Use of Weapons | Chapter 21 of 40

Author: Iain M. Banks | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 40899 Views | Add a Review

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'You know,' he told the rock, 'I've got this really nasty feeling that I'm dying... but then all my feelings are pretty nasty at the moment, come to think of it. What do you think?'

The rock didn't say anything.

He had decided that the rock was the centre of the universe, and he could prove it, but the rock just didn't want to accept its obviously important place in the overall scheme of things, at least not yet anyway, so he was left talking to himself. Or he could talk to the birds and the insects.

Everything wavered again. Things like waves, like clouds of carrion birds, closed in on him, centring, zeroing, trapping his mind and picking it off like a rotten fruit under a machine-gun.

He tried to crawl away unobtrusively; he could see what was coming next; his life was going to flash before him. What an appalling thought.

Mercifully, only bits of it came back to him, as if the images mirrored his smashed body, and he remembered things like sitting in a bar on a little planet, his dark glasses making strange patterns with the darkened window; he remembered a place where the wind was so bad they used to judge its severity by the number of trucks that got blown over each night; he remembered a tank battle in the great monoculture fields like seas of grass, all madness and submerged desperation and commanders standing on the tanks and the areas of burning crop, slowly spreading, burning through the night, spreading darkness ringed by fire... the cultivated grassland was the reason for and prize of that war, and was destroyed by it; he remembered a hose playing under searchlit water, its silent coils writhing; he remembered the never-ending whiteness and the attritional tectonics of the crashing tabular bergs, the bitter end of a century's slow sleep.

And a garden. He remembered the garden. And a chair.

'Scream!' he screamed, and started flapping his arms about, trying to work up enough of a run to get into the air and away from... from... he hardly knew. He hardly moved, either; his arms flapped a little and scraped a few more guano pellets away, but the ring of patient birds clustered around him, waiting for him to die, just looked on, unfooled, at this display of inadequately avian behaviour.

'Oh all right,' he mumbled, and collapsed back, clutching his chest and staring into the bland blue sky. What was so terrible about a chair, anyway? He started crawling again.

He hauled himself around the little puddle, scraping his way through the dark pellets the birds had left, then at a certain point set off towards the waters of the lake. He got only so far, then stopped, turned back, and went on round the puddle again, scraping aside the black bird-shit pellets, apologising to the little insects he disturbed as he did so. When he got back to the place where he'd been earlier, he stopped and took stock.

The warm breeze brought the smell of sulphur from the lake to him... And he was back in the garden again, remembering the smell of flowers.

Once there had been a great house which stood in an estate bordered on three sides by a broad river, mid-way between the mountains and the sea. The grounds were full of old woods and well-grazed pasture land; there were rolling hills full of shy, wild animals, and winding paths and winding streams crossed by little bridges; there were follies and pergolas and ha-has, ornamental lakes and quiet, rustic summerhouses.

Over the years and the generations, many children were born and brought up in the great house, and played in the wonderful gardens that surrounded it, but there were four in particular whose story became important for people who had never seen the house, or heard of the family's name. Two of the children were sisters, called Darckense and Livueta; one of the boys was their elder brother, called Cheradenine, and they all shared the family name; Zakalwe. The last child was not related to them, but came from a family that had long been allied to theirs; he was called Elethiomel.

Cheradenine was the older boy; he could just remember the fuss when Elethiomel's mother came to the great house, large with child, in tears, and surrounded by fussing servants and huge guards and weeping maids. For a few days the attention of the whole house seemed to be centred on the woman with the child in her womb, and - though his sisters played happily on, glad of the lessened watchfulness of their nannies and guards - he already resented the unborn infant.

The troop of royal cavalry came to the house a week later, and he remembered his father out on the broad steps leading down into the courtyard, talking calmly, his own men running quietly through the house, taking up positions at every window. Cheradenine ran to find his mother; as he ran through the corridors, he put one hand out in front of him, as though holding reins, and with his other hand slapped one hip, making a one-two-three, one-two-three clopping noise, pretending he was a cavalryman. He discovered his mother with the woman who had the child inside her; the woman was crying and he was told to go away.

