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

Cover Story

The Kaligan Cloud was not an entirely unexplored region of space, of course. The Culture had long since become dispersed throughout the Greater Galaxy and the Cloud had been visited innumerable times by vessels large and small over the last eleven millennia or so, and many of the stellar systems had been investigated in detail. Even the systems which had not been examined directly would had been remote-scanned, mapped, probed, analysed and catalogued.

When direct observations were not available, it was always possible to consult the records from other tribes, societies and civilizations that the Culture has variously found, acquired, traded, bought, exchanged, bartered, claimed, glommed, scavenged or simply had thrust upon them by individuals and species ahead of transcendence or destruction, and then downloaded, de-archived, decrypted, translated, deciphered, unravelled, transliterated, interpreted, rendered, construed, transcribed, paraphrased, elucidated, clarified and indexed for the benefit of all its citizens.

Of course, such prodigious libraries and immodestly vast repositories of knowledge did not represent the sum total of reality. The reason that the Culture's General Contact Units continued to nose their way about the Galaxy was precisely because there was so much yet unknown, at least to the Culture and because, despite the layered banality and the just plain boringness of much of the physical universe, unearthing the occasional nugget of information and seam of knowledge and insight made the entire endeavour undeniably worthwhile.

For all of the stupendous technology that the Culture could bring to bear - faster-than-light travel, pervasive and near-instantaneous communications, access to hyperspace, and so on - there was nothing which counteracted one important fact: space is really, really big. All of the interesting bits - the stellar systems, gas clouds, supernova remnants, globular clusters, black holes, asteroid belts, Oort clouds and all the rest - occupied a vanishingly small percentage of the total volume.

Even if you accepted that the empty spaces held nothing interesting - at least from the perspective of metre-scale oxygen-breathers with a carbon-water metabolism - even the tiny fraction which remained represented itself a truly astronomical volume. The Kaligan Cloud could hide a million unexplored satellites, a million carefully-concealed secrets, a million inscrutable artefacts of unknown antiquity and unpredictable abilities.

As the One Hand Clapping, the drones and finally the humans aboard had realised, it would take a considerable amount of effort to find what they were looking for in the Kaligan Cloud; even if they were not sure exactly what they were looking for, they were certain that they would recognise it when they found it. The records were searched as a matter of course and, although numerous hints, clues and pointers were unearthed, there was nothing which unambiguously indicated the origin of the Rock.

So there was no alternative but to do the job the hard way.

The entire region was investigated with considerable care and depth over the next few years by the Hence, Or Otherwise itself and, eventually, by an entire flotilla of GCUs, modules of various sizes, space-capable drones and semi-sentient probes. The multitudinous observations, descriptions, investigations, reviews, reports, dispatches, bulletins, accounts and précises were received by a distributed grouping of Minds who specialised in this kind of thing, and subjected to a truly prodigious amount of analysis.

Such a concentration of Culture capabilities and resources for a single purpose was rarely seen and even more rarely experienced. The desire to bring every possible facility to bear on the search was balanced against the notice this might bring from elsewhere. Seeing an unusual level of Culture interest in a particular region of space was tantamount to advertising the presence of something of significance, and was almost guaranteed to attract the unwanted attentions of numerous other Civs, particularly those with a less sensitive, more aggressive, even flagrantly rapacious attitude to acquiring valuable remnants of Sublimed or otherwise long-absent species.

There was even some serious consideration given to re-activating a contingent of Rapid Offensive Units mothballed since the end of the Idiran war nearly a millennium ago. Having a few hundred ROUs blatting about the Galaxy - or even a small but substantial fraction of it - would certain increase the coverage of the space immensely, but it was hardly the kind of thing to go unnoticed amongst the teeming multitudes of Civs which coexisted in the Greater Galaxy. Reluctantly, it was judged that unleashing a pack of ROUs, even Demilitarised and relabelled Very Fast Pickets, would be unacceptable in political and diplomatic terms, especially for continued peaceful relationships with the more mistrustful, suspicious, paranoid or just plain envious species who watched the Culture's activities with eyes - or equivalent sensory body parts - wide open.

So, searching the haystack for the needle of the point of origin took longer than anybody would really have liked. Eventually, it was the GCU Three Body Problem that identified the most likely source of the asteroid ark. It encountered an expanding shell of electromagnetic radiation spinning outwards from a star some fifteen thousand light-years away, on one low-probability edge of the region originally identified by the One Hand Clapping.

