Use of Weapons | Chapter 5 of 40

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

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'Tell me, what is happiness?'

'Happiness? Happiness... is to wake up, on a bright spring morning, after an exhausting first night spent with a beautiful... passionate... multi-murderess.'

'... Shit, is that all?'


In his fingers, the glass lay like something trapped, sweating light. The liquid it contained was the same colour as his eyes, and swilled around lethargically in the sunlight under his heavy-lidded gaze, the glinting surface of the drink throwing highlights onto his face like veins of quick gold.

He drained the glass, then studied it as the alcohol made its way down his throat. His throat tingled, and it seemed to him that the light tingled in his eyes. He turned the glass over in his hands, moving it carefully and smoothly, seemingly fascinated by the roughness of the ground areas and the silky slickness of the unetched parts. He held it up to the sun, his eyes narrowing. The glass sparkled like a hundred tiny rainbows, and minute twists of bubbles in the slender stem glowed golden against the blue sky, spiralling about each other in a fluted double helix.

He lowered the glass, slowly, and his gaze fell upon the silent city. He squinted out over the roofs and spires and towers, out over the clumps of trees marking the sparse and dusty parks, and out over the distant serrated line of the city walls to the pale plains and the smoke-blue hills shimmering in the heat haze beyond, beneath a cloudless sky.

Without taking his eyes from the view, he suddenly jerked his arm, throwing the glass over his shoulder, back into the cool hall, where it vanished into the shadows and shattered.

'You bastard,' said a voice, after a slight pause. The voice sounded both muffled and slurred. 'I thought that was the heavy artillery. I nearly crapped myself. You want to see the place covered with shit?... Oh hell; I've bit the glass, too... mmm... I'm bleeding.' There was another pause. 'You hear?' The muffled, slurred voice increased a little in volume. 'I'm bleeding... You want to see the floor covered with shit and pedigree blood?' There was a scraping, tinkling sound, then silence, then, 'You bastard.'

The young man on the balcony turned away from the view over the city and walked back inside the hall, only a little unsteadily. The hall was echoing and cool. The floor was mosaic, millennia old, veneered over in more recent times with a transparent, scratch-proof covering to protect the tiny ceramic fragments. In the centre of the hall there was a massive, elaborately carved banqueting table, surrounded by chairs. Around the walls were scattered smaller tables, more chairs, low chests of drawers, and tall sideboards, all made from the same dark, heavy wood.

Some of the walls were painted with fading but still impressive murals, mostly of battlefields; other walls, painted white, supported huge mandalas of old weapons; hundreds of spears and knives, swords and shields, pikes and maces, bolas and arrows all arranged in great whorls of pitted blade like the shrapnel of impossibly symmetrical explosions. Rusting firearms pointing importantly at each other above blocked-off fireplaces.

There were one or two dulled paintings and frayed tapestries on the walls, but vacant spaces for many more. Tall triangular windows of coloured glass threw wedges of light across the mosaic and the wood. The white stone walls rose to red piers at the top, supporting huge black beams of wood that closed over the length of the hall like a giant tent of angular fingers.

The young man kicked an antique chair the right way up and collapsed into it. 'What pedigree blood?' he said. He rested one hand on the surface of the great table, and put the other up to and over his scalp, as if through thick long hair, though in fact his head was shaved.

'Eh?' said the voice. It appeared to come from somewhere beneath the great table the young man sat beside.

'What aristocratic connections have you ever had, you drunken old bum?' The young man rubbed his eyes with clenched fists, then, with his hands open, massaged the rest of his face.

There was a lengthy pause.

'Well, I was once bitten by a princess.'

The young man looked up at the hammer-beamed ceiling and snorted. 'Insufficient evidence.'

He got up and went out onto the balcony again. He took a pair of binoculars from the balustrade and looked through them. He tutted, swaying, then retreated to the windows, bracing himself against the frame so that the view steadied. He fiddled with the focus, then shook his head and put the binoculars back on the stonework and crossed his arms, leaning against the wall and gazing out over the city.

Baked; brown roofs and rough gable ends, like crusts and ends of bread; dust like flour.

Then, in an instant, under the impact of remembrance, the shimmering view before him turned grey and then dark, and he recalled other citadels (the doomed tent city in the parade-ground below, as the glass in the windows shook; the young girl - dead now - curled up in a chair, in a tower in the Winter Palace). He shivered, despite the heat, and shoved the memories away.

'What about you?'

The young man looked back into the hall. 'What?'

