"Tersono," he said. "Yes. Well, you did invite me."
"Indeed I did. Do you know, it occurred to me only later that you might misinterpret my invitation as some sort of summons, even as an imperious demand. Of course, once these things are sent..."
"Ho-ho. You mean it wasn't a demand?"
"More of a petition. You see, I have a favor to ask you."
"You do?" This was a first.
"Yes. I wonder if we might talk somewhere we'd have a little more privacy?"
Privacy, thought Kabe. That was a word you didn't hear very often in the Culture. Probably more used in a sexual context than any other. And not always even then.
"Of course," he said. "Lead on."
"Thank you," the drone said, floating toward the stern and rising to look over the heads of the people gathered in the function space. The machine turned this way and that, making it clear it was looking for something or someone. "Actually," it said quietly, "we are not yet quite quorate... Ah. Here we are. Please; this way, Ar Ischloear."
They approached a group of humans centered on the Mahrai Ziller. The Chelgrian was nearly as long as Kabe was tall, and covered in fur that varied from white around his face to dark brown on his back. He had a predator's build, with large forward-facing eyes set in a big, broad-jawed head. His rear legs were long and powerful; a striped tail, woven about with silver chain, curved between them. Where his distant ancestors would have had two middle-legs, Ziller had a single broad midlimb, partially covered by a dark waistcoat. His arms were much like a human's, though covered in golden fur and ending in broad, six-digit hands more like paws.
Almost as soon as he and Tersono joined the group around Ziller, Kabe found himself engulfed by another confusing babble of conversation.
" -- of course you don't know what I mean. You have no context."
"Preposterous. Everybody has a context."
"No. You have a situation, an environment. That is not the same thing. You exist. I would hardly deny you that."
"Yeah. Otherwise you'd be talking to yourself."
"You're saying we don't really live, is that it?"
"That depends what you mean by live. But let's say yes."
"How fascinating, my dear Ziller," E. H. Tersono said. "I wonder -- "
"Because we don't suffer."
"Because you scarcely seem capable of suffering."
"Well said! Now, Ziller -- "
"Oh, this is such an ancient argument..."
"But it's only the ability to suffer that -- "
"Hey! I've suffered! Lemil Kimp broke my heart."
"Shut up, Tulyi."
" -- you know, that makes you sentient, or whatever. It's not actually suffering."
"But she did!"
"An ancient argument, you said, Ms. Sippens?"
"Ancient meaning bad?"
"Ancient meaning discredited."
"Discredited? By whom?"
"Not whom. What."
"And that what would be...?"
"So there we are. Statistics. Now then, Ziller, my dear friend -- "
"You are not serious."
"I think she thinks she is more serious than you, Zil."
"Suffering demeans more than it ennobles."
"And this is a statement derived wholly from these statistics?"
"No. I think you'll find a moral intelligence is required as well."
"A prerequisite in polite society, I'm sure we'd all agree. Now, Ziller -- "
"A moral intelligence which instructs us that all suffering is bad."
"No. A moral intelligence which will incline to treat suffering as bad until proved good."
"Ah! So you admit that suffering can be good."
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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