The state of the art, p.2
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       The State of the Art, p.2

           Iain M. Banks
 
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  ‘Take the gun, Wrobik,’ Kaddus said tiredly. I licked my lips, stared down at the pistol.

  ‘I can’t,’ I said. I stuck my hands in my coat pockets.

  ‘Sure you can,’ Cruizell said. Kaddus shook his head.

  ‘Wrobik, don’t make things difficult for yourself; take the gun. Just touch it first, see if our information is correct. Go on; take it.’ I stared, transfixed, at the small pistol. ‘Take the gun, Wrobik. Just remember to point it at the ground, not at us; the driver’s got a laser on you and he might think you meant to use the gun on us . . . come on; take it, touch it.’

  I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think. I just stood, hypnotized. Kaddus took hold of my right wrist and pulled my hand from my pocket. Cruizell held the gun up near my nose; Kaddus forced my hand onto the pistol. My hand closed round the grip like something lifeless.

  The gun came to life; a couple of lights blinked dully, and the small screen above the grip glowed, flickering round the edges. Cruizell dropped his hand, leaving me holding the pistol; Kaddus smiled thinly.

  ‘There, that wasn’t difficult, now was it?’ Kaddus said. I held the gun and tried to imagine using it on the two men, but I knew I couldn’t, whether the driver had me covered or not.

  ‘Kaddus,’ I said, ‘I can’t do this. Something else; I’ll do anything else, but I’m not a hit-man; I can’t -’

  ‘You don’t have to be an expert, Wrobik,’ Kaddus said quietly. ‘All you have to be is . . . whatever the hell you are. After that, you just point and squirt: like you do with your boyfriend.’ He grinned and winked at Cruizell, who bared some teeth. I shook my head.

  ‘This is crazy, Kaddus. Just because the thing switches on for me -’

  ‘Yeah; isn’t that funny.’ Kaddus turned to Cruizell, looking up to the taller man’s face and smiling. ‘Isn’t that funny, Wrobik here being an alien? And him looking just like us.’

  ‘An alien and queer,’ Cruizell rumbled, scowling. ‘Shit.’

  ‘Look,’ I said, staring at the pistol, ‘it . . . this thing, it . . . it might not work,’ I finished lamely. Kaddus smiled.

  ‘It’ll work. A ship’s a big target. You won’t miss.’ He smiled again.

  ‘But I thought they had protection against -’

  ‘Lasers and kinetics they can deal with, Wrobik; this is something different. I don’t know the technical details; I just know our radical friends paid a lot of money for this thing. That’s enough for me.’

  Our radical friends. This was funny, coming from Kaddus. Probably he meant the Bright Path. People he’d always considered bad for business, just terrorists. I’d have imagined he’d sell them to the police on general principles, even if they did offer him lots of money. Was he starting to hedge his bets, or just being greedy? They have a saying here: Crime whispers; money talks.

  ‘But there’ll be people on the ship, not just -’

  ‘You won’t be able to see them. Anyway; they’ll be some of the Guard, Naval brass, some Administration flunkeys, Secret Service agents . . . What do you care about them?’ Kaddus patted my damp shoulder. ‘You can do it.’

  I looked away from his tired grey eyes, down at the gun, quiet in my fist, small screen glowing faintly. Betrayed by my own skin, my own touch. I thought about that hospital bill again. I felt like crying, but that wasn’t the done thing amongst the men here, and what could I say? I was a woman. I was Culture. But I had renounced these things, and now I am a man, and now I am here in the Free City of Vreccis, where nothing is free.

  ‘All right,’ I said, a bitterness of my mouth, ‘I’ll do it.’

  Cruizell looked disappointed. Kaddus nodded. ‘Good. The ship arrives Ninthday; you know what it looks like?’ I nodded. ‘So you won’t have any problems,’ Kaddus smiled thinly. ‘You’ll be able to see it from almost anywhere in the City.’ He pulled out some cash and stuffed it into my coat pocket. ‘Get yourself a taxi. The underground’s risky these days.’ He patted me lightly on the cheek; his hand smelt of expensive scents. ‘Hey, Wrobik; cheer up, yeah? You’re going to shoot down a fucking starship. It’ll be an experience.’ Kaddus laughed, looking at me and then at Cruizell, who laughed too, dutifully.

