The state of the art, p.5
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       The State of the Art, p.5
 

           Iain M. Banks
I remember that when I was still in shock, and delirious, on the first day, I thought I stood outside us both and saw the suit open itself, letting my precious, fouled air out into the thin atmosphere, and I watched me dying in the airless cold, then saw the suit slowly, tiredly haul me out of itself, stiff and naked, a reptile-skin reverse, a chrysalis negative. It left me scrawny and nude and pathetic on the dusty ground and walked away, lightened and empty.

  And maybe I’m still afraid it will do that, because together we might both die, but the suit, I’m fairly sure, could make it by itself quite easily. It could sacrifice me to save itself. It’s the sort of thing a lot of humans would do.

  ‘Mind if I sit down?’ I say, and collapse onto a large boulder before the suit can reply.

  ‘What hurts?’ it asks.

  ‘Everything. Mostly my legs and my feet.’

  ‘It’ll take a few days for your feet to harden and your muscles to tone up. Rest when you feel like it. There’s no sense in pushing yourself too hard.’

  ‘Hmm,’ I say. I want it to argue. I want it to tell me to stop whining and keep walking . . . but it doesn’t want to play. I look down at my dangling legs. The suit’s surface is blackened and covered in tiny pits and scars. Some hair-fine filaments wave, tattered and charred. My suit. I’ve had the thing for over a century and I’ve hardly used it. The brain’s spent most of its time plugged into the main house unit back home, living at an added level of vicariousness. Even on holidays, I’ve spent most of my time on board ship, rather than venture out into hostile environments.

  Well, we’re sure as shit in a hostile environment now. All we have to do is walk halfway round an airless planet, overcome any and all obstacles in our way, and if the place we’re heading for still exists, and if the suit’s systems don’t pack up completely, and if we don’t get picked off by whatever destroyed the module, and if we aren’t blown away by our own people, we’re saved.

  ‘Do you feel like going on now?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘We’d better be on our way, don’t you think?’

  ‘Oh. Yes. All right.’ I lower myself to the desert floor. My feet ache intensely for a while, but as I start to walk the pain ebbs. The slope looks just the way it did kilometres back. I am already breathing deeply.

  I have a sudden and vivid image of the base as it might be, as it probably is: a vast, steaming crater, ripped out of the planet during the same attack that downed us. But even if that is the reality, we agreed it still makes sense to head there; rescuers or reinforcements will go there first. We have a better chance of being picked up there than anywhere else. Anyway, there was no module wreckage to stay beside on the ground; it was travelling so fast it burned up, even in this thin atmosphere, the way we very nearly did.

  I still have a vague hope we’ll be spotted from space, but I guess that’s not likely now. Anything left intact up there is probably looking outwards. If we’d been noticed when we fell, or spotted on the surface, we’d have been picked up by now, probably only hours after we hit the dirt. They can’t know we’re here, and we can’t get in touch with them. So all we can do is walk.

  The rock and stones are getting gradually smaller.

  I walk on.

  It’s night. I can’t sleep.

  The stars are spectacular, but no solace. I am cold, too, which doesn’t help. We are still on the slope; we travelled a little over sixteen kilometres today. I hope we’ll come to the lip of the escarpment tomorrow, or at least to some sort of change in the landscape. Several times today, while I walked, I had the impression that for all my effort, we weren’t moving anywhere. Everything is so uniform.

  Damn my human-basic ancestry. My side and belly are hurting badly. My legs and feet held out better than I expected, but my injuries torment me. My head hurts as well. Normally, the suit would pump me full of painkiller, relaxants or a sleeping draught, and whatever it is helps your muscles to build up and your body to repair itself. My body can’t do those things for itself, the way most people’s can, so I’m at the mercy of the suit.

  It says its recycler is holding out. I don’t like to tell it, but the thin gruel it’s dispensing tastes disgusting. The suit says it is still trying to track down the site of the leak; no progress so far.

  I have my arms and legs inside now. I’m glad, because this lets me scratch. The suit lies with its arms clipped into the sides and opened into the torso section, the legs together and melded, and the chest expanded to give me room. Meanwhile the carbon dioxide frosts outside and the stars shine steadily.

  I scratch and scratch. Something else more altered humans wouldn’t have to do. I can’t make itches go away just by thinking. It isn’t very comfortable in here. Usually it is; warm and cosy and pleasant, every chemical whim of the encased body catered for; a little womb to curl up in and dream. The inner lining can no longer alter the way it used to, so it stays quite hard, and feels - and smells - sweaty. I can smell the sewage system. I scratch my backside and turn over.

  Stars. I stare at them, trying to match their unblinking gaze through the hazy, scratched surface of the helmet visor.

  I put my arm back into the suit’s and unclip. I reach round onto the top of the blown-out chest and feel in the front pack’s pocket, taking out my antique still camera.

  ‘What are you doing?’

  ‘Going to take a photograph. Play me some music. Anything.’

