Use of Weapons | Chapter 28 of 40

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

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The ship was over eighty kilometres long and it was called the Size Isn't Everything. The last thing he'd been on for any length of time had actually been bigger, but then that had been a tabular iceberg big enough to hide two armies on, and it didn't beat the General Systems Vehicle by much.

'How do these things hold together?' He stood on a balcony, looking out over a sort of miniature valley composed of accommodation units; each stepped terrace was smothered in foliage, the space was criss-crossed by walk-ways and slender bridges, and a small stream ran through the bottom of the V. People sat at tables in little courtyards, lounged on the grass by the stream side or amongst the cushions and couches of cafes and bars on the terraces. Hanging above the centre of the valley, beneath a ceiling of glowing blue, a travel-tube snaked away into the distance on either side, following the wavy line of the valley. Under the tube, a line of fake sunlight burned, like some enormous strip light.

'Hmm?' Diziet Sma said, arriving at his elbow with two drinks; she handed one to him.

'They're too big,' he said. He turned to face the woman. He'd seen the things they called bays, where they built smaller space ships (smaller in this case meant over three kilometres long); vast unsupported hangars with thin walls. He'd been near the immense engines, which as far as he could gather were solid, and inaccessible (how?), and obviously extremely massive; he'd felt oddly threatened on discovering that there was no control room, no bridge, no flight deck anywhere in the vast vessel, just three Minds - fancy computers, apparently - controlling everything (what!?)

And now he was finding out where the people lived, but it was all too big, too much, too flimsy somehow, especially if the ship was supposed to accelerate as smartly as Sma claimed. He shook his head. 'I don't understand; how does it hold together?'

Sma smiled. 'Just think; fields, Cheradenine. It's all done with force fields.' She put one hand out to his troubled face, patted one cheek. 'Don't look so confused. And don't try to understand it all too quickly. Let it soak in. Just wander around; lose yourself in it for a few days. Come back whenever.'

Later, he had wandered off. The huge ship was an enchanted ocean in which you could never drown, and he threw himself into it to try to understand if not it, then the people who had built it.

He walked for days, stopping at bars and restaurants whenever he felt thirsty, hungry or tired; mostly they were automatic and he was served by little floating trays, though a few were staffed by real people. They seemed less like servants and more like customers who'd taken a notion to help out for a while.

'Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. 'But look; this table's clean.'

He agreed that the table was clean.

'Usually,' the man said. 'I work on alien - no offence - alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my speciality... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled... but,' he slapped the table, 'when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement.'

'But in the end, it's still just cleaning a table.'

'And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.

He smiled in response to the man's grin, 'Well, yes.'

'But then, what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either? I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway,' the man laughed, 'people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And,' the man said with a smile, 'it's a good way of meeting people. So; where are you from, anyway?'

He talked to people all the time; in bars and cafes, mostly. The GSV's accommodation seemed to be divided into various different types of lay-out; valleys (or ziggurats, if you wanted to look at them like that) seemed to be the most common, though there were different configurations.

He ate when he was hungry and drank when he was thirsty, every time trying a different dish or drink from the stunningly complicated menus, and when he wanted to sleep - as the whole vessel gradually cycled into a red-tinged dusk, the ceiling light-bars dimming - he just asked a drone, and was directed to the nearest unoccupied room. The rooms were all roughly the same size, and yet all slightly different; some were very plain, some were highly decorated. The basics were always there; bed - sometimes a real, physical bed, sometimes one of their weird field-beds - somewhere to wash and defaecate, cupboards, places for personal effects, a fake window, a holo screen of some sort, and a link up to the rest of the communications net, both aboard and off-ship. The first night away, he linked into one of their direct-link sensory entertainments, lying on the bed with some sort of device activated under the pillow.

He did not actually sleep that night; instead he was a bold pirate prince who'd renounced his nobility to lead a brave crew against the slaver ships of a terrible empire amongst the spice and treasure isles; their quick little ships darted amongst the lumbering galleons, picking away the rigging with chain shot. They came ashore on moonless nights, attacking the great prison castles, releasing joyous captives; he personally fought the wicked governor's chief torturer, sword against sword; the man finally fell from a high tower. An alliance with a beautiful lady pirate begot a more personal liaison, and a daring rescue from a mountain monastery when she was captured...

