The Player of Games is a science fiction novel by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, first published in . Create a book · Download as PDF · Printable version. Every now and then I read a book expecting nothing more than entertainment, and am instead challenged to examine my life and assumptions. The Player of. Download Best Book The Player of Games (Culture), PDF FILE Download The Player of Games (Culture) Free Collection, PDF Download The.
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'I follow all your games; I have a complete set of your theoretical works on file ' . There were other human players in the Culture who could beat him - though. Editorial Reviews. ronaldweinland.info Review. In The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks presents a distant future that could almost be called the end of history. Humanity . It is Humanity has made it to the stars. Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, will be fortunate if he makes it to the end of the .
It is basically a giant, all-expenses paid, never-ending vacation in the most amazing high-tech resort you can imagine where the citizens of the culture get to eat I know, I know…DUH!!
Therefore, the Culture novels mainly deal with either individuals outside of the Culture or with the Culture's efforts to expand its influence over a non-Culture society. Through his numerous bio-enhancements another perk of the Culture , he has mastered s and s of games and can absorb and master new ones incredibly fast.
I would describe Special Circumstances SC as a cross between the CIA and the State Department because they both investigate and establish ties with other cultures in order to learn their customs so they can then determine how best to manipulate them into joining the Culture. It is seriously sweet. Well SC wants Gurgeh to employ his talents to learn a new game.
There is a massive civilization called the Empire of Azad that derives its name from an incredibly complex game called…uh… Azad. This game is central to the entire structure of the Empire's society and is so incredibly complex and nuanced that it takes a lifetime to be able to play. He controls his story very well and you can be confidant that you are in capable hands.
This is space opera done very well by someone who has the writing chops to actually convey the wonder of his imagination to those of us who can only envy his talents.
I expected nothing at all, or just information. Might I ask just what you're doing here? There was one sandwich left on the plate just in front of the drone. Gurgeh took it and ate, munching and looking at the machine. I am here to ascertain just how open to suggestions you are. Contact might be able to find you something which would interest you. A few crumbs flew towards the drone, as he'd hoped they might, but it fielded each one, flicking them neatly to the centre of the plate in front of it.
I believe it to be connected with a game. I am instructed to discover how willing you might be to travel. I therefore assume the game - if such it is - is to be played in a location besides Chiark.
He sat back. How far? How long? Gurgeh's eyes narrowed. The longest he'd spent away from Chiark had been when he'd gone on a cruise once, thirty years earlier.
He hadn't enjoyed it especially.
He'd gone more because it was the done thing to travel at that age than because he'd wanted to. The different stellar systems had been spectacular, but you could see just as good a view on a holoscreen, and he still didn't really understand what people saw in actually having been in any particular system. He'd planned to spend a few years on that cruise, but gave up after one.
Gurgeh rubbed his beard. Say that, though; say half a year… not that I can see it's necessary. Local colour rarely adds that much to a game. It is likely you would have to devote yourself to it for some time. The longest it had taken him to learn any game had been three days; he hadn't forgotten any rule of any game in all his life, nor ever had to learn one twice.
Farewell, Morat Gurgeh. Gurgeh looked up at it, mouth open. He resisted the urge to jump up. The small machine stopped a couple of metres up. I've asked you what I was supposed to ask you. Now I report back. Why, is there anything else you would like to know I might be able to help you with?
The machine seemed to waver in the air. Its fields hadn't changed since its arrival. Eventually, it said, 'Jernau Gurgeh? There was a long moment when they were both silent. Gurgeh stared at the machine, then stood up, put both hands on his hips and his head to one side and shouted, 'Yes?
Probably not,' the drone snapped, and instantly rose straight up, fields flicking off. He heard the roaring noise and saw the vapour-trail form; it was a single tiny cloud at first because he was right underneath it, then it lengthened slowly for a few seconds, before suddenly ceasing to grow. He shook his head. He took out the pocket terminal. He stared at the terminal. The one that was just here! There have been two of those since, but-'. Gurgeh was still looking at the sky overhead, partly because that was where the Contact drone had gone the thin vapour-trail was starting to expand and drift , and partly because people tended to look in the direction of the Hub when they were talking to it.
He noticed the extra star just before it started to move. The light-point was near the trailing end of the little drone's farside-lit contrail. He frowned. Almost immediately, it moved; only moderately fast at first, then too quickly for the eye to anticipate. It disappeared. He was silent for a moment, then said, 'Hub, has a Contact ship just left here?
It was you , was it? We thought it was going to take months to work that one out. You've just seen a Private visit, game-player Gurgeh; Contact business; not for us to know. Wow , were we inquisitive though. Very glamorous, Jernau, if we may say so. That ship crash-stopped from at least forty kilolights and swerved twenty years… just for a five-minute chat with you, it would seem.
