By Iain M. Banks

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There is a world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital ward, in hiding from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter.


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Patient 8262

I think I have been very clever in doing what I have done, in landing myself where I am. However, a lot of us are prone, as I am now, to think we've been quite clever, are we not? And too often in my past that feeling of having been quite clever has preceded the uncomfortable revelation that I have not been quite clever enough. This time, though…

My bed is comfortable, the medical and care staff treat me well enough, with a professional indifference which is, in my particular circumstances, more reassuring than excessive devotion would be. The food is acceptable.

I have a lot of time to think, lying here. Thinking is what I do best, perhaps. Thinking is what we do best, too. As a species, I mean. It is our forte, our speciality, our superpower; that which has raised us above the common herd. Well, we like to think so.

How relaxing to lie here and be looked after without having to do anything in return. How wonderful to have the luxury of undisturbed thought.

I am alone in a small square room with whitewashed walls, a high ceiling and tall windows. The bed is an old steel thing with a manually adjustable backrest and slatted sides that can be raised, clanging, to prevent the patient falling out of bed. The sheets are crisp and white, glowing with cleanliness, and the pillows, while a little lumpy, are plump. The linoleum floor gleams, pale green. A battered-looking wooden bedside table and a cheap chair of black-painted metal and faded red plastic comprise the room's remaining furniture. There is a fanlight set into the wall above the single door to the corridor outside. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows is a small decorative balcony with iron railings.

Held behind these bars, the view is of a strip of grass and then a line of deciduous trees, with a shallow river behind them which sparkles in the sunlight when the angles are right. The trees are losing their leaves now and more of the river is becoming visible. On the far bank I can see more trees. My room is on the second, the top floor of the clinic. I saw a rowing boat glide down the river once with two or three people in it and sometimes I see birds. On one occasion, a high-flying aircraft left a long white cloud across the sky, like a ship's wake. I watched it for some time as it spread slowly and kinked and turned red with the sunset.

I should be safe here. They will not think to look for me here. I think. Other places did occur to me: a yurt on some endless rolling steppe with only an extended family and the wind for company; some packed and noisome favela spattered across a steep hillside, the smell of shared sweat and the noise of bawling children, bellowing men and beaty music jangling; camping out in some lofty ruin of a monastery in the Cyclades, garnering a reputation as a hermit and an eccentric; underground with the other damaged tunnel dwellers, ragged beneath Manhattan.

In plain sight or secreted away, there are always many, many places to hide where they'll never think to look, but then they know me and how I think, so perhaps they can guess where I'd head for even before I'd know myself. Then there is the problem of fitting in naturally or assuming a disguise, adopting a role: ethnicity, physiognomy, skin colour, language, skills – all must be taken into account.

We sort ourselves out, do we not? You lot there, this lot here; even in the great melting-pot cities we generally order ourselves into little enclaves and districts where we gain a comfort from a shared background or culture. Our nature, our sexuality, our genetic desire to wander and experiment, our lust for the exotic or the just different can lead to interesting pairings and mixed inheritances, but our need to group, grade and categorise continually pulls us back into set arrangements. This makes hiding difficult; I am – or at least I certainly look like – a pale Caucasian male, and the places I'm least likely to hide are such because I'd stand out there.

A trucker. That would be a good way to hide. A long-distance truck driver, beating across the US Midwest or the plains of Canada or Argentina or Brazil, or at the helm of a multi-trailer road train barrelling across the Australian desert. Hide through constant movement, seldom meeting people. Or a deckhand or cook on a ship; a container vessel plying the high seas with a tiny crew, turning around in twenty-four hours at vast, automated, nearly uninhabited container terminals far distant from the centres of the cities that they serve. Who would ever find me, living so distributed a life?

But, instead, I am here. I made my choice and I have no choice now; I must stick with it. I worked out my route, set up the means and the funding and the personnel with the required skills to aid me on my way into obscurity and unfindability, tested the ways those who might want to find me might set about doing so and worked out methods of frustrating their quest, then – with everything in place – went through with it.

So, thinking, here I lie.

