Read Feersum Endjinn Online

Authors: Iain M. Banks

Feersum Endjinn (6 page)

BOOK: Feersum Endjinn
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The mobile observatory - a three-storey sphere supported by eight long legs each tipped with a motor and tyre and resembling nothing more than an enormous spider - had been following the mysterious stones across the plain for hundreds of years, gathering vast amounts of data in the process but without really contributing anything of great note to the anyway rather exhausted debate concerning the origin and purpose of the stones. More had been learnt when one of the stones had been partially analysed centuries earlier, though as the crux of what had been learnt was that to start chipping bits off one of the stones was to draw down some highly focused and scientist-evaporating sunlight from the fast-tower’s twentieth level (whether it was day or night), such a lesson was arguably something of a dead end.
Gadfium looked back out across the Plain of Sliding Stones, to the edge of the darkly livid sky. A chill gust of razor-wind stung her face and made her close her eyes, the salt like grit between orb and lid. She could taste the salt; her nose stung.
‘Very well,’ she said, dry-gasping in the meagre air. She turned from the balustrade and had to be half-led to the lock by the assistant observer.
‘The circle began forming at six-thirteen this morning,’ the chief observer told them. ‘It was complete by six forty-two. All thirty-two stones are present. The distance between the stones is a uniform two metres - the same as their diameter. They have arranged themselves in a perfect circle with an accuracy of better than a tenth of a millimetre. The predicted-motion discrepancy factor for certain of the stones during the period they were forming the current pattern was as high as sixty per cent. It has never in the past exceeded twelve point three per cent and over the last decade has averaged below five per cent.’
Gadfium, her aide Rasfline and assistant Goscil, the mobile observatory’s chief observer Clispeir and three out of the four junior observers - one was still on duty in the vehicle’s control room - sat in the observatory mess.
‘We are in the exact centre of the plain?’ Gadfium asked.
‘Yes, again to an accuracy of less than a tenth of a millimetre,’ Clispeir replied. She was fragile-looking and prematurely aged, with wispily white hair. Gadfium had known her at university forty years earlier. Nevertheless, like the other observers she was able to operate without extra oxygen and pressurisation, which was much more than Gadfium felt able to do. That she, Rasfline and Goscil were able to breathe easily now was only because the observatory had been lightly pressurised for their comfort. Still, she told herself, they had travelled from barely a thousand metres above sea level to over eight kilometres higher in less than two hours, and a human-basic individual would already be suffering from altitude sickness to which she was genetically resistant, which was some consolation.
‘However the circle did not actually form around the observatory.’
‘No, ma’am. We were stationary a quarter kilometre from here, almost due north, waiting on the wind to rise following the precipitation and melt last night. The stones began to move at four forty-one, holding pattern T-8 with drift-factor one. They veered—’
‘Perhaps a visual display would be more . . . graphic,’ Goscil interrupted.
Embarrassed looks were exchanged around the mess-room table. ‘Unfortunately,’ Clispeir said, clearing her throat, ‘the pattern formed during an observation-system down-time event.’ She looked apologetically at Gadfium. ‘We are, of course, only a very small and perhaps insignificant research station and I don’t know if the chief scientist is aware of my reports detailing the increased incidence of maintenance-level-related breakdowns and our requests for increased funding over the last few years, but—’
‘I see,’ Rasfline said impatiently. ‘Obviously you lack implants, ma’am, but I assume one or more of your juniors recorded the events in their habitua.’
‘Well,’ Clispeir said, looking uncomfortable. ‘Actually, no; as it has turned out, the team here consists entirely of persons from Privileged backgrounds.’
Rasfline looked shocked. Goscil’s mouth hung slightly open.
Clispeir smiled apologetically and spread her hands. ‘It’s just the way it’s happened.’
‘So you don’t have anything on visual,’ Rasfline said, contriving to sound at once bored and exasperated. Goscil blew some hair away from her face and looked crestfallen.