That is serious energy usage… especially as it's accelerating away just as fast. Look at that kid go… oh, sorry; you can't. Well, take it from us; we're impressed. Care to tell a humble Hub Mind subsection what it was all about? Business end pointed straight back at a mere civilian machine like ourselves…? That's equiv-tech espionage-level SC nomenclature. Heavy messing…. We'll try….
Just a moment. That ship's acknowledging but it's claiming there is no drone of that name or anything like it aboard. Gurgeh slumped back in the seat. His neck was stiff. He looked down from the stars, down at the table. The little drone's ghostly vapour-trail had almost disappeared.
It's over. But obviously my request went further and quicker than I thought it would. We triggered something. But you've put them off. They aren't interested any more. He looked up at the stars. If it had been purely personal we wouldn't have listened to a word, we swear, and besides, it'd be notified on your daily communication statement we were listening.
Hightailing it in a direction a little up-spin of Galactic Core. I'm sorry for suggesting Contact. They came too fast and too hard to be casual.
He looked back at the stars again, and sat back, swinging his foot up on to the table. We managed. Will I see you at Tronze tomorrow? I don't know. I'll think about it. Good luck - I mean against this wonderchild, at Stricken - if I don't see you tomorrow.
The train emerged from the tunnel into bright sunlight. It banked round the remainder of the curve, then set out across the slender bridge. Gurgeh looked over the handrail and saw the lush green pastures and brightly winding river half a kilometre below on the valley floor. Shadows of mountains lay across the narrow meadows; shadows of clouds freckled the tree-covered hills themselves. The wind of the train's slipstream ruffled his hair as he drank in the sweet, scented mountain air and waited for his opponent to return.
Birds circled in the distance over the valley, almost level with the bridge. Their cries sounded through the still air, just audible over the windrush sound of the train's passing. Normally he'd have waited until he was due in Tronze that evening and go there underground, but that morning he'd felt like getting away from Ikroh.
He'd put on boots, a pair of conservatively styled pants and a short open jacket, then taken to the hill paths, hiking over the mountain and down the other side. He'd sat by the side of the old railway line, glanding a mild buzz and amusing himself by chucking little bits of lodestone into the track's magnetic field and watching them bounce out again.
He'd thought about Yay's floating islands. He'd also thought about the mysterious visitation from the Contact drone, on the previous evening, but somehow that just would not come clear; it was as though it had been a dream. He had checked the house communication and systems statement: So it had happened all right. He'd flagged down the antique train when it appeared, and even as he'd climbed on had been recognised by a middle-aged man called Dreltram, also making his way to Tronze.
Mr Dreltram would treasure a defeat at the hands of the great Jernau Gurgeh more than victory over anybody else; would he play? Gurgeh was well used to such flattery - it usually masked an unrealistic but slightly feral ambition - but had suggested they play Possession. It shared enough rule-concepts with Stricken to make it a decent limbering-up exercise. They'd found a Possession set in one of the bars and taken it out on to the roof-deck, sitting behind a windbreak so that the cards wouldn't blow away.
They ought to have enough time to complete the game; the train would take most of the day to get to Tronze, a journey an underground car could accomplish in ten minutes. The train left the bridge and entered a deep, narrow ravine, its slipstream producing an eerie, echoing noise off the natched rocks on either side.
Gurgeh looked at the game-board. He was playing straight, without the help of any glanded substances; his opponent was using a potent mixture suggested by Gurgeh himself.
In addition, Gurgeh had given Mr Dreltram a seven-piece lead at the start, which was the maximum allowed. The fellow wasn't a bad player, and had come near to overwhelming Gurgeh at the start, when his advantage in pieces had the greatest effect, but Gurgeh had defended well and the man's chance had probably gone, though there was still the possibility he might have a few mines left in awkward places.
Thinking of such unpleasant surprises, Gurgeh realised he hadn't looked at where his own hidden piece was. This had been another, unofficial, way of making the game more even. Possession is played on a forty-square grid; the two players' pieces are distributed in one major group and two minor groups each.
Up to three pieces can be hidden on different initially unoccupied intersections. Their locations are dialled - and locked - into three circular cards; thin ceramic wafers which are turned over only when the player wishes to bring those pieces into play.
Mr Dreltram had already revealed all three of his hidden pieces one had happened to be on the intersection Gurgeh had, sportingly, sown all nine of his mines on, which really was bad luck.
