The state of the art, p.8
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       The State of the Art, p.8

           Iain M. Banks

  ‘Well, sir, it’s very important. It’s just one component in a whole system of low-cost, high-use interdependent facilities which have been designed to be of facility in the Third World. Of course, the development costs will probably be recouped in production, though it was agreed that it would be very good for the overall image of the company and the associated universities if there was no actual profit component included in the eventual selling price.’

  ‘It was?’ said Cesare.

  The professor coughed nervously. ‘So I believe, sir. That was at the last shareholders’ meeting. The grant for the project as a whole dates from then, although the preliminary viability study was first -’

  ‘Just a minute,’ Cesare said, holding up one hand and putting the other to the buzzing intercom. ‘Yes?’

  ‘Call on line two, sir.’

  Cesare picked up the phone. Feldman sat back and wondered what was going to happen. Cesare said, ‘Are you sure? And this could definitely be used? This had better be right. OK. Hold everything; I’m coming out there.’ He put down the phone and hit a button on the intercom set. ‘Get the helicopter and have the jet ready.’

  ‘Ah . . . Mr Borges -’ Professor Feldman began as Cesare opened a drawer in his desk and took out a travelling bag. Cesare held up one hand.

  ‘Not now, doc; I got to move. Just wait in the outer-outer office until I send for you. I won’t be long. So long.’

  With that he was gone, into his private elevator and on up to the roof to his private helicopter which would fly him to an I.M.C.C. airstrip where his private jet would be waiting. The young secretary came into the office and ushered Professor Feldman and his papers back out into the outer-outer office, where nobody talked to him and the foreign minister and the Police Chief were playing chequers on his chess board.

  ‘Black Holes!’ Matriapoll said loudly.

  ‘What’s wrong, Matty?’ said Oney. The three of them were watching a complicated array of lights and screens in the control cabin. The system and surrounding space was shown diagrammatically, and a little red light had just appeared next to the third planet, counting out from the star.

  ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong,’ said Matriapoll, clicking his brows with annoyance. ‘That Transporter is out-of-order.’

  ‘It’s not working, Matty?’

  ‘It’s working, but it isn’t working properly,’ said Matriapoll. ‘It’s supposed to be depositing the stuff here,’ he pointed to an orange area above the star’s surface, ‘but it isn’t doing that. It’s putting it down here.’ He pointed to another area of the screen; the third planet.

  ‘That’s bad?’

  Matriapoll turned to look at the two Mates. They sat on the back of his seat and looked back at him, tilting their heads to one side. Twoey licked his face.

  ‘Don’t you two phnysthens ever listen to the briefings?’

  ‘Yes, of course we do.’

  ‘Then you ought to know that world’s inhabited.’

  ‘Oh . . . it’s that one. We thought it was the one with the pretty rings.’

  ‘Good grief,’ breathed Matriapoll, and took the scoutship towards the offending planet.

  The fighter rose above the airfield without a sound. The generals looked pleased. Cesare pretended not to be impressed. The plane was moving horizontally now, high enough for the people in the revue stand to be able to see the flat disk attached to its underside. It was that disk which was providing all the power. The craft swept away over the Nevada desert.

  Somebody handed Cesare a pair of binoculars and told him where to watch. All he could see was a white blockhouse in the bright sun, shimmering, miles away.

  Then the plane appeared in one corner of his magnified vision. A bolt of blinding light leapt from it, crossed to the blockhouse in no appreciable time, and demolished it in a cloud of dust.

  ‘Hmm,’ Cesare said.

  ‘What do you think, sir?’ said the local I.M.C.C. head, a young man called Fosse.

  ‘Depends. Can we produce those things?’

  ‘We think we ought to be able to soon, sir. One of the last machines we recovered seems to like taking the others apart. We can start to find out exactly how they’re put together. Once we find that out we’re half-way there.’

  ‘OK, but where are these things coming from?’

  ‘Frankly, sir, we don’t know.’ They turned and looked back at the desert as the sound of the exploding blockhouse rolled over the stand. The aircraft was returning too, slowing for a vertical landing.

  ‘We’re sure they aren’t Commie?’

  ‘Oh, quite sure, sir. If they could deliver things that size into our air-space without our radar spotting them they’d be sending H-bombs, not their latest technology.’

  ‘Yes, that makes sense,’ Cesare said. The generals were starting to file out of the stand. A fleet of helicopters waited for the various dignitaries, military and civilian. A handful of security men kept generals and other I.M.C.C. underlings from bothering Cesare as he chatted to Fosse.

  ‘I understand the President has given us the full go-ahead for joint development with the armed forces, sir.’

  ‘Who? Oh, yeah. The President. Good. Real good. Get onto it then. I’m interested in this, Fosse. Think I’ll stay over in California for a while. Get some rest. Keep an eye on all this. Pressure of work back in the East, you know.’

  ‘Of course, sir.’

  ‘Oh, shucks,’ Matriapoll said. ‘They’ve found them. Look at that.’ He showed them the writeout of all the objects the faulty Transporter had been beaming to Earth instead of the sun. The two little animals behind him went ‘tuttut’ and shook their heads. ‘Look at that!’ Matriapoll went on, ‘A translator for the Grenbrethg, an automatic sewer inspection kit, a kiddie’s climber, a Bloorthana-ee brothel hover-bed, a low-grade Repairer, a one-person gas sub, a Striyian phallic symbol, a . . . oh, no; a Schpleebop fly-swat!’

  ‘Not so good, eh?’ said Oney.

  Matriapoll patted the hairy head of the little beast. ‘Correct, little one. Not good at all. A positive disaster; we could have a cargo-cult or anything down there by now. Warm up the ethergraph, I’ve got to get this back to the ship.’

  ‘. . . and however outlandish it may sound, it is my opinion that just as our great country has, in the past at least, seen fit to provide covert support for democracies under internal foreign subversion situations, so we ourselves are now being provided with aid by an alien super-power. And why is this? I’ll tell you why. Because they recognize that the West, these United States of America, are the real representatives of humanity and decency on this planet. They want to help us to fend off the Communist threat. Now, whether we really need their help or not is a debatable moot point, it could be arguable . . . but if they want to give us this aid then I for one am not going to look a gift-horse in the mouth. I say we take this by the horns, and go for it.’

  Cesare sat down to restrained applause.

  I.M.C.C.’s West Coast Headquarters Conference Room was packed with military and civilian personnel. They had all listened intently to what the scientists and generals had to say, and for many of them a lot of what they heard was new. The Company and the U.S.A.F., along with the Army and the Navy too, were launching a joint R&D programme on the New Technology (as they were calling it) and had every hope that they would soon have an unbeatable lead over the Soviets.

  Personally, Cesare thought the Gifts were from God, but he’d been dissuaded from saying so, and the speech writers seemed to think Helpful Aliens was the most likely explanation. Cesare didn’t think it mattered as long as they got the drop on the Commies.

  ‘Great speech, sir,’ Fosse said afterwards.

  ‘Thanks,’ Cesare said. ‘You’re right. I think they all know what’s going on now. But we have to watch the security angle on this real carefully now. Any leaks and the Ruskies might get windy and launch a pre-emptive.’

  ‘Well, I guess they’ll find out eventually no matter how good our security
is, sir. You know what some of the scientists are like.’

  ‘Hmm. And then they’ll start a Third World War, the mad dogs.’

  ‘Yes. We’ll just have to hope that we can develop the New Technology quickly enough so that -’



  Yours sincerely,

  7833 Matriapoll, C-U.S.3

  Cesare was sitting in his Manhattan office with Fosse, who he had liked enough to bring through to the East Coast so that the younger man could see how things were run at the top.

  ‘You finished with that yet?’ Cesare said.

  Fosse looked up from It Pays to Increase Your Prayer Power. ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Hmm.’ Cesare took the small magazine and slid a copy of a pamphlet called God is a Businessman across the desk to Fosse in exchange.

  There was a knocking sound at the window.

  The two men looked over in stunned surprise at a weird figure sitting on something that looked like a coffee table, floating in the air just outside the window. Whoever or whatever it was, it was holding on to the coffee table with one hand, or paw, tapping the glass with another and with a third was playing absent-mindedly with the end of a bit of rope that was hanging in front of the window.

  ‘Jeeeeeesus.’ Cesare gasped, reaching slowly for the drawer with the alarm on the outside and the Armalite on the inside.

  The creature on the coffee table pushed lightly at the window. It collapsed, and the being came inside, rubbing bits of glass off its furry spacesuit. Its face was a horrible bright red.

  ‘First person singular obtaining colloquial orgasm within a Caledonian sandwich,’ it said, then looked annoyed, and spoke incoherently into a grille set in its belly, which replied. It looked up and said, ‘Sorry. As I was saying: I come in peace.’

  Cesare whipped out the Armalite and fired.

  The bullets bounced off an invisible force-field, and one ricochetted back to Cesare’s desk, totally destroying a very expensive executive toy. The creature on the coffee table looked upset.

  ‘You bastard!’ it yelled, and took a large pistol of its own from a holster and fired it at Cesare. A cloud of green glowing gas enveloped Cesare’s face, which dropped. He let the gun drop too.

  ‘My God,’ he breathed, ‘I’ve crapped my pants.’ He stumbled waddling away from the desk and into his private toilet, doubled up and holding the seat of his trousers.

  The creature was looking into the muzzle of his pistol and scratching its head with one foot. ‘That’s funny,’ it said, ‘it’s meant to make your eyes explode.’

