The state of the art, p.3
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       The State of the Art, p.3

           Iain M. Banks

  What could I say? That I didn’t know if I did trust him? That I loved him but: only he had known I was an outworlder. That had been my secret, and I’d told only him. So how did Kaddus and Cruizell know? How did Bright Path know? My sinuous, erotic, faithless dancer. Did you think because I always remained silent that I didn’t know of all the times you deceived me?

  ‘Maust, please; it’s better that you don’t know.’

  ‘Oh,’ Maust laughed distantly; that aching, beautiful sound, tearing at me. ‘How terribly dramatic. You’re protecting me. How awfully gallant.’

  ‘Maust, this is serious. These people want me to do something I just can’t do. If I don’t do it they’ll . . . they’ll at least hurt me, badly. I don’t know what they’ll do. They . . . they might even try to hurt me through you. That was why I was so worried when you were late; I thought maybe they’d taken you.’

  ‘My dear, poor Wrobbie,’ Maust said, looking out from the kitchen, ‘it has been a long day; I think I pulled a muscle during my last number, we may not get paid after the raid - Stelmer’s sure to use that as an excuse even if the filth didn’t swipe the takings - and my ass is still sore from having one of those queer-bashing pigs poking his finger around inside me. Not as romantic as your dealings with gangsters and baddies, but important to me. I’ve enough to worry about. You’re overreacting. Take a pill or something; go back to sleep; it’ll look better later.’ He winked at me, disappeared. I listened to him moving about in the kitchen. A police siren moaned overhead. Music filtered through from the apartment below.

  I went to the door of the kitchen. Maust was drying his hands. ‘They want me to shoot down the starship bringing the Admiral of the Fleet back on Ninthday,’ I told him. Maust looked blank for a second, then sniggered. He came up to me, held me by the shoulders.

  ‘Really? And then what? Climb the outside of the Lev and fly to the sun on your magic bicycle?’ He smiled tolerantly, amused. I put my hands on his and removed them slowly from my shoulders.

  ‘No. I just have to shoot down the ship, that’s all. I have . . . they gave me a gun that can do it.’ I took the gun from the jacket. He frowned, shaking his head, looked puzzled for a second, then laughed again.

  ‘With that, my love? I doubt you could stop a motorized pogo-stick with that little -’

  ‘Maust, please; believe me. This can do it. My people made it and the ship . . . the state has no defence against something like this.’

  Maust snorted, then took the gun from me. Its lights flicked off. ‘How do you switch it on?’ He turned it over in his hand.

  ‘By touching it; but only I can do it. It reads the genetic make-up of my skin, knows I am Culture. Don’t look at me like that; it’s true. Look.’ I showed him. I had the gun recite the first part of its monologue and switched the tiny screen to holo. Maust inspected the gun while I held it.

  ‘You know,’ he said after a while, ‘this might be rather valuable.’

  ‘No, it’s worthless to anyone else. It’ll only work for me, and you can’t get round its fidelities; it’ll deactivate.’

  ‘How . . . faithful,’ Maust said, sitting down and looking steadily at me. ‘How neatly everything must be arranged in your “Culture”. I didn’t really believe you when you told me that tale, did you know that, my love? I thought you were just trying to impress me. Now I think I believe you.’

  I crouched down in front of him, put the gun on the table and my hands on his lap. ‘Then believe me that I can’t do what they’re asking, and that I am in danger; perhaps we both are. We have to leave. Now. Today or tomorrow. Before they think of another way to make me do this.’

  Maust smiled, ruffled my hair. ‘So fearful, eh? So desperately anxious.’ He bent, kissed my forehead. ‘Wrobbie, Wrobbie; I can’t come with you. Go if you feel you must, but I can’t come with you. Don’t you know what this chance means to me? All my life I’ve wanted this; I may not get another opportunity. I have to stay, whatever. You go; go for as long as you must and don’t tell me where you’ve gone. That way they can’t use me, can they? Get in touch through a friend, once the dust has settled. Then we’ll see. Perhaps you can come back; perhaps I’ll have missed my big chance anyway and I’ll come to join you. It’ll be all right. We’ll work something out.’

