The state of the art, p.7
The State of the Art,
Iain M. Banks
A guard drone’s knife missile saw the figure skylining about five kilometres away, on a low ridge. The little missile sized the object up carefully, not moving from its crevice in the rocks. It triangulated from the eyes on its outboard monofilament warps, then rose slowly from its hiding place until it was in line of sight with a scout missile lodged on a cliff ten kilometres behind it. It flashed a brief signal, and received a relayed reply from its distant drone.
The drone was there in a few minutes, taking a wide curve round the suspicious figure. It shook other missiles free as it went, deploying them in a ring around the potential target.
What to do? The drone had to make up its own mind. The base wasn’t transmitting while whatever had hit the last incoming module was still hanging around. It had been a long wait, but they’d survived so far, and the big guns should be arriving soon.
The drone watched the figure as it skidded and slid down the scree beneath the ridge, leaving a hazy trail of dust behind it. It got to the bottom, then started walking across the wide gravel basin, seemingly oblivious to all the attention it was attracting.
The drone sent a knife missile closer to the object. The missile floated up from behind, monitoring weak electro-magnetic emissions, tried to communicate but received no reply, then darted round in front of the figure, and lasered its drone the view it had of the scarred suit front.
The figure stopped, stood still. It raised one hand, as though waving at the small missile hovering a few metres in front of it. The drone came closer, high above, scanning. Finally, satisfied, it swooped from the sky and stopped a metre in front of the figure, which pointed at the black mess of the communication unit on its chest. Then it gestured to the side of its helmet and tapped at the visor. The drone dipped once in a nod, then floated forward and pressed gently up against the visor of the helmet, vibrating the speech through.
‘We know who you are. What happened?’
‘He was alive when we got down, but I had no medics left. Ablation caused a slow oxygen leak and eventually the recycler packed up. There was nothing I could do.’
‘You walked all this way?’
‘From near the equator.’
‘When did he die?’
‘Thirty-four days ago.’
‘Why didn’t you ditch the body? You’d have been quicker.’
The suit made a shrugging movement. ‘Call it sentiment.’
‘Climb aboard. I’ll take you to an entrance.’
The drone lowered to waist height. The suit pulled itself up onto the top of the drone and sat there.
The body, bouncing slackly inside the suit, was still quite well preserved, though dehydration had stretched the skin and made it darker. The teeth were displayed grinning knowingly at the barren world, and the skull was arched back on the locked upper vertebrae, upright and triumphant.
‘You all right up there?’ The drone shouted through the fabric of the suit. The suit nodded stiffly to the eye of an accompanying knife missile.
‘Yes. Everything’s a little difficult though.’ It pointed at the scarred, burned surface of its body. ‘I hurt.’
The first Gift fell onto a pig farm in New England. It popped into existence five metres above a ramshackle outhouse, dropped through the roof, bounced off a cistern and demolished a wheel-less tractor driving a band saw.
Bruce Losey came running out of the house clutching his sporting carbine and ready to blast any interloper to Kingdom Come. All he found was what looked like a gigantic bundle of peacock feathers on top of his tractor, which was lying on its side leaking fuel and looking like it would never work again. Bruce looked up through the hole in the roof and spat into a pile of cut logs, ‘Goddamned S.S.T.s.’
He tried to shift the object that had bust up his tractor, smashed his roof and dented his cistern, but leapt away when it burned his hands. He went back to the house watching the sky warily, and called the police.
Cesare Borges, head of the mighty Industrial Military Combines Corporation, sat in his office reading a fascinating article called Prayer: A Guide to Investment? The office intercom buzzed.
‘Professor Feldman to see you, sir.’
‘A Professor Feldman, sir.’
‘Yes, sir. He says he has the results of the preliminary development work on . . .’, there was some talking Cesare didn’t catch, ‘... on the Alternative Resources Project.’
‘The Alternative Resources Project, sir. It was set up last year, it seems. The professor has been waiting for some time, sir.’
‘I’ll see him later,’ Cesare said, clicking the intercom off and going back to the Reader’s Digest.
‘Hell, I don’t know what it is.’
‘I think it fell off an S.S.T.’
The patrolman rubbed his chin. The other cop was poking a stick at the bundle lying across the old tractor. The thing was about three metres long and one in diameter, and whatever it was its colours kept shifting and changing, and whenever anything touched it, it got hot. The tip of the stick smoked.
‘Who should we tell about this anyway?’ said the cop with the stick. He wanted to have this cleared up as quickly as possible and get away from the smell of pigs coming from the barn across the yard.