Gurgeh had spun the dials on his single hidden-piece wafer and put it face down on the table without looking at it; he had no more idea where that piece was than Mr Dreltram. It might turn out to be in an illegal position, which could well lose him the game, or less likely it might turn up in a strategically useful place deep inside his opponent's territory.
Gurgeh liked playing this way, if it wasn't a serious game; as well as giving his opponent a probably needed extra advantage, it made the game as a whole more interesting and less predictable; added an extra spice to the proceedings. He supposed he ought to find out where the piece was; the eighty-move point was fast approaching when the piece had to be revealed anyway. He couldn't see his hidden-piece wafer. He looked over the card and wafer-strewn table. Mr Dreltram was not the most tidy of players; his cards and wafers and unused or removed pieces were scattered over most of the table, including the part supposed to be Gurgeh's.
A gust of wind when they'd entered a tunnel an hour earlier had almost blown some of the lighter cards away, and they'd weighed them down with goblets and lead-glass paperweights; these added to the impression of confusion, as did Mr Dreltram's quaint, if rather affected, custom of noting down all the moves by hand on a scratch tablet he claimed the built-in memory on a board had broken down on him once, and lost him all record of one of the best games he'd ever played.
Gurgeh started lifting bits and pieces up, humming to himself and looking for the flat wafer. He heard a sudden intake of breath, then what sounded like a rather embarrassed cough, just behind him.
He turned round to see Mr Dreltram behind him, looking oddly awkward. Gurgeh frowned as Mr Dreltram, just returned from the bathroom, his eyes wide with the mixture of drugs he was glanding, and followed by a tray bearing drinks, sat down again, staring at Gurgeh's hands. It was only then, as the tray set the glasses on the table, that Gurgeh realised the cards he happened to be holding, which he had lifted up to look for his hidden-piece wafer, were Mr Dreltram's remaining mine-cards.
Gurgeh looked at them - they were still face down; he hadn't seen where the mines were - and understood what Mr Dreltram must be thinking. He put the cards back where he'd found them. He saw it, even as he spoke the words.
The circular wafer was lying, uncovered, almost right in front of him on the table. Couldn't see it for looking at it. He laughed again, and as he did so felt a strange, clutching sensation coursing through him, seeming to squeeze his guts in something between terror and ecstasy. He had never experienced anything like it. The closest any sensation had ever come, he thought suddenly, clearly , had been when he was still a boy and he'd experienced his first orgasm, at the hands of a girl a few years older than him.
Crude, purely human-basic, like a single instrument picking out a simple theme a note at a time compared to the drug-gland-boosted symphonies sex would later become , that first time had nevertheless been one of his most memorable experiences; not just because it was then novel, but because it seemed to open up a whole new fascinating world, an entirely different type of sensation and being.
It had been the same when he'd played his first competition game, as a child, representing Chiark against another Orbital's junior team, and it would be the same again when his drug-glands matured, a few years after puberty.
Gurgeh played furiously for the next few moves, and had to be reminded by his opponent when the eighty-move deadline came up. Gurgeh turned over his hidden piece without having checked it first, risking it occupying the same square as one of his revealed pieces.
The hidden piece, on a sixteen-hundred-to-one chance, turned up in the same position as the Heart; the piece the whole game was about; the piece one's opponent was trying to take possession of. Gurgeh stared at the intersection where his well-defended Heart piece sat, then again at the coordinates he'd dialled at random on to the wafer, two hours earlier.
They were the same, there was no doubt. If he' d looked a move earlier, he could have moved the Heart out of danger, but he hadn't. He'd lost both pieces; and with the Heart lost, the game was lost; he'd lost. Gurgeh nodded.
He put the Heart down, lifted the ceramic wafer which had betrayed him. The train rolled quietly into a tunnel, slowing for a station set in the caverns inside the mountain.
Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elegant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games.
By being unknowable, by resulting from events which, at the sub-atomic level, cannot be fully predicted, the future remains malleable, and retains the possibility of change, the hope of coming to prevail; victory, to use an unfashionable word. In this, the future is a game; time is one of the rules.
Generally, all the best mechanistic games - those which can be played in any sense "perfectly", such as grid, Prallian scope, 'nkraytle, chess, Farnic dimensions - can be traced to civilisations lacking a relativistic view of the universe let alone the reality. They are also, I might add, invariably pre-machine sentience societies.
To attempt to construct a game on any other lines, no matter how complicated and subtle the rules are, and regardless of the scale and differentiation of the playing volume and the variety of the powers and attributes of the pieces, is inevitably to shackle oneself to a conspectus which is not merely socially but techno-philosophically lagging several ages behind our own.
As a historical exercise it might have some value. As a work of the intellect, it's just a waste of time. If you want to make something old-fashioned, why not build a wooden sailing boat, or a steam engine?
They're just as complicated and demanding as a mechanistic game, and you'll keep fit at the same time. Gurgeh gave an ironic bow to the young man who'd approached him with an idea for a game. The fellow looked nonplussed. He took a breath and opened his mouth to speak. Gurgeh was waiting for this; as he had on the last five or six occasions when the young man had tried to say something, Gurgeh interrupted him before he'd even started.
The same lessons can be learned, the same skills acquired, at the only levels that really matter. He could see the drone Mawhrin-Skel floating towards him over the heads of the people thronging the broad plaza. The main concert was over. The mountain summits around Tronze echoed to the sounds of various smaller bands as people gravitated towards the specific musical forms they preferred; some formal, some improvised, some for dancing, some for experiencing under a specific drug-trance.
It was a warm, cloudy night; a little farside light shone a milky halo directly overhead on the high overcast. Tronze, the largest town on both the Plate and the Orbital, had been built on the edge of the Gevant Plate's great central massif, at the point where the kilometre-high Lake Tronze flowed over the lip of the plateau and tumbled its waters towards the plain below, where they fell as a permanent downpour into the rain forest.
Tronze was the home of fewer than a hundred thousand people, but to Gurgeh it still felt too crowded, despite its spacious houses and squares, its sweeping galleries and plazas and terraces, its thousands of houseboats and its elegant, bridge-linked towers.
Tronze, for all the fact that Chiark was a fairly recent Orbital, only a thousand or so years old, was already almost as big as any Orbital community ever grew; the Culture's real cities were its great ships, the General Systems Vehicles. Orbitals were its rustic hinterland, where people liked to spread themselves out with plenty of elbow room. In terms of scale, when compared to one of the larger GSVs containing billions of people, Tronze was barely a village.
Gurgeh usually attended the Tronze Sixty-fourth Day concert. And he was usually buttonholed by enthusiasts. Normally Gurgeh was civil, if occasionally abrupt. Tonight, after the fiasco on the train, and that strange, exciting, shaming pulse of emotion he'd experienced as a result of being thought to cheat, not to mention the slight nervousness he felt because he'd heard the girl off the GSV Cargo Cult was indeed here in Tronze this evening and looking forward to meeting him, he was in no mood to suffer fools gladly.
Not that the unlucky young male was necessarily a complete idiot; all he'd done was sketch out what had been, after all, not a bad idea for a game; but Gurgeh had fallen on him like an avalanche. The conversation - if you could call it that - had become a game. The object was to keep talking; not to talk continuously, which any idiot could do, but to pause only when the young man was not signalling - through bodily or facial language, or actually starting to speak - that he wanted to cut in.
Instead, Gurgeh would stop unexpectedly in the middle of a point, or after having just said something mildly insulting, but while still giving the impression he was going to keep talking. Also, Gurgeh was quoting almost verbatim from one of his own more famous papers on game-theory; an added insult, as the young man probably knew the text as well as he did.
Been up to any fresh mischief? Gurgeh sat in a creeper-covered pergola positioned close to one edge of the plaza, near the observation platforms which reached out over the broad curtain of the falls, where spray rose from the rapids lying between the lip of the lake and the vertical drop to the forest a kilometre below. The roaring falls provided a background wash of white noise. It extended one softly glowing blue field and plucked a nightflower from a growing vine.
Mawhrin-Skel floated silently for a moment or two as Gurgeh climbed some steps - Gurgeh nodded and said hello to a few people then the machine came close to him and said quietly, as it slowly stripped the petals from the dying blossom, 'Want me to tell you your heart rate, skin receptivity level, pheromone signature, neuron function-state…?
He turned to face the drone, looking through half-hooded eyes at the tiny machine. Music drifted over the lake, and the air was full of the nightflowers' musky scent. The lighting set into the stone balustrades lit the game-player's face from underneath. People flooding down the steps from the terrace above, laughing and joking, parted round the man like waters round a rock, and - Mawhrin-Skel noticed - went oddly quiet as they did so.
After a few seconds, as Gurgeh stood there, silent, breathing evenly, the little drone made a shuckling noise. I can't tell just yet what you're glanding, but that's a very impressive degree of control. Everything parameter-centred, near as damn. Except your neuron function-state; that's even less like normal than usual, but then your average civilian drone probably couldn't spot that. Well done. It dropped the husk in the water channel which ran along the top of the balustrade.
