Use of Weapons | Chapter 24 of 40

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

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Nine

He slept until after dawn, then went for a walk to think. He left via the service tunnel from the main hotel to the annexe, and left the dark glasses in his pocket. The hotel had cleaned the old raincoat; he put it on and some thick gloves and wound a scarf round his neck.

He walked carefully along warmed streets and dripping pavements, and held his head up to gaze at the sky. His breath went before him. Little snow-falls slumped off buildings and wires as the weak sunlight and a mild breeze raised the temperature. The gutters ran with clear water and soggy bergs of bumping slush; pipes from buildings ran or dripped with the melt and, when a vehicle passed, it did so with a wet hiss. He crossed the road to the other side, where the sun was.

He climbed steps and crossed bridges; he walked gingerly over icy parts where there was no heating, or it had failed. He wished he'd put on better boots; these looked fine but they didn't have enough grip. To avoid falling you had to walk like an old man, hands splayed as though trying to grasp a stick, bending at the waist when you wanted to walk straight-backed. This annoyed him, but walking on without acknowledging the changed conditions, and slipping on his backside, appealed to him even less.

When he did slip, it was in front of some young people. He was walking carefully down some icy steps leading onto a broad suspension bridge over a railway junction. The youngsters were walking towards him, laughing and joking with each other. He divided his attention between the treacherous steps and the group. They looked very young, and their actions, gestures and pealing voices all seemed to bubble with energy, suddenly making him feel his age. There were four of them; the two young men trying to impress the girls, talking loudly. One of the girls in particular was tall and dark, and elegant in that unselfconscious manner of the recently matured. He kept

his eyes on her, straightening his back, and just before his feet went out from under him, felt a slight swagger return to his walk.

He crashed down on the last step, and sat for a moment, then smiled thinly and got up just before the four young people drew level with him. (One of the young men was guffawing, making a show of covering his mufflered mouth with a gloved hand.)

He brushed some snow from the tails of the raincoat, and flicked some of it at the young man. They went by and on up the steps, laughing. He walked halfway across the bridge - grimacing at the pain seeping up from his backside - and heard a voice call; he turned around and took a snowball full in the face.

He caught a glimpse of them laughing as they sprinted away from the top of the steps, but he was too busy clearing the snow from his nostrils and stinging eyes to see properly. His nose throbbed fiercely, but hadn't re-broken. He walked on, passing an older couple walking arm in arm, who shook their heads and tutted and said something about damned students. He just nodded to them and wiped his face with a handkerchief.

He smiled as he left the bridge, up more steps to an esplanade cut under old office buildings. Once, he knew, he would have been embarrassed at what had happened, embarrassed at slipping, at being seen to slip, at being hit by the snowball after so gullibly turning round on cue, and at the elderly couple witnessing his embarrassment. Once he might have chased after the youngsters, to give them a fright at least, but not now.

He stopped at a small hot drinks stall set up on the esplanade and ordered a mug of soup. He leant against the stall and pulled off one glove with his teeth; he held the steaming mug in his hand, feeling the warmth. He went to the railings, sat down on a bench and drank the soup slowly, in careful sips. The man in the soup stall wiped the counter and listened to the radio, smoking a ceramic cigarette on a chain round his neck.

His backside still ached dully from the slip. He smiled at the city through the steam rising from the mug. Served him right, he told himself.

When he got back to the hotel they'd left a message. Mr Beychae would like to meet him. They would send a car after lunch, unless he objected.


'This is wonderful news, Cheradenine.'

'Well, I suppose.'

'You're not still being pessimistic, are you?'

'All I'm saying is, don't get your hopes up.' He lay back on the bed looking at the ceiling paintings, talking to Sma via the earring transceiver. 'I might just get to meet him, but I doubt I'll have any chance to get him out. Probably find he's gone senile and says, "Hey, Zakalwe; still working for the Culture against these gas-heads?" In which case I want my ass hauled out, all right?'

'We'll get you out, don't worry about that.'

'If and when I do get the guy, you still want me to head for the Impren Habitats?'

'Yes. You'll have to use the module; we can't risk bringing the Xenophobe in. If you do spring Beychae they'll be on maximum alert; we'd never get in and out without being noticed, and that could swing the whole Cluster against us for interfering.'

