Use of Weapons | Chapter 27 of 40

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

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Ten

He loved the plasma rifle. He was an artist with it; he could paint pictures of destruction, compose symphonies of demolition, write elegies of annihilation, using that weapon.

He stood, thinking about it, while the wind moved dead leaves round his feet and the ancient stones faced into the wind.

They hadn't made it off the planet. The capsule had been attacked by... something. He couldn't tell from the damage whether it had been a beam weapon or some sort of warhead going off nearby. Whatever it had been, it had disabled them. Clamped to the outside of the capsule, he'd been lucky to be on the side that shielded him from whatever had hit it. Had he been on the other side, facing the beam or the warhead, he'd be dead.

They must have been hit by some crude effector weapon as well, because the plasma rifle seemed to have fused. It had been cradled between his suit and the capsule skin and couldn't have been affected by whatever wrecked the capsule itself, but the weapon had smoked and got hot, and when they'd finally landed - Beychae shaken but unhurt - and opened up the gun's inspection panels, it was to find a melted, still-warm mess inside.

Maybe if he'd taken just a little less time to convince Beychae; maybe if he'd just knocked the old guy out and left the talking for later. He'd taken too much time, given them too much time. Seconds counted. Dammit, milliseconds, nanoseconds counted. Too much time.


'They're going to kill you!' he'd shouted. 'They want you on their side or they want you dead. The war's going to start soon, Tsoldrin; you support them or you'll have an accident. They won't let you stay neutral!'

'Insane,' Beychae repeated, cradling Ubrel Shiol's head in his hands. Saliva trickled from the woman's mouth. 'You're insane, Zakalwe; insane.' He started to cry.

He went over to the old man, knelt on one knee, holding the gun he'd taken from Shiol. 'Tsoldrin; what do you think she had this for?' He put his hand on the old man's shoulder. 'Didn't you see the way she moved when she tried to kick me? Tsoldrin; librarians... research assistants... they just don't move like that.' He reached out and patted the unconscious woman's collar flat and tidy again. 'She was one of your jailers, Tsoldrin; she would probably have been you executioner.' He reached under the car, pulled out the bouquet of flowers, and placed them gently under her blonde head, removing Beychae's hands.

'Tsoldrin,' he said. 'We have to go. She'll be all right.' He arranged Shiol's arms in a less awkward position. She was already on her side, so she wouldn't choke. He reached carefully under Beychae's arms and slowly drew the old man up to his feet. Ubrel Shiol's eyes flickered open; she saw the two men in front of her; she muttered something, and one hand went to the back of her neck. She started to roll over, unbalanced in her grogginess; the hand that had gone to her neck came away clutching a tiny cylinder like a pen; he felt Beychae stiffen as the girl looked up and, as she fell forward, tried to point the little laser at Beychae's head.

Beychae looked into her dark, half-unfocused eyes, over the top of the pen laser, and felt a sort of appalled disconnectedness. The girl tried hard to steady herself, aiming at him. Not Zakalwe, he thought; at me. Me!

'Ubrel...' he began.

The girl fell back in a dead faint.

Beychae stared down at her body lying limp on the road. Then he heard somebody saying his name and tugging his arm.

'Tsoldrin... Tsoldrin... Come on, Tsoldrin.'

'Zakalwe; she was aiming at me, not you!'

'I know, Tsoldrin.'

'She was aiming at me!'

'I know. Come on; here's the capsule.'

'At me...'

'I know, I know. Get in here.'


He watched the grey clouds move overhead. He stood on the flat stone summit of a high hill, surrounded by other hilltops almost as high, all wooded. He looked resentfully around the forested slopes and the curious, truncated stone pillars and plinths that covered the platform peak. He felt a sense of vertigo, exposed to such wide horizons again after so long spent in the cleft city. He left the view, kicked his way through some wind-piled leaves, back to where Beychae sat and the plasma rifle rested against a great round stone. The capsule was a hundred metres away, down in the trees.

He picked up the plasma rifle for the fifth or sixth time and inspected it.

It made him want to cry; it was such a beautiful weapon. Every time he picked it up he half hoped that it would be all right, that the Culture had fitted it with some self-repair facility without telling him, that the damage would be no more...

The wind blew; the leaves scattered. He shook his head, exasperated. Beychae, sitting in his thickly padded trousers and long jacket, turned to look at him.

'Broken?' the old man asked.

'Broken,' he said. His face took on an expression of annoyance; he gripped the weapon round the muzzle with both hands and swung it round his head, then let it go and sent it whirling away into the trees below; it disappeared in a flurry of dislodged leaves.

He sat down beside Beychae.

Plasma rifle gone, just a pistol left; only one suit; probably no way he could use the suit's AG without giving away their position; capsule wrecked; module nowhere to be seen; no word from the terminal earring or the suit itself... it was a sorry mess. He checked the suit for whatever broadcast signals it was picking up; the wrist screen displayed some news headlines programme; nothing about Solotol was mentioned. A few of the Cluster's brush-fire wars were.

Beychae looked at the small screen too. 'Can you tell from that whether they are looking for us?' he asked.

'Only if we see it on the news. Military stuff will be tight-beamed; slim chance we'll pick up a transmission.' He looked at the clouds. 'We'll probably find out more directly, soon enough.'

'Hmm,' Beychae said. He frowned at the flagstones, then said, 'I think I might know where this place is, Zakalwe.'

'Yeah?' he said, unenthusiastically. He put his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, and looked out over the wooded plains to the low hills on the horizon.

Beychae nodded. 'I've been thinking about it. I believe this is the Srometren Observatory, in Deshal Forest.'

'How far is that from Solotol?'

'Oh; different continent. Good two thousand kilometres.'

'Same latitude,' he said glumly, looking up at the chill grey skies.

'Approximately, if this is the place I think it is.'

'Who's in charge here?' he asked. 'Whose jurisdiction? Same lot as in Solotol; the Humanists?'

'The same.' Beychae said, and got up, brushing the seat of his pants and looking around the flattened hill-top at the curious stone instruments that covered its flagstones. 'Srometren Observatory!' he said. 'How ironic we should happen to come down here, on our way to the stars!'

'Probably not just chance,' he said, picking up a twig and brushing a few random shapes in the dust at his feet. 'This place famous?'

'Of course,' Beychae said. 'It was the centre of astronomical research for the old Vrehid Empire for five hundred years.'

'On any tourist routes?'

'Certainly.'

'Then it probably has a beacon nearby, to guide aircraft in. Capsule may have made for it when it knew it was crippled. Makes us easier to find.' He gazed up at the sky. 'For everybody, unfortunately.' He shook his head, went back to scratching in the dust with the twig.

'What happens now?' Beychae said.

He shrugged. 'We wait and see who turns up. I can't get any of the communication gear to work, so we don't know if the Culture knows all that's happened or not... for all I know the Module's still coming for us, or a whole Culture starship's on its way, or - probably more likely - your pals from Solotol...' He shrugged, threw down the twig and sat back against the stonework behind him, glancing skyward. They might be watching us right now.'

Beychae looked up too. 'Through the clouds?'

'Through the clouds.'

'Shouldn't you be hiding, then? Running off through the woods?'

'Maybe,' he said.

Beychae stood looking down at the other man. 'Where were you thinking of taking me, if we'd got away?'

'The Impren System. There are space Habitats there,' he said. 'They're neutral, or at least not as pro-war as this place.'

'Do your... superiors really think war is so close, Zakalwe?'

'Yes,' he sighed. He already had the suit's face-plate hinged up; now, with another look at the sky, he took the whole helmet off. He put one hand up over his forehead and through his drawn-back hair, then reached back and took the pony-tail out of its little ring, shaking his long black hair down. 'It might take ten days, might take a hundred, but it's coming.' He smiled thinly at Beychae. 'For the same reasons as last time.'

'I thought we'd won the ecological argument against terra-forming,' said Beychae.

'We did, but times change; people change, generations change. We won the battles for the acknowledgement of machine sentience, but by all accounts the issue was fudged after that. Now people are saying, yes, they're sentient, but it's only human sentience that counts. Plus, people never need too much of an excuse to see other species as inferior.'

Beychae was silent for a while, then said, 'Zakalwe, has it ever occurred to you that in all these things the Culture may not be as disinterested as you imagine, and it claims?'

'No, it never occurred to me,' he said, though Beychae got the impression the man hadn't really thought first before answering.

'They want other people to be like them, Cheradenine. They don't terraform, so they don't want others to either. There are arguments for it as well, you know; increasing species diversity often seems more important to people than preserving a wilderness, even without the provision of extra living space. The Culture believes profoundly in machine sentience, so it thinks everybody ought to, but I think it also believes every civilisation should be run by its machines. Fewer people want that. The issue of cross-species tolerance is, I'll grant, of a different nature, but even there the Culture can sometimes appear to be insistent that deliberate inter-mixing is not just permissible but desirable; almost a duty. Again, who is to say that is correct?'

'So you should have a war to... what? Clear the air?' He inspected the suit helmet.

'No, Cheradenine, I'm just trying to suggest to you that the Culture may not be as objective as it thinks it is, and, that being the case, its estimation concerning the likelihood of war may be equally untrustworthy.'

'There are small wars on a dozen planets right now, Tsoldrin. People are talking war in public; either about how to avoid it, or how it might be limited, or how it can't possibly happen... but it's coming; you can smell it. You should catch the newscasts, Tsoldrin. Then you'd know.'

'Well then, perhaps war is inevitable,' Beychae said, looking away over the wooded plains and hills beyond the observatory. 'Maybe it's just... time.'

'Crap,' he said. Beychae looked at him, surprised. 'There's a saying: "War is a long cliff." You can avoid the cliff completely, you can walk along the top for as long as you have the nerve, you can even choose to leap off, and if you only fall a short way before you hit a ledge you can always scramble back up again. Unless you're just plain invaded, there are always choices, and even then, there's usually something you've missed - a choice you didn't make - that could have avoided invasion in the first place. You people still have your choices. There's nothing inevitable about it.'

'Zakalwe,' Beychae said. 'You surprise me. I'd have thought you -'

'You'd have thought I'd be in favour of war?' he said, standing, a sad small smile on his lips. He put one hand on the other man's shoulder. 'You've had your nose buried in books for too long, Tsoldrin.' He walked away past the stone instruments. Beychae looked down at the suit helmet, lying on the flagstones. He followed the other man.

'You're right, Zakalwe. I have been out of the flow of things for a long time. I probably don't know who half the people in power are these days, or exactly what the issues are, or the precise balance of the various alliances... so the Culture cannot be so... desperate they think I can alter whatever's going to happen. Can they?'

He turned round. He looked into Beychae's face. 'Tsoldrin, the truth is I don't know. Don't think I haven't thought about this. It might be just that you, as a symbol, really,.would make all the difference, and maybe everybody is desperate to find an excuse not to have to fight; you could be that excuse if you come along, uncontaminated by recent events, as though from the dead, and provide a face-saving compromise.

'Or maybe the Culture secretly thinks a small short war is a good idea, or even knows there's nothing it can do to stop a full-scale one, but has to be seen to be doing something, no matter how long a shot it might be, so that people can't say later "Why didn't you try this?"' He shrugged. 'I never try to second-guess the Culture, Tsoldrin, let alone Contact, and certainly not Special Circumstances.'

'You just do their bidding.'

'And get well paid for it.'

'But you see yourself on the side of good, do you, Cheradenine?'

He smiled and sat on the stone plinth, legs swinging. 'I have no idea whether they're the good guys or not, Tsoldrin. They certainly seem to be, but then who knows that seeming is being?' He frowned, looked away. 'I have never seen them be cruel, even when they might have claimed they had an excuse to be so. It can make them seem cold, sometimes.' He shrugged again. 'But there are folks that'll tell you it's the bad gods that always have the most beautiful faces and the softest voices. Shit,' he said, and jumped off the stone table. He went to stand by the balustrade which marked one edge of the old observatory, looking to where the sky was starting to redden above the horizon. It would be dark in an hour. 'They keep their promises and they pay top rates. They make good employers, Tsoldrin.'

'That does not mean we ought to let them decide our fate.'

'You'd rather let those decadent dickheads in Governance do it instead?'

'At least they're involved, Zakalwe; it isn't just a game to them.'

'Oh, I think it is. I think that's exactly what it is to them. The difference is that unlike the Culture's Minds, they don't know enough to take games seriously.' He took a deep breath and watched the wind stir the branches beneath them; leaves fell away. 'Tsoldrin; don't say you're on their side.'

'The sides were always strange,' Beychae said. 'We all said that all we wanted was the best for the Cluster, and I think we all meant it, mostly. We all still want that. But I don't know what the right thing to do is; I sometimes think I know too much, I've studied too much, learned too much, remembered too much. It all seems to average out, somehow; like dust that settles over... whatever machinery we carry inside us that leads us to act, and puts the same weight everywhere, so that always you can see good and bad on each side, and always there are arguments, precedents for every possible course of action... so of course one ends up doing nothing. Perhaps that's only right; perhaps that's what evolution requires, to leave the field free for younger, unencumbered minds, and those not afraid to act.'

'Okay, so it's a balance. All societies are like that; the damping hand of the old and the firebrand youth together. It works out through generations, or through the set-up of your institutions, and their change and even replacement; but Governance, the Humanists, combine the worst of both approaches. Ancient, vicious, discredited ideas backed with adolescent war-mania. It's a crock of shit, Tsoldrin, and you know it. You've earned the right to some leisure; nobody's arguing. But that won't stop you feeling guilty when - not if - the bad stuff comes. You have the power, Tsoldrin, whether you like it or not; just doing nothing is a statement, don't you understand that? What is all your studying worth, all your learning, all your knowledge, if it doesn't lead to wisdom? And what's wisdom but knowing what is right, and what is the right thing to do? You're almost a god to some of the people in this civilisation, Tsoldrin; again, whether you like it or not. If you do nothing... they'll feel abandoned. They'll feel despair. And who can blame them?'

