red the terminal to them, but they wouldn’t take it. The ship won’t take it. I don’t think it wants to be responsible.’

  ‘You want me to be?’

  ‘As a friend. I’d like you to; please. Please take it.’

  ‘Look, why not keep it but don’t use it. In case there’s some emergency -’

  ‘No. No; just take it, please.’ Linter looked into my eyes for a moment. ‘It’s just a formality.’

  I felt a strange urge to laugh, the way he said that. Instead I took the terminal from him and stuffed it into my bomber jacket. Linter sighed. We walked on.

  It was a lovely day. The sky was cloudless, the air clear, and fragrant with mixtures of the sea and land. I wasn’t sure whether there really was something about that quality of light that made it northern; perhaps it only looked different because you knew there was just a thousand kilometres or so of as clear, still fresher, colder air between you and the Arctic sea, the great bergs and the millions of square kilometres of ice and snow. It was like being on another planet.

  We walked up the steps, Linter seeming to study each one. I was looking around, drinking in the sight and sound and smell of this place, reminding me of my holidays from London. I looked at the man by my side. ‘You know you’re not looking too well.’

  He didn’t meet my gaze, but appeared to study some distant stonework at the end of the walk. ‘Well . . . no, I guess you could say I’ve changed.’ He smiled uncertainly. ‘I’m not the man I was.’

  Something about the way he said it made me shiver. He was watching his feet again.

  ‘You staying here, in Oslo?’ I asked him.

  ‘For the moment, yes. I like it here. It doesn’t feel like a capital city; clean and compact, but -’ he broke off, shook his head at something. ‘I’ll move on soon though, I think.’

  We went on, mounting the steps. Some of the Vigoland sculptures made me feel distinctly uncomfortable. A wave of something like revulsion swept over me, startling me; some planetary repugnance in this northern city. In this world now, they were talking of abandoning the B1 bomber to go ahead with the cruise missile. What had started out as the Neutron Bomb had euphemized into the Enhanced Radiation Warhead and finally into the Reduced Blast Device. They’re all sick and so’s he, I thought suddenly. Infected.

  No, that was stupid. I was getting xenophobic. The fault was within, not without.

  ‘Do you mind if I tell you something?’

  ‘What do you mean?’ I said. What a weird thing to say, I thought.

  ‘Well you might find it . . . distasteful; I don’t know.’

  ‘Tell me anyway. I have a strong constitution.’

  ‘I got . . . I asked the ship to ah . . . alter me.’ He looked at me briefly. I inspected him. The slight stoop, the thinness and paler skin wouldn’t have required the services of the ship. He saw me looking, shook his head. ‘No, nothing outside; inside.’

  ‘Oh. What?’

  ‘Well, I got it to . . . to give me a set of guts more like the locals. And I had the drug glands taken out, and the uh -’ he laughed nervously ‘- the loop system in my balls.’

  I kept walking. I believed him, immediately. I couldn’t believe the ship had agreed to do it, but I believed Linter. I didn’t know what to say.

  ‘So, I uh, don’t have any choice about going to the toilet every so often, and I . . . I had it work on my eyes, too.’ He paused. Now it was my turn to keep looking at my feet, clomping up the steps in my fancy Italian climbing boots. I didn’t think I wanted to hear this. ‘Sort of rewired so I see like them. Bit fuzzier, sort of less . . . well, not fewer colours, but more sort of . . . squashed up. Can’t see much at night, either. Same sort of thing on my ears and nose. But it . . . well it almost enhances what you do experience, you know? I’m still glad I had it done.’

  ‘Yeah.’ I nodded, not looking at him.

  ‘My immune system isn’t perfect anymore, either. I can get colds, and . . . that sort of thing. I didn’t get the shape of my dick altered; decided it would pass. Did you know there are considerable variations in genitalia here already? The Bushmen of the Kalahari have a permanent erection, and the women have the Tablier Egyptien; a small fold of flesh covering their genitals.’ He waved one hand. ‘So I’m not that much of a freak. I guess this isn’t all that terrible really, is it? I don’t know why I thought you might be disgusted or anything.’