The Transitionary

Others have told me that for them it happens during a blink, or just at random between heartbeats or even during a heartbeat. There is always some external sign: a shiver or tremble, often a noticeable twitch, occasionally a jerk, as though an electric shock has passed through the subject's body. One person said that the way it happens for them is that they always think they've just caught a glimpse of something surprising or threatening from the corner of their eye and – as they turn their head quickly round – experience a distressing burning sensation like a sort of internal electric shock buzzing through the neck. For me it is usually fractionally more embarrassing; I sneeze.

I just sneezed.

I have only the vaguest idea how long I sat outside that little café in the 3rd, waiting for the drug to take effect, sinking into the waking dream that is the necessary precursor to navigating accurately to our desired destination. A few seconds? Five minutes? I trust I paid my bill. I should not care – I am not him, and anyway he will still be there – but I do care. I sit forward, look at the table in front of me. There is a small pile of change sitting on the little plastic tray with the bill clipped to it. Francs, centimes; not euros. So; so far, so good.

I feel a pressing need to rearrange the items on the table. The sugar bowl must be in the exact centre while the drained espresso cup needs to be halfway between the bowl and me, aligned. The bill tray I am happy to leave to the right of the bowl, balancing the condiments carrier. It is only as I rearrange these items into this pleasing configuration that I notice that the wrist and hand protruding from my sleeve are both deep brown. Also, I realise that I have just formed a sort of cross on the little table. I glance up, taking in the design of the cars and trams in the street and the dress of the pedestrians. I am where I thought, in a Judeo-Islamic reality; hopefully, in one particular one. I immediately rearrange the pieces on the table to form what would be called a peace symbol back where I just came from. I sit back, relieved. Not that I look like some Christian terrorist, I'm sure, but you can't be too careful.

Do I look like a Christian terrorist? I reach into my chest bag – I wear the salwar kameez, like most other men and women here, effectively pocketless – and bring out what would have been my iPod a few seconds/five minutes ago. Here it is a cigarette case of stainless steel. I try to look as though I am contemplating having a cigarette; in fact I am studying my reflection on the polished back of the case. More relief; I do not look like a Christian terrorist. I look like I usually do when I'm this colour and broadly like I always do no matter what colour, race or type I may be, which is to say unobjectionable, unremarkable, not bad-looking (not good-looking either, but that's acceptable). I look bland. But bland is good, bland is safe, bland blends: perfect cover.

Check the watch. Always check the watch. I check the watch. The watch is fine; no problem with the watch. I do not take a cigarette. I feel no need. Obviously I have not incorporated the craving into this new personification. I put the cigarette case back in the bag slung over my chest from shoulder to hip, checking that the little ormolu pill case is in its own internal pocket, zipped. Still more relief! (The pill case has never not travelled, but you always worry. Well, I always worry. I think I always worry.)

My identity card tells me that I am Aiman Q'ands, which sounds about right. Aiman, hey man; hi, pleased to meet me. Language check. I have French, Arabic, English, Hindic, Portuguese and Latin. A smattering of German and also Latter Mongolian. No Mandarin at all; that's unusual.

I sit back again, adjusting my legs in the voluminous salwars so that they are precisely in line with the X of legs supporting the little table. It would appear that while I have no tobacco habit I obviously do have – once again – some sort of mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which is arguably just as annoying and distracting, if less health-threatening (though I should care!).

I hope it's mild OCD. Do I think it's mild? Maybe it's not mild after all. (My hands do feel a little clammy, like they might need to be washed.) Maybe it's severe. (There's a lot about this café that could do with being tidied, aligned, straightened.) That's something to worry about. So, I'm a worrier, too, obviously. That's annoying, that's worrying in itself.

Well, can't sit here all day. I'm here for a reason; I've been summoned. By Herself, no less. I feel quite recovered from any passing dizziness associated with the transition; no excuse for hesitating. I need to get up and go, so I do.


I've told people I'm an ex-East End barrow boy, haven't I? Dad ran an eel stall and mum was a barmaid. But that's bollocks, a total lie. I only tell them that because that's what they like to hear, what they want to hear. That's one of the lessons I've learned, isn't it? You can go a long way just telling people what they want to hear. Of course, you got to be careful, and you got to choose the right people, but still, know what I mean?

Course, any fuckwit can just tell somebody else what they already know they want to hear. The creative bit, the real added-value bit is knowing what they want to hear before they know it themselves. They really appreciate that. That pays dividends. It's kind of a service industry thing. Anyway I'm really good at the accent. Highly convincing. You should hear me. The East End thing, I mean. Doing the barrow-boy routine. I'm fucking good at the geezah accent, that's all I'm saying, isn't it? Keep up.