The Three Body Problem was not formally part of the search; it was engaged in a quite independent piece of research, one that required it to use its effectors to create a sensor web spreading across several tens of light-seconds. Entirely by chance, there just happened to be a path free of cosmic dust, plasma clouds and charged particles between the Problem and the planet - a path that the densely crowded region of space known as the Kaligan cloud made all but impossible in most directions - so that radio signals were just, faintly detectable.

The shell of radiation was no more than a couple of hundred light-years thick. It evidenced a perfectly ordinary developmental sequence, from the most stutteringly inefficient and curiously encoded radio transmissions at the outer edge mutating and evolving over the course of a couple of centuries to rather less primitively modulated lasers and tightly-focussed microwaves.

The source of most of the radiation was a point which rotated around the parent star at a distance likely to allow for liquid water and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere to exist. Television programmes, still images and moving picture transmissions, once decoded, did indeed show the various antics of a race of blue-skinned, slightly reptilian humanoids indulging in a range of activities no more naively primitive, unimaginatively grotesque or inhumanely violent than experienced on any emerging Stage Three un-Contacted world.

The broadcasts and transmissions spread out from the orbital zone as the Three Body Problem's sensory apparatus drew closer to the inner edge of the shell of radiation, presumably as the indigenous species gained some measure of space-borne capability, escaped from the gravity well of their home planet and began to explore - and exploit - the nearer planets, asteroids and moons of their system.

The problem was that the planet itself was gone.

The way it was explained to Mso and the others was to imagine a spherical balloon, the surface of which was expanding at the speed of light. The fabric of the bubble represented the shell of radio and other electromagnetic radiation detected by the Three Body Problem. The skin was a couple of hundred light-years thick; a mere wisp of thin rubber or a film of soapy water compared with the thirty thousand light-years that the sphere measured from side to side.

Then imagine a tiny spot, no bigger than a pin-prick. This was the area of the emerging wavefront that the Three Body Problem could sample, the rest of the dissipating energies having been variously absorbed, scattered or distorted by the natural obstacles in this densely packed region of space, exactly as if the pin had burst the bubble. And, because the rotation of both the now-vanished world on its own axis and that of the planet around its star, all that could be detected in that tiny area were transmission fragments, snippets of in-flight conversations and tiny fractions of broadcasts and programmes.

Even this information got more sketchy and incomplete towards the inner edge of the data shell, when the transmission techniques had become more sophisticated as well as more carefully and less wastefully directed. When the planet abruptly ceased its transmissions, it was difficult to determine unambiguously the details of the last few hours of its existence. The Mind of the Three Body Problem was entirely capable of the trivial functions of decoding the protocols and decrypting the messages, but piecing together what actually happened was very much more tricky.

The Three Body Problem was itself immediately co-opted by the Hence, Or Otherwise to sample the signals from the absent planet from as many points as it could manage. It turned out that there were relatively few spots where any trace of the signals could be detected, even using those prodigious technical capabilities the Culture entrusted to its Minds. Other ships sought - without much success - to identify other points on the expanding bubble-surface of signals and record further transmission fragments; enough, eventually, to put together what happened.

The best theory was that two political factions had developed in the decades leading up to the disaster: one with its affiliations with the governments of their home planet and the other an independence movement seeking freedom for the space-borne from the interference - not to mention taxation - of a remote and increasingly irrelevant central authority.

That such a political minefield was a key part of the political evolution and history of at least two of the species who eventually made up the Culture itself was no surprise. It was almost inevitable that, once the space-based part of a civilisation found that it was no longer physically or economically dependent on its original home, it would find itself hankering for political independence. Like a bird leaving the nest or a full-grown child escaping the confines of the parental home, some people would yearn for self-determination and autonomy.

That this political tension could lead to war was also not unknown. The formation of the Culture had been the result of vicissitudes too numerous and bloody to mention, but it was an experience with a lasting impact: the Culture was ideologically committed to an entirely decentralised and therefore anarchic organisational and political structure, one uncoupled from any identified centre of influence or home planet.

The war on the missing planet had been short and brutish, with the space-based rebel side attempting to blackmail the other into agreeing to their demands for autonomy. However, those allied to the planet-based authorities had not forgotten that they lived at the bottom of a deep gravity well and were therefore in principle susceptible to attack by the simple expedient of dropping rocks on them from space.

The old hegemony had long been prepared to police their empire and had invested in a considerable fleet of warships of their own. Their forces were enough to keep the region of space around the home planet swept of nearby rebel ships while, for long-range enforcement, they had constructed a network of orbiting battle stations armed with fusion-tipped hyper-speed missiles and batteries of lasers and other projected-energy weapons - what the Culture referred to as Coherent Radiation Emission Weapon Systems.