  They went back to the car; it hummed into the night, tyres ripping at the rain-filled streets. I was left to watch the puddles grow, the gun hanging in my hand like guilt.

  ‘I am a Light Plasma Projector, model LPP 91, series two, constructed in A/4882.4 at Manufactury Six in the Spanshacht-Trouferre Orbital, Ørvolöus Cluster. Serial number 3685706. Brain value point one. AM battery powered, rating: indefinite. Maximum power on single-bolt: 3.1 X 810 joules, recycle time 14 seconds. Maximum rate of fire: 260 RPS. Use limited to Culture genofixed individuals only through epidermal gene analysis. To use with gloves or light armour, access “modes” store via command buttons. Unauthorized use is both prohibited and punishable. Skill requirement 12-75%C. Full instructions follow; use command buttons and screen to replay, search, pause or stop . . .

  ‘Instructions, part one: Introduction. The LPP 91 is an operationally intricate general-purpose “peace”-rated weapon not suitable for full battle use; its design and performance parameters are based on the recommendations of -’

  The gun sat on the table, telling me all about itself in a high, tinny voice while I lay slumped in a lounger, staring out over a busy street in Vreccis Low City. Underground freight trains shook the rickety apartment block every few minutes, traffic buzzed at street level, rich people and police moved through the skies in fliers and cruisers, and above them all the starships sailed.

  I felt trapped between these strata of purposeful movements.

  Far in the distance over the city, I could just see the slender, shining tower of the city’s Lev tube, rising straight towards and through the clouds, on its way to space. Why couldn’t the Admiral use the Lev instead of making a big show of returning from the stars in his own ship? Maybe he thought a glorified elevator was too undignified. Vainglorious bastards, all of them. They deserved to die (if you wanted to take that attitude), but why did I have to be the one to kill them? Goddamned phallic starships.

  Not that the Lev was any less prick-like, and anyway, no doubt if the Admiral had been coming down by the tube Kaddus and Cruizell would have told me to shoot it down; holy shit. I shook my head.

  I was holding a long glass of jahl - Vreccis City’s cheapest strong booze. It was my second glass, but I wasn’t enjoying it. The gun chattered on, speaking to the sparsely furnished main room of our apartment. I was waiting for Maust, missing him even more than usual. I looked at the terminal on my wrist; according to the time display he should be back any moment now. I looked out into the weak, watery light of dawn. I hadn’t slept yet.

  The gun talked on. It used Marain, of course; the Culture’s language. I hadn’t heard that spoken for nearly eight standard years, and hearing it now I felt sad and foolish. My birthright; my people, my language. Eight years away, eight years in the wilderness. My great adventure, my renunciation of what seemed to me sterile and lifeless to plunge into a more vital society, my grand gesture . . . well, now it seemed like an empty gesture, now it looked like a stupid, petulant thing to have done.

  I drank some more of the sharp-tasting spirit. The gun gibbered on, talking about beam-spread diameters, gyroscopic weave patterns, gravity-contour mode, line-of-sight mode, curve shots, spatter and pierce settings . . . I thought about glanding something soothing and cool, but I didn’t; I had vowed not to use those cunningly altered glands eight years ago, and I’d broken that vow only twice, both times when I was in severe pain. Had I been courageous I’d have had the whole damn lot taken out, returned to their human-normal state, our original animal inheritance . . . but I am not courageous. I dread pain, and cannot face it naked, as these people do. I admire them, fear them, still cannot understand them. Not even Maust. In fact, least of all Maust. Perhaps you cannot ever love what you completely understand.