The boy was born that night, to the sound of screams.

Cheradenine noticed that the atmosphere in the house changed greatly after that, and everyone was at once even more busy than before but less worried.

For a few years he could torment the younger boy, but then Elethiomel, who grew faster than he did, started to retaliate, and an uneasy truce developed between the two boys. Tutors taught them, and Cheradenine gradually came to realise that Elethiomel was their favourite, always learning things more quickly than he did, always being praised for his abilities developing so early, always being called advanced and bright and clever. Cheradenine tried hard to match him, and gleaned a little recognition for not just giving up, but it never seemed that he was really appreciated. Their martial instructors were more evenly divided on their merits; Cheradenine was better at wrestling and strike-fighting; Elethiomel the more accomplished with gun and blade (under proper supervision; the boy could get carried away sometimes), though Cheradenine was perhaps his equal with a knife.

The two sisters loved them both, regardless, and they played through the long summers and the brief, cold winters, and - apart from the first year, after Elethiomel was born - spent a little of each spring and autumn in the big city, far down the river, where the parents of Darckense, Livueta and Cheradenine kept a tall town house. None of the children liked the place, though; its garden was so small and the public parks so crowded. Elethiomel's mother was always quieter when they went to the city, and cried more often, and went away for a few days every so often, all excited before she went, then sobbing when she returned.

They were in the city once, one fall, and the four children were keeping out of the way of the short-tempered adults when a messenger came to the house.

They couldn't help but hear the screams, and so abandoned their toy war and ran out of the nursery onto the landing to peer through the railings down into the great hall, where the messenger stood, head down, and Elethiomel's mother screamed and shrieked. Cheradenine, Livueta and Darckense's mother and father both held onto her, talking calmly. Finally, their father motioned the messenger away, and the hysterical woman slumped silent to the floor, a piece of paper crumpled in her hand.

Father looked up then, and saw the children, but looked at Elethiomel, not at Cheradenine. They were all sent to bed soon after.

When they returned to the house in the country a few days later, Elethiomel's mother was crying all the time, and did not come down for meals.

'Your father was a murderer. They put him to death because he killed lots of people.' Cheradenine sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the stone bulwark. It was a beautiful day in the garden and the trees sighed in the wind. The sisters were laughing and giggling in the background, collecting flowers from the beds in the centre of the stone boat. The stone ship sat in the west lake, joined to the garden by a short stone causeway. They had played pirates for a while, and then started investigating the flower beds on the upper of the boat's two decks. Cheradenine had a collection of pebbles by his side, and was throwing them, one at a time, down into the calm water, producing ripples that looked like an archery target as he tried always to hit the same place.

'He didn't do any of those things,' Elethiomel said, kicking the stone bulwark, looking down. 'He was a good man.'

'If he was good, why did the King have him killed?'

'I don't know. People must have told tales about him. Told lies.'

'But the King's clever,' Cheradenine said triumphantly, throwing another pebble into the spreading circles of waves. 'Cleverer than anybody. That's why he's king. He'd know if they were telling lies.'

'I don't care,' Elethiomel insisted. 'My father wasn't a bad man.'

'He was, and your mother must have been extremely naughty too, or they wouldn't have made her stay in her room all this time.'

'She hasn't been bad!' Elethiomel looked up at the other boy, and felt something build up inside his head, behind his nose and eyes. 'She's ill. She can't leave her room!'

'That's what she says,' Cheradenine said.

'Look! Millions of flowers! Look; we're going to make perfume! Do you want to help?' The two sisters ran up behind them, arms full of flowers. 'Elly...' Darckense tried to take Elethiomel's arm.

He pushed her away.

'Oh, Elly... Sheri, please don't,' Livueta said.

