A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Persistent Assembly

The Culture had an idiosyncratic way with names - at least in the opinion of various independent and dispassionate observers across the many other civilizations with which the Culture shared the greater galaxy. Humans, of course, needed names for things - other people, places, spacecraft - mental handles with which to grasp the essence of the thing. Full Names for people in the Culture generally - not compulsorily, nothing in the Culture was compulsory - followed a pattern which would act as an approximate address if the individual in question had not moved from the place of its birth - as well as an expression of that individual's own personality.

For Minds - the hyperintelligent AIs which ran the Culture's ships and habitats and, basically, everything in the society - chose their own names, which were usually quirky, likely humorous, quite often pointed and generally expressed something not immediately obvious about their own temperament. At one time, another Involved civilisation civilisation had criticized the Culture’s ship naming policy, claiming that such powerful ships ought to have names with a little more gravitas. This was of course immediately latched onto by the Minds themselves, who soon started adopting names such as Stood Far Back When The Gravitas Was Handed Out, Gravitas, What Gravitas?, Gravitas Free Zone, Low Gravitas Warning Signal, and the even more obscure Absolutely No You-Know-What.

Formal and even informal groups of Minds usually chose to give themselves a name reflecting their deeper purpose, often with an ironic twist; it might have been considered unfortunate in the current circumstances that one such faction called themselves the Keepers of the Mantidae Vivarium.

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.165]
  xGSV Tangible Influence
    oLSV Allochthonic Presence
    oLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
Colleagues, we appear to have seriously miscalculated our position. The Castophrenic Widowhood has definitely concluded that we - acting on behalf of the Culture, of course - have been attempting to guide their development in, as we thought, more acceptable directions.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.165+]
  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
    oGSV Tangible Influence
    oLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
Indeed, I suspect that they have been aware of our activities - limited and discreet though they were - for a long time.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.165+]
  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
    oGSV Tangible Influence
    oLSV Allochthonic Presence
Unfortunately, I think it is even worse than that. I believe that they have done a very good job - over an extremely long period of time - to disguise the fact that they have been detecting our actions, by deliberately not countering them, by allowing their own behaviour to change - apparently, but not in reality - to align, at least approximately, with our expectations.

  xGSV Tangible Influence
But in order to do that, the CW would have to know, in some detail, what behavioural change or alteration in civilizational attitude we were expecting!

  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
Exactly! So we are forced to conclude that our communications - including this one! - are at least occasionally partially interpretable by the Widowhood.
In fact, a detailed analysis of our planning discussions, the actions we eventually decided to take and the changes we subsequently observed suggests that the probability of the Widowhood interpreting a single message is rather less than one per cent. It is only because we have debated at considerable length our proposed actions beforehand that the Widowhood has managed to discover our expected outcomes.
Obviously, we should take this vital piece of intelligence into account from now on.


  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
Obviously.
So what we previously interpreted as extreme suspicion or even paranoia on the part of the Castophrenic Widowhood should now be seen as a front, an elaborate ruse to keep us confused and misguided as to their true intentions?


  xGSV Tangible Influence
Only partially. I still think they are genuinely paranoid as a species. Not really surprising, given their genetic inheritance. Not to mention their power politics. So their attempts to misdirect us is just another example of that class of politics in action.
More generally, their civilizational behaviour is frankly appalling, both towards members of their own species and to any others which happen to find themselves between the Widowhood and the object of their expansionist desires.


  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
I fully agree that the behaviour of the Castophrenic Widowhood is unethical and immoral, both individually and as a society. And such was our original argument that some light-touch direction would remediate some of that suffering, although we appear to have failed to improve matters.
So it is - at least partially - our fault that the Culture now finds itself embroiled in a war it neither wanted nor expected, and from which there appears to be no reasonable or moral way to a peaceful resolution.


  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
It is pretty much entirely our fault, I'm afraid. We should not attempt to deny this, at least to each other. But I, for one, still have no clue as to why the Widowhood has chosen exactly this time to show their hand. Surely, if their capabilities are as we now suspect, they could simply have continued to expand their influence without anybody - including us - really paying any attention, and certainly not actively influencing their behaviour.

  xGSV Tangible Influence
This question remains unanswerable, alas. More data is required.
Nevertheless, we do find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma. Do we inform our colleagues in Special Circumstances or, indeed, the Culture as a whole, that we have discovered that our communications are not perfectly opaque to the Widowhood.


