Authors: Iain M. Banks
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General
Iain M. Banks
I have a story to tell you. It has many beginnings, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic, always something before the described events, unless we are to start every story with, ‘BANG!
Sssss…’, then itemise the whole subsequent history of the universe before settling down, at last, to the particular tale in question. Similarly, no ending is final, unless it is the end of all things…
Nevertheless, I have a story to tell you. My own direct part in it was vanishingly small and I have not thought even to introduce myself with anything as presumptuous as a proper name. Nevertheless, I was there, at the very beginning of one of those beginnings.
From the air, I am told, the Autumn House looks like a giant grey and pink snowflake lying half-embedded within these folded green slopes. It lies on the long, shallow escarpment which forms the southern limit of the Northern Tropical Uplands. On the northern side of the house are spread the various formal and rustic gardens which it is both my duty and my pleasure to tend. A little further up the escarpment rest the extensive ruins of a fallen temple, believed to have been a construction of a species called the Rehlide. (6ar., either severely abated or extinct, depending on which authority one chooses to give credence to. In any event, long gone from these parts.) The temple’s great white columns once towered a hundred metres or so into our thin airs but now lie sprawled upon and interred within the ground, vast straked and fluted tubes of solid stone half buried in the peaty soils of the unimproved land around us. The furthest-fallen ends of the columns - which must have toppled slowly but most impressively in our half-standard gravity - punched great long crater-like ditches out of the earth, creating long double embankments with bulbously rounded tips. Over the many millennia since their sudden creation these tall ramparts have been slowly worn down both by erosion and our world’s many small ground-quakes so that the earth has slumped back to refill the wide ditches where the column ends lie, until all that is visible is a succession of gentle waves in the land’s surface, like a series of small, splayed valleys from whose upper limits the unburied lengths of the columns appear like the pale exposed bones of this little planet-moon.
Where one column fell and rolled across a shallow river valley, it formed a sort of angled cylindrical dam, over which the water spills, is caught and channelled by one of the metres-deep grooves embellishing the column’s length, and then flows down to what remains of the column’s ornately carved capital and a series of small, graceful waterfalls which end in a deep pool just beyond the tall, dense hedges which mark the highest limit of our gardens. From here the stream is guided and controlled, some of its waters proceeding to a deep cistern which provides the headwaters for our gravity fountains down near the house while the rest make up the brook which by turns tumbles, rushes, swings and meanders down to the ornamental lakes and partial moat surrounding the house itself.
I was standing waist-deep in the gurgling waters of a steeply pitched part of the brook, three limbs braced against the current, surrounded by dripping exer-rhododendron branches and coils of weed, trimming and dead-heading a particularly recalcitrant confusion of moil-bush around a frankly rather threadbare raised lawn of scalpygrass (basically a noble but failed experiment, attempting to persuade this notoriously clumpy variety to… ah: my enthusiasms may be getting the better of me, and I digress - never mind about the scalpygrass) when the young master - returning, whistling, hands clasped behind his back, from his morning constitutional round the higher rockeries - stopped on the gravel path above me and smiled down. I looked round and up, still clipping away, and nodded with as much formality as my somewhat awkward stance would allow.
Sunlight poured from the purple sky visible between the curve of eastward horizon (hills, haze) and the enormous overhanging bulk of the gas-giant planet Nasqueron filling the majority of the sky (motley with all the colours of the spectrum below bright yellow, multitudinously spotted, ubiquitously zoned and belted with wild liquidic squiggles). A synchronous mirror almost directly above us scribed a single sharp line of yellow-white across the largest of Nasqueron’s storm-spots, which moved ponderously across the sky like an orange-brown bruise the size of a thousand moons.
‘Good morning, Head Gardener.’
‘Good morning, Seer Taak.’
‘And how are our gardens?’
‘Generally healthy, I would say. In good shape for spring.’ I could have gone on to provide much more detail, naturally, but waited to discover whether Seer Taak was merely indulging in phatic discourse. He nodded at the water rushing and breaking around my lower limbs.
‘You all right in there, HG? Looks a bit fierce.’
‘I am well braced and anchored, thank you, Seer Taak.’ I hesitated (and during the pause could hear someone small and light running up the stone steps towards the gravel path a little further down the garden), then, when Seer Taak still smiled encouragingly down at me, I added, ‘The flow is high because the lower pumps are on, recirculating the waters to enable us to scour one of the lakes free of floating weeds.’ (The small person approaching reached the path’s loose surface twenty metres away and kept running, scattering gravel.)