'So how far's Impren by module?'

'Two days.'

He sighed. 'I suppose we can handle that.'

'You all ready, in case you can do anything today?'

'Yeah. Capsule's buried in the desert and primed; module's hiding in the nearest gas-giant, waiting for the same signal. If they take the transceiver from me, how do I get in touch?'

'Well,' Sma said. 'Much as I'd like to say "I told you so", and displace you a scout or knife missile, we can't; their surveillance might just be good enough to spot it. Best we can do is put a microsat in orbit and just passive-scan; watch, in other words. If it sees you in trouble, we'll signal the capsule and the module for you. The alternative is to use the phone, would you believe. There's the unlisted Vanguard numbers you already have... Zakalwe?'

'Hmm?'

'You do have those numbers?'

'Oh, yeah.'

'Or, we've a downlink tap on Solotol's emergency services; just dial three ones and scream "Zakalwe!" at the operator; we'll hear.'

'I am filled with confidence,' he breathed, shaking his head. 'Don't worry, Cheradenine.'

'Me, worry?'


The car came; he saw it from his window. He went down to meet Mollen. He'd liked to have worn the suit again, but doubted they'd let him into their high security areas wearing it. He took the old raincoat, and the dark glasses.

'Hello.'

'Hello there, Mollen.'

'A pleasant day.'

'Yes.'

'Where are we going?'

'I don't know.'

'But you're driving.'

'Yes.'

'Then you must know where we're going.'

'Please repeat that?'

'I said you must know where you're going if you're driving.'

'I'm sorry.'

He stood by the side of the car while Mollen held the door open.

'Well, at least tell me whether it's very far, I may want to tell people I won't be back for a while.'

The large man frowned, the scarred face creasing in strange directions, unusual patterns. He hesitated over which button on the box to press. Mollen's tongue licked his lips as he concentrated. So they had not literally taken his tongue out, after all.

He assumed whatever was wrong with Mollen was to do with his vocal chords. Why the man's superiors hadn't just fitted him with an artificial or re-grown set he couldn't deduce, unless they preferred their underlings to have a limited set of replies. Certainly they'd have a hard time speaking ill of you.

'Yes.'

'Yes it's far away?'

'No.'

'Make up your mind.' He stood with his hand on the open car door, indifferent to his unkindness to the grey-haired man; he rather wanted to test his inbuilt vocabulary.

'I'm sorry.'

'Is it quite close then, within the city?'

The scarred face frowned again. Mollen tutted with his lips and pressed another set of buttons with an apologetic look. 'Yes.'

'Within the city?'

'Perhaps.'

'Thank you.'

'Yes.'

He got in. It was a different car to that he'd been in the night before. Mollen got into the separate driver's compartment and belted himself in carefully; he pedalled a gear and drew smoothly away. A couple of other cars followed immediately behind them, then stopped at the entrance to the first street they took outside the hotel, blocking the cars of the pursuing media people.

He was watching the small, high specks of wheeling birds when the view started to disappear. At first he thought that black screens were rising outside the windows behind and to either side of him. Then he saw the bubbles; it was some black liquid which was filling the space between the double-layers of glass in the back of the car. He pressed the button to talk to Mollen. 'Hey!' he shouted.

The black liquid was halfway up the screens, gradually rising between him and Mollen as well as on the other three sides.

'Yes?' Mollen said.

He grabbed a door handle. The door opened; a draft of cold air whistled in. The black liquid continued to fill the space between the panes of glass. 'What is this?'

He saw Mollen carefully pressing a button on his voice synthesiser, before the liquid blocked the view forward.

'Do not be alarmed, Mr Staberinde. This is just a precaution, to ensure that Mr Beychae's privacy is respected,' said an obviously prepared message.

'Hmm. Okay.' He shrugged; he shut the door and was left in the dark until a small light came on. He sat back and did nothing. The unexpectedness of the blacking out was perhaps meant to frighten him, perhaps designed to see what he would do.

They drove on; the yellow light of the small bulb gave a stale, warm feel to the interior of the car, which although large

was made to seem small by the absence of an exterior view; he turned up the ventilation, sat back again. He kept the dark glasses on.

