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Mc9 put his grubby hands on the plank of rotten wood which formed one of the cart's sides and looked down at the legendary Road, wondering what had caused the cart's previously merely uncomfortable rattling to become a series of bone-jarring crashes. He expected to discover that they had lost a wheel, or that the snooze-prone carter had let the vehicle wander right off the Road into a boulder-field, but he saw neither of these things. He stared, goggle-eyed, at the Road surface for a moment, then collapsed back inside the cart. Retribution from beyond the grave, that's what this is. It lay on the horizon of the moor, a shimmering blur. Mc9 grinned as he saw it, then watched the silent, struggling horse-thing as it clopped and skidded its way along the Road; it was sweating heavily, and beset by a small cloud of flies buzzing around its ear-flapping head like bothersome electrons around some reluctant nucleus. The old carter woke up and lashed inaccurately at the nag between the shafts, then nodded back into his slumber.

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Vancouver Device: Apple iPad; iRex iLiad. Find More Posts by AlexC. Dec Location: Lemuria Device: Sony Find More Posts by morpheus. Aug Device: Originally Posted by morpheus Interestingly there is an active listing on Ebay for ten Iain Banks ebooks including Use Of Weapons and Consider Phlebas which claims they are in the 'public domain'.

Mc9 was falling asleep again, having had not the slightest intention of telling his companion a story in the first place. The companion prodded him in the back. The story! No go to sleep! What about the story? The carter woke up, turned round and clipped him across the ear.

The companion went quiet and sat there, rubbing the side of his head. He prodded Mc9 again and whispered, 'You said you'd tell me a story! The small companion made a hissing noise and sat back, his lips tight and his little hands clenched under his armpits. He glared at the Road stretching back to the wavering horizon. After a while, the companion shrugged, reached under the wineskin for his satchel and took out a small, fat black book.

He prodded Mc9 once more. Forget not that there are two sides to every story: The road went ever on. The carter snuffled and snored, the sweating nag panted and struggled, while Mc9 smiled in his sleep and moaned a little. His companion passed the time by squeezing blackheads from his nose, and then replacing them. Actually, the horse-like beast pulling the cart was the famous poet-scribe Abrusci from the planet Wellit-isn'tmarkedon my chartlieutenant, and she could have told the bored companion any number of fascinating stories from the times before the Empire's Pacification and Liberation of her homeworld.

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She could also have told them that the City was moving away from them across the moor as fast as they moved towards it, trundling across the endless heath on its millions of giant wheels as the continuous supply of vanquished Enemies of the Empire provided more trophies to be cemented into place on the famous Road of Skulls….

Money is a sign of poverty.

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I looked at the gun, lying small and precise in Cruizell's broad, scarred hand, and the first thing I thought - after: Where the hell did they get one of those? However appropriate the thought might have been, it wasn't much help. I was standing outside a no-credit gambling club in Vreccis Low City in the small hours of a wet weeknight, looking at a pretty, toy-like handgun while two large people I owed a lot of money to asked me to do something extremely dangerous and worse than illegal.

I was weighing up the relative attractions of trying to run away they'd shoot me , refusing they'd beat me up; probably I'd spend the next few weeks developing a serious medical bill , and doing what Kaddus and Cruizell asked me to do, knowing that while there was a chance I'd get away with it - uninjured, and solvent again - the most likely outcome was a messy and probably slow death while assisting the security services with their enquiries.

Kaddus and Cruizell were offering me all my markers back, plus - once the thing was done - a tidy sum on top, just to show there were no hard feelings.

So, I knew that logically what I ought to do was tell them where to shove their fancy designer pistol, and accept a theoretically painful but probably not terminal beating.

Hell, I could switch the pain off having a Culture background does have some advantages , but what about that hospital bill? Me with my back against the warm wall, the smell of wet pavements in my nose and a taste like metal in my mouth. Kaddus and Cruizell's limousine idled at the kerb; I could see the driver inside, watching us through an open window. Nobody passed on the street outside the narrow alley.

A police cruiser flew over, high up, lights flashing through the rain and illuminating the underside of the rain clouds over the city. Kaddus looked up briefly, then ignored the passing craft. Cruizell shoved the gun towards me. I tried to shrink back. I licked my lips, stared down at the pistol. Just touch it first, see if our information is correct. Go on; take it. Just remember to point it at the ground, not at us; the driver's got a laser on you and he might think you meant to use the gun on us… come on; take it, touch it.