Estray Hafflis's party of thirty or so people sat round a huge, rectangular stone table set on a balcony jutting out over the falls and covered by stone arches strung with nightflower vines and softly shining paper lanterns; there were music-players at one end, sitting on the edge of the great slab with drums and strings and air instruments; they were laughing and playing mostly for themselves, each trying to play too fast for the others to follow.
Set into the centre of the table was a long narrow pit full of glowing coals; a kind of miniaturised bucket-line trundled above the fire, carrying little meat and vegetable pieces from one end of the table to the other; they were skewered on to the line at one end by one of Haftlis's children, and removed at the other end, wrapped in edible paper and thrown with a fair degree of accuracy to anybody who wanted them, by Hafflis's youngest, who was only six.
Hafflis was unusual in having had seven children; normally people bore one and fathered one. The Culture frowned on such profligacy, but Hafflis just liked being pregnant. He was in a male stage at the moment, however, having changed a few years earlier. He and Gurgeh exchanged pleasantries, then Hafflis showed the game-player to a seat beside Professor Boruelal, who was grinning happily and swaying in her seat.
She wore a long black and white robe, and when she saw Gurgeh kissed him noisily on the lips. She attempted to kiss Mawhrin-Skel too, but it flicked away. She laughed, and speared a half-done piece of meat from the line over the centre of the table with a long fork.
Meet the lovely Olz Hap! Olz; Jernau Gurgeh. Come on; shake hands! Gurgeh sat down, taking the small, pale hand of the frightened-looking girl on Boruelal's right.
She was wearing something dark and shapeless, and was in her early teens, at most. He smiled with a slight frown, glancing at the professor, trying to share the joke of her inebria with the young blonde girl, but Olz Hap was looking at his hand, not his face.
She let her hand be touched but then withdrew it almost immediately. She sat on her hands and stared at her plate. Boruelal breathed deeply, seeming to gather herself together. She took a drink from a tall glass in front of her. The girl brought her head up to look at the machine, and Gurgeh listened to their conversation at the same time as he and Boruelal talked. Have to get somebody else. Suppose I could come down in time but… naa…'. That's very sweet of you; so few people bother.
How nice to meet you. We've all heard so much. You needn't be. Nobody'll force you to play. Least of all Gurgeh, believe me. The young girl looked straight at Gurgeh. Her eyes were bright in the glare of the line of fire running down the centre of the table.
Mawhrin-Skel's fields glowed red with pleasure, momentarily brighter than the coals. Hafflis had loaned his own ancient Stricken set out; it took a few minutes for a supply drone to bring one from a town store. They set it up at one end of the balcony, by the edge overlooking the roaring white falls. Professor Boruelal fumbled with her terminal and put in a request for some adjudicating drones to oversee the match; Stricken was susceptible to high-tech cheating, and a serious game required that steps be taken to ensure nothing underhand went on.
A drone visiting from Chiark Hub volunteered, as did a Manufactury drone from the shipyard under the massif. One of the university's own machines would represent Olz Hap. Gurgeh turned to Mawhrin-Skel, to ask it to be his representative, but it said, 'Jernau Gurgeh; I thought you might like Chamlis Amalk-ney to represent you. Chamlis's voice spoke from the button.
Do you want me to? Chamlis turned its sensing band to the smaller machine. Mawhrin-Skel's fields blazed brightly, painfully white, lighting up the entire balcony for a second; people stopped talking and turned; the music hesitated. The tiny drone seemed almost literally to shake with dumb rage. The coals blazed bright, a wind whipped at clothes and hair, several of the paper lanterns bucked and shook and fell from the arches overhead; leaves and nightflowers drifted down from the two arches immediately over where Mawhrin-Skel had been floating.
Chamlis Amalk-ney, red with happiness, tipped to look up into the dark sky, where a small hole appeared briefly in the cloud cover. Amalk-ney bowed in mid-air to the other drones, and to Boruelal. Stricken is played in a three-dimensional web stretched inside a metre cube.
The traditional materials are taken from a certain animal on the planet of origin; cured tendon for the web, tusk ivory for the frame. The set Gurgeh and Olz Hap used was synthetic. They each put up their hinged screens, took the bags of hollow globes and coloured beads nutshells and stones in the original and selected the beads they wanted, locking them in the globes. The adjudicating drones ensured there was no possibility of anyone seeing which beads went into which shells. Then the man and the girl each took a handful of the little spheres and placed them in various places inside the web.
The game had begun. She was good. Gurgeh was impressed. Olz Hap was impetuous but canny, brave but not stupid. She was also very lucky.
But there was luck and luck. Sometimes you could sniff it out, recognise things were going well and would probably continue to go well, and play to that. If things did keep going right, you profited extravagantly. If the luck didn't persist, well, you just played the percentages. The girl had that sort of luck, that night.
She made the right guesses about Gurgeh's pieces, capturing several strong beads in weak disguises; she anticipated moves he'd sealed in the Foretell shells; and she ignored the tempting traps and feints he set up. Somehow he struggled on, coming up with desperate, improvised defences against each attack, but it was all too seat-of-the-pants, too extemporary and tactical. He wasn't being allowed the time to develop his pieces or plan a strategy. He was responding, following, replying. It was some time before he realised just how audacious the girl was being.
She was going for a Full Web; the simultaneous capture of every remaining point in the game-space. She wasn't just trying to win, she was trying to pull off a coup which only a handful of the game's greatest players had ever accomplished, and which nobody in the Culture - to Gurgeh's knowledge - had yet achieved.
Gurgeh could hardly believe it, but it was what she was doing. She was sapping pieces but not obliterating them, then falling back; she was striking out through his own avenues of weakness, then holding there. She was inviting him to come back, of course, giving him a better chance of winning, and indeed of achieving the same momentous result, though with far less hope of doing so.
But the self-confidence of it! The experience and even arrogance such a course implied! He looked at the slight, calm-faced girl through the web of thin wires and little suspended spheres, and could not help but admire her ambition, her vaulting ability and self-belief.
She was playing for the grand gesture, and to the gallery, not settling for a reasonable win, despite the fact that the reasonable win would be over a famous, respected game-player.
And Boruelal had thought she might feel intimidated by him! Well, good for her. Gurgeh sat forward, rubbing his beard, oblivious of the people now packing the balcony, silently watching the game. He struggled back into it somehow. Partly luck, partly more skill than even he thought he possessed. The game was still poised for a Full Web victory, and she was still the most likely to achieve it, but at least his position looked less hopeless.
Somebody brought him a glass of water and something to eat. He vaguely recalled being grateful. The game went on. People came and went around him. The web held all his fortune; the little spheres, holding their secret treasures and threats, became like discrete parcels of life and death, single points of probability which could be guessed at but never known until they were challenged, opened, looked at.
All reality seemed to hinge on those infinitesimal bundles of meaning. He no longer knew what body-made drugs washed through him, nor could he guess what the girl was using. He had lost all sense of self and time. The game drifted for a few moves, as they both lost concentration, then came alive again. He became aware, very slowly, very gradually, that he held some impossibly complex model of the contest in his head, unknowably dense, multifariously planed.
He saw a way to win. The Full Web remained a possibility. His, now. It all depended. Another twist. Yes; he would win. Almost certainly. But that was no longer enough. The Full Web beckoned, tantalisingly, seductively, entrancingly…. He looked up. There was a hint of dawn over the mountains. Boruelal's face looked grey and sober. It's been six hours. Do you agree?
A break, yes? He looked through the web at the pale, waxen face of the young girl. He gazed round in a sort of daze. Most of the people had gone. The paper lanterns had disappeared, too; he fell vaguely sorry to have missed the little ritual of throwing the glowing lamps over the terrace edge and watching them drift down to the forest. Yes, of course,' he croaked.
He got up, stiff and sore, muscles protesting and joints creaking. Chamlis had to stay with the game-set, to ensure the adjudication. Grey dawn spread across the sky. Somebody gave him some hot soup, which he sipped while he ate a few crackers and wandered through the quiet arcades for a while, where a few people slept or still sat and talked, or danced to quiet, recorded music.
He leant on the balustrade above the kilometre drop, sipping and munching, dazed and vacant from the game, still playing and replaying it somewhere inside his head.
The lights of the towns and villages on the mist-strewn plain below, beyond the semi-circle of dark rain forest, looked pale and uncertain. Distant mountain tops shone pink and naked. He looked over the plain. The drone Mawhrin-Skel floated a metre from his face. I think I'll win now… pretty sure in fact. But there's just a chance I might win…' He felt himself smiling. It kept its voice soft, though there was nobody near by.
Its fields were off. Its surface was an odd, mottled mixture of grey tones. The drone seemed to understand. He left the soup bowl balanced on the balustrade. Mawhrin-Skel drifted closer. Somebody will, but does it count for much who does?
It would appear to be a very unlikely eventuality in any given game… has it really much to do with skill? He drew his jacket closer about him. He looked at the tiny drone again, frowning. Somebody else will do it, some time.
The drug-trance was dissipating, the spell breaking. He felt keen, keyed-up; nervous and excited at once. The drone floated closer. They didn't tear everything out of me when they turned me away from SC. I have more senses than cretins like Amalk-ney have even heard of. Let me help you to the Full Web.