They turned corners, zoomed and dived, boomed through tunnels and over bridges. He guessed he noticed the vehicle's motions more because of the lack of any outside reference.

They echoed through a tunnel for a long time, going downwards in what felt like a straight line but could have been a wide spiral, then the car stopped. There was a moment of silence, then some indistinct noises from outside, perhaps including voices, before they moved forward again a short way. The transceiver jabbed delicately at his ear-lobe. He pushed the bead further into his ear. 'X-ray radiation,' the earring whispered.

He allowed himself a small smile. He waited for them to open the door and demand the transceiver... but the car only moved forward a little again.

The vehicle dropped. Its engine was silent; he presumed they were in a large elevator. They stopped, moved forward again, still silent, paused, then carried on forward and down. This time the spiral was obvious. There was still no noise from the vehicle's engine, so they were either being towed, or freewheeling.

The black liquid drained slowly from the windows as they drew to a halt. They were in a wide tunnel under long white strip lights. The tunnel extended back until it started to curve, forward until it ended before large metal doors.

Mollen was nowhere to be seen.

He tested the car door, opened it, stepped out.

The tunnel was warm, though the air seemed fresh enough. He took off the old raincoat. He looked at the metal doors. Set into them was a smaller door. There was no handle to pull, so he pushed it, but nothing happened. He went back to the car, found the horns, blew them.

The noise crashed into the tunnel, rang in his ears, echoing. He sat in the back of the car.

After a while, the woman came through the small door. She came to the car, looked in through the window.

'Hello.'

'Good afternoon. Here I am.'

'Yes. And still wearing your glasses.' She smiled. 'Please; come with me,' she said, and walked quickly off. He collected the old raincoat and followed.


Behind the doors the tunnel went on, then they came to doors set into the side of the wall; a small elevator took them down still further. The woman wore a straight, all-covering gown in black with thin white stripes.

The lift stopped. They entered a small hallway like that of a private house, set about with pictures and potted plants and finished in streaky, smokily smooth stone. A thick carpet smothered their footsteps as they went down some steps and onto a large balcony set halfway up the wall of a large hall; everywhere else the hall was covered with books or tables, and they walked down a staircase with books below the wood under their feet, books above the wood over their heads.

She guided him round floor-standing book-stacks, and led him to a table with chairs around it. A machine stood on the table-top with a small screen set into it and spools scattered about it.

'Wait here, please.'

Beychae was in his bedroom, resting. The old man - bald, face deeply lined, dressed in robes which hid the modest paunch he'd developed since he'd devoted himself to study - blinked as she tapped at and opened the door. His eyes were still bright.

'Tsoldrin. I'm so sorry to disturb you. Come and see who I've brought to see you.'

He came with her along the corridor, and stood at the door while the woman pointed to the man standing at the table with the tape-reading screen on it.

'Do you know him?'

Tsoldrin Beychae put on some glasses - he was old-fashioned enough to wear his age rather than try to disguise it - and peered at the man. The fellow was fairly young, long-legged, dark-haired - the hair swept back, held in a pony-tail - and possessed a striking, even handsome face, darkened by the sort of beard-growth that never disappears through surface shaving alone. The lips were disquieting, looked at exclusively; they appeared cruel and arrogant, and only when the eye took in the rest of the face as well did this impression seem too severe, and - reluctantly, perhaps - the observer had to allow that the dark glasses could not completely hide wide eyes and full brows, which - open and obvious - made the complete impression not disagreeable.

'I might have met him, I'm not sure,' Beychae said slowly. He thought that perhaps he had met the man before; there was something worryingly familiar about that face, even behind the shades.

'He wants to meet you,' the woman said. 'I took the liberty of telling him it was mutual. He thinks you might have known his father.'

'His father?' Beychae said. That might account for it; perhaps the fellow bore a resemblance to somebody he'd known, and that accounted for the odd, slightly disturbing feeling he was experiencing. 'Well,' he said, 'Let's see what he has to say for himself, shall we?'