He pulled away from it, after what had been weeks of compressed time. He knew (somewhere at the back of his mind) even as it happened that none of it was real, but that seemed like the least important property of the adventure. When he came out of it - surprised to discover that he had not actually ejaculated during some of the profoundly convincing erotic episodes - he discovered that only a night had passed, and it was morning, and he had, somehow, shared the strange story with others; it had been a game, apparently. People had left messages for him to get in touch, they had enjoyed playing the game with him so much. He felt oddly ashamed, and did not reply.

The rooms he slept in always contained places to sit; field extensions, mouldable wall units, real couches, and - sometimes - ordinary chairs. Whenever the rooms held chairs, he moved them outside, into the corridor or onto the terrace.

It was all he could do to keep the memories at bay.

'Na,' the woman said in the Mainbay. 'It doesn't really work that way.' They stood on a half-constructed starship, on what would eventually be the middle of the engines, watching a huge field-unit swing through the air, out of the engineering space behind the bay proper and up towards the skeletal body of the General Contact Unit. Little lifter tugs manoeuvred the field unit down towards them.

'You mean it makes no difference?'

'Not much,' the woman said. She pressed on a little studded lanyard she held in one hand, spoke as though to her shoulder. 'I'll take it.' The field-unit put them in shadow as it hovered above them. Just another solid slab, as far as he could see. It was red; a different colour from the black slickness of the starboard Main Engine Block Lower under their feet. She manipulated the lanyard, guiding the huge red block down; two other people standing twenty metres away watched the far end of the unit.

'The trouble is,' the woman said, watching the vast red building-brick come slowly down, 'that even when people do get sick and die young, they're always surprised when they get sick. How many healthy people do you think actually say to themselves, "Hey, I'm healthy today!", unless they've just had a serious illness?' She shrugged, pressed the lanyard again as the field-unit lowered to a couple of centimetres off the engine surface. 'Stop,' she said quietly. 'Inertia down five. Check.' A line of light flashed on the surface of the engine block. She put one hand on the block, and pressed it again. It moved. 'Down dead slow,' she said. She pressed the block into place. 'Sorzh; all right?' she asked. He didn't hear the reply, but the woman obviously did.

'Okay; positioned; all clear.' She looked up as the lifter tugs sailed back towards the engineering space, then back at him. 'All that's happened is that reality has caught up with the way people always did behave anyway. So, no, you don't feel any wonderful release from debilitating illnesses.' She scratched one ear. 'Except maybe when you think about it.' She grinned. 'I guess in school, when you're seeing how people used to live... how aliens still do live... then it hits home, and I suppose you never really lose that entirely, but you don't spend much time thinking about it.'

They walked across the black expanse of thoroughly featureless material ('Ah,' the woman had said, when he'd mentioned this, 'you take a look at it under a microscope; it's beautiful! What did you expect, anyway? Cranks? Gears? Tanks full of chemicals?')

'Can't machines build these faster?' he asked the woman, looking around the starship shell.

'Why, of course!' she laughed.

'Then why do you do it?'

'It's fun. You see one of these big mothers sail out those doors for the first time, heading for deep space, three hundred people on board, everything working, the Mind quite happy, and you think; I helped build that. The fact a machine could have done it faster doesn't alter the fact that it was you who actually did it.'

'Hmm,' he said.

(Learn woodwork; metalwork; they will not make you a carpenter or a blacksmith any more than mastering writing will make you a clerk.)

'Well, you may "hmm" as you wish,' the woman said, approaching a translucent hologram of the half-completed ship, where a few other construction workers were standing, pointing inside the model and talking. 'But have you ever been gliding, or swum underwater?'

'Yes,' he agreed.

The woman shrugged. 'Yet birds fly better than we do, and fish swim better. Do we stop gliding or swimming because of this?'

He smiled. 'I suppose not.'

'You suppose correctly,' the woman said. 'And why?' she looked at him, grinning. 'Because it's fun.' She looked at the holo model of the ship to one side. One of the other workers called to her, pointing at something in the model. She looked at him. 'Excuse me, will you?'

He nodded, as he backed off. 'Build well.'

'Thank you. I trust we shall.'

'Oh,' he asked. 'What's this ship to be called?'

'Its Mind wishes it to be called the Sweet and Full of Grace,' the woman laughed. Then she was deep in discussion with the others.

