Use of Weapons | Chapter 25 of 40

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

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V

The black fabric of the tent roof was above him and yet he could see through it to the sky, which was the shaded blue of day, and bright, but black as well because he could see through that easy blueness, and beyond was a darkness more profound than that inside the tent, a darkness where the scattered suns burned, tiny firefly lights in the cold black empty deserts of the night.

A dark crop of stars reached out towards him, picked him up softly between vast fingers like some delicate ripe fruit. In that immense enfolding he felt deliriously sane, and understood then that in an instant - any instant, and with only the most minute of efforts - he might understand everything, but did not desire to. He felt as though some awesome galaxy-quaking machinery, always hidden under the surface of the universe, had somehow connected itself to him, and dusted him with its power.

He sat in a tent. His legs were crossed, his eyes were closed. He had sat like this for days now. He wore a loose-fitting robe, like the nomad people. His uniform lay neatly folded a metre behind him. His hair was short; stubble grew on his face, and there was a sheen of sweat on his skin. It seemed to him that sometimes he was outside of himself, looking back at his body, sitting there on the cushions under the dark fabric roof. His face grew darker because the black hairs grew through the skin, yet looked lighter because the film of sweat on it glistened in the lights of the lamps and the smoke-hole in the roof. This adversarial symbiosis, competition creating stasis, amused him. He would rejoin his body, or set off further afield, with a sense of Tightness at the core of things.

The tent was dark inside, filled with a thick and heavy atmosphere at once stale and sweet; heavy with perfume, smoky with incense. All was sweet and rich and highly decorated; the hanging rugs were thick and picked out with many colours and precious metal thread; the carpet was piled like a field of golden grain, and the plump, scented cushions and languorously thick coverings made a fabulously patterned landscape under the dark flute of roof. Small censers smoked lazily; little night-heaters sat extinguished, dream-leaf holders and crystal chalices, jewelled boxes and clasped books were strewn across the undulating fabric landscape like glittering temples on the plains.

Lies. The tent was bare and he sat on a sack stuffed with straw.

The girl watched him move. It was a hypnotic movement, barely noticeable at first, but once you had seen it, once the eye grew accustomed to it, it became very obvious and quite fascinating. He moved from the waist, round and round, neither slowly nor quickly, his head describing a flattened circle. It reminded the girl of the way that, sometimes, rising smoke would begin to twist as it rose towards the hole in the roof of a tent. The man's eyes seemed to move in compensation for this subtle, ceaseless motion, shifting tinily behind the brown-pink lids.

The tent was just big enough for the girl to stand up in. It was pitched at a crossroads in the desert, where two tracks crossed the sea of sand. It would have been a town or even a city long since, but the nearest water was three days' ride away. The tent had been here for four days, and might be here another two or three, depending on how long the man stayed in the dream-leaf sleep. She took up a pitcher from a small tray and filled a cup with water. She went over to the man, and put the cup to his lips, holding one hand under his chin as she carefully tipped the cup.

The man drank, still moving. He turned his face away after he'd drunk half the water in the cup. She took a cloth and dabbed at his face, removing a little of the sweat.

Chosen, he said to himself. Chosen, Chosen, Chosen. A long way to a strange place. Taking the Chosen one through the scorching dust and the mad tribes of the badlands to the lush meadows and gleaming spires of the Perfumed Palace on the cliff. Now he reaped a little reward.

The tent sits between the trade routes, outside turned in for the season, and in the tent sits a man, a soldier, back from uncounted wars, scarred and seared and broken and healed and broken and healed and repaired and made good again... and for once he was unwary, guard down, committing his mind to a wild, affecting drug, and his body to the care and protection of a young girl.

The girl, whose name he did not know, brought water to his lips and a cool cloth to his brow. He remembered a fever, a hundred and more years ago, a thousand and more years away, and the hands of another girl, cool and tender, soothing and smoothing. He heard the lawn birds keen from the grounds outside the great house that lay in the estate cradled in the broad river's bend; an oxbow of calm in the livid landscape of his memories.

Torpor-heavy, the drug flowed through him, winding and unwinding, a current of random ordering. (He remembered a stone beach on the river's banks, where the ever-flowing water had swept silt, sand, gravel, pebbles, stones and boulders in a linear progression of size and weight, ordering - through its steady, liquid weight - the elemental stone in a curve, like something distributed on a graph.)