Truth is I'm from Up North. One of those grim northern cities with all the grime and all. You don't need to know which grim northern city on account of the fact I'm sure you'll agree they're all the same, so it won't make any difference me telling you exactly which one, will it? So if you do want to know exactly which one, tough. Do what I do. Use your imagination.

Nah, my dad was a miner before they joined the list of endangered species thanks to Saint Margaret (with a little or a lot of help from King Arthur, depending on your outlook). Mum worked in a hairdressing salon. I'm serious about La Thatch being a saint, too, though you still have to be careful who you say that to back where I grew up, which is one of the many reasons I don't go back there hardly at all, isn't it? I mean, who the fuck wants to work all their life down a fucking hole in the ground anyway? Nobody in their right mind. La Thatch did them all a favour. They should have statues to her where the pit wheels were.

Anyway, by the time I came along that stuff was all ancient history. Well, it was as far as I was concerned. It might as well have happened yesterday from the way everybody around me kept banging on about it constantly. We lived in a semi so there was a family right next door, obviously, right? Well, we weren't allowed to acknowledge they even existed because the guy, who'd been one of dad's best mates apparently, had joined the Democratic Union of Miners of Britain or whatever and so he was a blackleg as far as my old dad was concerned and seemingly that was worse than being a paedo or a murderer. Only time my dad looked like he might hit me was when he caught me talking to the twins next door.

Anyway, it wasn't anywhere that I wanted to be. I was off down the motorway soon as I could escape from school, heading for the big bad city, and the bigger and badder the better. I sort of hesitated around Manchester for a month when it was just getting interesting but I didn't bother staying. I went on south. M6 to London. Always liked the bright lights, I have. London was the only place for me. Only place this side of the Pond at any rate. Suppose New York would have been all right, but then thanks to people like yours truly London eventually became better and cooler than NYC anyway.

Thing is, I sort of understand people wanting to stay where they were brought up, if they were raised in a big city anyway, I mean why would you want to stay in the country? You might want to stay where you grew up for sentimental reasons and your mates being around and so on but unless it's a really, really great place that's really, seriously going to add something to your life, you're kind of being a mug, know what I mean? If you stay in a place like that when you know you could have a go somewhere bigger and brighter with more opportunities you're giving more to it than it's giving to you, aren't you? You're in a net loss situation, know what I mean? I mean, if you like feeling like an asset to your local community or something then fucking yahoo for you but don't pretend you aren't being exploited. People talk a lot about loyalty and being true to your roots and suchlike but that's just bollocks, isn't it? That's one of the ways they make you do things that aren't in your own best interest. Loyalty's a mug's game.

So I moved to sunny London. Was sunny, too, compared to Manchester or where I come from. Bought my first pair of Oakleys day I arrived. I say bought. Anyway, London was sunny and warm and balmy even and full of totty and opportunities. Moved in with a mate from back home, got a job behind a bar in Soho, got a girlfriend or two, met some characters, started making myself useful to the sort of people who appreciate someone with a bit of sharpness about them and the gift of the gab. Thinking on your feet, like they say. Landing on your feet. That's useful, too. Better still, landing on somebody else's feet.

Long and short, started providing the high-flyers with the means to get them high, didn't I? Full of creative types, Soho, and a lot of people in the creative industries like to powder their nose, indulge in a bit of nasal turbocharging, don't they? Very big thing with the Creatives, certainly back then. And amongst said Creatives I would most certainly include the financial wizards and their highly exotic Instruments and Products. Plus, of course, they have the funds to really get stuck into it.

So I worked my way up, in a sense. And along, sort of. Along in the sense of east, where the dosh is. East of Soho, to the City, to be precise, and Canary Wharf, where a lot of them highest of high-flyers perched. Follow the money, they say – well, I did.

See, I had a plan, right from the start. A way to make up for my lack of what you might term a formal education and letters after my name. (Numbers after my name, that might have been a different story, but I managed to avoid that.) Anyway, what do people do when they've had a toot or two? Talk, that's what they do. Talk like fuck. And boast, of course, if they're especially impressed with themselves. Which would cover just about everybody I provided for.