I couldn't move, I couldn't think. Kaddus took hold of my right wrist and pulled my hand from my pocket. Cruizell held the gun up near my nose; Kaddus forced my hand onto the pistol. My hand closed round the grip like something lifeless. The gun came to life; a couple of lights blinked dully, and the small screen above the grip glowed, flickering round the edges.

Cruizell dropped his hand, leaving me holding the pistol; Kaddus smiled thinly. I held the gun and tried to imagine using it on the two men, but I knew I couldn't, whether the driver had me covered or not. Something else; I'll do anything else, but I'm not a hit-man; I can't -'.


After that, you just point and squirt: I shook my head. And him looking just like us. Kaddus smiled. I don't know the technical details; I just know our radical friends paid a lot of money for this thing.

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That's enough for me. Our radical friends. This was funny, coming from Kaddus. Probably he meant the Bright Path. People he'd always considered bad for business, just terrorists. I'd have imagined he'd sell them to the police on general principles, even if they did offer him lots of money. Was he starting to hedge his bets, or just being greedy? They have a saying here: Crime whispers; money talks.

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Anyway; they'll be some of the Guard, Naval brass, some Administration flunkeys, Secret Service agents… What do you care about them? I looked away from his tired grey eyes, down at the gun, quiet in my fist, small screen glowing faintly. Betrayed by my own skin, my own touch.

I thought about that hospital bill again. I felt like crying, but that wasn't the done thing amongst the men here, and what could I say? I was a woman. I was Culture. But I had renounced these things, and now I am a man, and now I am here in the Free City of Vreccis, where nothing is free. Cruizell looked disappointed.

Kaddus nodded. The ship arrives Ninthday; you know what it looks like? The underground's risky these days. You're going to shoot down a fucking starship. It'll be an experience. They went back to the car; it hummed into the night, tyres ripping at the rain-filled streets. I was left to watch the puddles grow, the gun hanging in my hand like guilt. Serial number Brain value point one.

AM battery powered, rating: Maximum power on single-bolt: Maximum rate of fire: Use limited to Culture genofixed individuals only through epidermal gene analysis. To use with gloves or light armour, access "modes" store via command buttons. Unauthorized use is both prohibited and punishable. The gun sat on the table, telling me all about itself in a high, tinny voice while I lay slumped in a lounger, staring out over a busy street in Vreccis Low City. Underground freight trains shook the rickety apartment block every few minutes, traffic buzzed at street level, rich people and police moved through the skies in fliers and cruisers, and above them all the starships sailed.

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Far in the distance over the city, I could just see the slender, shining tower of the city's Lev tube, rising straight towards and through the clouds, on its way to space. Why couldn't the Admiral use the Lev instead of making a big show of returning from the stars in his own ship? Maybe he thought a glorified elevator was too undignified. Vainglorious bastards, all of them. They deserved to die if you wanted to take that attitude , but why did I have to be the one to kill them?

Goddamned phallic starships. Not that the Lev was any less prick-like, and anyway, no doubt if the Admiral had been coming down by the tube Kaddus and Cruizell would have told me to shoot it down; holy shit. I was holding a long glass of jahl - Vreccis City's cheapest strong booze. It was my second glass, but I wasn't enjoying it. The gun chattered on, speaking to the sparsely furnished main room of our apartment.

I was waiting for Maust, missing him even more than usual. I looked at the terminal on my wrist; according to the time display he should be back any moment now. I looked out into the weak, watery light of dawn. I hadn't slept yet. The gun talked on. It used Marain, of course; the Culture's language. I hadn't heard that spoken for nearly eight standard years, and hearing it now I felt sad and foolish.

My birthright; my people, my language. Eight years away, eight years in the wilderness. My great adventure, my renunciation of what seemed to me sterile and lifeless to plunge into a more vital society, my grand gesture… well, now it seemed like an empty gesture, now it looked like a stupid, petulant thing to have done.

I drank some more of the sharp-tasting spirit. Had I been courageous I'd have had the whole damn lot taken out, returned to their human-normal state, our original animal inheritance… but I am not courageous.

