The state of the art, p.4
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       The State of the Art, p.4

           Iain M. Banks

  The bush shook itself and made a grumbling noise. Fropome apologized to it as the grazer cub disentangled itself and scuttled off, scratching furiously.

  Fropome would rather have been alone with his melancholy, but he had to watch over the grazer herd, keeping them out of acidcloys, pitplants and digastids, sheltering them from the foodbirds’ stupespittle and keeping them away from the ponderously poised boulderbeasts.

  Everything was so predatory. Couldn’t love be different? Fropome shook his withered foliage.

  Surely she must feel something. They’d been friends for seasons now; they got on well together, they found the same things amusing, they held similar opinions . . . if they were so alike in these respects, how could he feel such desperate, feverish passion for her and she feel nothing for him? Could this most basic root of the soul be so different when everything else seemed so in accord?

  She must feel something for him. It was absurd to think she could feel nothing. She just didn’t want to appear too forward. Her reticence was only caution; understandable, even commendable. She didn’t want to commit herself too quickly . . . that was all. She was innocent as an unopened bud, shy as a moonbloom, modest as a leaf-wrapped heart . . .

  ... and pure as a star in the sky, Fropome thought. As pure, and as remote. He gazed at a bright, new star in the sky, trying to convince himself she might return his love.

  The star moved.

  Fropome watched it.

  The star twinkled, moved slowly across the sky, gradually brightening. Fropome made a wish on it: Be an omen, be the sign that she loves me! Perhaps it was a lucky star. He’d never been superstitious before, but love had strange effects on the vegetable heart.

  If only he could be sure of her, he thought, gazing at the slowly falling star. He wasn’t impatient; he would gladly wait for ever if he only knew she cared. It was the uncertainty that tormented him and left his hopes and fears toing-and-froing in such an agonizing way.

  He looked almost affectionately at the grazers as they plodded their way around him, looking for a nice patch of uneaten grass or a yukscrub to defecate into.

  Poor, simple creatures. And yet lucky, in a way; their life revolved around eating and sleeping, with no room in their low-browed little heads for anguish, no space in their furry chests for a ruptured capillary system.

  Ah, what it must be, to have a simple, muscle heart!

  He looked back to the sky. The evening stars seemed cool and calm, like dispassionate eyes, watching him. All except the falling star he’d wished on earlier.

  He reflected briefly on the wisdom of wishing on such a transitory thing as a falling star . . . even one falling as slowly as this one seemed to be.

  Oh, such disturbing, bud-like emotions! Such sapling gullibility and nervousness! Such cuttingish confusion and uncertainty!

  The star still fell. It became brighter and brighter in the evening sky, lowering slowly and changing colour too; from sun-white to moon-yellow to sky-orange to sunset-red. Fropome could hear its noise now; a dull roaring, like a strong wind disturbing short-tempered tree tops. The falling red star was no longer a single point of light; it had taken on a shape now, like a big seed pod.

  It occurred to Fropome that this might indeed be a sign. Whatever it was had come from the stars, after all, and weren’t stars the seeds of the Ancestors, shot so high they left the Earth and rooted in the celestial spheres of cold fire, all-seeing and all-knowing? Maybe the old stories were true after all, and the gods had come to tell him something momentous. A thrill of excitement rose within him. His limbs shook and his leaves beaded with moisture.

  The pod was close now. It dipped and seemed to hesitate in the dark-orange sky. The pod’s colour continued to deepen all the time, and Fropome realized it was hot; he could feel its warmth even from half a dozen reaches away.

  It was an ellipsoid, a little smaller than he was. It flexed glittering roots from its bottom end, and glided through the air to land on the meadow with a sort of tentative deliberation, a couple of reaches away.

  Fropome watched, thoroughly entranced. He didn’t dare move. This might be important. A sign.

  Everything was still; him, the grumbling bushes, the whispering grass, even the grazers looked puzzled.

  The pod moved. Part of its casing fell back inside itself, producing a hole in the smooth exterior.

  And something came out.

  It was small and silver, and it walked on what might have been hind legs, or a pair of over-developed roots. It crossed to one of the grazers and started making noises at it. The grazer was so surprised it fell over. It lay staring up at the strange silver creature, blinking. Cubs ran, terrified, for their mothers. Other grazers looked at each other, or at Fropome, who still wasn’t sure what to do.

  The silver seedlet moved to another grazer and made noises at it. Confused, the grazer broke wind. The seedlet went to the animal’s rear end and started speaking loudly there.

  Fropome clapped a couple of vines together to request respectfully the silver creature’s attention, and made to spread the same two leaf-palms on the ground before the seedlet, in a gesture of supplication.

  The creature leapt back, detached a bit of its middle with one of its stubby upper limbs, and pointed it at Fropome’s vines. There was a flash of light and Fropome felt pain as his leaf-palms crisped and smoked. Instinctively, he lashed out at the creature, knocking it to the ground. The detached bit flew away across the meadow and hit a grazer cub on the flank.