'She hasn't been bad!' he shouted at the other boy's back.

'Yes she ha-as,' Cheradenine said, in a sing-song voice, and flicked another pebble into the lake.

'She hasn't!' Elethiomel screamed, and ran forward, pushing the other boy hard in the back.

Cheradenine yelled and fell off the carved bulwark; his head struck the stonework as he fell. The two girls screamed.

Elethiomel leant over the parapet and saw Cheradenine splash into the centre of his many-layered circle of waves. He disappeared, came back up again, and floated face down.

Darckense screamed.

'Oh, Elly, no!' Livueta dropped all her flowers and ran towards the steps. Darckense kept on screaming and squatted down on her haunches, back against the stone bulwark, crushing her flowers to her chest. 'Darkle! Run to the house!' Livueta cried from the staircase.

Elethiomel watched the figure in the water move weakly, producing bubbles, as Livueta's steps sounded slapping on the deck underneath.

A few seconds before the girl jumped into the shallow water to haul her brother out, and while Darckense screamed on, Elethiomel swept the remaining pebbles off the parapet, sending them pattering and plopping into the water around the boy.

No, that wasn't it. It had to be something worse than that, didn't it? He was sure he remembered something about a chair (he remembered something about a boat too, but that didn't seem to be quite it either). He tried to think of all the nastiest things that could happen in a chair, dismissed them one by one as they hadn't happened to him or to anybody he knew - at least as far as he could remember - and finally concluded that his fixation on the idea of a chair was a random thing; it just so happened to be a chair and that was all there was to it.

Then there were the names; names that he'd used; pretend names that didn't really belong to him. Imagine calling himself after a ship! What a silly person, what a naughty boy; that was what he was trying to forget. He didn't know, he didn't understand how he could have been so stupid; now it all seemed so clear, so obvious. He wanted to forget about the ship; he wanted to bury the thing, so he shouldn't go calling himself after it.

Now he realised, now he understood, now when it was too late to do anything about it.

Ah, he made himself want to be sick.

A chair, a ship, a... something else; he forgot.

The boys learned metalwork, the girls pottery.

'But we're not peasants, or... or...'

'Artisans,' Elethiomel provided.

'You will not argue, and you shall learn something of what it is to work with materials,' Cheradenine's father told the two boys.

'But it's common!'

'So is learning how to write, and to work with numbers. Proficiency in those skills will not make you clerks any more than working with iron will make you blacksmiths.'


'You will do as you are told. If it is more in accord with the martial ambitions you both lay claim to, you may attempt to construct blades and armour in the course of your lessons.'

The boys looked at each other.

'You might also care to tell your language tutor that I instructed you to ask him whether it is acceptable for young men of breeding to begin almost every sentence with the unfortunate word, "But". That is all.'

'Thank you, sir.'

'Thank you, sir.'

Outside, they agreed that metalwork might not be so bad after all. 'But we've got to tell Big-nose about saying "But". We'll get lines!'

'No we won't. Your old man said that we might care to tell Big-nose; that's not the same as actually telling us to tell him.'

'Ha. Yeah.'

Livueta wanted to take up metalwork too, but her father would not allow her to; it was not seemly. She persevered. He would not relent. She sulked. They compromised, on carpentry.

The boys made knives and swords, Darckense pots, and Livueta the furniture for a summerhouse, deep in the estate. It was in that summerhouse where Cheradenine discovered...

No no no, he didn't want to think about that, thank you. He knew what was coming.

Dammit, he'd rather think about the other bad time, the day with the gun they'd taken from the armoury...

Na; he didn't want to think at all. He tried to stop thinking about it all by bashing his head up and down, staring at the mad blue sky and hitting his head up-down, up-down off the pale scaly rocks beneath his head where the guano pellets had been swept away, but it hurt too much and the rocks just gave and he didn't have the strength seriously to threaten a determined speckfly anyway, so he stopped.

Where was he?