'Why not?' the woman said. They walked out into the centre of the library. Beychae drew himself up; he'd noticed that he was stooping more these days, but he was still vain enough to want to greet people straight-backed. The man turned round towards them. 'Tsoldrin Beychae,' the woman said; 'Mr Staberinde.'

'An honour, sir,' he said, looking at Beychae with a strange, intense expression, his face tight-looking, wary. He took the older man's hand in his.

The woman looked puzzled. The expression on Beychae's old, lined face was unreadable. He stood looking at the man, his hand limp in the other's grip.

'Mr... Staberinde,' Beychae said, flatly.

Beychae turned to the woman in the long black gown. 'Thank you.'

'My pleasure,' she murmured, and backed away.

He could see Beychae knew. He turned and walked towards an aisle between the book-stacks, and watched Beychae follow him, eyes full of wonderment. He stood between the shelved books, and - as though it might have been an unconscious movement - tapped his ear as he spoke to Beychae. 'I think you may have known my... ancestor. He went by a different name.' He took off the dark glasses.

Beychae looked at him. His expression did not change. 'I think I did,' Beychae said, glancing round the space behind him. He indicated a table and chairs. 'Please; let's sit down.'

He replaced the glasses.

'So what brings you here, Mr Staberinde?'

He sat down across the table from the older man. 'Curiosity, as far as you're concerned. What brought me to Solotol was... just an urge to see it. I'm, ah... connected with the Vanguard Foundation; there have been some changes at the top there. I don't know if you've heard.'

The old man shook his head. 'No; I don't keep up with the news, down here.'

'Yes.' He made a show of looking around. 'I guess...' he looked back into Beychae's eyes '... I guess it isn't the best place for communication, hmm?'

Beychae opened his mouth, then looked annoyed. He glanced behind him. 'Perhaps not,' he agreed. He stood up again. 'Excuse me.'

He watched the older man go. He forced himself to sit where he was.

He looked round the library. So many old books; they smelled. So many words set down, so many lives spent scribbling, so many eyes dimmed by reading. He wondered that people bothered as much as they did.

'Now?' he heard the woman say.

'Why not?'

He turned in the seat to watch Beychae and the woman emerge from the stacks. 'Well, Mr Beychae,' the woman said. 'It might be awkward...'

'Why? Have the elevators stopped working?'

'No, but...'

'Then what's to stop us? Let's go; I haven't seen the surface for too long.'

'Ah. Well, all right... I'll make the arrangements.' She smiled uncertainly, then walked away.

'Well, Z... Staberinde,' Beychae sat down again, smiling apologetically for an instant. 'We'll take a little trip to the surface, shall we?'

'Yeah; why not?' he said, carefully not looking too enthusiastic. 'You keeping well, Mr Beychae? I heard you retired.'

They talked generally for a few minutes, then a young blonde woman walked out of the stacks, arms loaded with books. She blinked hard when she saw him, then came over behind Beychae, who looked up and smiled at her. 'Ah; my dear; this is Mr... Staberinde.' Beychae smiled diffidently at him. 'My assistant, Ms Ubrel Shiol.'

'Delighted,' he nodded.

Shit, he thought.

Ms Shiol put the books down on the table and put her hand on Beychae's shoulder. The old man put his own thin fingers on top of hers.

'I hear we might be taking a trip up to the city,' the woman said. She looked down at the old man, smoothed her plain smock dress with her other hand. 'This is very sudden.'

'Yes,' Beychae agreed. He smiled up at her. 'You'll find that old men still retain the ability to surprise, on occasion.'

'It'll be cold,' the woman said, drawing away. 'I'll fetch your warm clothes.'

Beychae watched her go. 'Wonderful girl,' he said. 'Don't know what I'd do without her.'

'Indeed,' he replied. You may have to learn, he thought.


The journey back up to the surface took an hour to arrange. Beychae seemed excited. Ubrel Shiol made him put on warm clothes, changed out of her smock into a one-piece, and put her hair up. They took the same car; Mollen drove. He, Beychae and Ms Shiol sat on the broad rear bench; the woman in the black robe sat across from them.

They left the tunnel for the bright light of day; snow covered a broad yard with tall wire gates before them. Security men watched the car go past as the gates opened. The car set off down a side road for the nearest turnpike, then stopped at the junction.