The girl watched and waited, calm that the stranger had taken to the drug like one of their own, and was himself calm under its influence. She hoped this was, as he seemed to be, an exceptional man, and not an ordinary one, for that would imply their nomad kind was not the uniquely strong race they believed they were.

She had feared the power of the drug would be too much for him, and that he would shatter like a red-glowing cooking pot dropped into water, the way she had heard other strangers had, vainly thinking the dream-leaf was just another dalliance in their self-indulgent lives. But he had not fought it. For one who was a soldier, used to fighting, he had displayed a rare insight in just giving in without a struggle, and accepting the prescriptions of the drug. She admired this in an outsider. She doubted the conquerors would be so pliably strong. Even some of their own young men - often the most impressive, in every other way - could not accept the crushing gifts the dream-leaf brought, and yelped and gibbered through an abbreviated nightmare, mewling for their mother's breast, pissing and shitting and crying and screaming their most shaming fears to the desert winds. The drug was rarely fatal, in the supervised quantities that had become ritual, but the after-effects could be; more than one young brave had chosen the blade in the belly to the disgrace of knowing a leaf had been stronger than he.

It was, she reflected, a pity that this man was not one of their own kind; he might have made a good husband, and sired many strong sons and cunning daughters. Many marriages were made in dream-leaf tents, and she had at first taken it as an insult that she had been asked to shepherd the stranger through his leaf-days, until she'd been convinced it was an honour, that he had done their people a great service, and she would be allowed her pick of the tribe's young novitiates, when their testing time came.

And, when he took the dream-leaf, he had insisted on the stage that they normally reserved for their elder soldiers and matriarchs; no child's dose for him. She watched him circle, flexing continually from the waist, as though he sought to stir something in his brain.

By the roads, by the crossed signs of those single lines, worn by trade, commerce and passing knowledge; thin trails in the dust, pale marks in the brown page of the desert. The tent stood in Summer, when the white side was turned out and the black side in. In Winter it was outside-in.

He imagined that he felt his brain revolve inside his skull.

In the white tent that was black, and both at once, by the crossroads on the desert, a white/black impermanence like a fallen leaf before the winds blow, trembling in the breeze beneath the poised wave that was the stone circumference of mountains, capped by snow and ice like foam frozen in the high thin air.

He swept away, leaving the tent, so that it fell away beneath him, became a speck beside the thin trails in the dust, and the mountains swam past, white capping ochre, and the trails and the tent disappeared, and the mountains shrank, and the glaciers and the starveling snows of summer became white claws on the rock, and the curved edge pressed in, compressing the view, so that the globe beneath became a coloured boulder, stone, pebble, gravel, grain of sand, speck of silt-dust, then was lost in the sandstorm whirl of the great revolving lens that was the home of all of them, which itself became a fleck on a thin bubble surrounding emptiness, skeined to its lonely siblings by the fabric that was only a slimly different articulation of nothingness.

More specks. All vanished. Darkness reigned.

He was still there.

Beneath it all, he'd been told, was more. All you had to do, Sma said, was think in seven dimensions and see the whole universe as a line on the surface of a torus, starting at a point, becoming a circle as it was born, then expanding, moving up the inside of the torus, over the top, to the outside, then relapsing, falling back in, shrinking. Others had gone before it, others came after it (the greater/smaller spheres outside of/inside their own universe, seen in four dimensions). Different time-scales lived outside and inside the torus; some universes expanding forever, others living less than a blink of an eye.

But it was too much. It all meant too much to matter. He had to concentrate on what he knew and what he was and what he had become, for the moment at least.

He found a sun, a planet, out of all that existence, and fell towards it, knowing this was the place, the font of all his dreams and memories.

He searched for meaning, found ashes. Where does it hurt? Well, just here, actually. A wrecked summerhouse, smashed and burned. No sign of a chair.

Sometimes, like now, the banality of it all quite took his breath away. He stopped and checked, for there were drugs that did that; took your breath away. He was still breathing. Probably his body was already set up to ensure that anyway, but the Culture - Chaos bless it twice - had set up a further program in him, to make certain. Cheating, as far as these people were concerned (he saw the girl in front of him, and watched her, through mostly-closed eyes, then closed again), but that was just too bad; he'd done something for them, little though they really knew it, and now they could do something for him.