He made a resigned sort of gesture with his hands, putting them both down on the stone parapet, gazing out to the darkening sky. Beychae was silent.

He gave the old man a while longer to think, then looked round at the flat stone summit of the hill, at all the strange stone instruments. 'An observatory, eh?'

'Yes,' Beychae said after a moment's hesitation. He touched one of the stone plinths with one hand. 'Believed to have been a burial site, four or five thousand years ago; then to have had some sort of astrological significance; later, they may have predicted eclipses with readings taken here. Finally, the Vrehids built this observatory to study the motions of the moons, planets and stars. There are water-clocks, sundials, sextants, planet-dials... partial orreries... there are crude seismographs here, too, or at least earthquake direction indicators.'

'They have telescopes?'

'Very poor ones, and only for a decade or so before the Empire fell. The results they got from the telescopes caused a lot of problems; contradicted what they already knew, or thought they knew.'

'That figures. What's this?' One of the plinths held a large, rusty metal bowl with a sharp central spindle.

'Compass, I think,' Beychae said. 'It works by fields,' he smiled.

'And this? Looks like a tree stump.' It was a huge, rough, very slightly fluted cylinder perhaps a metre in height, and twice that across. He tapped the edge. 'Hmm; stone.'

'Ah!' Tsoldrin said, joining him at the stone cylinder. 'Well, if it's what I think it is... it was originally just a tree stump, of course...' He ran his hand over the stone surface, looked round the edge for something. 'But it was petrified, long ago. Look though; you can still see the rings in the wood.'

He leant closer, looking at the grey stone surface by the fading afternoon light. The growth rings of the long dead tree were indeed visible. He leant forward, taking off one of the suit gloves, and with his fingers stroked the surface of the stone. Some differential weathering of the wood-become-rock had made the rings tangible; his fingers felt the tiny ridges run beneath their surface like the fingerprint of some mighty stone god.

'So many years,' he breathed, putting his hand back to the very sapling centre of the stump, and running his hand out again. Beychae said nothing.

Every year a complete ring, signature of bad year and good by the spacing, and every ring complete, sealed, hermetic. Every year like part of a sentence, every ring a shackle, chained and chaining to the past; every ring a wall, a prison. A sentence locked in the wood, now locked in stone, frozen twice, sentenced twice, once for an imaginable time, then for an unimaginable time. His finger ran over the ring walls, dry paper over ridged rock.

'This is just the cover,' Beychae said from the other side. He was squatting down, looking for something on the side of the great stone stump. 'There ought to be... ah. Here we are. Don't expect we'll be able to actually lift it, of course...'

'Cover?' he said, putting the glove back on and walking round to where Beychae was. 'Cover for what?'

'A sort of puzzle the Imperial Astronomers played when the viewing was patchy,' Beychae said. 'There; see that handhold?'

'Just a second,' he said. 'Want to stand back a little?' Beychae stood back. 'It's supposed to take four strong men, Zakalwe.'

'This suit's more powerful than that, though balancing might be a little...' He found two hand-holds on the stone. 'Suit command; strength normal max.'

'You have to talk to the suit?' Beychae asked.

'Yeah,' he said. He flexed, lifting one edge of the stone cover up; a tiny explosion of dust under the sole of one of the suit's boots announced a trapped pebble giving up the struggle. 'This one you do; they have ones you just have to think about something, but...' he pulled on one edge of the cover, sticking one leg out to shift his centre of gravity as he did so. '... but I just never liked the idea of that.' He held the whole stone top of the petrified stump above his head, then walked awkwardly, to the noise of crunching, popping gravel under his feet, to another stone table; he lowered, shifted the stone cover sidways until it rested on the table, and returned; he made the mistake of clapping his hands together, and produced what sounded like a gunshot. 'Oops,' he grinned. 'Suit command; strength off.'

Revealed by the removal of the stone cap was a shallow cone. It seemed to have been carved from the petrified stump itself. Looking closer, he could see that it was ridged, tree ring by tree ring.

'Quite clever,' he said, mildly disappointed.

'You're not looking at it properly, Cheradenine,' Beychae told him. 'Look closer.'

He looked closer.