  It floated over to Fosse, stopping at the desk to lick appreciatively at the blue glop that had flowed, slowly, from the smashed executive toy.

  Fosse, sweating, smiled ingratiatingly and said, ‘I think we’re going to get along just fine . . .’

  The MPs came for the other Air Force general. He’d been away so long it had been assumed he’d deserted. They dragged him out kicking and screaming.

  The professor watched phlegmatically. Ever since the foreign minister had been informed that there’d been a coup back home and he would be placed under house arrest at the embassy if he left, the professor had resigned himself to whatever happened here. He’d even let the general who had just been arrested make models of the planned bomber from the papers of the Alternative Resources Project.

  He didn’t know why he bothered staying, but what the hell . . .

  ‘. . . so you see when you’re producing so much material from a factory ship that size you have to maximize the optimum output both in terms of real numbers and as a viable proportion of total units produced. With the high rates of production attainable using light atoms and dust to build up or break down to basic molecules which then go to construct artefacts, naturally you have a certain proportion that fail to meet the quite perfect standards we set.

  ‘All such material is dumped onto the surface of a nearby star or, in the case of high heat-resistance articles, dumped somewhere inside it. The material cannot be recycled economically because as a rule even the shoddy goods that we produce are very difficult to break up, and the Transmuters are tuned only to accept matter in comparatively small quanta. In this case there seems to have been rather a serious leak. The new machinery we’ve just installed has made a mistake in the relevant coordinates, and . . . well, you know the rest.’

  ‘You mean all this stuff is RUBBISH?’ said Cesare from the bathroom.

  ‘Yes, I’m afraid so. There shouldn’t be any more after a little while. I’ve already contacted the factory ship. Please accept our sincere apologies.’

  ‘Wait a minute,’ Fosse said as the alien turned to go. ‘Have these things been arriving just anywhere? I mean is it a random thing?’

  ‘Yes. The Transporter got that right, at least. They’ve been distributed fairly evenly over the globe. Most of them have sunk in the oceans of course, and quite a few are still undiscovered in rainforests and deserts and in the Antarctic and so on, but we’ll locate those through their coverings and get rid of them once we get another new machine on-line.’ It held up three paws as Fosse started to speak again. ‘I know,’ it said, ‘you’d like to keep the things, but I’m afraid that isn’t possible. We do have a responsibility, after all. Now you must excuse me. Goodbye.’

  The alien disappeared out of the window and went straight up into the sky, narrowly missing a passing S.S.T.

  Suddenly the alarm started sounding. Five armed guards rushed into the room and began restraining Fosse. Cesare succeeded in stopping them before Fosse had anything worse than severe bruising and a broken jaw. He shooed the guards out and closed the door.

  ‘You realize what this means?’ he said to Fosse. ‘I’ll tell you what it means; we’re using junk; that’s what it means!’

  ‘It’sh worsh than that, shir,’ Fosse said. ‘That shing shaid the Gi - rubbish wash appearing all over the surfashe of the Earth; that meansh the bigg - ow! - the bi’er the country the more of thoshe thingsh they’re going to get; and rubbish or not they can probably all be ushed.’


  ‘Do you know what country hash the greatesht landarea in the whole world, shir?’

  Cesare nodded confidently. ‘The good old U.S. of A.’

  ‘No, shir,’ Fosse said shaking his head slowly.

  Cesare looked into Fosse’s eyes. His own eyes gradually widened and his upper lip trembled. ‘Not . . .’



  The Gifts kept appearing for two more weeks, which they guessed was the time it took for the Alien’s message to get to the factory ship, and/or the time it took for the rubbish to get from the ship to Earth.

  They kept testing the equipment but if there was anything wrong with it they couldn’t find out what it was. The aliens must be really fussy.

  The very last Gift to arrive, as far as they knew, was the most interesting of all. The New Technology Project was racing ahead, budget vastly increased now that it was known the Communists probably had the same stuff. The spy satellites hadn’t spotted anything, but then they’d managed to keep pretty tight security themselves, so that didn’t prove anything.

  They were near Alamogordo, where the last, very large Gift had appeared. They had had to construct a special building around it to do the business with the covering. Cesare looked up at it.

But what does it do?’

  ‘It’s a matter transmission machine,’ said one scientist.

  ‘No, it isn’t,’ said another. ‘Whatever it is it isn’t that; it doesn’t leave an original behind. I think it uses continua to -’

  ‘Rubbish. It’s a true matter transmission machine, Mr Borges. We can’t hope to recreate this with our own technology, but we can certainly use it; shifting commodities, urgently needed drugs, disaster aid . . .’

  ‘There’s nothing wrong with it?’

  ‘Wrong with it? Why, this is the most perfect piece of machinery in existence on the planet. We’ve already shifted two hundred brand-new Cadillacs from here to Tampa and back again just as a trial. It did it without a murmur and right on target.’

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