He watched their many sports; tried a few. Most of them he just didn't understand. He swam quite a lot; they seemed to like pools and water complexes. Mostly they swam naked, which he found a little embarrassing. Later he discovered there were whole sections - villages? areas? districts? he wasn't sure how to think of them - where people never wore clothes, just body ornaments. He was surprised how quickly he got used to this behaviour, but never fully joined in.

It took him a while to realise that all the drones he saw - even more various in their design than humans were in their physiology - didn't all belong to the ship. Hardly any did, in fact; they had their own artificial brains (he still tended to think of them as computers). They seemed to have their own personalities, too, though he remained sceptical.

'Let me put this thought experiment to you,' the old drone said, as they played a card-game which it had assured him was mostly luck. They sat - well, the drone floated - under an arcade of delicately pink stone, by the side of a small pool; the shouts of people playing a complicated ball-game on the far side of the pool filtered through bushes and small trees to them.

'Forget,' said the drone, 'about how machine brains are actually put together; think about making a machine brain - an electronic computer - in the image of a human one. One might start with a few cells, as the human embryo does; these multiply, gradually establish connections. So one would continually add new components and make the relevant, even - if one was to follow the exact development of one single human through the various stages - the identical connections.

'One would, of course, have to limit the speed of the messages transmitted down those connections to a tiny fraction of their normal electronic speed, but that would not be difficult, nor would having these neuron-like components act like their biological equivalents internally, firing their own messages according to the types of signal they received; all this could be done comparatively simply. By building up in this gradual way, you could mimic exactly the development of a human brain, and you could mimic its output; just as an embryo can experience sound and touch and even light inside the womb, so could you send similar signals to your developing electronic equivalent; you could impersonate the experience of birth, and use any degree of sensory stimulation to fool this device into thinking it was feeling touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing everything your real human was (or, of course, you might choose not actually to fool it, but always give it just as much genuine sensory input, and of the same quality, as the human personality was experiencing at any given point).

'Now; my question to you is this; where is the difference? The brain of each being works in exactly the same way as the other; they will respond to stimuli with a greater correspondence than one finds even between monozygotic twins; but how can one still choose to call one a conscious entity, and the other merely a machine?

'Your brain is made up of matter, Mr Zakalwe, organised into information-handling, processing and storage units by your genetic inheritance and by the biochemistry of first your mother's body and later your own, not to mention your experiences since some short time before your birth until now.

'An electronic computer is also made up of matter, but organised differently; what is there so magical about the workings of the huge, slow cells of the animal brain that they can claim themselves to be conscious, but would deny a quicker, more finely-grained device of equivalent power - or even a machine hobbled so that it worked with precisely the same ponderous-ness - a similar distinction?

'Hmm?' the machine said, its aura field flashing the pink he was beginning to identify as drone amusement. 'Unless, of course, you wish to invoke superstition? Do you believe in gods?'

He smiled. 'I have never had that inclination,' he said.

'Well then,' the drone said. 'What would you say? Is the machine in the human image conscious, sentient, or not?'

He studied his cards. 'I'm thinking,' he said, and laughed.

Sometimes he saw other aliens (obviously aliens, that is; he was sure that a few of the humans he saw each day were not Culture people, though without stopping to ask them it was impossible to tell; somebody dressed as a savage, or in some obviously non-Culture garb, was quite possibly just dressing up like that for a laugh, or going to a party... but there were some very obviously different species around as well).

'Yes, young man?' the alien said. It had eight limbs, a fairly distinct head with two quite small eyes, curiously flower-like mouth parts, and a large, almost spherical, lightly haired body, coloured red and purple. Its own voice was composed of clicks from its mouth and almost subsonic vibrations from its body; a small amulet did the translating.

He asked if he could sit with the alien; it directed him to the seat across the table from it in the cafe where he had overheard it talking briefly to a passing human about Special Circumstances.

'... It is in layers,' the alien replied to his question. 'A tiny core of Special Circumstances, a shell of Contact, and a vast chaotic ecosphere of everything else. Bit like a... you come from a planet?'

