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       Against a Dark Background, p.1

           Iain M. Banks
 
Against a Dark Background


  Copyright

  Copyright © 1993 by Iain M. Banks

  Excerpt from Use of Weapons copyright © 1990 by Iain M. Banks

  All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

  Orbit

  Hachette Book Group

  237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

  Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com

  www.twitter.com/orbitbooks

  This edition published in the U.S. by Orbit, July 2009

  Originally published in Great Britain by Orbit, 1993, and in the U.S. by Random House, 1993

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  First eBook Edition: July 2009

  ISBN: 978-0-316-07594-7

  Contents

  Copyright

  Praise for Iain M. Banks

  Prologue

  1: FROM A GLASS SHORE

  1: Overture

  2: The Chain Gallery

  3: Echo Street

  4: Log-Jam

  5: Lifting Party

  6: Solo

  7: Operating Difficulties

  8: The Mortal Message

  2: THE SIGNALS OF DECAY, THE WEAPONRY OF DECEIT

  9: Reunions

  10: Just A Concept

  11: Deep Country

  12: Snow Fall

  13: At The Court Of The Useless Kings

  14: Vegetable Plot

  15: Escape Clause

  16: The Ghost

  3: A TROPHY OF A PAST DISPUTE

  17: Conscience Of Prisoners

  18: The Dark City

  19: Spoiling Bid

  20: The Quiet Shore

  21: A Short Walk

  22: The Silent Tower

  23: All Castles Made Of Sand

  24: Fall Into The Sea

  extras

  meet the author

  Preview of "USE OF WEAPONS"

  Praise for Iain M. Banks

  “Banks writes space opera on the grand scale: he measures time in eons, space in light-years, tragedies in gigadeaths.”

  — Time

  “Banks can summon up sense-of-wonder Big Concepts you’ve never seen before and display them with narration as deft as a conjuror’s fingers.”

  —scifi.com

  “It’s exhilarating to see what he can do when he goes full-throttle into the form: to my mind, he’s simply the finest and most consistently challenging writer in that genre.”

  —Scotland on Sunday

  “Banks is a phenomenon…writing pure science fiction of a peculiarly gnarly energy and elegance.”

  —William Gibson

  “There is now no British SF writer to whose work I look forward with greater keenness.”

  —The Times (London)

  “Poetic, humorous, baffling, terrifying, sexy—the books of Iain M. Banks are all these things and more.”

  —NME

  “Staggering imaginative energy.”

  —Independent

  “Banks writes with a sophistication that will surprise anyone unfamiliar with modern science fiction.”

  —New York Times

  “The Culture Books are not technological just-so stories. They’re about faith in the future, about the belief that societies can make sense of themselves, can have fun doing so, can live by Good Works, and can do so in circumstances far removed from our own little circle of western civilization.”

  —Wired

  “An exquisitely riotous tour de force of the imagination which writes its own rules simply for the pleasure of breaking them.”

  —Time Out

  “Few of us have been exposed to a talent so manifest and of such extraordinary breadth.”

  —New York Review of Science Fiction

  By Iain M. Banks

  Consider Phlebas

  The Player of Games

  Use of Weapons

  The State of the Art

  Against a Dark Background

  Feersum Endjinn

  Excession

  Inversions

  Look to Windward

  The Algebraist

  Matter

  By Iain Banks

  The Wasp Factory

  Walking on Glass

  The Bridge

  Espedair Street

  Canal Dreams

  The Crow Road

  Complicity

  Whit

  A Song of Stone

  The Business

  Dead Air

  The Steep Approach to Garbadale

  For Dave McCartney

  Prologue

  She put her chin on the wood below the window. The wood was cold and shiny and smelled. She kneeled on the seat; it smelled too, but different. The seat was wide and red like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody’s tummy. It was dull outside and the lights were on in the cable car. There were people skiing on the steep slopes beneath. She could see her own face looking back at her in the glass; she started to make faces at herself.

  After a while the glass in front of her face went misty. She reached up and wiped it. Somebody in another car, going down the hill, waved at her. She ignored them. The hills and the white trees tipped slowly back and forward.

  The cable car swung gently as it rose through the mountain air toward the cloudbase. The trees and runs on the slopes beneath were equally white; a fresh snowfall and freezing fog blowing up the valley overnight had coated the branches and needles of the trees with a crisp white wrap of crystals. Skiers cut and scythed through the new plumpness of the fall, engraving a carved text of blue-white lines onto the bulging fresh page of snow.

  She watched the child for a moment. She was kneeling on the button-hide seat, looking out. Her ski-suit was garish pink, fur trimmed. Her gloves, hanging from her sleeves on lengths of cord, were a clashing mauve. Her little boots were orange. It was a foul-looking combination (especially so here in Frelle, Northern Caltasp’s supposedly most exclusive and certainly its most snobbish resort), but—she suspected—probably less psyche-damaging than the tantrum and sulk which would inevitably have resulted had her daughter not been allowed to choose her own skiing outfit. The girl wiped at the window, frowning.

  She wondered what the child was frowning at, and turned to see another cable car passing them on the way down, twenty meters or so away. She put her hand out and moved it through the girl’s black hair, pulling some of the curls away from her face. She didn’t seem to notice; she just kept gazing out of the window. Such a serious face for a little girl.

  She smiled, remembering when she had been that age. She could recall being five; she had memories from about as far back as three, but they were vague and inchoate; flashes of memory illuminating a dark landscape of forgotten past.

  But she could remember being conscious of being five; even remember her fifth birthday party and the fireworks over the lake.

  How she had wanted to be older then; to be grown up and stay up late and go to dances. She had hated being young, hated always being told what to do, hated the way adults didn’t tell you everything. And hated, too, some of the stupid things they did tell you, like, “These are the best days of your life.” You could never believe at the time that adults had any idea—beyond mischief—what they were talking about. You had to be an adult, with all the cares and responsibilities it brought, before you could appreciate the struggling ignorance adults termed innocence, and—usually forgetting the wa
y they too had felt at the time—call the captivity of childhood, however caring, freedom.

  It was a very ordinary tragedy, she supposed, but no less a cause for regret because it was so common. Like a hint, a foretaste of grief, it was an original, even unique experience for everyone it affected, no matter how often it had happened in the past to others.

  And how did you avoid it? She had tried so hard not to make the same mistakes with her own daughter that she felt her parents had made with her, but sometimes she heard herself scolding the girl and thought, That’s what my mother said to me.

  Her husband didn’t feel the same way, but then he had been brought up differently, and anyway didn’t really have that much to do with the child’s upbringing. These old families. Hers had been rich and influential and probably quite unbearable in its own power-deranged way, but it had never displayed quite the degree of almost willful eccentricity Kryf’s had down the generations.

  She looked at her wrist-screen and turned down the heating in her boots, which were quite cozy now. Midday. Kryf would probably just be getting up, ringing for breakfast and having his butler read him the news while a footman proffered a selection of clothes from which to choose that afternoon’s attire. She smiled, thinking of him, then realized that she was looking across the car at Xellpher. The bodyguard—the only other occupant of the car—was solid and dark as some old-fashioned stove, and smiling a little too.

  She gave a small laugh and put her hand to her mouth.

  “M’lady?” Xellpher said.

  She shook her head. Outside, behind Xellpher, an outcrop of rocks ridged above the trees, caked in whiteness but streaked with naked black rock, a dark foreign body amongst the sheets and pillows of the snow. The cable car rose to meet the clouds and was enveloped by them.

  A mast went past, gray and quick outside, and the cable car whirred and bumped on its wheels for a second or so, then continued its silent, burringly smooth ascent, seemingly nodding to itself as it was hauled on upward past ranks of trees like the ghosts of some great descending army.

  It went all gray. A gray post went by and the car rocked. The view stayed gray. There were some trees and she could see the other cable, but that was all. She looked round, annoyed. Xellpher smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. There was a cliff behind him, black bits in the white snow.

  She turned back to the window and rubbed, hoping to see better. She watched a cable car appear out of the mists above, coming down to meet them on the other cable.

  The cable car began to slow down.

  The car slowed and stopped.

  “Oh dear,” she said, looking up at the varnished ceiling of the car.

  Xellpher stood up, frowning. He looked at the cable car on the descending cable, which had stopped almost level with them. She looked at it too. The car hung, swaying, just as theirs was. It appeared to be empty. Xellpher turned and looked at the cliff on the other side, visible through the mist thirty or forty meters away. She saw his eyes narrow and experienced the first faint twinge of fear as she followed his gaze to the cliff.

  There was an impression—perhaps imagined—of movement amongst some trees at the top of the cliff. Xellpher glanced back at the cable car hanging across from them and took a pair of multi-sights from his skiing jacket. She was still watching the cliff, like him. Something did move amongst the trees, roughly level with them. Xellpher adjusted a control on the side of the sights.

  She stuck her nose against the window. It was very cold. Mummy had told her once that a bad little girl had stuck her nose against a very cold window one day and it had stuck there; frozen! Stupid girl. The car on the other cable stopped rocking. She saw somebody in it. They peeked up, holding something long and dark, then they ducked down again so she couldn’t see them anymore.

  Xellpher crouched down, putting the sights away and reaching out to take both her hands and pull her toward him. He glanced at the child as he said, “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, my lady, but it might be best to sit down here on the floor, just for a moment.”

  She squatted down on the scuffed boards of the car, her head below the level of the car windows. She reached up and gently pulled the child off the seat. She struggled for a second, said, “Mummy…” in her Demanding voice.

  “Ssh,” she told her, cuddling her against her chest.

  Still squatting, Xellpher waddled over toward the car’s doors, taking his communicator out of his pocket as he did so.

  All the windows burst at once, spraying them with glass. The car shuddered.

  She heard herself scream, clutching the child to her and falling down to the floor of the car. She bit the scream off. The car shook as more shots slammed into it. In the sudden silence, Xellpher muttered something; then there was a series of sharp concussions. She looked up to see Xellpher firing his hand gun out the shattered window toward the cliff. More shots cracked into the car, blasting splinters of wood into the air and puffing dust and little bits of foam from the hide seat coverings.

  Xellpher ducked, then jumped up, firing back for a moment then diving to the floor and changing the clip in his gun. Shots tore into the car, smacking the metal and making it hum. She could taste the odor produced by Xellpher’s gun, acrid and burnt at the back of her throat. She glanced down at the child, wide-eyed but unharmed beneath her.

  “Code zero, repeat, code zero,” Xellpher said into the communicator during a brief lull in the firing. He slipped the machine back into his pocket. “I’ll open the door on the lee side,” he told her loudly but calmly over the noise of puncturing metal and whining ricochets. “The drop is only ten meters onto snow. It might be safer to jump than stay here.” The firing thrummed against the car, juddering it. Xellpher grimaced and lowered his head as a cloud of wood fragments sprayed off the wall by one smashed window. “When I open the door,” he told her, “throw the child out first, then drop yourself. Do you understand?”

  She nodded, afraid to try speaking. The taste at the back of her throat was not the smoke from his gun; it was fear.

  He pushed himself back across the wooden slats to the door; the firing went on, sporadic gusts of furious noise and vibration. Xellpher smashed something, reached and pulled; the door swung in and along the wall. She could see their skis in their bins on the outside of the car, chopped off at window level by the gunfire. Xellpher looked out.

  His head burst open; it was as though his body had been hit by some invisible cannon ball, throwing it back from the opened door and thumping against the other wall of the cable car.

  She couldn’t see properly. She only started screaming as she realized the warm sticky stuff in her eyes was his blood.

  Another shot from that side tore some of the seats out and sent them bouncing to the floor; the whole car shook and swayed. She cuddled the child, hearing her scream and hearing her own screams, then she looked up as another blast set the car rocking from side to side again. She crawled toward the door.

  The blow was astonishing, beyond comprehension. It was as though she had been hit by a train, by a power-hammer, by a comet. It hit somewhere below her chest; she had no idea where. She couldn’t move. In an instant she knew she was dead; she could have believed she had been torn in half.

  The child was screaming beneath her. Almost at the door. She knew the girl was screaming because of her mouth, her face, but she couldn’t hear anything. Everything seemed to be getting very dark. The door was so close but she couldn’t move. The child dragged herself from under her, and she had to struggle to keep her head up, using one of her arms to support herself.

  Child stood there, shouting something, face puffed and tear-streaked. So close to the door, but she couldn’t move. Ending now. No way to bring up a child. Silly, stupid, cruel people; like children, like poor children. Forgive them. No idea what’s next, if anything. Nor they. But forgive. Poor children. All of us, poor frightened children. Fate, nothing in your grubby creed’s worth this…

  The grenade flew through the d
oor, hit Xellpher’s body and landed clicking on the slatted floor behind the child. The child hadn’t seen it. She wanted to tell her to pick it up and throw it away, but she couldn’t get her mouth to work. The child kept screaming at her, bending down and screaming at her.

  She reached up and with the last of her strength pushed the screaming child out of the door, a second before the grenade exploded.

  Sharrow fell howling to the snow.

  1

  FROM A GLASS SHORE

  1

  Overture

  La, la, la, la-la;

  Can you see-ee any clearer from a glass shore?

  Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm-hmm…

  One line was all that came back to her. She stood on a fused beach with her arms folded, her boot heels scuffing the grainy, scratch-dulled surface, her gaze sweeping the flat horizons, and she half-whispered, half-sang that one remembered line.

  It was the slack-water of the atmosphere, when the day winds blowing onto the land had died, and the night-breeze, delayed by a warmth-lidding overcast, had yet to be born from the inertia of archipelagic air.

  Seaward, at the edge of a dark canopy of overhanging cloud, the sun was setting. Red-tinged waves fell toward the glass beach and surf frothed on the scoured slope, to be blown away along the curved blade of shore toward a distant line of dully glinting dunes. A smell of brine saturated the air; she breathed deeply, then started to walk along the beach.

  She was a little above average height. Her trousered legs looked slim beneath her thin jacket; black hair spilled thick and heavy down her back. When she turned her head a little, the red light of the sunset made one side of her face look flushed. Her heavy, knee-length boots made rasping noises as she walked. And as she walked, she limped; a soft bias in her tread like weakness.

  “. . . see-ee any clearer…” She sang softly to herself, pacing along the glass shore of Issier, wondering why she’d been summoned here, and why she had agreed to come.

 
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