And of course if you spend all your time working, concentrating, making money, taking risks, being financially daring and so on, you'll talk about that, won't you? Stands to reason. Fizzing with testosterone and their own genius, these guys, so of course they talk about what they've been up to, the deals they've done, the money they've made, the angles they've got coming up, the stuff they know.

So a person who happened to be around them when they were talking about this sort of stuff, especially somebody who they knew wasn't one of their own and so not a threat, not a competitor, but somebody they thought of as a mate as well as an always available deliverer of their chosen leisure-enhancing substance, well, that person could hear a lot of interesting things, know what I mean? If that person acted a bit thicker and even less educated than they actually were and kept their eyes and ears open and their mind sharp they could hear some potentially very useful things. Potentially very lucrative things, if you know the right people and can get the right bit of information to them at the right time.

Just being useful, really. Like I say, I'm part of the service industry. And once you know a few secrets it's amazing how you get to know others too. People trade in secrets, and don't realise they're giving themselves away, especially if they trust you, or underestimate you, or both. So I found myself in a position where I could call in a few favours, use what our financial friends would call leverage to pick up some training, some recommendations, some patronage you might say, not to mention some working capital.

Long and short again, I went from being a dealer to being a trader. Swapped the powder for the folding, replaced the stuff that goes up the middle of the rolled note for the note itself. This was a deeply smart move, if I say so myself.

Don't get me wrong. Drugs are great, obviously they are. Great business to be in in a lot of ways, and definitely enduringly popular in good times and bad otherwise why would people spend so much of their disposable and risk prison taking them? But it's all a bit of a mug's game dealing them, when you really think about it, certainly for any length of time. You have to watch your back constantly and even the profits get eaten into keeping the boys in blue happy. I mean, serious fucking profits, there's still a lot left, but still, that's exactly what attracts some very heavy and uncivilised people to the business and you can't spend fuck all when you're dead, can you? Get in, make some of the filthy and get out while you still got a set of balls and an unslit throat to call your own, that's how you fucking do it if you've any sense. Use it as a leg-up to get into something just as lucrative but a lot less risky. That's the smart way. That's what I did.

Amazing what you can accomplish by applying yourself and making yourself useful.

Madame d'Ortolan

Madame d'Ortolan sat in her orangery, discomfited. She had been accused of being a racist! And by someone she couldn't take any immediate retributive action against, too. Of course she was not a racist. She not infrequently had black and Jewish people here in her town house, though naturally she was always careful to keep an accurate note of where they sat and what they touched and might have used, subsequently having everything so contacted thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. One could not be too careful.

But of course she was not a racist. To the contrary, as she could point out, in appropriate company (that would be to say, highly limited and avowedly discreet company), had she not tasted of what she thought of as the Dark Pleasures, with blacks, on more than one occasion? The epitome of such enjoyment was, for her, to be taken anally by such a Nubian brute. Privately, she thought of this act as "going to Sèvres-Babylone," as this was the deepest, darkest and most excitingly, enticingly dangerous Métro station that she knew of.

Racist! The cheek of it. She had taken the call here in the orangery. The conversation had gone like this:


"Madame, I'm glad I managed to catch you."

"Ah. Mrs M. I trust we can return the compliment."

Mrs Mulverhill had chosen to open by speaking English, always a sure sign that she wished to talk business and this was not a social call. It had been some long time since either had called the other for purely social reasons. "May I ask where you are?"

"I suppose you might, though not to any instructive consequence."

Madame d'Ortolan felt herself bristling. "A simple No would have sufficed."

"Yes, but would have been inaccurate. Are you well?"

"I am, as if you care one way or the other. And you?"

"Tolerably. And I do care, one way. Let me tell you why I'm calling."

"Do. It's been so long. I can't wait."

"Rumour has it you intend to divide the Council."

"Beyond my powers, dear. And, anyway, I think you'll find it already is."

"If it is divided—"

"Oh, it is."

"If it is, then it is largely due to you."

"As I say, you both flatter and overestimate."

"That is not what the people I've talked to say."

"People on the Council? Who?"

Mrs Mulverhill remained silent. There was a pause while Madame d'Ortolan – who had taken the call on the house phone, on an extension with a long lead – twirled the extension cord round her longest finger. After a few moments, a sigh sounded down the phone line and Mrs Mulverhill said, "So, what is the thinking on this matter?"