‘I see. Didn’t think it had rained that much recently.’ He nodded. ‘Well, keep up the good work, HG,’ he said, and turned to go, then saw whoever was running towards him. I suspected from the rhythm of her running steps that it was the girl Zab. Zab is still at the age where she runs from place to place as a matter of course unless directed not to by an adult. However, I believed that I detected a more than casual urgency in her gait.
Seer Taak smiled and frowned at the girl at the same time as she came skidding to a stop on the gravel in front of him, putting one hand flat to the chest of her yellow dungarees and bending over for a couple of deep, exaggerated breaths - long pink curls swirling and dancing round her face - before taking one even deeper breath and standing up straight to say,
‘Uncle Fassin! Grandpa Slovius says you’re out in a communicardo again and if I see you I’ve to tell you you’ve to come and see him right now immediately!’
‘Does he now?’ Seer Taak said, laughing. He bent and picked the girl up by her armpits, holding her face level with his, her little pink boots hanging level with the waist of his britches.
‘Yes, he does,’ she told him, and sniffed. She looked down and saw me. ‘Oh! Hello, HG.’
‘Good morning, Zab.’
‘Well,’ said Seer Taak, hoisting the child further up and turning and lowering her so that she sat on his shoulders, ‘we’d better go and see what the old man wants, hadn’t we?’ He started down the path towards the house. ‘You okay up there?’
She put her hands over his forehead and said, ‘Yup.’
‘Well, this time, mind out for branches.’
mind out for branches!’ Zab said, rubbing her knuckles through Seer Taak’s brown curls. She twisted round and waved back at me. ‘Bye, HG!’
‘Goodbye,’ I called as they went towards the steps.
mind out for branches, young lady.’
mind out for branches!’
mind out for branches.’
mind out for branches…’
ONE: THE AUTUMN HOUSE
It had thought it would be safe out here, just one more ambiently black speck deep-chilled in the vast veil of icy debris wrapping the outer reaches of the system like a frozen, tenuous shroud of tissue. But it had been wrong and it was not safe.
It lay, slow-tumbling, and watched helplessly as the probing beams flickered across the pitted, barren motes far away, and knew its fate was settled. The interrogating tendrils of coherence were almost too quick to sense, too seemingly tentative to register, barely touching, scarcely illuminating, but they did their job by finding nothing where there was nothing to find. Just carbon, trace, and ice-water hard as iron: ancient, dead, and - left undisturbed - no threat to anyone.
The lasers flicked off, and each time it felt hope rise, finding itself thinking, despite all rationality, that its pursuers would give up, admit defeat, just go away and leave it be, to orbit there for ever. Or perhaps it would kick away into a lonely eternity of less than light-slow exile, or drift into a closedown sleep, or… Or it might, it supposed - and this was what they feared, of course, this was why they hunted - plot and plan and gather and make and quicken and build and multiply and muster and - attack!… Claiming the vengeance that was so surely its, exacting the price its enemies all deserved to pay - by any algebra of justice under any sun you cared to name - for their intolerance, their savagery, their generacide.
Then the needle rays reappeared, fitfully irradiating the soot-ice-clinker of another set of barnacle-black detritus, a little further away, or a little closer, but always with a rapid, meticulous order to them, a militaristic precision and a plodding, bureaucratic systematicism.
From the earlier light trails, there were at least three ships. How many did they have? How many might they devote to the search? It didn’t really matter. They might take a moment, a month or a millennium to find their quarry, but they obviously knew where to look and they would not stop until they had either found what they were looking for or satisfied themselves that there was nothing there.
That it was so obviously in harm’s way, and that its hiding place, however enormous, was almost the first place they had chosen to search, filled it with terror, not just because it did not want to die, or be picked apart as they had been known to pick its kind apart before killing their victims utterly, but because if it was not safe in this place where it had assumed it would be, then, given that so many of its kind had made the same assumption, none of them would be safe either.
Dear Reason, maybe none of us are safe anywhere.
All its studies, all its thoughts, all the great things that might have been, all the fruits of change from the one great revelation it might have had, and now would never know the truth of, would never be able to tell. All, all for nothing now. It could choose to go with some elegance, or not, but it could not choose not to go.
No un-choosing death.
The needle rays from the needle ships flicked on\flicked off away across the frozen distances, and finally it could see the pattern in them, discerning one ship’s comb of scintillations from the others and so picking out the shape of the search grids, allowing it to watch, helpless, as the slow spread of that mortal inquiry crept slowly, slowly closer.