  ‘Hmm.’ I was wondering what had possessed the ship to do all this to the man. It had agreed to carry out these . . . I could only think of them as mutilations . . . and yet it wouldn’t accept his terminal. Why had it done this to him? It said it wanted him to change his mind, but it changed his body instead, pandering to his lunatic desire to become more like the locals.

  ‘Can’t change sex now, if I wanted to. Things’ll still regrow if they get cut off; ship couldn’t alter that, not quickly; take time; intensive care, and it wouldn’t alter my . . . umm . . . clockspeed, what-d’you-call-it. So I’ll still grow old slowly, and live longer than them . . . but I think it might relent later, when it knows I’m sincere.’

  All I could think of was that by converting Linter’s physiology to a design closer to the planetary standard, the ship wanted to show the man what a nasty life they led. Perhaps it thought rubbing his nose in the Human Condition would send the man running back to the manifold delights of the ship, content with his Cultural lot at last.

  ‘You don’t mind, do you?’

  ‘Mind? Why should I mind?’ I said, and instantly felt foolish for sounding like something from a soap opera.

  ‘Yes, I can see you do,’ Linter said. ‘You think I’m crazy, don’t you?’

  ‘All right.’ I stopped halfway up a flight of steps, turned to him. ‘I do, I think you’re crazy to . . . to throw so much away. It’s . . . it’s wrong-headed of you, it’s stupid. It’s as if you’re doing it just to annoy people, to test the ship. Are you trying to get it mad at you, or what?’

  ‘Of course not, Sma.’ He looked hurt. ‘I don’t care that much about the ship, but I was worried . . . I am concerned about what you might think.’ He took my free hand in both of his. They felt cold. ‘You’re a friend. You matter to me. I don’t want to offend anybody; not you, not anybody. But I have to do what feels right. This is very important to me; more important than anything else I’ve ever done before. I don’t want to upset anybody, but . . . look, I’m sorry.’ He let go my hand.

  ‘Yeah, I’m sorry too. But it’s like mutilation. Like infection.’

  ‘Ah, we’re the infection, Sma.’ He turned and sat down on the steps, looking back towards the city and the sea. ‘We’re the ones who’re different, we’re the self-mutilated, the self-mutated. This is the mainstream; we’re just like very smart kids; infants with a brilliant construction kit. They’re real because they live the way they have to. We aren’t because we live the way we want to.’

  ‘Linter,’ I said, sitting beside him. ‘This is the fucking mental home; the land of the midnight brain. This is the place that gave us Mutual Assured Destruction; they’ve thrown people into boiling water to cure diseases; they use Electro-Convulsive Therapy; a nation with a law against cruel and unusual punishments electrocutes people to death -’

  ‘Go on; mention the death camps,’ Linter said, blinking at the blue distance.

  ‘It was never Eden. It isn’t ever going to be, but it might progress. You’re turning your back on every advance we’ve made beyond where they are now, and you’re insulting them as well as the Culture.’

  ‘Oh, pardon me.’ He rocked forward on his haunches, hugging himself.

  ‘The only way they can go - and survive - is the same way we’ve come, and you’re saying that’s all shit. That’s refugee mentality, and they wouldn’t thank you for what you’re doing. They would say you’re crazy.’

  He shook his head, hands in his armpits, still staring away. ‘Maybe they don’t have to take the same route. Maybe they don’t need Minds, maybe they don’t need more and more
technology. They might be able to do it by themselves, without wars and revolutions even . . . just by understanding, by some . . . belief. By something more natural than we can understand. Naturalness is something they still understand.’

  ‘Naturalness?’ I said, loudly. ‘This lot’ll tell you anything is natural; they’ll tell you greed and hate and jealousy and paranoia and unthinking religious awe and fear of God and hating anybody who’s another colour or thinks different is natural. Hating blacks or hating whites or hating women or hating men or hating gays; that’s natural. Dog-eat-dog, looking out for number one, no lame ducks . . . Shit, they’re so convinced about what’s natural it’s the more sophisticated ones that’ll tell you suffering and evil are natural and necessary because otherwise you can’t have pleasure and goodness. They’ll tell you any one of their rotten stupid systems is the natural and right one, the one true way; what’s natural to them is whatever they can use to fight their own grimy corner and fuck everybody else. They’re no more natural than us than an amoeba is more natural than them just because it’s cruder.’

 
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