"The thinking?" Madame d'Ortolan asked innocently.

"What do you intend to do?" Mrs Mulverhill said, voice suddenly sharp.

"I think that matters need to be resolved."

There was a silence, then: "I hope that is not settled. It would be the incorrect decision."

"Is that what you think?"

"It is."

"What a pity we did not have the benefit of your opinion earlier, before the decision was made."

"Theodora," Mrs Mulverhill said crisply, "don't pretend that you'd have taken any notice of anything I'd have said."

"And yet you have chosen to call me now, my darling, and I presume you are only doing so in an attempt to influence that very decision, after it has been made. Are you not?"

A shorter silence, then: "I would appeal to your sense of pragmatism."

"Not morality? Decency? Justice?"

Mrs Mulverhill laughed delicately. "You are a card, Theodora."

"Yes, I like to think of myself as the queen of spades."

"I have heard something to that effect."

"And what do you think you might be? The joker, perhaps?"

"I could not care less."

"I'd imagine something like… the two of clubs, yes?"

"Theodora, enough of this. I am asking you to reconsider."

"Very well; the three."

A silence Madame d'Ortolan would have termed "tight" reigned for a moment. It sounded subsequently as though Mrs Mulverhill might be speaking through clenched teeth. "I am attempting to be serious, Theodora."

"They do say the struggle against adversity is highly character-forming."

"Theodora!" Mrs Mulverhill first raised her voice, then dropped it. "Theodora. I am asking you: please do not do this."

"Do what?"

"Whatever decisive, divisive step it is you intend to take. It would be a mistake."

"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Madame d'Ortolan was losing patience. She sat forward in her cane chair, flicking free the twisted phone cord from her left hand. "Alors, my sweet, my pretty! What do you really care about the fate of people you've already turned your back on? People you oppose by opposing the Council. What are they to you? A couple of mealy-mouthed, grinning half-castes and a lesbian Negress?" A thought struck her and she beamed. "Unless she excites you, of course, our crepuscular friend; so well camouflaged, in the dark. One would hardly know she was in one's bed of a night, would one? Well, until she smiled, at any rate. Don't tell me; you're a secret admirer. Has one put one's finger on something?"

Another telling silence, then: "You old, racist bitch."

And then she put the phone down! Just like that! The nerve of the woman!

Madame d'Ortolan was unsure who had come out best from the exchange. For most if not all the way through she had felt that she was having the best of it, but then the Mulverhill woman had been the one to hang up on her, which counted for something. Most vexing. And to be called a racist! Not for the first time, she wondered what Mrs Mulverhill herself might have to hide in that regard. She habitually wore a veil; Madame d'Ortolan had always assumed this was mere affectation, but perhaps the lady wished to conceal some angle from which she looked less than racially pure, when the race concerned was human. Who knew?

But still, to call her a racist. When it was meant as an insult. And, worse, "old!"

And now she had to meet that objectionable and seemingly unkillable little man Oh, or whatever he was called for now (at least they were meeting elsewhere and she didn't have to suffer his presence in the house; he never looked clean). And meet him not a moment too soon, if the Mulverhill woman had heard rumours already. Madame d'Ortolan smiled to herself. "Divide" the Council? Was that the best, or the worst, that she'd heard?

"I'll show you divide," she muttered to no one present.

She shooed the white cat called M. Pamplemousse from her lap and rose, smoothing her cream skirt. Madame d'Ortolan favoured her various cats according to the colour of the clothes she was wearing at any particular time. Had she been wearing dark grey or black, the black-haired cat called Mme Frenolle would have been the one allowed to warm itself on her lap. Though perhaps not for much longer; recently Mme Frenolle, who was eight years old now, had started to produce white hairs amongst the black, which was most annoying. Depending on how well she behaved over the next week or two, Mme Frenolle would either have to suffer regular visits to the Maison Chat to have her white hairs plucked or dyed, or be put down.

Madame d'Ortolan was, she liked to think, of elegant middle age, though to the casual observer this might imply that she expected to live to be about one hundred and twenty. Of course, being who and what she was, this was would have been a perfectly reasonable expectation on her part, had the truth not been much more complicated.

She used the house intercom. "Mr Kleist, if you would."


On Sale
Sep 15, 2010
Page Count
432 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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