‘Not of an acceptable standard,’ Clispeir admitted. ‘Observer Koir - ’ the elderly scientist nodded to one of the two young male observers, who smiled sheepishly ‘- took some footage on his own camera, but—’
‘May we see it?’ Rasfline asked, tapping his fingers on the table surface.
‘Of course, though—’
‘Ma’am, are you all right?’ Goscil asked Gadfium.
‘I’m - actually . . . no, not—’ Gadfium slumped forward over the table, head on forearms, mumbling and then going quiet.
‘Oh dear.’
‘I think some oxygen—’
‘I’m sorry; the observatory cannot be pressurised beyond this level, and we are so used to ... we forget. Oh dear.’
‘Thank you. Ma’am; oxygen.’
‘Perhaps we should leave . . .’
‘Let her lie down a moment first.’
‘My cabin is at your disposal, of course.’
‘I’m fine, really,’ Gadfium mumbled. ‘Bit of a headache.’
‘Come; if you’d take her . . . that’s it.’
‘I’ll bring the oxygen.’
‘We should leave . . .’
‘. . . always has to see things for herself.’
‘All right really . . .’
‘Down here.’
‘Please don’t fuss . . . How embarrassing . . . Terribly sorry.’
‘Ma’am, please; save your breath.’
‘Oh yes, sorry; how embarrassing . . .’
‘Mind the steps.’
‘In here. Sorry, it is a little small; let me . . .’
Gadfium heard the voices of the others sounding loud in the small cabin, and felt herself lowered into a narrow bed. The oxygen mask was put to her face again.’
‘Let me stay with her. You take a look at observer Koir’s recordings; I’m sure the others can answer any questions . . .’
‘Are you sure? I could—’
‘There now, dear; let one old lady look after another.’
‘If you’re certain . . .’
‘Of course.’
When she heard the door close with a clunk and a wheezy hiss, Gadfium opened her eyes.
Clispeir’s face was above her, smiling hesitantly.
Gadfium looked warily round the small cabin.
‘It is safe,’ Clispeir whispered, ‘providing we don’t shout.’
‘Clisp . . .’ Gadfium said, sitting up and holding out her arms; they hugged for a moment.
‘It is good to see you again, Gad.’
‘And you,’ Gadfium whispered. Then she took the other woman’s hands in hers and gazed urgently into her eyes. ‘Now; old friend, has it happened? Have we made contact with the tower?’
Clispeir could not contain her smile, though there was a hint of worry within it. ‘Of a sort,’ she said.
‘Tell me.’
The Count Sessine had died many times. Once in an aircraft crash, once in a bathyscape accident, once at the hand of an assassin, once in a duel, once at the hand of a jealous lover, once at the hand of a lover’s jealous husband and once of old age. Now, it was twice at the hand of an assassin; a male one this time, for a reason he was unable to determine, and - most distressingly - for the last time. Finally physically dead, for ever more.
The venue for Sessine’s first in-crypt resuscitation had been a virtual version of his apartments in the clan Aerospace’s headquarters in the Atlantean Tower, it being normal for
rebirths to be conducted in familiar and comforting surroundings and closely attended by images of friends and family.
For his subsequent revivals he had stipulated an unpopulated, ambiently scaled version of Serehfa, and it was there he awoke in bed, alone, on what gave every appearance of being a fine spring morning.
He lay in the bed and looked around. Silk sheets, brocade canopy, oil paintings on the wall, rugs on the floor, wooden panelling, tall windows. He felt oddly neutral, washed clean.
He smoothed his hand over a fold of pinkly silk sheet, then closed his eyes and murmured,
‘Speremus igitur,’
and opened his eyes again.
His smile was sad. ‘Ah well,’ he said quietly.
It had been a statutory requirement almost from the dawn of what had then been called Virtual Reality that even the deepest and most radically altered and enhanced virtual environment (indeed, most especially those) must include periods of sleep - however truncated - and that towards the end of each sleep event a dream ought to intrude upon the sleeper in which they were offered the option of returning to reality. Sessine, of course, had been aware of no such opportunity just prior to waking up here, and the repetition of his private code to instigate a complete wake-up merely confirmed that this was not part of some voluntary virtual scenario; this was already as real as he could get, and it was a simulation; he was incrypted, now, for good, as well as for good or ill.