'Is there a fair on anywhere?' Beychae asked. 'I always enjoyed the noise and bustle of fairs.'

He recalled there was some sort of travelling circus camped in a meadow down near the river Lotol. He suggested they went there. Mollen turned the car onto the broad, almost empty boulevard.


'Flowers,' he said, suddenly.

They all looked at him.

He'd put his arm back on the seat, behind Beychae and Urbrel Shiol, and brushed Shiol's hair, dislodging a clasp Shiol had secured her hair with. He laughed, and retrieved the clasp from the shelf under the car's rear window. The manoeuvre had given him the chance to look back.

There was a large half-track vehicle following them. 'Flowers, Mr Staberinde?' the woman in the black robe said. 'I'd like to buy some flowers,' he said, smiling first at her, then at Shiol. He clapped his hands. 'Why not? To the Flower Market, Mollen!' He sat back, smiling beatifically. Then he sat forward, all apologetic. 'If that's all right,' he said to the woman.

She smiled. 'Of course. Mollen; you heard.' The car turned down another road.

In the Flower Market, amongst the packed and flurried stalls, he bought flowers and presented them to the woman and to Ubrel Shiol. 'There's the fair!' he said, pointing over the river, where the tents and holograms of the fair sparkled and rotated.

As he'd hoped, they took the Flower Market Ferry. It was a tiny, one-vehicle platform. He looked back at the half-track waiting on the other side.

The far bank. They drove towards the fair; Beychae chattered, remembering fairs from his youth for Ubrel Shiol.

'Thank you for my flowers, Mr Staberinde,' the woman sitting across from him said, putting them to her face and breathing in their scent.

'My pleasure,' he said, then leant across Shiol to tap Beychae on the arm, to attract his attention to a piece of fairground equipment wheeling into the sky over some nearby roofs. The car drew to a stop at a light-controlled junction.

He reached across Shiol again, pulled down a zip before she realised what was happening, and extracted the gun he'd already felt there. He looked at it and started to laugh, as though the whole thing was a silly mistake, then turned it and fired at the glass screen behind Mollen's head.

The glass shattered. He was already kicking through it, launching himself from the seat and lancing forward with one leg. His foot crashed through the disintegrating glass and connected with Mollen's head.

The car leapt forward, then stalled. Mollen slumped. The instant of stunned silence lasted just long enough for him to shout, 'Capsule; here!'

The woman across from him moved; her hand dropped the flowers and went to her waist and a fold in the robe. He punched her in the jaw, sending her head cracking back against the still intact part of the glass screen behind her. He swivelled, crouched near the door, as the woman slid unconscious to the floor beside him and the flowers spilled across the footwell. He looked back at Beychae and Shiol. Both their mouths were open. 'Change of plan,' he said, taking off the dark glasses and throwing them onto the floor.

He dragged them both out. Shiol was screaming. He threw her against the rear of the car.

Beychae found his voice; 'Zakalwe, what the hell do you...'

'She had this, Tsoldrin!' he yelled back, flourishing the gun.

Ubrel Shiol used the second or so that the gun wasn't pointing at her to stab a kick at his head. He dodged it, let the woman spin, then cracked her, open handed, across the neck. She crumpled. The flowers he had given her rolled under the car.

'Ubrel!' Beychae shrieked, falling to the woman's side. 'Zakalwe! What have you done to...'

'Tsoldrin...' he began. The driver's door burst open and Mollen launched himself at him. They tumbled across the road into the gutter; the gun went spinning.

He found himself wedged against the kerb, Mollen above him, bunching his lapels in one hand, the other arm swinging up, the voice machine swinging out on a lanyard as the huge, scarred fist plunged downwards.

He feinted, then flung himself in the other direction. He jumped up as Mollen's fist hit the kerb stones.

'Hello,' said Mollen's voice box as it clattered into the road surface.

He tried to steady, aiming a kick at Mollen's head, but he was off-balance. Mollen caught his foot with his good hand. He wriggled out of the grip, but only by turning away.

'Pleased to meet you,' the box said, swinging again as Mollen rose, shaking his head.