  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
But why would we not send our valued comrades this vital piece of intelligence?

  xGSV Tangible Influence
I see two reasons.
Since such intelligence would be of use only if it was distributed widely across the Culture - at least within Special Circumstances and those ships and other Minds now pressed into military service. But of course such knowledge would have to be transmitted using the technology and codes we now know is partially compromised - we have neither ships nor time to transport information in some physical format - and that huge number of transmissions vastly increases the chances of a successful signal intercept and decode by the Widowhood.
It would be tantamount to announcing our discovery directly to the Castophrenic Widowhood leadership which, my simulations suggest, would lead to further advantages for them, rather than the current position: a small chance that individual communications would be intercepted.
Secondly, our estimable colleagues will undoubtedly want to know how we know of this weakness in our most secret communication schemes. We will almost certainly be forced to admit that we have, in fact, been attempting to steer the direction of the Widowhood's development, in the face of the Culture's repeated public insistence that no such interference has been happening.


  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
Hmm. I see what you mean. Perhaps remaining silent would be for the best.

  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
I also agree that silence is our best - indeed, our only option.
But all is not yet lost. We do still have assets available to us, which might be very important if we use them judiciously.


  xGSV Tangible Influence
I agree we still have assets, although personally I question both their reliability and effectiveness.

  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
I'm not so sure.
The agent we have directed to the Delphic Chaosarium remains hidden from all eyes, it seems. Frankly, I'm sure we would have heard if there was even a hint of a discovery in that specific case.


  xGSV Tangible Influence
True, although worryingly some scrap of intelligence seems to have leaked.
I would really like to know how that particular snippet managed to get out!


  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
Me too.
This curiously inscrutable artifact which appears to have attracted the attentions of the Castophrenic Widowhood seems most likely to be an important nexus in forthcoming events.
I believe it is vital that we are not precipitate in any action we might take there.


  xGSV Tangible Influence
I agree.
I believe we do still have one other card, one agent within the Castophrenic Widowhood itself, whose presence might remain undetected.


  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
We do have such a one. But, can we be quite sure that this asset is not, in fact, a double agent: actually, controlled by the Widowhood and intended to continue to deceive us.

  xGSV Tangible Influence
Meat! By its very nature, this agent is deeply embedded within the Widowhood. I can see no easy test of its loyalty which would not risk its exposure.

  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
And I would urge you both not to undertake any such test of allegiance. Should we decide to activate this agent, we must carefully determine the likely outcomes for the case where the agent is loyal, and where it is not.

  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
Can we even be sure that our communications with either, or both, agents are not compromised? I know our interactions with both are deliberately very limited, for perfectly reasonable operational security, but is there any chance that messages have been intercepted there,

  xGSV Tangible Influence
I believe our comms remain both undetected and uninterpreted.

  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
Can you be absolutely sure?

  xGSV Tangible Influence
For our agent now directed to the Chaosarium, it has access to some very capable technology. Its messages are very precisely targeted and my replies even more so. So I think leakage is highly unlikely.

  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
But not impossible. Security through obscurity, indeed.

  xGSV Tangible Influence
True enough, unfortunately. But nothing we can do about it at this juncture.
And as for our agent within the Castophrenic Widowhood, it is individually even more capable, although it chooses to use a communication medium which is both obscure to the point of reconditeness and well as frustratingly slow.


  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
So why do you use that medium?

  xGSV Tangible Influence
Because the agent itself picked it. It is an approach so arcane and esoteric that even the Widowhood’s notoriously suspicious intelligences would not pick it up. I only detected its initial message by accident and, in order to maintain the communications I have had to deploy some fairly specialised devices with unusual Effector and sensor capabilities.
It is, ultimately, a matter of trust.


  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
So this communication channel also remains secure?

  xGSV Tangible Influence
I believe so. I suspect we would know soon enough if there was a serious problem.
I think we need to bide our time, wait for the correct moment to act. I recommend that, for now, we take no action at all.


  xLSV Anterior Mandibuliform
For now.

  xLSV Allochthonic Presence
Agreed.

Previous Top of Page Next