USE OF WEAPONS
IAIN M. BANKS
I blame Ken MacLeod for the whole thing. It was his idea to argue the old warrior out of retirement, and he suggested the fitness program, too.
'Slight Mechanical Destruction'
Zakalwe enfranchised;_Those lazy curls of smoke above the city,_Black wormholes in the air of noontime's bright Ground Zero._Did they tell you what you wanted to be told?_Or rain-skinned on a concrete fastness,_Fortress island in the flood;_You walked amongst the smashed machines,_And looked through undrugged eyes_For engines of another war,_And an attrition of the soul and the device._With craft and plane and ship,_And gun and drone and field you played, and_Wrote an allegory of your regress_In other people's tears and blood;_The tentative poetics of your rise_From a mere and shoddy grace._And those who found you,_Took, remade you_('Hey, my boy, it's you and us knife missiles now,_Our lunge and speed and bloody secret: _The way to a man's heart is through his chest! )_- They thought you were their plaything,_Savage child; the throwback from wayback_Expedient because_Utopia spawns few warriors._But you knew your figure cut a cipher_Through every crafted plan,_And playing our game for real_Saw through our plumbing jobs_And wayward glands_To a meaning of your own, in bones._- The catchment of these cultured lives_Was not in flesh,_And what we only knew,_You felt,_With all the marrow of your twisted cells.__
Rasd-Coduresa Diziet Embless Sma da" Marenhide.
c/o SC, Year 115 (Earth, Khmer calendar).
Marain original, own translation. Unpublished.
"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.