‘I guess . . . the F.A.A.,’ said the other, ‘or maybe the Air Force. I dunno.’ He took off his cap and fiddled with the badge, breathing on it and polishing it on his sleeve.
‘Well I’m claiming compensation, whoever it belongs to,’ Bruce said as they went back to the house. ‘That’s a lot of damage that thing’s done. That’ll cost a few bucks to set right. That tractor was nearly new, you know. I’m telling you; nowhere’s safe now with those S.S.T.s.’
‘Hey,’ Bruce said, stopping and looking at the two cops with a worried expression on his face, ‘do you know if Liberia registers S.S.T.s?’
Professor Feldman sat in the outer-outer office in Cesare’s suite at the top of the I.M.C.C. building in Manhattan and looked through the abstract of his report for about the eightieth time.
The secretary, a clean-cut young man with an IBM 9000 desk terminal and a M.23 submachine gun, had shrugged his shoulders sympathetically after he had at last been persuaded to call through to Cesare’s office. The professor said he would just have to wait, and went back to his seat. There were seven other people waiting to see Cesare apart from himself. Two of them were Air Force generals and one was the foreign minister of an important developing country. They all looked nervous without their aides, who were kept in the outer-outer-outer office to avoid crowding. According to the others, they had been waiting there, seven or eight hours each day, five days a week, for at least the last three weeks.
This was the professor’s first day.
The factory ship moved through space in one of the dust-rich arms of the main galaxy, its net-fields like great, invisible limbs stretched before it, gathering its harvest like a trawl and funnelling the ensnared material into the first-stage Transmuters.
In the mess of the Third Clean-Up Squad, things were going badly for Matriapoll Trasnegatherstolekeniffregienthickissle, jnr. He had almost completed a full circuit of the room without touching the floor when a collapsible chair collapsed beneath him, and now he had to go back to the start and begin all over again with one paw tied behind his back. The other members of the Squad were making bets on where he would fall and screaming insults.
‘7833 Matriapoll and Mates to briefing room fourteen!’ blared the mess-room speaker.
Normally Matriapoll would have welcomed this interruption, but he was on top of the speaker trying to grab hold of a light fixture at the time, and the shock of the speaker suddenly bursting into life beneath him made him lose his grip, and he thumped down onto the floor to the accompaniment of hoots and laughter.
‘Bastards,’ he said.
‘Come on, Matty,’ chuckled his Mates, Oney and Twoey, their tiny, dextrous hands quickly untying his arm and dusting him down. They straightened his clothes and bustled out in front of him as Matriapoll paid what he owed to the others in the Squad and then left for the briefing room.
The Air Force didn’t know what it was either, but it wasn’t anything of theirs, they were sure of that. They certainly weren’t going to be paying any compensation. But they decided to take the thing, just to see what it was.
The Air Force came in a big truck that didn’t quite make the turn off the road onto the farm track, and knocked down a metre or two of fencing. Bruce said he’d sue.
They took the bundle away wrapped in asbestos.
At the Mercantsville Airbase they tried to find out what the object was, but apart from deducing that - from the way it felt - there was something inside the oddly-coloured outer covering, which now appeared like mother-of-pearl, they didn’t make a great deal of progress.
Somebody in I.M.C.C. got to hear about the object and the Company offered to open it, or at least make a further attempt, if the Air Force would let them have it.
The Air Force thought about this. The mysterious bundle was resisting all attempts to open it or even see inside. They had tried metal tools, which melted; they tried oxy-acetylene torches, which disappeared into the mother-of-pearl covering without producing any noticeable effect; oxygen lances, which did no better; shaped-charge explosives, which shifted the whole thing across the floor of the hangar; and laser beams, which bounced off and frazzled the roof.
A few days later a truck left the Mercantsville base and made its way to the nearest I.M.C.C. laboratory.
Professor Feldman had started a series of chess games with the foreign minister. Two more people had arrived in the outer-outer office to wait. One of the generals had given up and left. Professor Feldman could see that he might have to wait quite a while before being granted an audience with Mr Borges. He had a sinking feeling that by the time he got in to see the chief, all the problems in the world that the A.R.P. was supposed to help alleviate would have disappeared, one way or another.
The foreign minister wasn’t very good at chess.
The scoutship warped its way through space.
Matriapoll picked what passed with his people for a nose and watched the show on the control-cabin screen. The show was extremely boring; yet another quiz programme where people answered questions that were far too easy and got prizes that were far too expensive, but Matriapoll kept watching because the hostesses who showed the prizes to the audience were beautiful. The green one in particular had the most superb trio of phnysthens he could recall seeing.
The show cut out suddenly and was replaced by a picture of stars. One star was ringed in red by the ship’s computer.