The CREWS in particular proved to be exceptionally successful in combating attempts to bombard the home planet with assorted pieces of space flotsam, easily destroying, deflecting or disintegrating the various asteroids, ice-balls and kamikaze spaceships aimed at assorted centres of importance on the planetary surface.

Anticipating all this, some inspired or perhaps just deranged leader on the rebel side had come up with an ambitious plan. Travelling further and at much greater velocity than any from the civilisation hitherto, a small fleet of ships rendezvoused with one of the larger comet nuclei in the local Oort Cloud. With great difficulty, they fastened engines to its methane-ice surface and, by a combination of brute power and some clever mathematics, they managed to manoeuvre the planetoid onto a collision course.

The speeding ice-ball was far too large to be affected by even the massed firepower of the battle stations to stand a chance of protecting their world. The planetary hegemony realised they were helpless, so they were forced to capitulate and immediately agreed in full to the rebel's demands.

Things became less certain to the Culture's analytical Minds at this point, but it was clear that Something Went Wrong. Perhaps the engines intended to deflect the comet failed, or perhaps some fanatic refused to obey the instruction to abort the collision, or perhaps the engines tore themselves from their mountings as a result of the unequal thrust. Whatever; the net outcome was that some members of a single species managed to smash apart their own planet, incidentally killing billions of their own kind in the process.

The rebel forces, always badly outnumbered by those of the hegemony, were at risk of being wiped out by the remnants in a furious series of suicidal raids, judging by the highly encrypted and overtly emotional messages that the Three Body Problem intermittently intercepted.

At this point, the very last of the transmissions ceased. It was unclear whether there were any survivors at all. In the Culture's experience, it would not be the first time that complete annihilation, genocide of an entire species was the result of such carnage; indeed, the prevention of such catastrophes was part of the raison d'etre of Contact, to guide nascent players at the Stage 3/Stage 4 level through this nexus of political tension. Just knowing that the Galaxy around them was extensively populated - you were most definitely Not Alone - and filled with civilizations of near-God-like capabilities and close-to-omniscient understanding was often enough to calm the most intransigent of reactionary opinions or revolutionary zeal.

The Three Body Problem was far too far away to get to the system that was the apparent source of the signals in a timescale likely to be acceptable to anybody. Instead, the Hence, Or Otherwise instigated a short discussion amongst its peers and colleagues, rapidly agreeing that another GCU should be redirected, one already much closer and already engaged in investigating the Kaligan Cloud. The Protracted Development was the closest ship, able to travel that distance in just a few days. It duly set off at the maximum its engines could sustain, both ship and crew startled by their sudden transition from a minor bit player on the improbable edge of a distant search to a central character in an unfolding drama.

Fifteen thousand years ago, the eleven or so separate species which went on to make up the Culture were still firmly restricted to their original planets. Yes, they had tamed fire, developed agriculture and made some use of forged metals; but they had developed no machines more complex than water pumps, wind mills and wagons drawn by the equivalent of horses or oxen. The blue-skinned humanoids had, by contrast, achieved actual space travel - at least within the confines of their own system - and developed a range of highly effective technologies, even if they would look fragile, clunky and unnecessarily complex to a Culture Mind.

The problem, as the Minds were quite willing to point out, was that such technologies did not last. They wore out, broke down, required continual maintenance and were in general quite unable to repair themselves.

The system explored by the Protracted Development - found exactly where it was expected to be - was entirely devoid of the kind of intelligent life that the human members of the Culture would recognise, although the signs of its previous existence were everywhere. There was a ring of debris in a rough orbit where the inhabited planet had once been - now rapidly evolving into a second asteroid belt - a few ships and artificial satellites which had miraculously survived intact, and a rather more widely-dispersed clouds of detritus - some of it little more than microscopic fragments or complex molecules - from either weapons impact or collisions with larger pieces of shrapnel.

Scouring a single system for large-scale remnants had not taken long, given the prodigious resources of an average GCU. The best-preserved ship which the Culture's search turned up was best described as a light cruiser, part of the policing function of the planetary hegemony, in a highly-elliptical but stable orbit around the smaller of the system's two gas giants. It had been punched through and instantly depressurised by some kind of hyper-velocity kinetic weapon, but was otherwise mostly intact.

All but two of the six-person crew died in the immediate aftermath of the projectile's impact, from ruptures breeching the integrity of their environment suits or failures of the associated equipment. Their vacuum-mummified and frozen bodies remained where they died, in high-gee acceleration couches in front of their controls and communication equipment. The remaining crew had evidently struggled heroically to restore vital functions - life support, communications, propulsion - but were ultimately overcome by exhaustion and cold before effective repairs could be completed.