  ‘All right.’ The suit plays me music from my youth while I point the camera at the stars. I clip the arm back and pass the camera through the chest lock. The camera is very cold; my breath mists on it. The viewer half unrolls, then jams. I tease it out with my nails, and it stays. The rest of the mechanism is working; my star pictures are fine, and, switching to some of the older magazines from the stock, they come up bright and clear too. I look at the pictures of my home and friends on the orbital, and feel - as I listen to the old, nostalgia-inducing music - a mixture of comfort and sadness. My vision blurs.

  I drop the camera and its screen snaps shut; the camera rolls away underneath me. I raise myself up painfully, retrieve it, unroll the screen again and go on looking back through old photographs until I fall asleep.

  I wake up.

  The camera lies beside me, switched off. The suit is quiet. I can hear my heart beat.

  I drift back to sleep eventually.

  Still night. I stay awake looking at the stars through the scarred visor. I feel as rested as I ever will, but the night here is almost twice standard, and I’ll just have to get used to it. Neither of us can see well enough to be able to travel safely at night, besides which I still need to sleep, and the suit can’t store enough energy during the hours of sunlight to use for walking in the darkness; its internal power source produces barely enough continuous energy to crawl with, and the light falling on its photopanels provides a vital supplement. Thankfully, the clouds here never seem to amount to much; an overcast day would leave me doing all the work whether it was my turn or not.

  I unroll the camera screen, then think.

  ‘Suit?’

  ‘What?’ it says quietly.

  ‘The camera has a power unit.’

  ‘I thought of that. It’s very weak, and anyway the power systems are damaged beyond the junction point for another source of internal energy. I can’t think of a way of patching it into the external radiation system, either.’

  ‘We can’t use it?’

  ‘We can’t use it. Just look at your pictures.’

  I look at the pictures.

  There’s no doubt about it; education or not, once you’ve been born and brought up on an O you never quite adjust to a planet. You get agoraphobic; you feel you are about to be sent spinning off, flying away into space, picked up and sent screaming and bawling out to the naked stars. You somehow sense that vast, wasteful bulk underneath you, warping space itself and self-compressing, soil-solid or still half-molten, quivering in its creaky, massy press, and you; stuck, perched here on the outside, half-terrifi
ed that despite all you know you’ll lose your grip and go wheeling and whirling and wailing away.

  This is our birthplace though, this is what we deserted long ago. This is where we used to live, on balls of dust and rock like this. This is our home town from before we felt the itch of wanderlust, the sticks we inhabited before we ran away from home, the cradle where we were infected with the crazy breath of the place’s vastness like a metal wind inside our love-struck heads; just stumbled on the scale of what’s around and tripped out drunk on starlike possibilities . . .

  I find that I’m staring at the stars, my eyes wide and burning. I shake myself, tear my sight away from the view outside, turn back to the camera.

  I look at a group photograph from the orbital. People I knew; friends, lovers, relations, children; all standing in the sunlight of a late summer’s day, outside the main building. Recalled names and faces and voices, smells and touches. Behind them, almost finished, is - as it was then - the new wing. Some of the wood we used to build it still lies in the garden, white and dark brown on the green. Smiles. The smell of sawdust and the feel of pushing a plane; hardened skin on my hands and the sight and sound of the planed wood curling from the blade.

  Tears again. How can I help but be sentimental? I didn’t expect all of this, back then. I can’t cope with the distance between us all now, that awful gap of slow years.

  I flick through other pictures; general views of the orbital, its fields and towns and seas and mountains. Maybe everything can be seen as a symbol in the end; perhaps with our limited grasp we can’t help but find similarities, talismans . . . but that inward facing plate of orbital looks false to me now, down here, so far away and lonely. This globe of ordinary, soft, accidental planet seems the cutting edge and the flat knife of twinned adamantine thoroughness, our clever, efficient little orbitals, lacking that fundamental reality.

  I wish I could sleep. I want to sleep and forget about everything, but I can’t, tired though I still am. The suit can’t help me there, either. I don’t even remember dreaming, as though that facility, too, is damaged.

  Maybe I’m the artificial one, not the suit, which doesn’t try to pretend. People have said I’m cold, which hurt me; which still hurts me. All I can do is feel what I can and tell myself it’s all anyone can ask of me.

  I turn over painfully, face away from the treacherous stars. I close my eyes and my mind to their remindful study, and try to sleep.

  ‘Wake up’

  I feel very sleepy, the rhythms all wrong, tired again.

  ‘Time to go; come on.’

  I come to, rubbing my eyes, breathing through my mouth to get rid of the stale taste in it. The dawn looks cold and perfect, very thin and wide through this inhospitable covering of gas. And the slope is still here, of course.

  It’s the suit’s turn to walk, so I can rest on. We redeploy the legs and arms again, the chest deflates. The suit stands up and starts walking, gripping me round the calves and waist, taking the bulk of my weight off my throbbing feet.

  The suit walks faster than I do. It reckons it is only twenty per cent stronger than the average human. Something of a come-down for it. Even having to walk must be galling for it (if it feels galled).