‘Is that where we’re going?’ said a little voice behind him.
‘Yes,’ said Matriapoll to Twoey. The little animal curled its arm around his neck and peeped over his shoulder, rubbing its snout on his collar.
‘That’s where the Transporter’s focused?’
‘Right there, on the system’s sun.’ Matty frowned. ‘Or at least that’s where it’s meant to be targeted.’
Another Gift turned up in Kansas, another in Texas. One was seen from a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, falling into the water. They still hadn’t worked out how to open them. They tried bombarding them with light, radio, x and gamma rays and they tried ultrasonic equipment on it too. They did all the same things to the Kansas object and the Texas object, but none of them gave up any of their secrets.
Eventually they put the original bundle into a vacuum chamber. That didn’t work either until they heated one side and froze the other. The thing peeled like a wrapper off candy, and for an instant the people outside the chamber were left gazing at something that looked like a cross between a suit of armour and a missile, before it blew up and caught fire.
They were left with a very odd pile of junk, but the next time . . .
Cesare was on the phone.
‘OK, I’m a busy man; there are a lot of people waiting to see me. What is it?’
The phone made noises. Cesare watched the Manhattan skyline, then he said, ‘Oh yeah?’
The phone made more noises. Cesare nodded. He inspected his fingernails and sighed.
While he was doing that, a general swinging on the end of a length of rope tied around his waist passed in front of Cesare’s office window waving plans for a new high-altitude bomber. Cesare looked into the phone.
The rope came back empty, and a sheaf of papers floated for a moment in front of the glass before the breeze caught them and took them away, drifting slowly down to the streets, eighty floors below.
‘And it’s just floating there? No engines? No noise? Nothing?’
The rope was hanging just outside the window, the remains of a poorly tied knot at the end.
Cesare put the phone down without another word. I am surrounded by idiots, he thought.
Gifts started popping into existence all over the place. Some were found in Europe, one in Australia, two in Africa, three in South America.
I.M.C.C had thirteen, eleven of them found in the USA and one each from South America and Africa. They found out how to open them without damaging the contents, and what they found were some very odd things indeed.
One kept trying to walk away on its five legs. It looked a little like a spider. Another just floated in mid-air without any apparent means of support. It vaguely resembled a typewriter with headlamps. Another was the size of a sub-compact automobile and tried to talk to everybody with blond hair in a language which appeared to consist mostly of grunts and wind-breaking noises. Yet another seemed to be a different size and shape every time you looked at it. All were very difficult to take apart, and the analysis of any bits that they did eventually succeed in removing didn’t make sense.
Professor Feldman sat beside the Police Chief who was waiting to see Cesare to ask whether he knew anything about the Air Force general who had, it seemed, jumped to his death from the roof of the building a few days ago. The professor had been talking about this with the policeman, and was shocked to discover that it was the same general he had been waiting with up to a week ago. The other general, who was still there waiting, said he couldn’t help in the investigation.
‘Checkmate,’ Professor Feldman said, after eight moves.
‘Are you sure?’ said the foreign minister, leaning closer to inspect the board. Feldman was about to reply when the young secretary came over and tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Would you like to go in? Mr Borges will see you now.’
The young secretary went back to his seat. The professor looked around at the others, aghast. They were glaring at him with that special contempt reserved by the envious for the undeserving. The remaining general sneered openly at him and glanced meaningfully down at the patchwork of ribbons that covered one side of his chest. The professor gathered up his papers in total silence and gave his lunchbox and magazines to the policeman. He pulled his tie straight and walked as steadily as he could to the door, still wondering why he had been summoned before people who had been waiting much longer than he had.
Cesare Borges straightened his tie, put the edition of National Geographic away, and emptied the small box containing the names of the rest of the people sitting in the outer-outer office into the waste-bin. Professor Feldman’s slip of paper was marking Cesare’s place in the magazine.
‘Well?’ he said when Professor Feldman walked into the room. Cesare motioned him to sit in a seat in front of the massive desk. Feldman sat down and cleared his throat. He took some papers and spread them deferentially on Cesare’s desk.
‘Well, sir, these are some of the projects we’ve been working on in this, the first ph
‘What’s this?’ snorted Cesare, holding up a piece of paper with a drawing on it.
‘That? That’s . . . ah . . . that’s a new design of mud-press for constructing bricks in a low-technology situation.’
Cesare looked at him. He picked up another bit of paper.
‘That’s a section through a new, low-cost, long-life toilet we’ve designed for when water is at a premium.’
‘You’ve spent two million of the firm’s money designing a john?’ Cesare said huskily.
The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes