Against a Dark Background


By Iain M. Banks

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From science fiction master Iain M. Banks comes a standalone adventure of one woman on the run in an isolated galaxy. 

Sharrow was once the leader of a personality-attuned combat team in one of the sporadic little commercial wars in the civilization based around the planet Golter. Now she is hunted by the Huhsz, a religious cult which believes that she is the last obstacle before the faith's apotheosis, and her only hope of escape is to find the last of the apocalyptically powerful Lazy Guns before the Huhsz find her.

Her journey through the exotic Golterian system is a destructive and savage odyssey into her past, and that of her family and of the system itself.


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 towards the glass beach and surf frothed on the scoured slope, to be blown away along the curved blade of shore towards 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.
She took out an antique watch and looked at the time, then made a tutting noise and stuffed the watch back in her pocket. She hated waiting.
She kept walking, heading along the tipped shelf of fused sand towards the hydrofoil. She’d left the ageing, secondhand craft moored – maybe a little dubiously, now she thought about it – to some indecipherable piece of junk a hundred paces or so along that unlikely shore. The hydrofoil, its arrowhead shape just a smudge in the dimness, glittered suddenly as it rocked in the small waves hitting the beach, chrome lines reflecting the ruddy glare of the day’s dying light.
She stopped and looked down at the motley red-brown glass surface, wondering just how thick the layer of fused silicate was. She kicked at it with the toe of one boot. The blow hurt her toes and the glass looked undamaged. She shrugged, then turned round and walked the other way.
Her face, seen from a distance, looked calm; only somebody who knew her well would have detected a certain ominousness about that placidity. Her skin was pale under the sunset’s red reflection. Her brows were black curves under a wide forehead and a crescent of swept-back hair, her eyes large and dark, and her nose long and straight; a column to support the dark arches of those brows. Her mouth – set in a tight, compressed line – was narrow. Wide cheek bones helped balance a proud jaw.
She sighed once more, and sang the line from the song again under her breath. The tight line of her mouth relaxed then, becoming small, full lips.
Ahead of her, a couple of hundred paces up the beach, she could see the tall, boxy shape of an old automatic beachcomber. She walked towards it, eyeing the ancient machine suspiciously. It sat, silent and dark on its rubber tracks, apparently deactivated for lack of flotsam, waiting for the next tide to provide it with fresh stimulus. Its battered, decrepit casing was streaked with seabird droppings glowing pink in the sunset light, and while she watched a foam-white bird landed briefly on the flat top of the machine, sat for a moment then flew away inland.
She took out the old watch again, inspected it and made a little growling noise at the back of her throat. The waves beat at the margin of the land, hissing like static.
She would walk, she decided, almost as far as the beachcomber, then she would turn round, head back to the hydrofoil, and go. Whoever had set up the rendezvous probably wasn’t coming after all. It might even be a trap, she thought, glancing round at the line of dunes, old fears returning. Or a hoax; somebody’s idea of a joke.
She got within twenty paces of the old beachcombing machine, then turned, walking away with her just-a-little crippled walk and singing her little, monotonous tune, relic of some-or-other post-atomic.
The rider appeared suddenly on the crest of a large dune, fifty metres to her right. She stopped and stared.
The sand-coloured animal was man-high at its broad, muscled shoulders; its narrow waist held a glittering saddle and its massive rump was covered in a silvery cloth. It put its great wide tawny head back, reins jingling; it snorted and stamped its front paws. Its rider, dark on dark against the dull weight of cloud, nudged the big animal forward. It put its head down and snorted again, testing the shard-fringe where the sand at the top of the dune became glass. The beast shook its head, then trod carefully down the edge of sand to the hollow between two dunes at the urging of its rider; his cloak billowed out behind him as though hardly lighter than the air he moved through.
The man muttered something, stuck his heels into the beast’s flanks; the animal flinched as the spur terminals connected and sent little involuntary shivers of muscle movement up its great haunches. It put one broad paw tentatively onto the glass, then two; its rider made encouraging noises. Still snorting nervously, the animal took a couple of steps on the inclined deck of the shore, then – with a noise like an enormous whimper – it skidded, tottered, and sat heavily on its rump, almost unseating its rider. The animal put its head back and roared.
The man jumped quickly from the animal; his long cloak snagged briefly on the high saddle, and he landed awkwardly on the glass surface, almost falling. His mount was making sudden lurching attempts to get back up, paws skittering over the slick surface. The man collected his cloak about him and strode purposefully to the woman who was standing with one hand under the opposite armpit, the other hand up at her forehead, as though shading her eyes while she looked down at the beach. She was shaking her head.
The man was tall, thin beneath his riding breeches and tight jacket, and had a pale, narrow face, topped with black curls and edged with a neatly trimmed black beard. He walked up to her. He looked, perhaps, a few years older than she was.
‘Sharrow,’ he said, smiling. ‘Cousin; thank you for coming.’ It was a cultured, refined voice, and quiet but nevertheless assured. He put his hands out to hers, squeezing them briefly then letting go.
‘Geis,’ she said, looking over his shoulder at the bellowing mount as it finally got shakily to its feet. ‘What are you doing with that animal?’
Geis glanced back at the beast. ‘Breaking it in,’ he said with a grin that slowly faded. ‘But really it’s just a way of getting here to tell you . . .’ He shrugged and gave a small, regretful laugh. ‘Hell, Sharrow, it’s a melodramatic message; you’re in danger.’
‘Perhaps a phone call would have been quicker, then.’
‘I had to see you, Sharrow; it’s more important than some phone call.’
She looked at the saddled animal, sniffing experimentally at the anchor-grass lining the nearest dune. ‘A taxi, then,’ she suggested. Her voice was soft, and possessed a heavy smoothness.
Geis smiled. ‘Taxis are so . . . vulgar, don’t you find?’ he said with a trace of irony.
‘Hmm, but why the . . .’ She gestured at the animal.
‘It’s a bandamyion. Fine animal.’
‘Yes, well; why the bandamyion?’
Geis shrugged. ‘I just bought it. Like I say, I’m breaking it in.’ He made a dismissive gesture with a gauntleted hand. ‘Look, never mind the animal. This is more than mildly urgent.’
She sighed. ‘Okay; what?’
He took a deep breath, then breathed, ‘The Huhsz.’
She was silent for a moment, then she shrugged and looked away. ‘Oh, them.’ She scratched at the glass beach with the toe of her boot.
‘Yes,’ Geis said quietly. ‘My people at the World Court say there’s a deal being arranged that means they’ll get their . . . their Hunting Passports, probably very soon. In a matter of days, perhaps.’
Sharrow nodded, not looking at her cousin. She crossed her arms and started to walk slowly along the beach. Geis took off his gauntlets and – after a glance at the ruminating bandamyion – followed her.
‘Sorry I have to be the one to tell you, Sharrow.’
‘That’s all right,’ she said.
‘I don’t think there’s any more we can do. I’ve got the family lawyers working on an appeal, and my corporate people are giving all the help they can – there’s a chance we can injunct on grounds of due notice – but it looks like the Stehrins have dropped their objections and the Nul Church Council is withdrawing its demurrance action. The rumour is the Huhsz have done a land deal in Stehrin, carving up some enclave, and the Church has been bought off, either with straight credit or the offer of a relic.’
Sharrow said nothing; she kept walking along the beach, staring down. Geis made a resigned gesture with his hands. ‘It’s all blown up so suddenly; I thought we had those assholes tied up for years, but the Court’s fast-tracked the whole matter, side-lined cases that have waited generations.’ He sighed. ‘And of course it’s Llocaran’s turn to provide the Court President this session. Their nominee is actually from Lip City.’
‘Yes, Lip City,’ Sharrow said. ‘I imagine they are still upset about that damn Lazy Gun.’ She gazed ahead to the dimly glinting shape of her distant hydrofoil.
(And in her mind saw again the line of desert hills beyond the stone balustrade of the hotel room balcony, and the faint crease of dawn-light above, suddenly swamped by the stuttering pulses of silent fire from beyond the horizon. She had watched – dazed and dazzled and wondering – as that distant eruption of annihilation had lit up the face of her lover.)
Geis’s voice sounded tired as he said, ‘Actually, I think the Huhsz must have got to one of the justiciaries. There’s been talk of one of the old guys being found in a snuff parlour a few days ago. I wouldn’t put it past the Huhsz to have set the whole thing up just to pocket a judge.’
‘My,’ Sharrow said, pulling a hand through her thick hair (Geis watched, eyes following those pale fingers as they ploughed that black field). ‘What energy and enterprise those Huhsz boys display.’
Geis nodded. ‘They’ve been lucky with their recruitment and investments recently, too,’ he said. ‘Highly fluid; probably the most profitable order on Golter just now. It’s all helped them get their war chest together.’ His brows furrowed. ‘I’m sorry, Sharrow. I feel I’ve let you down.’
She shrugged. ‘Had to happen sooner or later. You’ve done all you can. Thanks.’ She looked at him, then briefly put a hand out to touch his forearm. ‘I appreciate it, Geis.’
‘Let me hide you, Sharrow,’ he said suddenly.
She shook her head. ‘Geis—’
‘I have interests they can’t—’
‘Geis, no; I—’
‘No; listen; I’ve places nobody—’
‘No, I—’
‘Safe houses; offices; whole estates that don’t appear on any inventory, here and on other planets; cascade-owned companies my own chief execs don’t know about . . .’
‘I appreciate the offer, Geis, but—’
‘Habitats; whole asteroids; mines on Fian and Speyr; island barges on Trontsephori—’
‘Geis,’ she said, stopping and turning to him, taking his hands in hers for a moment. His thin face shone palely in the deepening red light. ‘Geis; I can’t.’ She forced herself to smile. ‘You know they’d track me down eventually and you’d only get into trouble for Harbouring. They’ll use the Passports. If they wanted to – if they had the excuse that they thought you were sheltering me – they could tear you apart, Geis.’
‘I can look after myself.’
‘I don’t mean you personally, Geis; I mean this commercial empire you’ve been so busy constructing. I watch the news; the antitrust people are crawling all over you already.’
Geis waved one hand. ‘Bureaucrats. I can deal with them.’
‘Not if the Huhsz use the Passports to open your data banks and search your files. All these precious companies, all these . . . interests; you could lose them all.’
Geis stood, staring at her. ‘I’d risk that,’ he said quietly.
She shook her head.
‘I would,’ he insisted. ‘For you. If you’d let me, I’d do anything—’
‘Geis, please,’ she said, turning from him and walking in the other direction, towards the distant shape of the ancient beachcombing machine. Geis paced after her.
‘Sharrow, you know how I feel about you; just let—’
Geis!’ she said sharply, barely glancing back at him.
He stopped, looked down at his feet, then walked quickly after her.
‘All right,’ he said when he was level with her again. ‘I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have said anything. Didn’t mean to embarrass you.’ He took a breath. ‘But I won’t see you hounded like this. I can fight dirty, too. I have people in places you wouldn’t expect; in places nobody expects. I won’t let those religious maniacs get you.’
I’m not going to let them get me,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry.’
He gave a bitter laugh. ‘How can I not worry?’
She stopped and looked at him. ‘Just try. And don’t do anything that’s going to land both of us in even more trouble.’ She tipped her head to one side, staring at him.
Eventually he looked away. ‘All right,’ he said.
They resumed their walk.
‘So,’ he said. ‘What will you do?’
She shrugged. ‘Run,’ she said. ‘They’ve only got a year; And—’
‘A year and a day if we’re going to be precise about it.’
‘Yes. Well, I’ll just have to try and keep a step or two ahead of them for a year . . . and a day.’ She kicked at the glass surface beneath their feet. ‘And I suppose I have to try and find that last Lazy Gun. The one the Huhsz want. It’s the only other way to end this.’
‘Will you get the team back together?’ Geis asked, his voice neutral.
‘I’ll need them if I’m going to find that damn Gun,’ she told him. ‘And I’ll have to try, anyway. If the Huhsz get hold of one of them . . . it would make it easier to find me.’
‘Ah. Then it really doesn’t wear off?’
‘SNB? No, Geis, it doesn’t wear off. Like certain exotic diseases, and unlike love, synchroneurobonding is for life.’
Geis lowered his eyes. ‘You weren’t always so cynical about love.’
‘As they say; ignorance pays.’
Geis looked as though he was about to say something else, but then shook his head. ‘You’ll need money, then,’ he said. ‘Let me—’
‘I’m not destitute, Geis,’ she told him. ‘And who knows, perhaps there are still Antiquities contracts outstanding.’ She clasped her hands together, kneading them without realising it. ‘If the family lore is right, the way to find the Lazy Gun is to find the Universal Principles first.’
‘Yes, if the lore is right,’ Geis said sceptically. ‘I’ve tried tracking that rumour down myself and nobody knows how it started.’
‘It’s all there is, Geis.’
‘Well, if you need any help finding the other people in the team . . .’
‘Last I heard, Miz was being entrepreneurial in the Log-Jam, the Francks were raising sarflet litters in Regioner, and Cenuij had gone to ground somewhere in Caltasp Minor; Udeste, maybe. I’ll find him.’
Geis took a deep breath. ‘Well, according to my sources, yes, Cenuij Mu is in Caltasp, but it’s a bit further north than Udeste.’
Sharrow cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. ‘Mm-hmm?’
Geis smiled sadly. ‘Looks like Lip City, cuz.’
Sharrow nodded, gritting her teeth as she walked onwards. She looked out to sea, where the last glow of the sun was vanishing fast on the bare curve of the horizon. ‘Oh, great,’ she said.
Geis studied the back of his hands. ‘I have a security concern with contracts for certain corporate clients’ installations in Lip; it wouldn’t be impossible for Mu to . . . travel inadvertently to somewhere beyond the city limits . . .’
‘No, Geis,’ she told him. ‘That won’t work; kidnapping would just antagonise him. I’ll find Cenuij. Maybe I can persuade my darling half-sister to help; I think they’re still in touch.’
‘Breyguhn?’ Geis looked dubious. ‘She may not want to talk to you.’
‘It’s worth a try.’ Sharrow looked thoughtful. ‘She might even have some idea about where the Universal Principles is.’
Geis glanced at Sharrow. ‘That was what she was looking for in the Sea House, wasn’t it?’
Sharrow nodded. ‘She sent me a letter last year with some garbled nonsense about finding out how to get to the book.’
Geis looked surprised. ‘She did?’ he said.
Sharrow hoisted one eyebrow. ‘Yes, and claimed to have discovered the meaning of life as well, if I remember rightly.’
‘Ah,’ Geis said.
They stopped, not far from the dark bulk of the old beachcomber machine. She breathed deeply, looking around at the faint curve of beach; it was dark enough for the phosphorescence in the waves to show as ghostly green lines rippling on the shore. ‘So, Geis, any more good news for me, or is that it?’
‘Oh, I think that’s enough for now, don’t you?’ he said, a small, sad smile on his face.
‘Well, I appreciate you telling me, Geis. But I’m going to have to move fairly rapidly from now on; it might be best for you and the rest of the family if you all kept out of my way for the next year. I’ll need room to manoeuvre, know what I mean?’
‘If you insist.’ He sounded hurt.
‘It’ll be all right,’ she told him, holding her hand out to his. He looked at her hand, then shook it. ‘Really, Geis, I’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing. Thanks again.’ She leaned forward and quickly kissed his cheek.
She stepped back, releasing his hand. His smile was pale. He nodded, swallowing.
‘I am, as ever, your faithful servant, cousin.’
Geis managed to make the stilted statement sound both sad and sincere. He took a step back, closer to the water; a wave washed over one boot and its spur terminal gave a little blue flash of light as it shorted. Geis flinched and stepped smartly away. Sharrow gave a small, involuntary laugh.
Geis smiled ruefully and scratched the side of his head. ‘Just can’t get my dramatic exits right when you’re around,’ he sighed. ‘Well, if ever you need me; if ever I can do anything . . . just call me.’
‘I shall. Goodbye.’
‘Farewell, Sharrow.’ He turned abruptly and walked quickly back to the bandamyion.
She watched him go, heading into the dunes. She heard him calling for the animal, and laughed quietly when she saw him chasing the lolloping beast over the summit of a distant dune.
Finally she shook her head and turned away, towards the hydrofoil moored a hundred metres away along the deserted shore.
‘Ah, hello there,’ said a voice, right behind her.