  I let my head fall to his lap, wanting to cry. ‘I can’t leave you.’

  He hugged me, rocking me. ‘Oh, you’ll probably find you’re glad of the change. You’ll be a hit wherever you go, my beauty; I’ll probably have to kill some knife-fighter to win you back.’

  ‘Please, please come with me,’ I sobbed into his gown.

  ‘I can’t, my love, I just can’t. I’ll come to wave you goodbye, but I can’t come with you.’

  He held me while I cried; the gun lay silent and dull on the table at his side, surrounded by the debris of our meal.

  I was leaving. Fire escape from the flat just before dawn, over two walls clutching my travelling bag, a taxi from General Thetropsis Avenue to Intercontinental Station . . . then I’d catch a Railtube train to Bryme and take the Lev there, hoping for a standby on almost anything heading Out, either trans or inter. Maust had lent me some of his savings, and I still had a little high-rate credit left; I could make it. I left my terminal in the apartment. It would have been useful, but the rumours are true; the police can trace them, and I wouldn’t put it past Kaddus and Cruizell to have a tame cop in the relevant department.

  The station was crowded. I felt fairly safe in the high, echoing halls, surrounded by people and business. Maust was coming from the club to see me off; he’d promised to make sure he wasn’t followed. I had just enough time to leave the gun at Left Luggage. I’d post the key to Kaddus, try to leave him a little less murderous.

  There was a long queue at Left Luggage; I stood, exasperated, behind some naval cadets. They told me the delay was caused by the porters searching all bags and cases for bombs; a new security measure. I left the queue to go and meet Maust; I’d have to get rid of the gun somewhere else. Post the damn thing, or even just drop it in a waste bin.

  I waited in the bar, sipping at something innocuous. I kept looking at my wrist, then feeling foolish. The terminal was back at the apartment; use a public phone, look for a clock. Maust was late.

  There was a screen in the bar, showing a news bulletin. I shook off the absurd feeling that somehow I was already a wanted man, face liable to appear on the news broadcast, and watched today’s lies to take my mind off the time.

  They mentioned the return of the Admiral of the Fleet, due in two days. I looked at the screen, smiling nervously. Yeah, and you’ll never know how close the bastard came to getting blown out of the skies. For a moment or two I felt important, almost heroic.

  Then the bombshell; just a mention - an aside, tacked on, the sort of thing they’d have cut had the programme been a few seconds over - that the Admiral would be bringing a guest with him; an ambassador from the Culture. I choked on my drink.

  Was that who I’d really have been aiming at if I’d gone ahead?

  What was the Culture doing anyway? An ambassador? The Culture knew everything about the Vreccile Economic Community, and was watching, analyzing; content to leave ill enough alone for now. The Vreccile people had little idea how advanced or widely spread the Culture was, though the court and Navy had a fairly good idea. Enough to make them slightly (though had they known it, still not remotely sufficiently) paranoid. What was an ambassador for?

  And who was really behind the attempt on the ship? Bright Path would be indifferent to the fate of a single outworlder compared to the propaganda coup of pulling down a starship, but what if the gun hadn’t come from them, but from a grouping in the court itself, or from the Navy? The VEC had problems; social problems, political problems. Maybe the President and his cronies were thinking about asking the Culture for aid. The price might involve the sort of changes some of the more corrupt officials would find terminally threatening to their luxurious lifestyles.

/>   Shit, I didn’t know; maybe the whole attempt to take out the ship was some loony in Security or the Navy trying to settle an old score, or just skip the next few rungs on the promotion ladder. I was still thinking about this when they paged me.

  I sat still. The station PA called for me, three times. A phonecall. I told myself it was just Maust, calling to say he had been delayed; he knew I was leaving the terminal at the apartment so he couldn’t call me direct. But would he announce my name all over a crowded station when he knew I was trying to leave quietly and unseen? Did he still take it all so lightly? I didn’t want to answer that call. I didn’t even want to think about it.