He aimed another kick at Mollen's head. 'What do you require?' The machine said, as Mollen dodged the kick and threw himself forwards. He dived, skidded across the concrete road surface, rolled and stood.

Mollen faced him; his neck was bloody. He staggered, then seemed to remember something, and dug inside his tunic.

'I am here to help you,' said the voice box.

He flung himself forward, smashing a fist into Mollen's head as the big man turned, loosing a small gun from his tunic. He was too far away to grab it, so he pivoted and swung one foot, connecting with the gun in the man's fist and forcing his hand up. The grey-haired man staggered back, looking pained and rubbing his wrist.

'My name is Mollen. I cannot speak.'

He'd hoped the kick might have dislodged the gun from Mollen's grip but it didn't. Then he realised that directly behind him were Beychae and the unconscious Shiol; he stood for a second while Mollen aimed the gun at him, waggling his body one way then the other, so that Mollen, shaking his head again, let his hand waver on the gun.

'Pleased to meet you.'

He dived at Mollen's legs. Collided satisfactorily.

'No, thank you.' They crashed into the kerb-side. 'Excuse me...'

He brought his fist up, tried to whack the man across the head again.

'Could you tell me where this is?'

But Mollen rolled. His punch sailed through air. Mollen shifted and almost head-butted him. He had to duck, hitting his head against the kerb-stones.

'Yes, please.'

He splayed his fingers as his head rang with light, flung them out where he thought Mollen's eyes ought to be, and felt something connect liquidly. Mollen screamed.

'I cannot reply to that.'

He bounced up using hands and feet, kicking out at Mollen as he did so.

'Thank you.' His foot slammed into Mollen's head. 'Would you repeat that, please?'

Mollen rolled slowly into the gutter and lay still. 'What time is it?' What time is it? What time is it?'

He stood up shakily on the sidewalk.

'My name is Mollen. Can I help you? You are not allowed in here. This is private property. Where do you think you are going? Stop or I shoot. Money is no object. We have powerful friends. Could you direct me to the nearest telephone? I'll fuck you harder all right, bitch; feel this.'

He smashed Mollen's voice machine with one boot.

'Graap! No user-serviceable components ins -'

Another stamp silenced it.

He looked up at Beychae, who was crouched by the side of the car, Ubrel Shiol's head cradled in his lap.

'Zakalwe! You madman!' Beychae screeched.

He dusted himself down, looked back in the direction of the hotel. 'Tsoldrin,' he said calmly. 'This is an emergency.'

'What have you done?' Beychae - eyes wide, face aghast - screamed at him, glancing from Shiol's inert form to Mollen's, then taking a detour via the slumped feet of the woman lying unconscious in the car, flowers scattered around her feet, before returning to Shiol's already bruised neck.

He looked to the sky. He saw a speck. Relieved, he turned back to Beychae. 'They were about to kill you,' he told him. 'I was sent to stop them. We have about...'

There was a noise beyond the buildings shielding the river and the Flower Market; a bang and a whoosh. They both looked to the sky; the enlarging speck that was the capsule blossomed with light on a stalk that led back behind the buildings towards the Flower Market. The capsule sailed through the resulting incandescent bloom, seemed to shake itself, then a lance of light darted from it back down the same line, as though in reply.

The sky above the Flower Market flared; the road underneath them bounced, and a terrific crack of sound burst over the roadway and rolled back from cliffs further up the slope city.

'We had about a minute,' he said, breathless, 'before we had to leave.' The capsule swooped from the sky, a four-metre cylinder of darkness impacting on the road surface. Its hatches opened. He went to it and took out a very large gun. He touched a couple of controls. 'Now we have no time.'

'Zakalwe!' Beychae said, voice suddenly controlled. 'Are you insane?'

A tearing, screaming noise came above the city, from up-canyon. They both looked up at a slim shape streaking towards them, bellying down through the air.

He spat into the gutter. He raised the plasma rifle, sighted at the fast approaching dot, and fired.

A bolt of light leapt from gun to sky; the aircraft burst smoke, and veered away on a helix of debris, crashing somewhere down-canyon in a scream that became thunder, echoes rolling back from all over the city.

He looked back at the old man.

'What was the question again?'


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Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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