  Fropome was shocked, then angry. He held the struggling creature down with one undamaged vine while he inspected his injuries. The leaves would probably fall off and take days to re-grow. He used another limb to grasp the silver seedlet and bring it up to his eye cluster. He shook it, then up-ended it and stuck its top down at the leaves it had burned, and shook it again.

  He brought it back up to inspect it more closely.

  Damn funny thing to have come out of a seed pod, he thought, twisting the object this way and that. It looked a little like a grazer except it was thinner and silvery and the head was just a smooth reflective sphere. Fropome could not work out how it stayed upright. The over-large top made it look especially unbalanced. Possibly it wasn’t meant to totter around for long; those pointed leg-like parts were probably roots. The thing wriggled in his grasp.

  He tore off a little of the silvery outer bark and tasted it in a nestrap. He spat it out again. Not animal or vegetable; more like mineral. Very odd.

  Root-pink tendrils squirmed at the end of the stubby upper limb, where Fropome had torn the outer covering off. Fropome looked at them, and wondered.

  He took hold of one of the little pink filaments and pulled.

  It came off with a faint ‘pop’. Another, muffled-sounding noise came from the silvery top of the creature.

  She loves me . . .

  Fropome pulled off another tendril. Pop. Sap the colour of the setting sun dribbled out.

  She loves me not . . .

  Pop pop pop. He completed that set of tendrils.

  She loves me . . .

  Excited, Fropome pulled the covering off the end of the other upper limb. More tendrils.

  ... She loves me not.

  A grazer cub came up and pulled at one of Fropome’s lower branches. In its mouth it held the silvery creature’s burner device, which had hit it on the flank. Fropome ignored it.

  She loves me . . .

  The grazer cub gave up pulling at Fropome’s branch. It squatted down on the meadow, dropping the burner on the grass and prodding inquisitively at it with one paw.

  The silvery seedlet was wriggling enthusiastically in Fropome’s grip, thin red sap spraying everywhere.

  Fropome completed the tendrils on the second upper limb.

  Pop. She loves me not.

  Oh no!

  The grazer cub licked the burner, tapped it with its paw. One of the other cubs saw it playing with the bright toy and started ambling over towards it.

n a hunch, Fropome tore the covering off the blunt roots at the base of the creature. Ah ha!

  She loves me . . .

  The grazer cub at Fropome’s side got bored with the shiny bauble; it was about to abandon the thing where it lay when it saw its sibling approaching, looking inquisitive. The first cub growled and started trying to pick the burner up with its mouth.

  Pop . . . She loves me not!

  Ah! Death! Shall my pollen never dust her perfectly formed ovaries? Oh, wicked, balanced, so blandly symmetrical even universe!

  In his rage, Fropome ripped the silvery covering right off the lower half of the leaking, weakly struggling seedlet.

  Oh unfair life! Oh treacherous stars!

  The growling grazer cub hefted the burner device into its mouth.

  Something clicked. The cub’s head exploded.

  Fropome didn’t pay too much attention. He was staring intently at the bark-stripped creature he held.

  . . . wait a moment... there was something left. Up there, just where the roots met . . .

  Thank heavens; the thing was odd after all!

  Oh happy day!

  ( pop)

  She loves me!


  I am down, fallen as far as I am going to. Outwardly, I am just something on the surface, a body in a suit. Inwardly . . .

  Everything is difficult. I hurt.

  I feel better now. This is the third day. All I recall of the other two is that they were there; I don’t remember any details. I haven’t been getting better steadily, either, as what happened yesterday is even more blurred than the day before, the day of the fall.

  I think I had the idea then that I was being born. A primitive, old-fashioned, almost animal birth; bloody and messy and dangerous. I took part and watched at the same time; I was the born and the birthing, and when, suddenly, I felt I could move, I jerked upright, trying to sit up and wipe my eyes, but my gloved hands hit the visor, centimetres in front of my eyes, and I fell back, raising dust. I blacked out.

  Now it is the third day, however, and the suit and I are in better shape, ready to move off, start travelling.

  I am sitting on a big rough rock in a boulderfield halfway up a long, gently sloping escarpment. I think it’s a scarp. It might be the swell towards the lip of the big crater, but I haven’t spotted any obvious secondaries that might belong to a hole in the direction of the rise, and there’s no evidence of strata overflip.

  Probably an escarpment then, and not too steep on the other side, I hope. I prepare myself by thinking of the way ahead before I actually start walking. I suck at the little tube near my chin and draw some thin, acidic stuff into my mouth. I swallow with an effort.