Ah yes, the crater, the drowned volcano... we're in a crater; an old crater in an old volcano, long dead and filled with water. And in the middle of the crater there was a little island and he was on the little island, and he was looking off the little island at the crater walls and he was a man wasn't he children, and he was a nice man and he was dying on the little island and...

'Scream?' he said.

Doubtfully, the sky looked down.

It was blue.

It had been Elethiomel's idea to take the gun. The armoury was unlocked but guarded at the moment; the adults seemed busy and worried all the time, and there was talk of sending the children away. The summer had passed and still they hadn't gone to the city. They were getting bored.

'We could run away.'

They were scuffing through the fallen leaves on a path through the estate. Elethiomel talked quietly. They couldn't even walk out here now without guards. The men kept thirty paces ahead and twenty behind. How could you play properly with all these guards around? Back nearer the house they were allowed out without guards, but that was even more boring.

'Don't be silly,' Livueta said.

'It's not silly,' Darckense said. 'We could go to the city. It would be something to do.'

'Yes.' Cheradenine said. 'You're right. It would be.'

'Why do you want to go to the city?' Livueta said. 'It might be... dangerous there.'

'Well it's boring here,' Darckense said.

'Yeah, it is,' Cheradenine agreed.

'We could take a boat and sail away,' Cheradenine said.

'We wouldn't even really have to sail, or row,' Elethiomel said. 'All we'd have to do is push the boat out and we'd end up in the city eventually anyway.'

'I wouldn't go,' Livueta said, kicking at a pile of leaves.

'Oh, Livvy,' Darckense said. 'Now you're being boring. Come on. We've got to do things together.'

'I wouldn't go,' Livueta repeated.

Elethiomel pressed his lips together. He kicked hard at a huge pile of leaves, sending them up into the air like an explosion. A couple of the guards turned round quickly, then relaxed, looked away again. 'We've got to do something,' he said, looking at the guards ahead, admiring the big automatic rifles they were allowed to use. He'd never even been allowed to touch a proper big gun; just piddling little small-bore pistols and light carbines.

He caught one of the leaves as it fell past his face.

'Leaves...' he turned the leaf, this way and that, in front of his eyes. 'Trees are stupid,' he told the others.

'Of course they are,' Livueta said. 'They don't have nerves and brains, do they?'

'I don't mean that,' he said, crumpling the leaf in his hands. 'I mean they're such a stupid idea. All this waste every autumn. A tree that kept its leaves wouldn't have to grow new ones; it would grow bigger than all the rest; it would be the king of the trees.'

'But the leaves are beautiful!' Darckense said.

Elethiomel shook his head, exchanging looks with Cheradenine. 'Girls!' he laughed, sneering.

He forgot what the other word was for a crater; there was another word for a crater, for a big volcanic crater, there was definitely another word for it, there was absolutely and positively another word for it, I just put it down for a minute here and now some bastard's swiped it, the bastard... if I could just find it, I... I just put it down here a minute ago...

Where was the volcano?

The volcano was on a big island on an inland sea, somewhere.

He looked around at the distant heights of the crater walls, trying to remember where this somewhere was. As he moved, his shoulder hurt, where one of the robbers had stabbed him. He'd attempted to protect the wound by shooing the clouds of flies away, but he was fairly sure they'd already laid their eggs.

(Not too near the heart; at least he still carried her there, and it would take a while for the corruption to spread that far. He'd be dead by then, before they found their way to his heart and her.)

But why not? Go ahead; be my guests, little maggots, eat away, sup your fill; quite probably I'll be dead anyway by the time you hatch, and will save you the pain and torment of my attempts to scratch you out... Dear little maggots, sweet little maggots. (Sweet little me; I'm the one that's being eaten.)

He paused and thought about the pool, the little puddle that he orbited around, like a captured rock. It was at the bottom of a small depression, and it seemed to him that he kept on trying to get out away from the stinking water and the slime and the flies that crowded around it and the bird shit he kept crawling through... He didn't manage it; he always seemed to end up back here for some reason, but he thought about it a lot.