She froze, then turned smoothly, left hand sliding into the pocket of her jacket.
There were a couple of tiny red lights high up on the front of the beachcombing machine, ten metres away; the lights winked slowly, on and off. They hadn’t been there a few seconds earlier.
‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Am I addressing Lady Sharrow?’ said the machine. Its voice was deep, with the distinctive chime at the start of each word which was supposed to ensure that people knew it was a machine doing the talking.
Her eyes narrowed. The machine sensed her left arm tensing. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘you know who I am.’
‘Well, indeed. Allow me to introduce myself . . .’ The machine made a whining noise and lurched towards her, the rubber treads on its left-side tracks splashing through the small waves.
She backed away; two quick, long steps. The machine stopped suddenly. ‘Oh; I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to startle you. Just a second . . .’ The machine trundled back a couple of metres to where it had been. ‘There. As I was saying; allow me to introduce myself; I am a—’
‘I don’t care who you are; what are you doing spying on me and my cousin?’
‘A necessary subterfuge, dear lady, to ensure that I had the relevant personages – namely yourself and Count Geis – correctly identified. Also, having unintentionally found myself in such close proximity to your conference, I thought it prudent and indeed only polite to delay making myself known to you until the said noble gentleman had bade you farewell, as – considerations of good manners apart – my instructions are to reveal myself to you and you alone, initially at any rate.’
‘You’re hellish talkative for a beachcomber.’
‘Ah, dear lady, let not this rude appearance deceive you; beneath my tatterdemalion disguise lurk several brand spanking new components of a Suprotector (TradeMark) Personal Escort Suite, Mark Seventeen, Class Five, certified civil space legal in all but a handful of jurisdictions and battlefield limited in the remainder. And I – that is the aforesaid system, in full, combined with the services of various highly trained human operatives – am at your service, my lady, exclusively, for as long as you may desire.’
‘Really?’ She sounded warily amused.
‘Indeed,’ said the machine. ‘A mere beachcomber – for example – would not be able to tell you that the gun which you are currently holding in the left hand pocket of your jacket, with your index finger on the trigger and your thumb ready to flick the safety catch, is a silenced FrintArms ten-millimetre HandCannon with eleven ten-seven coaxial depleted-uranium-casing mercury-core general-purpose rounds in the magazine plus one in the breech, and that you have another – double-ended – magazine in the opposite pocket, containing five armour-piercing and six wire-flechette rounds.’
Sharrow laughed out loud, taking her hand from her pocket and swivelling on her heel. She walked away down the beach. The machine lumbered after her, keeping a handful of paces behind.
‘And I feel I must point out,’ the machine continued, ‘that FrintArms Inc. strongly recommends that its hand weapons are never carried with a round in the breech.’
‘The gun has,’ she said tartly, glancing behind as she walked, ‘a safety catch.’
‘Yes, but I think if you read the Instruction Manual—’
‘So,’ she interrupted. ‘You’re mine to command, are you?’ she said.
‘ . . . Absolutely.’
‘Wonderful. So who are you working for?’
‘Why, you, mistress!’
‘Yes, but who hired you?’
‘Ah, dear lady, it is with the greatest embarrassment that I have to confess that in this matter I must – with a degree of anguish you may well find hard to credit – relinquish my absolute commitment to the fulfilment of your every whim. Put plainly, I am not at liberty to divulge that information. There, it is said. Let us quickly move on from this unfortunate quantum of dissonance to the ground-state of accord which I trust will inform our future relationship.’
‘So you’re not going to tell me.’ Sharrow nodded.
‘My dear lady,’ the machine said, continuing to trundle after her. ‘Without saying so in so many words . . . correct.’
‘Right . . .’
‘May I take it that you do wish my services?’
‘Thanks, but I don’t really need any help when it comes to looking after myself.’
‘Well,’ the machine chimed, with what sounded like amusement in its voice, ‘you did hire an escort unit the last time you visited the city of Arkosseur, and you do have a contract with a commercial army concern to guard your dwelling house on Jorve.’
She glanced back at the machine. ‘Well, aren’t we well informed.’
‘Thank you; I like to think so.’


  • "Banks writes space opera on the grand scale: he measures time in eons, space in lightyears, tragedies in gigadeaths."—Time
  • "Banks is a phenomenon: the wildly successful, fearlessly creative author of brilliant and disturbing non-genre novels, he's equally at home writing pure science fiction of a peculiarly gnarly energy and elegance."—William Gibson

On Sale
Jul 1, 2009
Page Count
640 pages

Iain M. Banks

About the Author

Iain Banks came to controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under the name Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now widely acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative and exciting writers of his generation.

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