  Eight years in exile, lost to the Cultu
re; never hearing that silky, subtle, complexly simple language, and now when I do hear Marain, it’s from a gun, telling me how to fire it so I can kill . . . what? Hundreds of people? Maybe thousands; it will depend on where the ship falls, whether it explodes (could primitive starships explode? I had no idea; that was never my field). I took another drink, shook my head. I couldn’t do it.

  I am Wrobik Sennkil, Vreccile citizen number . . . (I always forget; it’s on my papers), male, prime race, aged thirty; part-time freelance journalist (between jobs at the moment), and full-time gambler (I tend to lose but I enjoy myself, or at least I did until last night). But I am, also, still Bahlln-Euchersa Wrobich Vress Schennil dam Flaysse, citizen of the Culture, born female, species mix too complicated to remember, aged sixty-eight, standard, and one-time member of the Contact section.

  And a renegade; I chose to exercise the freedom the Culture is so proud of bestowing upon its inhabitants by leaving it altogether. It let me go, even helped me, reluctant though I was (but could I have forged my own papers, made all the arrangements by myself? No, but at least, after my education into the ways of the Vreccile Economic Community, and after the module rose, dark and silent, back into the night sky and the waiting ship, I have turned only twice to the Culture’s legacy of altered biology, and not once to its artefacts. Until now; the gun rambles on). I abandoned a paradise I considered dull for a cruel and greedy system bubbling with life and incident; a place I thought I might find . . . what? I don’t know. I didn’t know when I left and I don’t know yet, though at least here I found Maust, and when I am with him my searching no longer seems so lonely.

  Until last night that search still seemed worthwhile. Now utopia sends a tiny package of destruction, a casual, accidental message.

  Where did Kaddus and Cruizell get the thing? The Culture guards its weaponry jealously, even embarrassedly. You can’t buy Culture weapons, at least not from the Culture. I suppose things go missing though; there is so much of everything in the Culture that objects must be mislaid occasionally. I took another drink, listening to the gun, and watching that watery, rainy-season sky over the rooftops, towers, aerials, dishes and domes of the Great City. Maybe guns slip out of the Culture’s manicured grasp more often than other products do; they betoken danger, they signify threat, and they will only be needed where there must be a fair chance of losing them, so they must disappear now and again, be taken as prizes.

  That, of course, is why they’re built with inhibiting circuits which only let the weapons work for Culture people (sensible, non-violent, non-acquisitive Culture people, who of course would only use a gun in self-defence, for example, if threatened by some comparative barbarian . . . oh the self-satisfied Culture: its imperialism of smugness). And even this gun is antique; not obsolescent (for that is not a concept the Culture really approves of - it builds to last), but outdated; hardly more intelligent than a household pet, whereas modern Culture weaponry is sentient.

  The Culture probably doesn’t even make handguns any more. I’ve seen what it calls Personal Armed Escort Drones, and if, somehow, one of those fell into the hands of people like Kaddus and Cruizell, it would immediately signal for help, use its motive power to try and escape, shoot to injure or even kill anybody trying to use or trap it, attempt to bargain its way out, and destruct if it thought it was going to be taken apart or otherwise interfered with.

  I drank some more jahl. I looked at the time again; Maust was late. The club always closed promptly, because of the police. They weren’t allowed to talk to the customers after work: he always came straight back . . . I felt the start of fear, but pushed it away. Of course he’d be all right. I had other things to think about. I had to think this thing through. More jahl.

  No, I couldn’t do it. I left the Culture because it bored me, but also because the evangelical, interventionist morality of Contact sometimes meant doing just the sort of thing we were supposed to prevent others doing; starting wars, assassinating . . . all of it, all the bad things . . . I was never involved with Special Circumstances directly, but I knew what went on (Special Circumstances; Dirty Tricks, in other words. The Culture’s tellingly unique euphemism). I refused to live with such hypocrisy and chose instead this honestly selfish and avaricious society, which doesn’t pretend to be good, just ambitious.