'You ever had any, umm, connections, with our, ah... betters?'

The young man looked suddenly serious. 'I once...' he began, then hesitated. 'I once knew some-one who was... nearly a princess. And I carried part of her inside me, for a time.'

'Say again? You carried...'

'Part of her inside me, for a time.'

Pause. Then, politely: 'Wasn't that rather the wrong way round?'

The young man shrugged. 'It was an odd sort of relationship.'

He turned back to the city again, looking for smoke, or people, or animals, or birds, or anything that moved, but the view might as well have been painted on a backdrop. Only the air moved, shimmering the view. He thought about how you could make a backdrop tremble just so to produce the same effect, then abandoned the thought.

'See anything?' rumbled the voice under the table.

The young man said nothing, but rubbed his chest through the shirt and open jacket. It was a general's jacket, though he wasn't a general.

He came away from the window again and took up a large pitcher that stood on one of the low tables by the wall. He lifted the pitcher above his head and carefully up-ended it, his eyes closed, his face raised. There was no water in the pitcher, so nothing happened. The young man sighed, gazed briefly at the painting of a sailing ship on the side of the empty jug, and gently replaced it on the table, exactly where it had been.

He shook his head and turned away, striding up to one of the hall's two giant fireplaces. He hauled himself up onto the broad mantelpiece, where he stared intently at one of the ancient weapons mounted on the wall; a huge wide-mouthed gun with an ornamental stock and open firing mechanism. He started trying to prise the blunderbuss away from the stonework, but it was too firmly attached. He gave up after a while and jumped to the floor, staggering a little as he landed.

'See anything?' said the voice again, hopefully.

The young man walked carefully from the fireplace towards one corner of the hall, and a long, ornate sideboard. Its top was covered by a profusion of bottles, as was a considerable area of the nearby floor. He searched through the collection of mostly broken, mostly empty bottles until he found one that was intact and full. When he found it he sat carefully on the floor, broke the bottle open against the leg of a nearby chair, and emptied into his mouth the half of the bottle's contents that hadn't spilled over his clothes or splashed across the mosaic. He coughed and spluttered, put the bottle down, then kicked it away under the sideboard as he got up.

He made his way towards another corner of the hall, and a tall pile of clothes and guns. He picked up a gun, untangling it from a knot of straps, sleeves and ammunition belts. He inspected the weapon, then threw it down again. He swept several hundred small empty magazines aside to get at another gun, but then discarded that one too. He picked up two more, checked them and slung one round his shoulder while placing the other on a rug-covered chest. He went on through the weapons until he had three guns slung about him, and the chest was nearly covered with various bits and pieces of hardware. He swept the gear on the chest into a tough, oil-stained bag and dumped that on the floor.

'No,' he said.

As he spoke, there was a deep rumble, unlocated and indeterminate, something more in the ground than in the air. The voice under the table muttered something.

The young man walked over to the windows, setting the guns down on the floor.

He stood there a while, looking out.

'Hey,' said the voice under the table. 'Help me up, will you? I'm under the table.'

'What're you doing under the table, Cullis?' said the young man, kneeling to inspect the guns; tapping indicators, twisting dials, altering settings and squinting down sights.

'Oh, this and that; you know.'

The young man smiled, and crossed to the table. He reached underneath and with one arm dragged out a large, red-faced man who wore a field-marshal's jacket a size too big for him, and who had very short grey hair and only one real eye. The large man was helped up; he stood carefully, then slowly brushed one or two bits of glass off the jacket. He thanked the young man by slowly nodding his head.

'What time is it, anyway?' he asked.

'What? You're mumbling.'

'Time. What time is it?'

'It's day time.'

'Ha.' The large man nodded wisely. 'Just as I thought.' Cullis watched the young man go back to the window and the guns, then heaved himself away from the great table; he arrived, eventually, at the table holding the large water-pitcher which was decorated with a painting of an old sailing ship.

He lifted the pitcher up, swaying slightly, turned it upside down over his head, blinked his eyes, wiped his face with his hands and flapped the collar of his jacket.

'Ah,' he said, 'that's better'.

'You're drunk,' said the young man, without turning away from the guns.

The older man considered this.

'You almost manage to make that sound like a criticism,' he replied, with dignity, and the tapped his false eye and blinked over it a few times. He turned as deliberately as possible and faced the far wall, staring at a mural of a sea battle. He fixed on one particularly large warship portrayed there and seemed to clench his jaw slightly.