He nodded. The creature glanced at its amulet for a translation of the gesture the man had used - it was not what the Culture called nodding - then said, 'Well, it is like a planet, only the core is tiny; very tiny. And the ecosphere is more disparate and less distinct than the wrapping of atmosphere round a globe; a red giant star might even be a better comparison. But in the end, you will never know them, because you will be like me, in Special Circumstances, and only ever know them as the great, irresistible force behind you; people like you and I are the edge; you will in time come to feel like a tooth on the biggest saw in the galaxy, sir.' The alien's eyes closed; it waggled all its limbs very energetically, and its mouth parts crackled. 'Ha ha ha!' the amulet said, primly.

'How did you know I was actually involved with Special Circumstances?' he asked, sitting back.

'Ah! How much my vanity wishes me to claim I simply guessed, so clever I am... but I heard there was a new recruit coming aboard,' the alien told him. 'And that it was a fairly human-basic male. You... smell right, if I may use that turn of phrase. And you... have just been asking all the right questions.'

'And you're in SC too?'

'For ten standard years now.'

'Think I should do it? Work for them?'

'Oh yes; I imagine it's better than what you left, no?'

He shrugged, remembering the blizzard and the ice. 'I suppose.'

'You enjoy... fighting, yes?'

'Well... sometimes,' he admitted. 'I'm good at it, so they say. Not that I'm necessarily convinced of that myself.'

'No-one wins all the time, sir,' the creature said. 'Not through skill, anyway, and the Culture does not believe in luck, or at the very least does not believe it is transferrable. They must like your attitude, that's all. Hee hee.'

The alien laughed quietly.

'To be good at soldiering,' it said, 'is a great curse, I think sometimes. Working for these people at least relieves one of some of the responsibility. I have never found cause to complain.' The alien scratched its body, looked down, picked something from the hairs around where he would have guessed its belly might be, and ate it. 'Of course, you must not expect to be told the truth all the time. You can insist that they do, always, and they will do so, but they may not be able to use you as often as they might like to; sometimes they need you not to know you are fighting on the wrong side. My advice would be to just do as they ask; much more exciting.'

'Are you in it for the excitement?'

'Partly, and partly because of family honour; SC did something for my people once, and we could not let them steal our honour by accepting nothing in return. I work until that debt is paid off.'

'How long's that?'

'Oh, for life,' the creature said, sitting back in a gesture he felt reasonably justified in translating as surprise. 'Until I die, of course. But who cares? As I say; it's fun. Here.' It banged its drink-bowl on the table to attract a passing tray. 'Let's have another drink; see who gets drunk first.'

'You have more legs.' He grinned. 'I think I might fall over more easily.'

'Ah, but the more the legs, the bigger the tangle.'

'Fair enough.' He waited for a fresh glass.

To one side of them was a small terrace and the bar, to the other a gulf of airy space. The ship, the GSV, went on beyond its apparent boundaries. Its hull was pierced multitudinously by terraces, balconies, walk-ways, open windows, and open bay doors. Surrounding the vessel proper was an immense ellipsoid bubble of air, held inside dozens of different fields, which together made up the Vehicle's real - though insubstantial - hull.

He took up the recharged glass when it arrived, and watched a puttering, piston-engined, paper-winged hang-glider zip past the terrace; he waved at the pilot, then shook his head.

'To the Culture,' he said, raising his glass to the alien. It matched his gesture. 'To its total lack of respect for all things majestic.'

'Agreed,' the alien said, and together they drank.

The alien was called Chori, he found out later. It was only due to a chance remark that he discovered Chori was a female, which at the time seemed hilariously funny.

He woke up the next morning lying soaked as well as soused half underneath a small waterfall in one of the ace section valleys; Chori was suspended from a nearby railing by all eight leg-hooks, making a sporadic clattering noise that he decided was snoring.

The first night he spent with a woman, he thought she was dying; he thought he'd killed her. She seemed to climax at almost the same time as he did, but then - apparently - had a seizure; screaming, clutching at him. He had an awful, sickening idea that despite the seeming similarity of their physiology, his race and the mongrel-species that was the Culture were somehow quite different, and for a few ghastly moments entertained the idea that his seed was like acid inside her. It felt like she was trying to break his back with her arms and legs. He tried to pull himself away from her, calling her name, trying to see what was wrong, what he had done, what he could do.

'What's wrong?' she gasped.

'What? With me; nothing! What's wrong with you?'

She made a sort of shrugging motion, looked puzzled. 'I came; that's all; what's the... Oh.' She put one hand to her mouth, eyes wide. 'I forgot. I'm sorry. You're not... Oh dear.' She giggled. 'How embarrassing.'