  The sky here is bright pink. It is mid-morning, and there are only two stars visible on normal sight. With the external glasses tinted and polarized I can just see thin wispy clouds, high up. The atmosphere is still, down at this level, and no dust moves. I shiver, bumping inside the suit, as though the vacuous loneliness bruised me. It was the same the first day, when I thought the suit was dead.

  ‘Are you ready to set off?’ the suit says. I sigh and get to my feet, dragging the weight of the suit up with me for a moment before it, tiredly, flexes too.

  ‘Yes. Let’s get moving.’

  We set off. It is my turn to walk. The suit is heavy, my side aches monotonously, my stomach feels empty. The boulderfield stretches on into the edges of the distant sky.

  I don’t know what happened, which is annoying, though it wouldn’t make any difference if I did know. It wouldn’t have made any difference when it happened, either, because there was no time for me to do anything. It was a surprise: an ambush.

  Whatever got us must have been very small or very far away, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, still alive. If the module had taken any standard-sized warhead full on there would be only radiation and atoms left; probably not an intact molecule. Even a near miss would have left nothing recognizable to the unaided human eye. Only something tiny - perhaps not a warhead at all but just something moving fast - or a more distant miss, would leave wreckage.

  I must remember that, hold on to that. However bad I may feel, I am still alive, when there was every chance that I would never get this far, even as a cinder, let alone whole and thinking and still able to walk.

  But damaged. Both of us damaged. I am injured, but so is the suit, which is worse, in some ways.

  It is running mostly on external power, soaking up the weak sunlight as best it can, but so inefficiently that it has to rest at night, when both of us have to sleep. Its communications and AG are wrecked, and the recycle and medical units are badly damaged too. All that and a tiny leak we can’t find. I’m frightened.

  It says I have internal bruising and I shouldn’t be walking, but we talked it over and agreed that our only hope is to walk, to head in roughly the right direction and hope we’re seen by the base we were heading for originally, in the module. The base is a thousand kilometres south of the northern ice cap. We came down north of the equator, but just how far north, we don’t know. It’s going to be a long walk, for both of us.

  ‘How do you feel now?’

  ‘Fine,’ the suit replies.

  ‘How far do you think we’ll get today?’

  ‘Maybe twenty kilometres.’

  ‘That’s not very much.’

  ‘You’re not very well. We’ll do better once you heal. You were quite ill.’

  Quite ill. There are still some little bits of sickness and patches of dried blood within the helmet, where I can see them. They don’t smell any more, but they don’t look very pleasant either. I’ll try cleaning them up again tonight.

  I am worried that, apart from anything else, the suit isn’t being completely honest with me. It says it thinks our chances are fifty-fifty, but I suspect it either doesn’t have any idea at all, or knows things are worse than it’s telling me. This is what comes of having a smart suit. But I asked for one; it was my choice, so I can’t complain. Besides, I might have died if the suit hadn’t been as bright as it is. It got the two of us down here, out of the wrecked module and down through the thin atmosphere while I was still unconscious from the explosion. A standard suit might have done almost as well, but that probably wouldn’t have been enough; it was a close run thing even as it was.

  My legs hurt. The ground is fairly level, but occasionally I have to negotiate small ridges and areas of corrugated ground. My feet are sore too, but the pain in my legs worries me more. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep going all day, which is what the suit expects.

  ‘How far did we come yesterday?’

  ‘Thirty-five kilometres.’

  The suit walked all of that, carrying me like a dead weight. It got up and walked, clasping me inside it so I wouldn’t bump around, and marched off, the wispy remains of its crippled emergency photopanels dragging over the dusty ground behind it like the wings of some strange, damaged insect.

  Thirty-five klicks. I haven’t done a tenth of that yet.

  I’ll just have to keep going. I can’t disappoint it. I’d be letting the suit down. It has done so well to get us here in one piece, and it walked all that long way yesterday, supporting me while I was still rolling my eyes and drooling, mumbling about walking in a dream and being the living dead . . . so I can’t let it down. If I fail I harm us both, lessening the suit’s chances of survival, too.

  The slope goes on. The ground is boringly uniform, always the same rusty brown. It frightens me that there is so little variety, so little sign of life. Sometimes we see a stain on a rock that might be plant life, but I can’t tell, and the suit doesn’t know because most of its external eyes and tactiles were burned out in the fall, and its analyzer is in no better condition than the AG or the transceiver. The suit’s briefing on the planet didn’t include a comprehensive Ecology, so we don’t even know in theory whether the discolourations could be plants. Maybe we are the only life here, maybe there’s nothing living or thinking for tho
usands and thousands of kilometres. The thought appals me.

  ‘What are you thinking about?’

  ‘Nothing,’ I tell it.

  ‘Talk. You should talk to me.’

  But what is there to say? And why should I talk anyway?

  I suppose it wants to make me talk so I’ll forget the steady march, the tramp-tramp of my feet a couple of centimetres away from the ochre soil of this barren place.

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