  But I have lived here as I lived there, trying not to hurt others, trying just to be myself; and I cannot be myself by destroying a ship full of people, even if they are some of the rulers of this cruel and callous society. I can’t use the gun; I can’t let Kaddus and Cruizell find me. And I will not go back, head bowed, to the Culture.

  I finished the glass of jahl.

  I had to get out. There were other cities, other planets, besides Vreccis; I’d just had to run; run and hide. Would Maust come with me though? I looked at the time again; he was half an hour late. Not like him. Why was he late? I went to the window, looking down to the street, searching for him.

  A police APC rumbled through the traffic. Just a routine cruise; siren off, guns stowed. It was heading for the Outworlder’s Quarter, where the police had been making shows of strength recently. No sign of Maust’s svelte shape swinging through the crowds.

  Always the worry. That he might be run over, that the police might arrest him at the club (indecency, corrupting public morals, and homosexuality; that great crime, even worse than not making your pay-off!), and, of course, the worry that he might meet somebody else.

  Maust. Come home safely, come home to me.

  I remember feeling cheated when I discovered, towards the end of my regendering, that I still felt drawn to men. That was long ago, when I was happy in the Culture, and like many people I had wondered what it would be like to love those of my own original sex; it seemed terribly unfair that my desires did not alter with my physiology. It took Maust to make me feel I had not been cheated. Maust made everything better. Maust was my breath of life.

  Anyway, I would not be a woman in this society.

  I decided I needed a refill. I walked past the table.

  ‘. . . will not affect the line-stability of the weapon, though recoil will be increased on power-priority, or power decreased -’

  ‘Shut up!’ I shouted at the gun, and made a clumsy attempt to hit its Off button; my hand hit the pistol’s stubby barrel. The gun skidded across the table and fell to the floor.

  ‘Warning!’ The gun shouted. ‘There are no user-serviceable parts inside! Irreversible deactivation will result if any attempt is made to dismantle or -’

  ‘Quiet, you little bastard,’ I said (and it did go quiet). I picked it up and put it in the pocket of a jacket hanging over a chair. Damn the Culture; damn all guns. I went to get more drink, a heaviness inside me as I looked at the time again. Come home, please come home . . . and then come away, come away with me . . .

  I fell asleep in front of the screen, a knot of dull panic in my belly competing with the spinning sensation in my head as I watched the news and worried about Maust, trying not to think of too many things. The news was full of executed terrorists and famous victories in small, distant wars against aliens, outworlders, subhumans. The last report I remember was about a riot in a city on another planet; there was no mention of civilian deaths, but I remember a shot of a broad street littered with crumpled shoes. The item closed with an injured policeman being interviewed in hospital.

  I had my recurring nightmare, reliving the demonstration I was caught up in three years ago; looking, horrified, at a wall of drifting, sun-struck stun gas and seeing a line of police mounts come charging out of it, somehow more appalling than armoured cars or even tanks, not because of the visored riders with their long shock-batons, but because the tall animals were also armoured and gas-masked; monsters from a ready-made, mass-produced dream; terrorizing.

  Maust found me there hours later, when he got back. The club had been raided and he hadn’t been allowed to contact me. He held me as I cried, shushing me back to sleep.

  ‘Wrobik, I
can’t. Risåret’s putting on a new show next season and he’s looking for new faces; it’ll be big-time, straight stuff. A High City deal. I can’t leave now; I’ve got my foot in the door. Please understand.’ He reached over the table to take my hand. I pulled it away.

  ‘I can’t do what they’re asking me to do. I can’t stay. So I have to go; there’s nothing else I can do.’ My voice was dull. Maust started to clear away the plates and containers, shaking his long, graceful head. I hadn’t eaten much; partly hangover, partly nerves. It was a muggy, enervating mid-morning; the tenement’s conditioning plant had broken down again.

  ‘Is what they’re asking really so terrible?’ Maust pulled his robe tighter, balancing plates expertly. I watched his slim back as he moved to the kitchen. ‘I mean, you won’t even tell me. Don’t you trust me?’ His voice echoed.

 
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