I dread pain, and cannot face it naked, as these people do. I admire them, fear them, still cannot understand them. Not even Maust. In fact, least of all Maust. Perhaps you cannot ever love what you completely understand. Eight years in exile, lost to the Culture, never hearing that silky, subtle, complexly simple language, and now when I do hear Marain, it's from a gun, telling me how to fire it so I can kill… what?

Hundreds of people? Maybe thousands; it will depend on where the ship falls, whether it explodes could primitive starships explode?

I had no idea; that was never my field. I took another drink, shook my head. I couldn't do it. I am Wrobik Sennkil, Vreccile citizen number… I always forget; it's on my papers , male, prime race, aged thirty; part-time freelance journalist between jobs at the moment , and full-time gambler I tend to lose but I enjoy myself, or at least I did until last night. But I am, also, still Bahlln-Euchersa Wrobich Vress Schennil dam Flaysse, citizen of the Culture, born female, species mix too complicated to remember, aged sixty-eight, standard, and one-time member of the Contact section.

And a renegade; I chose to exercise the freedom the Culture is so proud of bestowing upon its inhabitants by leaving it altogether. It let me go, even helped me, reluctant though I was but could I have forged my own papers, made all the arrangements by myself? No, but at least, after my education into the ways of the Vreccile Economic Community, and after the module rose, dark and silent, back into the night sky and the waiting ship, I have turned only twice to the Culture's legacy of altered biology, and not once to its artefacts.

Until now; the gun rambles on. I abandoned a paradise I considered dull for a cruel and greedy system bubbling with life and incident; a place I thought I might find… what?

I don't know. I didn't know when I left and I don't know yet, though at least here I found Maust, and when I am with him my searching no longer seems so lonely. Until last night that search still seemed worthwhile.

Now Utopia sends a tiny package of destruction, a casual, accidental message. Where did Kaddus and Cruizell get the thing? The Culture guards its weaponry jealously, even embarrassedly. You can't buy Culture weapons, at least not from the Culture.

I suppose things go missing though; there is so much of everything in the Culture that objects must be mislaid occasionally. I took another drink, listening to the gun, and watching that watery, rainy-season sky over the rooftops, towers, aerials, dishes and domes of the Great City. Maybe guns slip out of the Culture's manicured grasp more often than other products do; they betoken danger, they signify threat, and they will only be needed where there must be a fair chance of losing them, so they must disappear now and again, be taken as prizes.

That, of course, is why they're built with inhibiting circuits which only let the weapons work for Culture people sensible, non-violent, non-acquisitive Culture people, who of course would only use a gun in self-defence, for example, if threatened by some comparative barbarian… oh the self-satisfied Culture: The Culture probably doesn't even make handguns any more.

I drank some more jahl. I looked at the time again; Maust was late. The club always closed promptly, because of the police. They weren't allowed to talk to the customers after work: Of course he'd be all right.

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I had other things to think about. I had to think this thing through. More jahl. No, I couldn't do it. The Culture's tellingly unique euphemism. I refused to live with such hypocrisy and chose instead this honestly selfish and avaricious society, which doesn't pretend to be good, just ambitious.

But I have lived here as I lived there, trying not to hurt others, trying just to be myself; and I cannot be myself by destroying a ship full of people, even if they are some of the rulers of this cruel and callous society. I can't use the gun; I can't let Kaddus and Cruizell find me. And I will not go back, head bowed, to the Culture. I had to get out. There were other cities, other planets, besides Vreccis; I'd just had to run; run and hide.

Would Maust come with me though? I looked at the time again; he was half an hour late. Not like him. Why was he late? I went to the window, looking down to the street, searching for him. A police APC rumbled through the traffic. Just a routine cruise; siren off, guns stowed.

It was heading for the Outworlder's Quarter, where the police had been making shows of strength recently. No sign of Maust's svelte shape swinging through the crowds. Always the worry. That he might be run over, that the police might arrest him at the club indecency, corrupting public morals, and homosexuality; that great crime, even worse than not making your pay-off! I remember feeling cheated when I discovered, towards the end of my regendering, that I still felt drawn to men.

That was long ago, when I was happy in the Culture, and like many people I had wondered what it would be like to love those of my own original sex; it seemed terribly unfair that my desires did not alter with my physiology. It took Maust to make me feel I had not been cheated. Maust made everything better. Maust was my breath of life. The gun skidded across the table and fell to the floor. Irreversible deactivation will result if any attempt is made to dismantle or -'.