The pool was shallow, muddy, rocky and smelly; it was foul and horrid and bloated past its normal limits with the sickness and the blood that he had spilled out into it; he wanted to leave, to get well away from it. Then he would send in a heavy-bomber raid.

He started to crawl again, hauling himself round the pool, disturbing pellets and insects, and heading off towards the lake at one point, then coming back, back to the same point as before, and stopping, gazing transfixed at the pool and the rock.

What had he been doing?

Helping the locals, as usual. Honest counsel; advisor, keeping the loonies at bay and people sweet; later leading a small army. But they'd assumed he'd betray them, and that he'd use the army he'd trained as his own power base. So, on the eve of their victory, the very hour they'd finally stormed the Sanctum, they'd struck at him, too.

They'd taken him to the furnace room, stripped him naked; he'd escaped, but soldiers had been pounding down the stairs and he'd had to run. He'd been forced into the river, when they cornered him again. The dive almost knocked him out. Currents took him and he spun, lazily... he woke up in the morning, under a winch housing on a big river barge; he had no idea how he'd got there. There was a rope trailing astern, and he could only guess he'd climbed up that. His head still hurt.

He took some clothes which were drying on a line behind the wheelhouse, but he was seen; he dived overboard with them, swam to the shore. He'd still been hounded, and all the time he was forced further away from the city and Sanctum, where the Culture might look for him. He spent hours trying to work out how to contact them.

He'd been on a stolen mount, skirting the edge of a water-filled volcanic crater when the robbers struck; they'd beaten him and raped him and cut the tendons in his legs and tossed him into the stinking, yellow-tinged waters of the crater lake, then thrown boulders at him as he tried to swim away, using only his arms, legs floating uselessly behind him.

He knew one of the rocks would hit him sooner or later, so he tried to coax up some of that wonderful Culture training, quickly hyperventilated, and then dived. He only had to wait a couple of seconds. A big rock splashed into the water, in the line of bubbles he'd left when he dived; he embraced the rock like a lover as it wobbled down towards him, and let it take him deep into the darkness of the lake, switching off the way he'd been taught to, but not really caring very much if it didn't work, and he never woke up again.

He'd thought ten minutes when he dived. He woke up in crushing darkness; remembered, and dragged his arms out from under the rock. He kicked for the light but nothing happened. He used his arms. The surface came down to meet him, eventually. Air had never tasted so sweet.

The walls of the crater lake were sheer; the tiny rock island was the only place to swim to. Screeching birds lifted from the island as he thrashed his way ashore.

At least, he thought, as he dragged himself onto the rock through the guano, it wasn't the priests that found me. Then I'd really have been in trouble.

The bends set in a few minutes later, like slow acid seeping into every joint, and he wished the priests had got him.

Still - he told himself, talking to keep his mind away from the pain - they would come for him; the Culture would come down with a beautiful big ship and they would take him up and make it all better.

He was sure they would. He'd be looked after and made better and he'd be safe, very safe and well looked after and free from pain, back in their paradise, and it would be like... like being a child again; like being in the garden again. Except - some rogue part of his mind reminded him - bad things happened in gardens too, sometimes.

Darckense got the armoury guard to help her with a door that was stuck, along the corridor, just round the corner. Cheradenine slipped in and took the autorifle Elethiomel had described. He got back out, covering the gun in a cape, and heard Darckense thanking the guard profusely. They all met up in the rear hall cloakroom, where they whispered excitedly in the comforting smell of wet cloth and floor polish, and took turns holding the gun. It was very heavy.

'There's only one magazine!'

'I couldn't see the others.'

'God you're blind, Zak. Have to do, I suppose.'

'Ugh; it's oily,' Darckense said.

'That stops rust,' Cheradenine explained.

'Where are we supposed to let it off?' Livueta asked.