Gurgeh stood back from the balustrade, shaking his head. The other drones-'. Trust me. Another SC machine, definitely not; a Contact drone, probably not… but this gang of obsoletes? I could find out where every bead that girl has placed is. Every single one!
Better yet! Let me do it! Just to prove to you! To myself! There was nobody near by. The paper lanterns and the stone ribs they hung from were invisible from where he stood. The girl can't lose any more than she has already. Let her be part of a game that will go down in history. Give her that! It backed away a little. It spoke so low he had to lean out over the drop to hear it.
All is luck when skill's played out. It was luck left me with a face that didn't fit in Contact, it's luck that's made you a great game-player, it's luck that's put you here tonight. Neither of us were fully planned, Jernau Gurgeh; your genes determined you and your mother's genofixing made certain you would not be a cripple or mentally subnormal.
The rest is chance. I was brought into being with the freedom to be myself; if what that general plan and that particular luck produced is something a majority - a majority , mark you; not all - of one SC admissions board decides is not what they just happen to want, is it my fault? Is it? The drone hung above the drop and the waking plain. Gurgeh watched the Orbital dawn come up, swinging from the edge of the world.
Accept what I'm offering you. Just this once let's both make our own chances. You already know you're one of the best in the Culture; I'm not trying to flatter you; you know that.
But this win would seal that fame for ever. His jaw clenched. The drone sensed him trying to control himself the way he had done on the steps up to Hafflis's house, seven hours ago. The man raised his eyes to the clear blue-pinks of dawn. The ruffled, misty plain looked like a vast and tousled bed. You could never do it. It pulled away again, sat in the air, regarding him. He thought of that morning, sitting on the train; the rush of that delicious fear.
Like an omen, now. He knew the drone was right. He knew it was wrong; but he knew it was right, too. It all depended on him. He leant against the balustrade. Something in his pocket dug into his chest. He felt in, pulled out the hidden-piece wafer he'd taken as a memento after the disastrous Possession game. He turned the wafer over in his hands a few times. He looked at the drone, and suddenly felt very old and very child-like at the same time.
I'll kill myself. Brain death; complete and utter. No remains. For me, it is the simplest thing in the world to find out what's inside those shells. What if there is an SC drone around here somewhere, or the Hub is watching?
The drone said nothing for a moment. It is already done. Gurgeh opened his mouth to speak, but the drone quickly floated closer, calmly continuing.
I wanted to know, too. I came back long ago; I've been watching for the past five hours, quite fascinated. I couldn't resist finding out if it was possible…. To be honest, I still don't know; the game is beyond me, just over-complicated for the way my poor target tracking mind is configured… but I had to try to find out. I had to. So, you see; the risk is run, Gurgeh; the deed is done.
I can tell you what you need to know…. And I ask nothing in return; that's up to you. Maybe you can do something for me some day, but no obligation; believe me, please believe me. No obligation at all.
I'm doing this because I want to see you - somebody; anybody - do it. Gurgeh looked at the drone. His mouth was dry. He could hear somebody shouting in the distance. The terminal button on his jacket shoulder beeped.
He drew breath to speak to it, but then heard his own voice say, 'Yes? Mawhrin-Skel floated closer. Quickly now. Do you want to know or not? The Full Web; yes or no? Gurgeh glanced round in the direction of Hafflis's apartments.
He turned back, leant out over the drop, towards the drone. No more. It was almost enough. The girl struggled brilliantly to the very end, and deprived him on the final move. The Full Web fell apart, and he won by thirty-one points, two short of the Culture's existing record. One of Estray Hafftis's house drones was dimly confused to discover, while cleaning up under the great stone table much later that morning, a crushed and shattered ceramic wafer with warped and twisted numbered dials set into its crazed and distorted surface.
The machine's non-sentient, mechanistic, entirely predictable brain thought about it for a while, then finally decided to junk the mysterious remnant along with the rest of the debris.
When he woke up that afternoon, it was with the memory of defeat. It was some time before he recalled that he had in fact won the Stricken game.
Victory had never been so bitter. He breakfasted alone on the terrace, watching a fleet of sailboats cut down the narrow fjord, bright sails in a fresh breeze. His right hand hurt a little as he held his bowl and cup; he'd come close to drawing blood when he'd crushed the Possession wafer at the end of the Stricken game. He dressed in a long coat, trous and short kilt, and went on a long walk, down to the shore of the fjord and then along it, towards the sea coast and the windswept dunes where Hassease lay, the house he'd been born in, where a few of his extended family still lived.