I picked it up and put it in the pocket of a jacket hanging over a chair. Damn the Culture; damn all guns. I went to get more drink, a heaviness inside me as I looked at the time again.

Come home, please come home… and then come away, come away with me…. I fell asleep in front of the screen, a knot of dull panic in my belly competing with the spinning sensation in my head as I watched the news and worried about Maust, trying not to think of too many things.

The news was full of executed terrorists and famous victories in small, distant wars against aliens, out-worlders, subhumans.

The last report I remember was about a riot in a city on another planet; there was no mention of civilian deaths, but I remember a shot of a broad street littered with crumpled shoes. The item closed with an injured policeman being interviewed in hospital.

Maust found me there hours later, when he got back. The club had been raided and he hadn't been allowed to contact me. He held me as I cried, shushing me back to sleep. Risaret's putting on a new show next season and he's looking for new faces; it'll be big-time, straight stuff. A High City deal. I can't leave now; I've got my foot in the door.

Please understand. I pulled it away. I can't stay.

So I have to go; there's nothing else I can do. Maust started to clear away the plates and containers, shaking his long, graceful head. I hadn't eaten much; partly hangover, partly nerves. It was a muggy, enervating mid-morning; the tenement's conditioning plant had broken down again. I watched his slim back as he moved to the kitchen. Don't you trust me?

What could I say? That I didn't know if I did trust him? That I loved him but: That had been my secret, and I'd told only him. So how did Kaddus and Cruizell know? How did Bright Path know? My sinuous, erotic, faithless dancer. Did you think because I always remained silent that I didn't know of all the times you deceived me? You're protecting me. How awfully gallant.

These people want me to do something I just can't do. If I don't do it they'll… they'll at least hurt me, badly. I don't know what they'll do. They… they might even try to hurt me through you.

That was why I was so worried when you were late; I thought maybe they'd taken you. Not as romantic as your dealings with gangsters and baddies, but important to me. I've enough to worry about. You're overreacting.

Take a pill or something; go back to sleep; it'll look better later. I listened to him moving about in the kitchen. A police siren moaned overhead. Music filtered through from the apartment below.

I went to the door of the kitchen. Maust was drying his hands. He came up to me, held me by the shoulders. And then what? Climb the outside of the Lev and fly to the sun on your magic bicycle? I put my hands on his and removed them slowly from my shoulders. I just have to shoot down the ship, that's all. I have… they gave me a gun that can do it.

He frowned, shaking his head, looked puzzled from a second, then laughed again. This can do it. My people made it and the ship… the state has no defence against something like this. Maust snorted, then took the gun from me. Its lights flicked off. It reads the genetic make-up of my skin, knows I am Culture. Don't look at me like that; it's true. I had the gun recite the first part of its monologue and switched the tiny screen to holo. Maust inspected the gun while I held it. It'll only work for me, and you can't get round its fidelities; it'll deactivate.

I didn't really believe you when you told me that tale, did you know that, my love? I thought you were just trying to impress me. Now I think I believe you. I crouched down in front of him, put the gun on the table and my hands on his lap. We have to leave. Today or tomorrow. Before they think of another way to make me do this. Maust smiled, ruffled my hair. So desperately anxious. Go if you feel you must, but I can't come with you.

Don't you know what this chance means to me? All my life I've wanted this; I may not get another opportunity. I have to stay, whatever. You go; go for as long as you must and don't tell me where you've gone.

That way they can't use me, can they? Get in touch through a friend, once the dust has settled. Then we'll see. Perhaps you can come back; perhaps I'll have missed my big chance anyway and I'll come to join you. It'll be all right. We'll work something out. He hugged me, rocking me. You'll be a hit wherever you go, my beauty; I'll probably have to kill some knife-fighter to win you back.

I'll come to wave you goodbye, but I can't come with you. He held me while I cried; the gun lay silent and dull on the table at his side, surrounded by the debris of our meal. I was leaving. Fire escape from the flat just before dawn, over two walls clutching my travelling bag, a taxi from General Thetropsis Avenue to Intercontinental Station… then I'd catch a Railtube train to Bryme and take the Lev there, hoping for a standby on almost anything heading Out, either trans or inter.