  My train was leaving in ten minutes; I picked up my bag. The PA asked for me again, this time mentioning Maust’s name. So I had no choice.

  I went to Information. It was a viewcall.

  ‘Wrobik,’ Kaddus sighed, shaking his head. He was in some office; anonymous, bland. Maust was standing, pale and frightened, just behind Kaddus’ seat. Cruizell stood right behind Maust, grinning over his slim shoulder. Cruizell moved slightly, and Maust flinched. I saw him bite his lip. ‘Wrobik,’ Kaddus said again. ‘Were you going to leave so soon? I thought we had a date, yes?’

  ‘Yes,’ I said quietly, looking at Maust’s eyes. ‘Silly of me. I’ll . . . stick around for . . . a couple of days. Maust, I -’ The screen went grey.

  I turned round slowly in the booth and looked at my bag, where the gun was. I picked the bag up. I hadn’t realized how heavy it was.

  I stood in the park, surrounded by dripping trees and worn rocks. Paths carved into the tired top-soil led in various directions. The earth smelled warm and damp. I looked down from the top of the gently sloped escarpment to where pleasure boats sailed in the dusk, lights reflecting on the still waters of the boating lake. The duskward quarter of the city was a hazy platform of light in the distance. I heard birds calling from the trees around me.

  The aircraft lights of the Lev rose like a rope of flashing red beads into the blue evening sky; the port at the Lev’s summit shone, still uneclipsed, in sunlight a hundred kilometres overhead. Lasers, ordinary searchlights and chemical fireworks began to make the sky bright above the Parliament buildings and the Great Square of the Inner City; a display to greet the returning, victorious Admiral, and maybe the ambassador from the Culture, too. I couldn’t see the ship yet.

  I sat down on a tree stump, drawing my coat about me. The gun was in my hand; on, ready, ranged, set. I had tried to be thorough and professional, as though I knew what I was doing; I’d even left a hired motorbike in some bushes on the far side of the escarpment, down near the busy parkway. I might actually get away with this. So I told myself, anyway. I looked at the gun.

  I considered using it to try and rescue Maust, or maybe using it to kill myself; I’d even considered taking it to the police (another, slower form of suicide). I’d also considered calling Kaddus and telling him I’d lost it, it wasn’t working, I couldn’t kill a fellow Culture citizen . . . anything. But in the end; nothing.

  If I wanted Maust back I had to do what I’d agreed to do.

  Something glinted in the skies above the city; a pattern of falling, golden lights. The central light was brighter and larger than the others.

  I had thought I could feel no more, but there was a sharp taste in my mouth, and my hands were shaking. Perhaps I would go berserk, once the ship was down, and attack the Lev too; bring the whole thing smashing down (or would part of it go spinning off into space? Maybe I ought to do it just to see). I could bombard half the city from here (hell, don’t forget the curve shots; I could bombard the whole damn city from here); I could bring down the escort vessels and attacking planes and police cruisers; I could give the Vreccile the biggest shock they’ve ever had, before they got me . . .

  The ships were over the city. Out of the sunlight, their laser-proof mirror hulls were duller now. They were still falling; maybe five kilometres up. I checked the gun again.

  Maybe it wouldn’t work, I thought.

  Lasers shone in the dust and grime above the city, producing tight spots on high and wispy clouds. Searchlight beams faded and spread in the same haze, while fireworks burst and slowly fell, twinkling and sparkling. The sleek ships dropped majestically to meet the welcoming lights. I looked about the tree-lined ridge; alone. A warm breeze brought the grumbling sound of the parkway traffic to me.

  I raised the gun and sighted. The formation of ships appeared on the holo display, the scene noon-bright. I adjusted the magnification, fingered a command stud; the gun locked onto the flagship, became rock-steady in my hand. A flashing white point in the display marked the centre of the vessel.