He tramped along the coast path towards the house, through the blasted, twisted shapes of wind-misshapen trees. The grass made sighing noises around him, and seabirds cried. The breeze was cold and freshening under ragged clouds. Out to sea, beyond Hassease village, where the weather was coming from, he could see tall veils of rain under a dark front of storm-clouds. He drew his coat tighter about him and hurried towards the distant silhouette of the sprawling, ramshackle house, thinking he should have taken an underground car.
The wind whipped up sand from the distant beach and threw it inland; he blinked, eyes watering. The voice was quite loud; louder than the sound of sighing grass and wind-troubled tree branches. He shielded his eyes, looked to one side. He peered into the shade of a stunted, slanting tree. Gurgeh looked out to sea. He started down the path to the house again, but the drone did not follow him. I'll get wet if I-'. I have to talk to you. This is important. He strode away. The drone flashed round in front of him, at face level, so that he had to stop or he'd have bumped into it.
He looked beyond it. The leading edge of the squall was hitting the far end of the village harbour beyond Hassease. The dark clouds were almost above him, casting a great shadow. He forced his way past it. The next thing he knew he'd been shoved down into the grass at the path-side, as though shoulder-charged by someone invisible.
He stared up in amazement at the tiny machine floating above him, while his hands felt the damp ground under him and the grass hissed on each side. He was shoved back down again, and sat there incredulous, simply unbelieving.
No machine had ever used force on him. It was unheard of. He tried to rise again, a shout of anger and frustration forming in his throat. He lay there, looking up into the dark clouds overhead. He could move his eyes. Nothing else. He remembered the missile shoot and the immobility the suit had imposed on him when it had been hit once too often. This was worse. He worried about his breathing stopping, his heart stopping, his tongue blocking his throat, his bowels relaxing.
Mawhrin-Skel floated into his field of view. You shall help me. I have our entire conversation, your every word and gesture from this morning, recorded. If you don't help me, I'll release that recording. Everyone will know you cheated in the game against Olz Hap.
Have I made myself clear? Do you realise what I am saying? There is a name - an old name - for what I am doing, in case you haven't already guessed. It is called blackmail. The machine was mad. Anybody could make up anything they wanted; sound, moving pictures, smell, touch… there were machines that did just that.
You could order them from a store and effectively paint whatever pictures - still or moving - you wanted, and with sufficient time and patience you could make it look as realistic as the real thing, recorded with an ordinary camera.
You could simply make up any film sequence you wanted. Some people used such machines just for fun or revenge, making up stories where appalling or just funny things happened to their enemies or their friends. Where nothing could be authenticated, blackmail became both pointless and impossible; in a society like the Culture, where next to nothing was forbidden, and both money and individual power had virtually ceased to exist, it was doubly irrelevant.
The machine really must be mad. Gurgeh wondered if it intended to kill him. He turned the idea over in his mind, trying to believe it could happen. Well, wrong. I had a real-time link with a friend of mine; an SC Mind sympathetic to my cause, who's always known I would have made a perfectly good operative and has worked on my appeal. What passed between us this morning is recorded in perfect detail in a Mind of unimpeachable moral credentials, and at a level of perceived fidelity unapproachable with the sort of facilities generally available.
If you don't believe me, ask your friend Amalk-ney. It'll confirm all I say. It may be stupid, and ignorant too, but it ought to know where to find out the truth. Rain struck Gurgeh's helpless, relaxed face. His jaw was slack and his mouth open, and he wondered if perhaps he would drown eventually; drowned by the falling rain. The drone's small body splashed and dripped above him as the drops grew larger and fell harder.
He tried to move his eyes to say 'no', just to annoy it, but it didn't seem to notice. I need you to go to Contact and add your voice to those demanding my return to active duty. His head and upper torso were lifted with a jerk from the damp ground until he stared helplessly at the grey-blue casing of the small machine. Pocket-size, he thought, wishing he could blink, and glad of the rain because he could not.
Pocket-size; it would fit into one of the big pockets in this coat. How you feel now; helpless, knowing the limbs are there but unable to make them work! Like that, but knowing that they aren't there!
Can you understand that?
Can you? Did you know that in our history people used to lose whole limbs, for ever? Do you remember your social history, little Jernau Gurgeh?
He felt and heard his teeth rattle. Back then, humans lost limbs - blown off or cut off or amputated - but still thought they had them, still thought they could feel them; "ghost limbs" they called them. Those unreal arms and legs could itch and they could ache but they could not be used; can you imagine? Can you imagine that , Culture man with your genofixed regrowth and your over-designed heart and your doctored glands and clot-filtered brain and flawless teeth and perfect immune system?
It let him fall back to the ground. His jaw jerked and he felt his teeth nip the end of his tongue.