His head jerked back, there was a tiny cough and a whine that terminated in a miniature explosion; three metres away from the warship in the mural, a large floor-standing vase disintegrated in a cloud of dust.

The large grey-haired man shook his head sadly and tapped his false eye again. 'Fair enough,' he said, 'Im drunk.'

The young man stood up, holding the guns he had selected, and turned to look at the older man. 'If you had two eyes you'd be seeing double. Here; catch.'

So saying, he threw a gun towards the older man, who stretched out one hand to catch it at just the same time as the gun hit the wall behind him and clattered to the floor.

Cullis blinked. 'I think,' he said, 'I would like to go back under the table.'

The young man came over, picked up the gun, checked it again, and handed it to the older man, wrapping his large arms around it for him. Then he manoeuvred Cullis over to the pile of weapons and clothes.

The older man was taller than the young man, and his good eye and the false eye - which was in fact a light micro-pistol - stared down at the young man as he pulled a couple of ammunition belts from the floor and slung them over the older man's shoulders. The young man grimaced as Cullis looked at him; he reached up and turned the older man's face away, then from a breast pocket in the too-big field-marshal's jacket extracted what looked like - and was - an armoured eye-patch. He fitted the strap carefully over the taller man's grey, crew-cut head.

'My god!' Cullis gasped, 'I've gone blind!'

The young man reached up and adjusted the eye patch. 'Your pardon. Wrong eye.'

'That's better.' The older man drew himself up, taking a deep breath. 'Where are the bastards?' his voice was still slurred; it made you want to clear your throat.

'I can't see them. They're probably still outside. The shower yesterday is keeping the dust down.' The young man put another gun into Cullis' arms.

'The bastards.'

'Yes, Cullis.' A couple of ammunition boxes were added to the guns cradled in the older man's arms.

'The filthy bastards.'

'That's right, Cullis.'

'The... Hmm, you know, I could do with a drink.' Cullis swayed. He looked down at the weapons cradled in his arms, apparently trying to puzzle out how they had appeared there.

The young man turned round to lift more guns from the pile, but changed his mind when he heard a large clattering, breaking noise behind him.

'Shit,' Cullis muttered, from the floor.

The young man went over to the bottle-strewn sideboard. He loaded up with as many full bottles as he could find and returned to where Cullis was snoring peacefully under a pile of guns, boxes, ammunition belts and the dark-splintered remains of a formal banqueting chair. He cleared the debris off the older man and undid a couple of buttons on the too-large field-marshal's jacket, then stuffed the bottles inside, between jacket and shirt.

Cullis opened his eye and watched this for a moment. 'What time did you say it was?'

He buttoned Cullis' jacket up halfway. 'Time to go, I think.'

'Hmm. Fair enough. You know best, Zakalwe.' Cullis closed his eye again.

The young man Cullis had called Zakalwe walked quickly to one end of the great table, which was covered by a comparatively clean blanket. A large, impressive gun lay there; he picked it up and returned to the large, unimpressive form snoring on the floor. He took the old man by the collar and backed off towards the door at the end of the hall, dragging Cullis with him. He stopped to pick up the oil-stained bag full of weaponry he'd sorted out earlier, slinging that over one shoulder.

He'd dragged Cullis halfway to the door when the older man woke up, and with his one good eye fixed him with an upside-down bleary stare.

'Hey.'

'What, Cullis?' he grunted, heaving him another couple of metres.

Cullis looked round the quiet white hall as it slid past him. 'Still think they'll bombard this place?'

'Mm-hmm.'

The grey-haired man shook his head. 'Na,' he said. He took a deep breath. 'Na,' he repeated, shaking his head. 'Never.'

'Cue incoming' the young man muttered, glancing around.

Nevertheless the silence continued as they reached the doors and he kicked them open. The stairs that led down to the rear entrance hall and out into the courtyard were of brilliant green marble edged with agate. He made his way down, armaments and bottles clinking, gun bumping, dragging Cullis down step after step, the big man's heels thumping and scraping as he went.

The old man grunted with each step, and once mumbled. 'Not so damn hard, woman.' The young man stopped at that point and looked at the old man, who snored and dribbled saliva from the corner of his mouth. The young man shook his head and continued.

On the third landing he stopped for a drink, allowing Cullis to snore on, then felt sufficiently fortified to continue the descent. He was still licking his lips and had just grabbed Cullis' collar when there came an increasing, deepening, whistling noise. He dropped to the floor and hauled Cullis half on top of him.

The explosion was close enough to crack the high windows and loosen some plaster, which fell gracefully down through the triangular wedges of sunlight and pattered delicately on the stairs.