'We'll hide it here and then get out after dinner,' Elethiomel said, taking the weapon from Darckense. 'It's Big-nose for studies and he always sleeps right through anyway. Mother and father will be entertaining that colonel; we can get out of the house and into the woods and fire - not "let off", actually - fire the gun there.'

'We'll probably get killed,' Livueta said. 'The guards will think we're terrorists.'

Elethiomel shook his head patiently. 'Livvy, you are stupid.' He pointed the gun at her. 'It's got a silencer; what do you think this bit is?'

'Huh,' Livueta said, pushing the point away from her. 'Has it got a safety catch?'

Elethiomel looked uncertain for just a moment. 'Of course,' he said, loudly, then flinched a little and glanced at the closed door to the hall. 'Of course,' he whispered. 'Come on; we'll hide it here and come back for it when we've got away from Big-nose.'

'You can't hide it here,' Livueta said.

'Bet I can.'

'It smells too much,' Livueta said. 'The oil smells; you'd smell it as soon as you walked in here. What if father decides to go for a walk?'

Elethiomel looked worried. Livueta moved past him, opened a small high window.

'How about hiding it on the stone boat?' Cheradenine suggested. 'Nobody ever goes there at this time of year.'

Elethiomel thought about this. He grabbed the cloak Cheradenine had wrapped the gun in originally and covered the weapon again. 'All right. You take it.'

Still not far enough back, or not far enough forward... he wasn't sure. The right place; that was what he was looking for. The right place. Place was all important, place meant everything. Take this rock...

'Take you, rock,' he said. He squinted at it.

Ah yes, here we have the nasty big flat rock, sitting doing nothing, just amoral and dull, and it sits like an island in the polluted pool. The pool is a tiny lake on the little island, and the island is in a drowned crater. The crater is a volcanic crater, the volcano forms part of an island in a big inland sea. The inland sea is like a giant lake on a continent and the continent is like an island sitting in the seas of the planet. The planet is like an island in the sea of space within its system, and the system floats within the cluster, which is like an island in the sea of the galaxy, which is like an island in the archipelago of its local group, which is an island within the universe; the universe is like an island floating in a sea of space in the Continua, and they float like islands in the Reality, and...

But down through the Continua, the Universe, the Local Group, the Galaxy, the Cluster, the System, the Planet, the Continent, the Island, the Lake, the Island... the rock remained. AND THAT MEANT THE ROCK, THE CRAPPY AWFUL ROCK HERE WAS THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE, THE CONTINUA, THE WHOLE REALITY!

The word was caldera. The lake was in a drowned caldera. He raised his head, looked out over the still, yellowish water towards the crater cliffs, and seemed to see a boat made of stone.

'Scream,' he said.

'Piss off,' he heard the sky say, unconvinced.

The sky was full of cloud and it was getting dark early; their language tutor took longer than usual to fall asleep behind his high desk, and they almost decided to abandon the whole plan until tomorrow, but couldn't bear to. They crept out of the classroom, then walked as normally as they could, down to the rear hall, where they picked up their boots and jackets.

'See,' Livueta whispered. 'It smells a bit of gun-oil anyway.'

'I can't smell any,' Elethiomel lied.

The banqueting rooms - where a visiting Colonel and his staff were being wined and dined that evening - faced the parks to the front of the house; the lake with the stone boat was at the rear.

'Just going to walk round the lake, Sergeant,' Cheradenine told the guard who stopped them on the gravel path towards the stone boat. The sergeant nodded, told them to walk quickly; it would soon be dark.

They sneaked onto the boat, found the rifle where Cheradenine had hidden it, under a stone bench on the upper deck.

As he lifted it from the flagstone deck, Elethiomel knocked the gun against the side of the bench.

There was a snapping noise, and the magazine fell off; then there was a noise like a spring, and bullets clicked and clattered over the stones.

'Idiot!' Cheradenine said.

'Shut up!'

