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

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"We have a story, our people," the old mother said, "One we have always told to our daughters as they grow up, as a matter of ancient tradition. My mother told it to me, many years ago, impressing me with its importance. And it occurs to me now that it might be wise to relate it to you, Strangers."

The blue-skinned Islander stood attentively in the centre of the clearing, her eyes flicking between the undergrowth at the boundary and watching her daughter, now scampering playfully nearby and occasionally stopping to dig in the sand. As Mso and Emshala watched, standing near the short passage which led to the beach and carefully adopting a non-threatening stance in their yellow-and-black wasp suits, the youngster unearthed a landcrab. The crab scuttled off in alarm, making only a few metres before the young female pounced on the hapless creature, using her sharp and numerous teeth to crack its shell and swallow the tasty morsel, legs still wriggling feebly.

The drone Schoma Xantic hovered attentively nearby, the mirror band which bisected its casing swirling with muted colours like an oil film on warm glass. It was there, at least in part, for the protection of the humans; it had been forced to use its Effectors and maniple fields to protect them from attacks on innumerable occasions. This almost never happened now; the painful conditioning the Culture had been forced to inflict on the Islanders, keyed to the insect-striped outer garments the humans wore, was generally enough to restrain their apparently innate savagery and insatiable hunger.

The soft, even delicate tones of the Islander's thought-speech appeared in the heads of the humans exactly as if a well-mannered, cultured member of the Culture were speaking with their mouths just inches behind one's own head. It was a profoundly unsettling experience, even after the exact mechanism had been tolerably understood by the clutch of Minds invited by Contact to undertake the analysis. It was, almost literally, a form of telepathy: an isolated area of complex nerve endings, set just below the forehead and effectively shielded from the operation of the owner's brain by a mass of dense spongy tissue, allowed one Islander to project the surface layer of its thoughts to another nearby. For some reason, the process worked well enough with almost all Culture humans to allow for effective transmission, while some quirk of the construction of the majority of Culture brains allowed the same Islander organ to act as a receiver for the thoughts of others.

This particular Islander was one Mso and her colleagues, not to mention the Mind of the One Hand Clapping itself, had been studying for some weeks now. She was, unusually, a third-time mother, already pregnant with another daughter even before her second child was full-grown. Her strength of personality and physical durability as a female - at a time in her life when she might have expected to be either dead or forcibly converted to male - had imbued her with enhanced levels of respect and, perhaps, power in what passed from society on this island where the default position of each individual was to regard everybody else as either a potential source of food or a threat to one own life. The Elders of the tribe - necessarily male - had, in recent months, been seen to be treating her as a near-equal, perhaps in anticipation of her joining their ranks shortly after the birth of what must surely be her last daughter. It was for these reasons that Emshala - always ready with insightful, if slightly irreverent, observations - had named her Matron.

Mso took a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming herself. Her Contact training, indeed her every instinct suggested that this might just be a pivotal moment in the study of this mysterious rock, even now only slowly giving up its secrets. As a matter of course, all interactions between the Islanders and the Culture representatives - dubbed "Strangers" by the blue-skinned natives - were recorded in considerable fidelity by the ship itself, through its numerous remote sensors, camera platforms, bugs and miscellaneous surveillance apparatus. Even so, the insights of the people actually on the ground - artificial as it was - had been positively proven to provide new perspicacity and sagacity to the collective understanding.

"Would you tell us that story, Matron?" she said, speaking the words aloud, even thought the sounds themselves made no sense at all to the Islanders.

Matron stopped her methodical sweep of the clearing, swinging her head to look directly at Mso, her eyes bright in their deep sockets. The champing of her jaws never ceased, even though her mellifluous voice sounded clearly in Mso's head.

More coming soon...

Read the story so far from the beginning.

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