'Cullis!' He grabbed the other man's collar again and leapt backwards down the stairs. 'Cullis!' he yelled, skidding round the landing, almost falling. 'Cullis, you dozy old prick! Wake up!'

Another falling howl split the air; the whole palace shuddered to the detonation and a window blew in overhead; plaster and glass showered down the stairwell. Half crouched and still pulling Cullis, he staggered and cursed down another flight of stairs. 'CULLIS!' he roared, tearing past empty alcoves and exquisitely rendered murals in the pastoral style. 'Fuck your geriatric ass, Cullis; WAKE UP!'

He skidded round another landing, the remaining bottles clanking furiously and the big gun knocking chunks out of decorative panels. The deepening whistle again; he dived as the stairs leapt up at him and glass burst overhead; everything was white as the dust whirled. He staggered to his feet and saw Cullis sitting upright, scattering plaster shards from his chest and rubbing his good eye. Another explosion, rumbling further away.

Cullis looked miserable. He waved one hand through the dust. 'This isn't fog and that wasn't thunder, right?'

'Right,' he shouted, already leaping downstairs.

Cullis coughed and staggered after him.

More shells were arriving as he reached the courtyard. One burst to his left as he emerged from the palace; he jumped into the half-track and tried to start it. The shell blew the roof off the royal apartments. Showers of slates and tiles hammered into the courtyard, turning into little dusty clouds in their own tributary explosions. He put one hand over his head and rummaged in the passenger's footspace for a helmet. A large chunk of masonry bounced off the engine cover of the open vehicle, leaving a sizeable dent and a cloud of dust. 'Oh... shiiiiit,' he said, finally finding a helmet and jamming it onto his head.

'Filthy Ba...!' yelled Cullis, tripping over just before he reached the half-track and tumbling into the dust. He swore, then dragged himself into the machine. Another shell and another ploughed into the apartments to their left.

The clouds of dust kicked up by the bombardment were drifting across the faces of the buildings; sunlight sheared a gigantic wedge through the chaos of the courtyard, edging shadow with light.

'I honestly thought they'd go for the parliament buildings,' Cullis said mildly, gazing at the burning wreck of a truck on the far side of the courtyard.

'Well, they didn't!' He punched the starter again, shouting at it.

'You were right,' Cullis sighed and looked puzzled. 'What was the bet we had again?'

'Who cares?' he roared, kicking somewhere beneath the dashboard. The half-track's motor stumbled into life.

Cullis shook flaked tile from his hair while his comrade strapped on his own helmet and handed a second one to him. Cullis accepted it with relief and began to fan his face with it, patting the area of his chest over his heart as if in encouragement.

Then he drew his hand away, staring in disbelief at the warm red liquid on it.

The engine died. Cullis heard the other man bellow abuse and slam the starter again; the engine coughed and spluttered, to the accompaniment of whistling shells.

Cullis looked down to the seat beneath him as more explosions thundered, far away in the dust. The half-track shuddered.

The seat below Cullis was covered in red.

'Medic!' he yelled.

'What?'

'Medic!' Cullis screamed over another explosion, holding his red-stained hand out. 'Zakalwe! I'm hit!' His good eye was wide with shock. His hand trembled.

The young man looked exasperated and slapped Cullis' hand away. 'That's wine, you cretin!' He lunged forward, hauled a bottle out of the older man's tunic and dropped it in his lap.

Cullis looked down, surprised. 'Oh,' he said. 'Good.' He peered inside his jacket and carefully extracted a few pieces of broken glass. 'Wondered why it was fitting so well,' he mumbled.

The engine caught suddenly, roaring like something made furious by the shaking ground and the swirling dust. Explosions in the gardens sent brown sprays of earth and pieces of shattered statuary over the courtyard wall, landing spattering and chunking all around them.

He wrestled with the gear-lever until the drive engaged and nearly threw him and Cullis out of the half-track as it leapt forward, out of the courtyard and into the dusty road beyond. Seconds later the major part of the great hall collapsed under the combined zeroed-in weight of a dozen or so heavy artillery pieces, and smashed down into the courtyard, filling it and the surrounding area with splintered wood and masonry and yet more tumbling clouds of dust.

Cullis scratched his head and muttered into the helmet he had just been sick into.

'The bastards,' he said.

'That's right, Cullis.'

'The filthy bastards.'

'Yes, Cullis.'

The half-track turned a corner and roared away, towards the desert.


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

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