'I don't suppose you have anything very small and spherical, do you?' Beychae said, 'Like a... ball-bearing.'

'A ball-bearing?' he said, a pained expression on his face.

'You don't have such things?'

'I think you'll find in most societies ball-bearings don't last much beyond room-temperature superconductivity, let alone field technology. Unless you're into industrial archeology and trying to keep some ancient machine running. No, I don't have any ball...' he peered closer at the centre of the shallow rock cone. 'Notches.'

'Exactly.' Beychae smiled.

He stood back, looking at the ridged cone as a whole. 'It's a maze!'

Maze. There had been a maze in the garden. They outgrew it, became too familiar with it, eventually only used it when other children they didn't like came for the day to the great house; they could lose them in the maze for a few hours.

'Yes,' Beychae nodded. 'They would start out with small coloured beads or pebbles, and try to work their way to the rim.' He looked closer. 'They say there might have been a way to turn it into a game, by painting lines that divided each ring into segments; little wooden bridges and blocking pieces like walls could be used to facilitate one's own progress or prevent that of one's rivals.' Beychae squinted closer in the fading light. 'Hmm. Paint must have faded.'

He looked down at the hundreds of tiny ridges on the surface of the shallow cone - like a model of a huge volcano, he thought - and smiled. He sighed, looked at the screen set into the wrist of the suit, tried the emergency signal button again. No reply.

'Trying to contact the Culture?'

'Mmm,' he said, gazing again at the petrified maze.

'What will happen to you if Governance find us?' Beychae asked.

'Oh,' he shrugged, walking back to the balustrade they had stood at earlier. 'Probably not much. Not very likely they'll just blow my brains out; they'll want to question me. Should give the Culture plenty of time to get me out; either negotiated or just snapped away. Don't worry about me.' He smiled at Beychae. 'Tell them I took you by force. I'll say I stunned you and stuffed you into the capsule. So don't worry; they'll probably let you go straight back to your studies.'

'Well,' Beychae said, rejoining the other man at the balustrade. 'My studies were a delicate construction, Zakalwe; they maintained my carefully developed disinterest. They may not be so easy to resume, after your... exuberantly violent interruption.'

'Ah.' He tried not to smile. He looked down at the trees, then at the suit gloves, as though checking all the fingers were there. 'Yeah. Look, Tsoldrin... I'm sorry... I mean about your friend, Ms Shiol.'

'As am I,' Beychae said quietly. He smiled uncertainly. 'I felt happy, Cheradenine. I hadn't felt like that for... well, long enough.' They stood watching the sun sink behind the clouds. 'You are certain she was one of theirs? I mean, absolutely?'

'Beyond any reasonable doubt, Tsoldrin.' He thought he saw tears in the old man's eyes. He looked away. 'Like I said; I'm sorry.'

'I hope,' Beychae said, 'that is not the only way the old can be made happy... can be happy. Through deceit.'

'Maybe it wasn't all deceit,' he said. 'And anyway, being old isn't what it used to be; I'm old,' he reminded Beychae, who nodded, took out a kerchief and sniffed.

'Of course; so you are. I forgot. Strange, isn't it? Whenever we see people after a long time we are always surprised how they've grown or aged. But when I see you, well, you haven't changed a bit, and instead I feel very old - unfairly, unjustifiably old - beside you, Cheradenine.'

'Actually I have changed, Tsoldrin.' He grinned. 'But no, I haven't got any older.' He looked Beychae in the eye. 'They'd give you this, too, if you asked them. The Culture would let you grow younger, then stabilise your age, or let you grow old again, but very slowly.'

'Bribery, Zakalwe?' Beychae said, smiling.

'Hey, it was just a thought. And it'd be a payment, not a bribe. And they wouldn't force it on you. But it's academic, anyway.' He paused, nodding into the sky. 'Completely academic; now. Here comes a plane.'

Tsoldrin looked out to the red clouds of sunset. He couldn't see any aircraft.

'A Culture one?' Beychae asked cautiously.

He smiled. 'In the circumstances, Tsoldrin, if you can see it, it isn't a Culture one.' He turned and walked quickly, picking up the suit helmet and putting it on. Suddenly the dark figure became inhuman, behind the armoured, sensor-studded faceplate of the suit. He took a large pistol from the suit holster.

'Tsoldrin,' his voice came booming from speakers set in the suit chest as he checked the settings on the gun. 'If I were you I'd get back to the capsule, or just plain run away and hide.' The figure turned to face Beychae, the helmet like the head of some gigantic, fearsome insect. 'I'm fixing to give these assholes a fight, just for the sheer hell of it, and it might be best for you if you weren't nearby.'


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

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