'Oh no,' Livueta said, bending down and scooping up some of the rounds.

'Let's go back,' Darckense whispered. 'I'm frightened.'

'Don't worry,' Cheradenine said, patting her hand. 'Come on; look for the bullets.'

It seemed to take ages to find them and clean them and press them back into the magazine. Even then, they thought there were probably a few missing. By the time they'd finished and got the magazine slotted back into place, it was almost night.

'It's far too dark,' Livueta said. They were all crouched down at the balustrade, looking out over the lake to the house. Elethiomel held the gun.

'No!' he said. 'We can still see.'

'No we can't, not properly,' Cheradenine told him.

'Let's leave it till tomorrow,' Livueta said.

'They'll notice we're gone soon,' Cheradenine whispered. 'We haven't got the time!'

'No!' Elethiomel said, looking out to where the guard walked slowly past the end of the causeway. Livueta looked too; it was the sergeant who'd talked to them.

'You're being an idiot!' Cheradenine said, and put one hand out, taking hold of the gun. Elethiomel pulled away.

'It's mine; leave it!'

'It is not yours!' Cheradenine hissed. 'It's ours; it belongs to our family, not yours!' He got both hands on the gun. Elethiomel pulled back again.

'Stop it!' Darckense said, her voice tiny.

'Don't be so...' Livueta started to say.

She looked over the edge of the parapet, to where she thought she'd heard a noise.

'Give it here!'

'Let it go!'

'Please stop; please stop. Let's go back in, please...'

Livueta didn't hear them. She was staring, wide-eyed, dry-mouthed, over the stone parapet. A black-covered man picked up the rifle the guard sergeant had dropped. The guard sear-geant himself lay on the gravel. Something glittered in the black-dressed man's hand, reflecting the lights of the house. The man pushed the slack form of the sergeant off the gravel, into the lake.

Her breath caught in her throat. Livueta ducked down. She flapped her hands at the two boys. 'St...' she said. They still struggled.



'Let go!'

'Stop!' she hissed, and struck them both on the head. They both stared at her. 'Somebody just killed that sergeant; just out there.'

'What?' Both boys looked over the parapet. Elethiomel still held the gun.

Darckense squatted down and started to cry.


'There; that's his body! There in the water!'

'Sure,' Elethiomel said in a whispered drawl. 'And who...'

The three of them saw one shadowy figure move towards the house, keeping in the shade of the bushes bordering the path. A dozen or so men - just patches of darkness on the gravel - moved along the side of the lake, where there was a narrow strip of grass.

'Terrorists!' Elethiomel said excitedly, as the three all ducked back behind the balustrade, where Darckense wept quietly.

'Tell the house,' Livueta said. 'Fire the gun.'

'Take the silencer off first,' Cheradenine said.

Elethiomel struggled with the end of the barrel. 'It's stuck!'

'Let me try!' All three tried.

'Fire it anyway,' Cheradenine said.

'Yeah!' Elethiomel whispered. He shook the gun, hefted it. 'Yeah!' he said. He knelt, put the gun on the stone bulwark, sighted.

'Be careful,' Livueta said.

Elethiomel aimed at the dark men, crossing the path towards the house. He pulled the trigger.

The gun seemed to explode. The whole deck of the stone boat lit up. The noise was tremendous; Elethiomel was thrown back, gun still firing, blasting tracer into the night sky. He crashed into the bench. Darckense shrieked at the top of her lungs. She leapt up; firing sounded from near the house.

'Darkle; get down!' Livueta screamed. Lines of light flickered and cracked above the stone boat.

Darckense stood screaming, then started to run for the stairs. Elethiomel shook his head, looked up as the girl ran past him. Livueta grabbed at her and missed. Cheradenine tried to tackle her.

The lines of light lowered, detonating chips of rock off the stones all around them in tiny clouds of dust, at the same time as Darckense, still screaming, stumbled to the stairs.