'Well, we just... you know; it takes... it goes on... longer, you know?'

He didn't think he had quite believed what he had heard about the Culture's altered physiology until then. He hadn't accepted that they had changed themselves so. He had not believed that they really had chosen to extend such moments of pleasure, let alone breed into themselves all the multifarious drug glands that could enhance almost any experience (not least sex).

Yet - in a way - it made sense, he told himself. Their machines could do everything else much better than they could; no sense in breeding super-humans for strength or intelligence, when their drones and Minds were so much more matter- and energy-efficient at both. But pleasure... well, that was a different matter.

What else was the human form good for?

He supposed such single-mindedness was admirable, in a way.

He took the woman in his arms again. 'Never mind,' he said. 'Quality not quantity. Let's try that again, shall we?'

She laughed and took his face in her hands. 'Dedication; that's a good quality in a man.'

(The cry in the summerhouse that had attracted; 'Hello, old chap.' Tanned hands on the pale hips...)

He was away five nights, just wandering. As far as he could tell, he never crossed his own trail, and never visited the same section twice. He ended up with different women on three of those nights, and politely turned down one young man.

'Any more at your ease, Cheradenine?' Sma asked him, stroking up the pool ahead of him. She turned on her back to look at him. He swam after her.

'Well, I have stopped offering to pay for things in bars.'

'That's a start.'

'It was a very easy habit to break.'

'Par for the course. That all?'

'Well... also, your women are very friendly.'

'So are the men,' Sma arched one eyebrow.

'The life here seems... idyllic.'

'Well, you have to like crowds, perhaps.'

He looked round the almost deserted pool complex. 'That's relative, I suspect.'

(And thought: the garden; the garden. They have made their life in its image!)

'Why,' Sma smiled. 'Are you tempted to stay?'

'Not even slightly.' He laughed. 'I'd go crazy here, or slip forever into one of your shared dream-games. I need... more.'

'But will you take it from us?' Sma said, stopping, treading water. 'Do you want to work with us?'

'Everybody seems to think I should; they believe you're fighting the good fight. It's just that... I get suspicious when everybody agrees about something.'

Sma laughed. 'How much would it matter if we weren't fighting the good fight, Cheradenine? If all we were offering was pay and excitement?'

'I don't know,' he admitted. 'It would make it even harder. I'd just like... I'd like to believe, to finally know, to finally be able to prove that I was...' He shrugged, grinned. '... doing good.'

Sma sighed. In the water, this meant that she bobbed up then sank down a little. 'Who knows, Zakalwe? We don't know that; we think we're right; we even think we can prove it, but we can never be sure; there are always arguments against us. There is no certainty; least of all in Special Circumstances, where the rules are different.'

'I thought the rules were meant to be the same for everybody.'

'They are. But in Special Circumstances we deal in the moral equivalent of black holes, where the normal laws - the rules of right and wrong that people imagine apply everywhere else in the universe - break down; beyond those metaphysical event-horizons, there exist... special circumstances.' She smiled. 'That's us. That's our territory; our domain.'

'To some people,' he said, 'that might sound like just a good excuse for bad behaviour.'

Sma shrugged. 'And perhaps they would be right. Maybe that is all it is.' She shook her head, pulled one hand through her long wet hair. 'But if nothing else, at least we need an excuse; think how many people need none at all.'

She swam off.

He watched her stroke powerfully away through the water for a moment. One of his hands went, without him really realising it, to a small puckered scar on his chest, just over where his heart was, and rubbed it, while he frowned, staring at the glittering, unsteady surface of the water.

Then he swam after the woman.

He spent a couple of years on the Size Isn't Everything, and on a few of the planets, rocks, habitats and orbitals it stopped at. He was being trained, and learning to use some of the new abilities he had let them give him. When he eventually left the craft, to go on his first tour of duty for the Culture - a series of missions which culminated in him taking the Chosen to the Perfumed Palace on the cliff - it was on a ship just starting its second tour of duty; the General Contact Unit Sweet and Full of Grace.

He never saw Chori again, and heard that she'd been killed on active service some fifteen years later. He was told this news while they were regrowing his body on the GSV Congenital Optimist after he'd been beheaded on - and then rescued from - a planet called Fohls.

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user comment image
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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