  I looked round again, my heart hammering, my hand held by the field-anchored gun. Still nobody came to stop me. My eyes stung. The ships hung a few hundred metres above the state buildings of the Inner City. The outer vessels remained there; the centre craft, the flagship, stately and massive, a mirror held up to the glittering city, descended towards the Great Square. The gun dipped in my hand, tracking it.

  Maybe the Culture ambassador wasn’t aboard the damn ship anyway. This whole thing might be a Special Circumstances set-up; perhaps the Culture was ready to interfere now and it amused the planning Minds to have me, a heretic, push things over the edge. The Culture ambassador might have been a ruse, just in case I started to suspect . . . I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything. I was floating on a sea of possibilities, but parched of choices.

  I squeezed the trigger.

  The gun leapt backwards, light flared all around me. A blinding line of brilliance flicked, seemingly instantaneously, from me to the starship ten kilometres away. There was a sharp detonation of sound somewhere inside my head. I was thrown off the tree stump.

  When I sat up again the ship had fallen. The Great Square blazed with flames and smoke and strange, bristling tongues of some terrible lightning; the remaining lasers and fireworks were made dull. I stood, shaking, ears ringing, and stared at what I’d done. Late-reacting sprinterceptiles from the escorts criss-crossed the air above the wreck and slammed into the ground, automatics fooled by the sheer velocity of the plasma bolt. Their warheads burst brightly among the boulevards and buildings of the Inner City, a bruise upon a bruise.

  The noise of the first explosion smacked and rumbled over the park.

  The police and the escort ships themselves were starting to react. I saw the lights of police cruisers rise strobing from the Inner City; the escort craft began to turn slowly above the fierce, flickering radiations of the wreck.

  I pocketed the gun and ran down the damp path towards the bike, away from the escarpment’s lip. Behind my eyes, burnt there, I could still see the line of light that had briefly joined me to the starship; bright path indeed, I thought, and nearly laughed. A bright path in the soft darkness of the mind.

  I raced down to join all the other poor folk on the run.

  Odd Attachment

  Depressed and dejected, his unrequited love like a stony weight inside him, Fropome looked longingly at the sky, then shook his head slowly and stared disconsolately down at the meadow in front of him.

  A nearby grazer cub, eating its way across the grassy plain with the rest of the herd, started cuffing one of its siblings. Normally their master would have watched the pretended fight with some amusement, but today he responded with a low creaking noise which ought to have warned the hot-blooded little animals. One of the tumbling cubs looked up briefly at Fropome, but then resumed the tussle. Fropome flicked out a vine-limb, slapping the two cubs across their rumps. They squealed, untangled, and stumbled mewling and yelping to their mothers on the outskirts of the herd.

  Fropome watched them go, then - with a rustling noise very like a sigh - returned to looking at the bright orange sky. He forgot about the grazers and the prairie and thought again about his love.

  His lady-love, his darling, the One for whom he would gladly climb any hillock, wade any lakelet; all that sort of thing. His love
; his cruel, cold, heartless, uncaring love.

  He felt crushed, dried-up inside whenever he thought of her. She seemed so unfeeling, so unconcerned. How could she be so dismissive? Even if she didn’t love him in return, you’d have thought at least she’d be flattered to have somebody express their undying love for her. Was he so unattractive? Did she actually feel insulted that he worshipped her? If she did, why did she ignore him? If his attentions were unwelcome, why didn’t she say so?

  But she said nothing. She acted as though all he’d said, everything he’d tried to express to her was just some embarrassing slip, a gaffe best ignored.

  He didn’t understand it. Did she think he would say such things lightly? Did she imagine he hadn’t worried over what to say and how to say it, and where and when? He’d stopped eating! He hadn’t slept for nights! He was starting to turn brown and curl up at the edges! Foodbirds were setting up roosts in his nestraps!

  A grazer cub nuzzled his side. He picked the furry little animal up in a vine, lifted it up to his head, stared at it with his four front eyes, sprayed it with irritant and flung it whimpering into a nearby bush.

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