  If only the AG worked. We’d do the whole trip in a day. One day.

  We stride out over the sloped plain, heading for the edge. The stars disappear slowly, one by one, washed out of the wide skies by the sunlight. The suit gains a little speed as the light falls harder on its trailed photopanels. We stop and squat for a moment, inspecting a discoloured rock; it is just possible, if we find an oxide of some sort . . . but the stone holds no more trapped oxygen than the rest, and we move on.

  ‘When and if we get back, what will happen to you?’

  ‘Because I’m damaged?’ the suit says. ‘I imagine they’ll just throw the body away, it’s so badly damaged.’

  ‘You’ll get a new one?’

  ‘Yes, of course.’

  ‘A better one?’

  ‘I expect so.’

  ‘What will they keep? Just the brain?’

  ‘Plus about a metre of secondary column and a few subunits.’

  I want us to get there. I want us to be found. I want to live.

  We come to the edge of the escarpment about mid-morning. Even though I am not walking I feel very tired and sleepy, and my appetite has disappeared. The view ought to be impressive, but I’m only aware that it’s a long, difficult way down. The escarpment lip is crumbly and dangerous, cut with many runnels and channels, which lower down become steep, shadowy ravines separating sharp-edged ridges and jagged spires. Scree spreads out beyond, far below, in the landscape at the cliff ’s foot; it is the colour of old, dried blood.

  I am suitably depressed.

  We sit on a rock and rest before making our way down. The horizon is very clear and sharp. There are mountains in the far distance, and many broad, shallow channels on the wide plain that lies between the mountains and us.

  I don’t feel well. My guts ache continually and breathing deeply hurts too, as though I’ve broken a rib. I think it is just the taste of the recycler’s soup that is putting me off eating, but I’m not certain. There are a few stars in the sky.

  ‘We couldn’t glide down, could we?’ I ask the suit. That’s how we got through the atmosphere, after all. The suit used the minuscule amount of AG it had left, and somehow got the tattered photopanel sheet to function as a parachute.

  ‘No. The AG is almost certain to fail completely next time we try it, and the parachute trick . . . we’d need too much space, too much drop to ensure deployment.’

  ‘We have to climb?’

  ‘We have to climb.’

  ‘All right, we’ll climb.’ We get up, approach the edge.

  Night again. I am exhausted. So tired, but I cannot sleep. My side is tender to the touch and my head throbs unbearably. It took us the whole afternoon and evening to get down here to the plains, and we both had to work at it. We nearly fell, once. A good hundred-metre drop with just some flakes of slatey stone to hold on to until the suit kicked a foothold. Somehow we made it down without snagging and tearing further the photopanels. More good luck than skill, probably. Every muscle seems to hurt. I’m finding it hard to think straight. All I want to do is twist and turn and try to find a comfortable way to lie.

  I don’t know how much of this I can take. This is going to go on for a hundred days or more, and even if the still undiscovered leak doesn’t kill me I feel like I’m going to die of exhaustion. If only they were looking for us. Somebody walking in a suit on a planet sounds hard to find, but shouldn’t be really. The place is barren, homogeneous, dead and motionless. We must be the only movement, the only life, for hundreds of kilometres at least. To our level of technology we ought to stand out like a boulder in the dust, but either they aren’t looking or there’s nobody left to look.

  But if the base still exists, they must see us eventually, mustn’t they? The sats can’t spend all their time looking outwards, can they? They must have some provision for spotting enemy landings. Could we have just slipped through? It doesn’t seem possible.

  I look at my photographs again. They appear a hundred at a time on the viewer. I press one and it blooms to fill the little screen with its memories.

  I rub my head and wonder how long my hair will grow. I have a silly but oddly frightening vision of my hair growing so long it chokes me, filling the helmet and the suit and cutting out the light, finally asphyxiating me. I’ve heard that your hair goes on growing after you die, and your nails too. I wonder that - despite one or two of the photographs, and their associated memories - I haven’t felt sexually aroused yet.

  I curl up, foetal. I am a little naked planet of my own, reduced to the primitive within my own stale envelope of gas. A tiny moonlet of this place, on a very low, slow, erratic orbit.

  What am I doing here?

  It’s as if I drifted into this situation. I didn’t ever think about fighting or doing
anything risky at all, not until the war came along. I agreed it was necessary, but that seemed obvious; everybody thought so, everybody I knew, anyway. And volunteering, agreeing to take part; that too seemed . . . natural. I knew I might die, but I was prepared to risk that; it was almost romantic. Somehow it never occurred to me it might entail privation and suffering. Am I as stupid as those throughout history - those I’ve always despised and pitied - who’ve marched off to war, heads full of noble notions and expectations of easy glory, only to die screaming and torn in the mud?

  I thought I was different. I thought I knew what I was doing.

  ‘What are you thinking about?’ the suit asks.

  ‘Nothing.’

  ‘Oh.’

  ‘Why are you here?’ I ask it. ‘Why did you agree to come with me?’

 
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