Both craft and remains were analysed in forensic detail by the Protracted Development, with nothing particularly surprising being identified, although it confirmed beyond any doubt that the blue-skinned humanoids who had crewed this vessel were the same species who had survived on the Rock, with much the same genetic variability. The resulting detailed and voluminous reports were delivered to the Hence, Or Otherwise and thence to the One Hand Clapping, where eventually some miniscule fraction of the total data were reviewed by the human crew.

After several days of intensive study, glanding Sharp Blue for concentration and Buzz to avoid the need to sleep, Mso was still feeling as if there was still something missing.

"So we still don't know?" she demanded of the Hand.

"I'm afraid so," the ship replied, "There's absolutely nothing to indicate which side the survivors in the Rock originated from."

Mso nodded. This was the conclusion she had come to from her own analysis.

"So, a dead-end, then?"

"It looks like it," the Hand agreed.

The One Hand Clapping had remained by the wandering Rock for all this time, although it had been joined by a varying selection of other Culture craft including, for a short period, the Hence, Or Otherwise itself, before it hurried off to coordinate efforts in the Kaligan Cloud. Other visiting vessels had brought particular expertise, singular theories and offbeat suggestions to the investigation, none of which had really advanced the collective understanding over-much.

Much to Mso's surprise, the entire crew had elected to remain aboard even though the mission had now extended well beyond the originally expected duration. There had never been any doubt in her own mind that she was committed for the duration, however long it might take; here was something deeply mysterious which she just couldn't leave alone. Emshala's motivation was more opaque; perhaps he too was determined to see though this mystery, or maybe he simply regarded as an opportunity to extend his observations of the One Hand Clapping under more stressful circumstances.

"You know, I can't help wondering if we are going about this the wrong way," Mso mused, half to herself. She was faintly surprised when the ship answered her.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, there's still the hyperspace conundrum," she replied.

"Ah, that."

An observation made very early, when the first reports of the self-destructive society started to come in, was about the mis-match in technology. The blue-skins had space-capable technology, sure enough, but had really only explored a fraction of their own system in any detail, and that at only a tiny fraction of the speed of light. They had achieved, as far as could be ascertained, no force-field technology, no nanotechnology or self-repairer capability, nothing but the crudest of computer-based Artificial Intelligences, no FTL travel, and absolutely no hyperspace capability.

Yet the Rock had survived all these millennia, maintaining itself near-perfectly, all the while powered by a hyperspace technology which appeared to be beyond the understanding of the Culture. They could not have built the Rock themselves, not without significant outside assistance of some kind.

Had they, as had been hypothesized on numerous occasions, stumbled across some artefact, some remnant of the Elder civilisations, and then somehow, miraculously, managed to gain enough understanding to harness the capability themselves? There was nothing in even the most heavily-encrypted messages to suggest this, and it would have been difficult to hide this from Culture Minds who regarded even the most sophisticated encryption as mere obfuscation.

The other, more intriguing idea was that the Rock had been the work of another civilisation, a construction by some group now gone from the Galaxy, but who had been disposed to acts of charity and compassion - although why they had not stepped in earlier and prevented the utter destruction of the planet was something of a mystery. And, of course, there was the extremely worrying possibility that this unknown but evidently highly capable Civ might be acting as judge and jailer for the guilty rather than as saviours of the innocent.

Civilisations tended to come and go, flashing across the galactic stage for a few millennia before retiring to the rigidly enforced privacy of the Elders or the ultimate serenity of the Sublimed. Although it was rare to detect any continued interference in the continuing life in the outside galaxy from either of these groups, it was not entirely unknown either.

As an explicit policy, the Culture most certainly did not want to upset or annoy any entity, organization or civilization with indeterminate but ultimately inscrutable capabilities; making the wrong call on interfering with the destiny of the Rock held all the hallmarks of a huge risk of getting it all very, very wrong.

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.181.7003]
  xGCU One Hand Clapping
    oGGU Protracted Development
Still no sign of our mysterious benefactors-stroke-jailers, then?

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.181.7003+]
  xGCU Protracted Development
    oGCU One Hand Clapping
Looked everywhere I can think of. Looked for everything I can think of. Open to any and all suggestions at this point.

Plenty of Civs Sublime without leaving anything obvious. But it’s a little strange that one leaving the Real behind so recently has left no trace in the histories of anybody else.

True enough. Maybe they were one of those species who kept themselves to themselves, minimum interference in the lives of others, that kind of thing?

Perhaps. But then it would be out of character to interfere to the extent of Island Rock.

Still a mystery, then. Keep looking.

I will. Although I suspect I’ll be asked to wind down fairly soon, unless something turns up.

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