The bullet entered Darckense through the hip: the other three heard - quite distinctly - the noise that it made, above the gunfire and the girl's scream.

He was hit too, though he didn't know by what at the time.

The attack on the house was beaten off. Darckense lived. She almost died, from loss of blood, and shock; but she lived. The best surgeons in the land fought to rebuild her pelvis, shattered into a dozen major pieces and a hundred splinters by the impact of the round.

Bits of bone had travelled her body; they found fragments in her legs, in one arm, in her internal organs, even a piece in her chin. The army surgeons were fairly used to dealing with that sort of injury, and they had the time (because the war hadn't yet started then) and the incentive (for her father was a very important man) to put her back together as best they could. Still, she would walk awkwardly until she stopped growing, at least.

One of the bone shards travelled further than her own body; it entered his. Just above the heart.

The army surgeons said it would be too dangerous to operate. In time, they said, his body would reject the fragment of bone.

But it never did.

He started to crawl round the pool again.

Caldera! That was the word, the name.

(Such signals were important, and he'd found the one he'd been looking for.)

Victory, he said to himself, as he hauled himself round, scattering a last few of the bird-droppings out of his way, and apologising to the insects. Everything was going to be just fine, he decided. He knew that, now, and knew that in the end you always won, and that even when you lost, you never knew, and there was only one fight, and he was at the centre of the whole ridiculous thing any way, and Caldera was the word, and Zakalwe was the word, and Staberinde was the word, and -

They came for him; they came down with a big beautiful ship, and they took him up and away and they made him all better again...

'They never learn,' the sky sighed, quite distinctly.

'Fuck you,' he said.

It was years later that Cheradenine - returned from the military academy and looking for Darckense, and sent in that direction by a monosyllabic gardener - walked up the soft carpet of leaves to the door of the little summerhouse.

He heard a scream from inside. Darckense.

He dashed up the steps, drawing his pistol, and kicked the door open.

Darckense's startled face twisted over her shoulder, regarding him. Her hands were still clasped round Elethiomel's neck. Elethiomel sat, trousers round his ankles, hands on Darckense's naked hips under her bunched-up dress, and looked calmly at him.

Elethiomel was sitting on the little chair that Livueta had made in her carpentry class, long ago.

'Hi there, old chap,' he said to the young man holding the pistol.

Cheradenine looked into Elethiomel's eyes for a moment, then turned away, holstering the pistol and buttoning the holster and walking out, closing the door behind him.

Behind him he heard Darckense crying, and Elethiomel laughing.

The island in the centre of the caldera became quiet again. Some birds flew back to it.

The island had changed, thanks to the man. Scraped in a circle all round the central depression of the islet, drawn in a pathway of black bird droppings cleared away from the pale rock, and with the appropriate tail of just the right length leading off to one side (its other end pointing at the rock, which was the central dot), the island seemed to have a letter or simple pictogram printed on it, white on black.

It was the local signal for 'Help me!', and you would only have seen it from an aircraft, or from space.

A few years after the scene in the summerhouse, one night while the forests burned and the distant artillery thundered, a young army major jumped up onto one of the tanks under his command, and ordered the driver to take the machine through the woods, following a path which wound between the old trees.

They left behind the shell of the recaptured mansion and the glowing red fires which lit its once grand interior (the fires reflected on the waters of an ornamental lake, by the wreckage of a demolished boat made of stone).

The tank ripped through the woods, demolishing small trees and little bridges over streams.

He saw the clearing with the summerhouse through the trees; it was lit by a flickering white light, as though by God.

They got to the clearing; a star-shell had fallen into the trees above, its parachute entangled in the branches. It sizzled and sputtered and shed a pure, sharp, extreme light all over the clearing.

Inside the summerhouse, the little wooden chair was quite visible. The tank's gun was pointing straight at the small building.

'Sir?' the tank commander said, peering worriedly from the hatch beneath.

Major Zakalwe looked down at him.

'Fire,' he said.

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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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