Maust had lent me some of his savings, and I still had a little high-rate credit left; I could make it. I left my terminal in the apartment. The station was crowded. I felt fairly safe in the high, echoing halls, surrounded by people and business. Maust was coming from the club to see me off; he'd promised to make sure he wasn't followed.

I had just enough time to leave the gun at Left Luggage. I'd post the key to Kaddus, try to leave him a little less murderous. They told me the delay was caused by the porters searching all bags and cases for bombs; a new security measure. Post the damn thing, or even just drop it in a waste bin. I waited in the bar, sipping at something innocuous.

I kept looking at my wrist, then feeling foolish. Maust was late. There was a screen in the bar, showing a news bulletin.

They mentioned the return of the Admiral of the Fleet, due in two days. I looked at the screen, smiling nervously. Yeah, and you'll never know how close the bastard came to getting blown out of the skies.

For a moment or two I felt important, almost heroic. Then the bombshell; just a mention - an aside, tacked on, the sort of thing they'd have cut had the programme been a few seconds over - that the Admiral would be bringing a guest with him; an ambassador from the Culture. I choked on my drink. What was the Culture doing anyway?

An ambassador? The Vreccile people had little idea how advanced or widely spread the Culture was, though the court and Navy had a fairly good idea. Enough to make them slightly though had they known it, still not remotely sufficiently paranoid. What was an ambassador for? And who was really behind the attempt on the ship? Bright Path would be indifferent to the fate of a single outworlder compared to the propaganda coup of pulling down a starship, but what if the gun hadn't come from them, but from a grouping in the court itself, or from the Navy?

The VEC had problems; social problems, political problems. Maybe the President and his cronies were thinking about asking the Culture for aid. The price might involve the sort of changes some of the more corrupt officials would find terminally threatening to their luxurious lifestyles. Shit, I didn't know; maybe the whole attempt to take out the ship was some loony in Security or the Navy trying to settle an old score, or just skip the next few rungs on the promotion ladder.

I was still thinking about this when they paged me. I sat still. The station PA called for me, three times. A phonecall. I told myself it was just Maust, calling to say he had been delayed; he knew I was leaving the terminal at the apartment so he couldn't call me direct. But would he announce my name all over a crowded station when he knew I was trying to leave quietly and unseen? Did he still take it all so lightly? I didn't want to answer that call.

I didn't even want to think about it. My train was leaving in ten minutes; I picked up my bag. The PA asked for me again, this time mentioning Maust's name. So I had no choice. He was in some office; anonymous, bland. Maust was standing, pale and frightened, just behind Kaddus' seat.

Cruizell stood right behind Maust, grinning over his slim shoulder. Cruizell moved slightly, and Maust flinched. I saw him bite his lip. I thought we had a date, yes? I'll… stick around for… a couple of days. Maust, I -' The screen went grey. I turned round slowly in the booth and looked at my bag, where the gun was. I picked the bag up. I stood in the park, surrounded by dripping trees and worn rocks. Paths carved into the tired top-soil led in various directions.

The earth smelled warm and damp. I looked down from the top of the gently sloped escarpment to where pleasure boats sailed in the dusk, lights reflecting on the still waters of the boating lake. The duskward quarter of the city was a hazy platform of light in the distance. I heard birds calling from the trees around me. The aircraft lights of the Lev rose like a rope of flashing red beads into the blue evening sky; the port at the Lev's summit shone, still uneclipsed, in sunlight a hundred kilometres overhead.

I couldn't see the ship yet.

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I sat down on a tree stump, drawing my coat about me. The gun was in my hand; on, ready, ranged, set. I had tried to be thorough and professional, as though I knew what I was doing; I'd even left a hired motorbike in some bushes on the far side of the escarpment, down near the busy parkway. I might actually get away with this.

So I told myself, anyway. I looked at the gun. I considered using it to try and rescue Maust, or maybe using it to kill myself; I'd even considered taking it to the police another, slower form of suicide.

But in the end; nothing. Something glinted in the skies above the city; a pattern of falling, golden lights. The central light was brighter and larger than the others.

I had thought I could feel no more, but there was a sharp taste in my mouth, and my hands were shaking. Perhaps I would go berserk, once the ship was down, and attack the Lev too; bring the whole thing smashing down or would part of it go spinning off into space?