But the throne, Sma had said once, is the ultimate symbol for many cultures. To sit, in splendour, is the highest articulation of power. The rest come to you; lower, often bowing, frequently backing off, sometimes prostrate (though that is always a bad sign, said the Culture's blessed statistics), and to sit, to be made less animal by that evolutionarily uncalled-for posture, signified the ability to use.

There were some small civilisations - barely more than tribes, Sma had said - where they slept sitting, in special sleep chairs, because they believed that to lie down was to die (did they not always find the dead lying down?).

Zakalwe (was that really his name? It suddenly sounded strange and alien in his remembrance), Zakalwe, Sma said, I visited a place (how had they come to this? What had made him mention anything about this? Had he been drunk? Guard down again? Probably trying to seduce Sma, but ended up under the table again), Zakalwe I once visited a place where they killed people by putting them in a chair. Not torture - that was common enough; beds and chairs were very much the par when it came to getting people helpless and confined, to inflict pain upon them - but actually set it up to kill them while they sat. They - get this - they either gassed them or they passed very high electric currents through them. A pellet dropped into a container beneath the seat, like some obscene image of a commode, producing a fatal gas; or a cap over their head, and their hands dipped in some conducting fluid, to fry their brains.

You want to know the punch-line? Yeah, Sma, give us the punch-line. This same state had a law that forbade - and I quote - 'cruel and unusual punishments!' Can you believe that?

He circled around the planet, so far away.

Then fell towards it, through the air to the ground.

He found the shell of the mansion, like a forgotten skull; he found the wrecked summerhouse, like a shattered skull; he found the stone boat, like a deserted image of a skull. Fake. It was never floating.

He saw another boat; a ship; a hundred thousand tonnes of destruction, sitting in its own dry image of desuetude, its layers bristling outwards. Primary, secondary, tertiary, anti-aircraft, small...

He circled, then tried to approach, zeroing in...

But there were too many layers, and they defeated him.

He was thrown out again, and had to circle the planet once more, and as he did so, saw the Chair, and saw the Chairmaker - not the one he'd thought of, before; the other Chairmaker, the real one, and one that he had to keep returning to, through all the memories - in all his ghastly glory.

But some things were too much.

Some things were too much to bear.

Damn people. Damn others. Damn there being other people.

Back to the girl. (Why did there have to be other people?)

Yes she still had little experience as a guider-through, but as a stranger the man had been given to her, because they thought she was the best of the untried. But she would show them. Perhaps, through this, they were already considering her for the Matriarchs.

She would lead them one day. She felt this in her bones. The same bones that ached when she saw a child fall; the same ache in her cupped child-bones that came when she saw someone fall hard to the ground, would be her guide through the politics and tribulations of the tribe. She would prevail. Like this man here in front of her, but different. She had that inner strength, too. She would lead her people; it was like a child inside her, growing, that certainty. She would stir her people against the conquerors; she would show their brief hegemony for what it was; a side-track on the desert trail that was their destiny. The people beyond the plains, in their corrupt perfumed palace on the cliff, would fall beneath them. The power and thought of the women, and the power and bravery of their men - desert thorns - would crush the decadent petal-people of the cliffs. The sands would be theirs again. Temples would be carved in her name.

Lies. The girl was young and knew nothing of the tribes' thoughts or destiny. She was a scrap thrown to him, to ease his passage into what they imagined would be his death-dream. Her vanquished people's fate scarcely mattered to her; they had replaced that ancient heritage with thoughts of prestige and gadgets.

Let her dream. He relaxed into the calm frenzy of the drug.

There was a nexus where the vanishing-point of memory met the time-light from another place, and he was not yet sure he had out-run it.

He tried to see the great house again, but it was obscured by smoke and star-shell. He looked to the great battleship, confined within its dry-land dock, but it would not grow any larger. It was a capital ship, no more, no less, and he could not access the depths of meaning that it really held for him.

All he'd done was take the Chosen across the wastes to the Palace. Why had they wanted the Chosen to get to the court? It seemed absurd. The Culture did not believe in such supernatural, superstitious nonsense. But the Culture required him to make sure the Chosen got to the Court, despite all sorts of nastiness getting in his way.

To perpetuate a corrupt line. To carry on a reign of stupidness.

Well, they had their own reasons. You took the money and ran. Except there was no money, as such. What was a boy to do?

Believe. Though they scorned belief. Do. Act, though they were wary of action. He was their whipper boy, he realised. A borrowed hero. They thought little enough of heroes for this to be a boost to one's own self-belief.

Come with us, do these things, that you would like to do anyway, except more so, and we will give you what you could never really have anywhere or anytime else; real proof that you are doing the right thing; that not only are you having immense fun, it is also for the common good. So enjoy.

And he did, and he enjoyed, though he was not always sure it was for the right reasons. But that did not matter to them.

The Chosen to the Palace.

He stood back from his life and was not ashamed. All he'd ever done was because there was something to be done. You used those weapons, whatever they might happen to be. Given a goal, or having thought up a goal, you had to aim for it, no matter what stood in your way. Even the Culture recognised that. They couched it in terms of what could be done at a specific time and level of technological capability, but they recognised that all was relative, everything was in flux...

He tried, all of a sudden - hoping to take it by surprise - to sweep and crash back down to that place with the war-shelled mansion and the burned-out summerhouse and the foundering boat made of stone... but the memory would not bear the weight of it, and he was flung out again, swirled away, cast into the nothingness, consigned to the oblivion of the deliberately not-thought thoughts.

The tent stood at the focus of the desert trails. White without, black within, it seemed to image his crossroad imaginings.

Hey hey hey. It's only a dream.

Except it wasn't a dream, and he was in complete control, and if he opened his eyes he could see the girl sitting there in front of him, staring at him, wondering, and there was never any doubt about who was where and what was when, and in a way that was the worst thing about this drug; that it let you go anywhere, anytime - as not a few drugs did - but it still let you connect back to reality whenever you really wanted to.

Cruel, he thought.

The Culture might just have it right after all; being able to call up almost any drug or combinations of drugs seemed suddenly less indulgent and decadent than he'd imagined, before.

The girl, he saw, in one awful instant, would do great things. She would be famous and important, and the tribe around her would do great - and terrible - things, and it would all be for nothing, because whatever terrible train of events he had set in motion by taking the Chosen to the Palace, this tribe would not survive; they were the dead. Their mark upon the desert of life was already being obscured, sands blowing over, grain by grain by grain... He had already helped to scuff it out, no matter that they hadn't realised this yet. They would, after he was gone. The Culture would take him away from here, and put him down somewhere else, and this adventure would collapse with the rest into meaninglessness, and nothing very much would be left, as he went on to do roughly the same thing somewhere else.

Actually, he could happily have killed the Chosen, because the boy was a fool, and he had seldom been in the company of anybody quite so stupid. The youth was a cretin, and didn't even realise that he was.

He could think of no more disastrous combination.

He swept back towards the planet he had once abandoned.

Came in so far, was forced away. He tried again, but without any real self-belief.

Was rejected. Well, he'd expected no more.

The Chairmaker was not the person who made the chair, he thought, immediately lucid. It was and was not him. There are no Gods, we are told, so I must make my own salvation.

His eyes were already closed, but he closed them again.

He swayed in a circle, unknowing.

Lies; he wept and screamed, fell at the scornful feet of the girl.

Lies; he circled on.

Lies; he fell to the girl, hands out, grasping for a mother that was not there.

Lies.

Lies.

Lies; he circled on, tracing his own private symbol in the air between the crown of his head and the day-bright hole that was the tent's smoke-hole.

He sank towards the planet again, but the girl in the black/white tent reached out and wiped his brow and, in that tiny movement, seemed to wipe his being away...

(Lies.)


... It was a long time later he found out he'd only taken the Chosen to the Palace because the brat was to be the last of the line. Not merely stupid, but also impotent, the Chosen fathered no strong sons and no cunning daughters (as the Culture had known all along), and the fractious desert tribes swept in a decade later led by a Matriarch who had guided most of the warriors under her command through the dream-leaf time, and had seen one stronger and stranger than all of them suffer its effects and come through unscathed but still unfulfilled, and known through that very experience that there was more to their desert existence than had been guessed at by the myths and elders of her nomad tribe.


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

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