The Archimandrite Luseferous, warrior priest of the Starveling Cult of Leseum9 IV and effective ruler of one hundred and seventeen stellar systems, forty-plus inhabited planets, numerous significant artificial immobile habitats and many hundreds of thousands of civilian capital ships, who was Executive High Admiral of the Shroud Wing Squadron of the Four-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Ambient Fleet (Det.) and who had once been Triumvirate Rotational human\non-human Representative for Cluster Epiphany Five at the Supreme Galactic Assembly, in the days before the latest ongoing Chaos and the last, fading rumbles of the Disconnect Cascade, had some years ago caused the head of his once-greatest enemy, the rebel chief Stinausin, to be struck from his shoulders, attached without delay to a long-term life-support mechanism and then hung upside down from the ceiling of his hugely impressive study in the outer wall of Sheer Citadel - with its view over Junch City and Faraby Bay towards the hazy vertical slot that was Force Gap - so that the Archimandrite could, when the mood took him, which was fairly frequently, use his old adversary’s head as a punchball.
Luseferous had long, sheen-black straight hair and a naturally pale complexion which had been skilfully augmented to make his skin nearly pure white. His eyes were artificially large, but just close enough to congenitally possible for people to be unsure whether they had been augmented or not. The whites beyond the black irises were a deep, livid red, and every one of his teeth had been carefully replaced with a pure, clear diamond, giving his mouth an appearance which varied from bizarre, mediaeval toothlessness to startling, glistening brilliance, entirely depending on angle and light.
In a street performer or an actor, such physiological departures might have been amusing, even a little desperate-looking; in somebody wielding the kind of power which Luseferous possessed, they could be genuinely disturbing, even terrifying. The same half-tasteless, half-horrifying effect might be claimed for his name, which was not the one he had been born with. Luseferous was a chosen name, selected for its phonetic proximity to that of some long-scorned Earth deity which most humans - well, most rHumans, at least - would vaguely have heard of in their history studies while probably not being entirely able to place when they had heard the word.
Again thanks to genetic manipulation, the Archimandrite was now and had been for some long time a tall, well-built man with considerable upper-body strength, and when he punched in anger - and he rarely punched in any other state - it was to considerable effect. The rebel leader whose head now hung upside down from Luseferous’s ceiling had caused the Archimandrite enormous military and political difficulties before being defeated, difficulties which had sometimes verged on being humiliations, and Luseferous still felt deep, deep resentment towards the traitor, resentment which easily and reliably turned itself to anger when he looked upon the man’s face, no matter how battered, bruised and bloody it might be (the head’s augmented healing functions were quick, but not instantaneous), and so the Archimandrite probably still whacked and smashed away at Stinausin’s head with as much enthusiasm now as he had when he’d first had him hung there, years earlier.
Stinausin, who had barely endured a month of such treatment before going completely mad, and whose mouth had been sewn up to stop him spitting at the Archimandrite, could not even kill himself; sensors, tubes, micropumps and biocircuitry prevented such an easy way out. Even without such extraneous limitations he could not have shouted abuse at Luseferous or attempted to swallow his tongue because that organ had been torn out when his head had been removed.
Though by now quite perfectly insane, sometimes, after an especially intense training session with the Archimandrite, when the blood trickled down from the one-time rebel chief’s split lips, re-broken nose and puffed-up eyes and ears, Stinausin would cry. This Luseferous found particularly gratifying, and sometimes he would stand, breathing hard and wiping himself down with a towel while he watched the tears dilute the blood dripping from the inverted, disembodied head, to land in a broad ceramic shower tray set into the floor.
Of late, though, the Archimandrite had had a new playmate to amuse himself with, and he would occasionally visit the chamber some levels below his study where the nameless would-be assassin whose own teeth were slowly killing him was held.
The assassin, a big, powerful-looking, leoninely human male, had been sent without weapons save for his specially sharpened teeth, with which, it had obviously been hoped by whoever had sent him, he could bite out the Archimandrite’s throat. This he had attempted to do, a half-year earlier at a ceremonial dinner held here in the clifftop palace in honour of the System President (a strictly honorary post Luseferous always made sure was filled by somebody of advanced age and retreating faculties). The would-be assassin had only failed to accomplish this task thanks to the Archimandrite’s near-paranoid forethought and intense - and largely secret - personal security.
The failed assassin had been both routinely, if savagely, tortured and then very carefully questioned under the influences of entire suites of drugs and electro-biological agents, but had given nothing useful away. Patently he had been equally carefully wiped of any knowledge that might incriminate whoever had sent him, by interrogational technicians at least as capable as those whom the Archimandrite commanded. His controllers had not even bothered to implant false memories incriminating anybody close to the Court and the Archimandrite, as was common in such cases.