Sessine got out of bed, went to the tall windows and stepped out onto the balcony. The air felt fresh and chilly; a strong wind blew. He shivered, raised his right arm to his face, watched goose-bumps rise under the hairs there, then imagined that the wind dropped. It did.
He imagined that it blew again, but that he felt no cold; in a moment the wind was sharp and clean in his nostrils and cool on his naked skin, but it did not make him shiver.
He went to the parapet. The balcony was situated in one of the higher reaches of the humanly-scaled fortress, with a view to the west. The shadow of the castle lay across the western inner bailey, the umbrous image of the fast-tower just touching the foot of the curtain-walls. As Sessine had ordered, there was nobody to be seen, and not even any wildlife visible. The sky, distant hills and the castle itself looked perfectly convincing.
He imagined himself on the fast-tower
/and was there, suddenly standing on a gaily painted wooden platform at the summit of the castle’s tallest tower, with only a flagpole and a snapping flag - his clan’s - above him. The view was better from here; he could see the ocean, far to the west. Just beyond the handrail the slates sloped away to the circular battlements.
He gripped the wooden rail of the platform, squeezing it until his fingers ached, then squatted and inspected the underside of the rail’s inverted U near where it met a stanchion. The red paint under the flat surface was convincingly bumpy, with little bubbles of smooth, solidified paint near the angle the rail described with the post. He put his thumbnail against one of the bubbles and pressed hard. When he took his thumb away again there was a little groove impressed on the hemisphere of paint.
He ducked quickly under the rail and launched himself into the air. He bounced once off the steeply raked tiles, winding himself and hurting his shoulder, cleared the crenellations of the tower’s battlements and hurtled towards the steeply pitched roof far below. The wind-roar screamed in his ears as the slates rose to meet him.
‘Oh, this is silly,’ he said, gasping against the storm of air.
He cancelled the injury in his shoulder and decided . . . to fly; the roof below slid to one side and he glided away, sweeping through the air above the castle.
Had he plummeted to his death upon that slated roof, it would have been also to another - almost immediate - rebirth in the same bed he had not long departed; just as in base-reality one had eight lives, so one had eight here. Choosing to end them meant that one would remain unconscious for the duration of the mourning period, and only be woken for a slowed-down real and subjective hour to converse with one’s bereaved relations and friends immediately before disposal. This was not a common option, but remained available for those whose depression or ennui extended beyond their deaths.
Flying was exactly as he remembered it from his childhood dreams; it required some sort of willed effort in the mind, like pedalling a cycle even though one’s legs did not move. If one ceased this dream-virtual effort, one sank slowly to earth. The harder one pedalled, the higher one flew. There was no fatigue and no fear, just wonder and exhilaration.
Sessine flew round the castle for some time, at first naked, then clothing himself with trousers, shirt and frock coat. He landed on the balcony outside the bedroom where he had awoken.
A light breakfast was waiting, on a table by the bed. At this point - in every other rebirth since that first one - he had eaten, then indulged in a full morning’s dalliance with a maid he remembered from his late childhood who had been the first woman he had lusted after, as well as one of the few with whom he had been unable to requite such regard. On this occasion, however, he cancelled the breakfast, his growing hunger, and the maid’s appearance. Nor would he spend the next few subjective months in the castle’s library, re-reading books, listening to music, watching films and recorded plays and operas and watching or taking part in discussions with recreated ancients, recreated historical incidents or virtual fictions.
BOOK: Feersum Endjinn
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Only By Your Touch by Catherine Anderson
Becca by Taylor, Jennie
Almost A Spinster by Jenna Petersen
Measure of Darkness by Chris Jordan
Days by James Lovegrove
The Prince by Vito Bruschini
The Long Descent by John Michael Greer