Luseferous, who was that most deplorable of beings, a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination, had decreed that the final punishment of the assassin should be that his own teeth - the weapons he had been sent with, after all - should bring about his death. Accordingly, his four canine teeth had been removed, bioengineered to become tusks which would grow without ceasing, and reinserted. These great finger-thick fangs had erupted out of the bones of his upper and lower jaw, punc- turing the flesh of his lips, and had continued their remorseless growth. The lower set curved up and over his head and, after a few months’ worth of extension, came to touch his scalp near the top of his head, while the upper set grew in a scimitar-like paired sweep beneath his neck, taking about the same time to meet the skin near the base of his throat.
Genetically altered not to stop growing even when they encountered such resistance, both sets of teeth then started to enter the assassin’s body, one pair slowly forcing themselves through the bony plates of the man’s skull, the other set entering rather more easily into the soft tissues of the lower neck. The tusks digging into the assassin’s neck caused great pain but were not immediately life-threatening; left to themselves they would reappear from the rear of his neck in due course. The fangs burrowing through his skull and into his brain were the ones which would shortly, and agonisingly, kill him, perhaps in as little as another month or so.
The unfortunate, nameless assassin had been unable to do anything to prevent this because he was pinned helpless and immobile against the wall of the chamber with bands and shackles of thick stainless iron, his nutrition and bodily functions catered for by various tubes and implants. His mouth had also been sewn up, like that of Stinausin. For the first few months of his captivity the assassin’s eyes had followed Luseferous around the chamber with a fierce, accusatory look that the Archimandrite eventually grew to find annoying, and so he’d had the man’s eyes stitched shut too.
The fellow’s ears and mind still worked, however - Luseferous had been assured - and sometimes it amused him to come down and see for himself the progress that the teeth were making into the creature’s body. On such occasions, having what one might term a captive - yet necessarily discreet - audience, he sometimes liked to talk to the failed assassin.
‘Good day,’ Luseferous said pleasantly as the lift door rumbled shut behind him. The chamber deep below the study was what the Archimandrite thought of as his den. Here, as well as the nameless assassin, he kept assorted souvenirs of old campaigns, booty from his many victories, items of high art looted from a dozen different stellar systems, a collection of weapons both ceremonial and high-power, various caged or tanked creatures, and the mounted, profoundly dead heads of all those major enemies and adversaries whose end had not been so complete as to reduce their mortal remains to radiation, dust, slime or unidentifiable strips of flesh and shards of bone (or the alien equivalents thereof).
Luseferous crossed to a deep, dry tank part-set into the floor and looked in at the Recondite Splicer lying coiled and still on its floor. He slipped a thick elbow glove onto his arm, reached into a large pot standing on the broad, waist-high parapet of the tank and dropped a handful of fat black trunk-leeches into the tank.
‘And how are you? Are you keeping well? Hmm?’ he asked.
An observer would have been unsure whether the Archimandrite was talking to the human male pinned to the wall, the Recondite Splicer - now no longer still, but raising its blind, glistening brown head, sniffing the air while its long, segmented body twitched with anticipation - or indeed the trunk-leeches, thudding one by one onto the mossy floor of the tank and immediately flexing their way with a sort of sine-wave motion across the surface towards the nearest corner, as far away from the Recondite Splicer as it was possible to get. The brown mass of the Splicer began to shuffle massively towards them and they started trying to climb the sheer glass sides of the tank, climbing over each other and slipping back down as soon as they tried to haul themselves up.
Luseferous peeled the elbow glove off and looked round the vaulted, subtly lit space. The chamber was a comfortable, quiet sort of place set well within the cliff, with no windows or light shafts, and he felt safe and relaxed here. He looked over at the long, tawny shape that was the suspended body of the assassin and said, ‘Nowhere’s quite as nice as home, eh, is it?’ The Archimandrite even smiled, though there was nobody to smile at.
There was a rasping noise and a heavy thump from inside the tank, followed by some almost inaudibly high keening sounds. Luseferous turned to watch the Recondite Splicer tear the giant leeches apart and eat them, violently shaking its great patchily brown head and tossing some bits of slimy black flesh all the way out of the tank. Once it had thrown a still-alive leech up and out of the tank and nearly hit the Archimandrite with it; Luseferous had chased the injured leech round the chamber with a shear-sword, cleaving deep slivers out of the dark red granite floor as he hacked and sliced at the creature.