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, along with all the rest of the crew, had been part of innumerable meetings, briefings, lectures, mission statements, debates, orientation sessions and informal discussions while aboard the One Hand Clapping, although the ship had not necessarily been the sole instigator of these events.

The conclave of Minds who had made themselves experts on Island Rock tended to refer to themselves as the Compass Alignment Group, although they were not forthcoming on why that name had been selected. The One Hand Clapping - still functioning as the hub of the on-site presence, relentlessly tagging along with the drifting rock - and the Hence, Or Otherwise itself had been joined by a dispersed group of Minds variously self-selected, invited, press-ganged, badgered, volunteered or just joined-up-on-a-whim.

An early entrant to the group - speaking logically, the ship itself being physically located on the far side of the Galaxy at the time - was the LSV Some Revision Required. This ancient craft had been built when the Very Large Self Sufficient Craft concept was just being developed. It had been originally commissioned as one of a small number of General Service Vehicles but, at a mere three kilometres in length, it was tiny in comparison with the fifty or a hundred klicks of more modern examples. The entire class had been demoted to Limited Systems Vehicles some millennia before and many of the examples had become Eccentric, gone into a Retreat, been rebuilt to a more modern form, destroyed in the chaos which was the Idiran war, or just plain disappeared.

The Some Revision Required had resisted all of these various fates and temptations, and had resolutely maintained its original fabric, or some very close approximation thereto, and its Mind had, presumably, retained much of its original mindset and character. Still formally part of Contact, it was regarded by many of its peers as an old fossil and, perhaps appropriately, had made a special study of ancient artefacts across the Greater Galaxy: the inscrutable puzzles, unexplained constructions and infeasible configurations of suns and planets left behind by the Elders.

Not long after the discovery of the Rock, the Some Revision Required had transmitted an encoded partial mind-state, now hosted in some miniscule fraction of the computational substrate of the One Hand Clapping. This local mind-state could interact in real time with the crew as well as, presumably, the ship itself - although in practice its contributions tended to be few and far between. But, it occurred to Mso, the one thing that the shadowy presence of the LSV insisted upon was encouraging anything which might lead to more information about the history of Island Rock and its inhabitants.

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 though 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.

"This is a story of long ago, before the creation of the world. It was an Age when angels and demons contended for dominance of the sky. An unending war between the Gods."

The very sound of Matron's voice inside Mso's head gave her the impression of being a measured recall of something carefully learned by rote a long time ago. Although there was nothing impinging on her eardrums other that the hiss of the distant surf and the susurrations of the insect life, a certain sing-song cadence was entirely evident in the not-sound emanated by the old female in front of her.

"Two multitudes were ranged against each other; two vast armies, each bent on dominating the other. One army held to the Gods of the Sun, the Sky, the Moons; the other aligned with the Gods of the Earth, the Sea, the Air. Vast were their battles; merciless were their strategies; cunning were their tactics."

As she declaimed, Matron's head returned to its vigilant scanning of the clearing, her eyes returning often to her daughter still exploring the sand for any morsels of food that might be discovered.

"Finally, the God of the Sky devised a great and terrible weapon, an enormous hammer to smite all the opposing forces with one unstoppable blow. She persuaded the God of the Sun and the Gods of the Moons that the use of this weapon would finally end the war of the Gods, and that together they would unleash this prodigious blow on their foes, to snuff them all out in an instant."

Without warning, Matron leapt around to face away from the Strangers, and stared fixedly at a patch of the foliage which encircled this little glade which had just rustled suddenly, alarmingly. Schoma Xantic's sensing band abruptly glowed almost incandescently bright, as the tiny machine moved to a higher state of readiness. But the old female's voice never ceased its measured rendition inside Mso and Emshala's head.

"The Gods of the Sun, the Sky, the Moons made their preparations and without warning swung their dreadful weapon with great strength and power. And a great cry went up, as a great multitude voiced their last song as the hammer of the Gods came down upon them."

Moving warily, Matron again turned to face Mso and Emshala, motionless in their suits. The rustling foliage held no danger, it seemed.

"By some luck, not all of the armies of the Earth, the Sea, the Air were destroyed by the hammer of the Gods. Although the God of the Earth and the God of the Sea were smitten and diminished beyond any hope of revival, the God of the Air survived, along with some small fraction of her armies."

Matron broke off her narrative and swung her head in the direction of her daughter, whose attempts at foraging had led her rather close, it seemed to the edge of the clearing. Mso caught the barest hint of a stern warning in her head as the old female’s pseudo-telepathic communications were directed elsewhere, while Matron's daughter immediately stiffened, hung her head in brief remorse, then bounded back to within a few paces of the crude shelter positioned in the exact centre of the glade.

"The survivors of the attack," Matron resumed, "Led by the God of the Air, fell upon the opposing armies with renewed determination and heightened ferocity. They swept forward with vengeance in their hearts, smiting down the soldiers of their enemies without mercy or compassion, and killing all who stood with them, even the smallest of the children. The armies of Gods of the Sun, the Sky, and the Moons responded in kind, killing all who fought against them and anybody who appeared to be allied with their much-diminished but suddenly terrifying enemy."

Matron's daughter still seemed to be restless, or perhaps her hunger was getting the better of her. She hopped away from the shack and, using the claws on her feet, she dug in the sand where some tree roots lay just below the surface. Dry sand and a few pieces of vegetable matter fountained away in the light breeze for a few moments. Then, she bent down and explored the hole more carefully hoping, no doubt to find some edible morsel hidden in the roots she had exposed.

"And just when it seemed that the two armies were on the brink on annihilating the other," the old female continued, "The new Gods appeared, to the wonder and dismay of all who witnessed their arrival. Their first act was to cast down all the old Gods, of both sides, deeming them foolish and destructive."

The daughter seemed to be successful in her digging. She pulled up some kind of worm or large grub which might have been feeding on the tree-roots, it seemed to Mso and Emshala, bit it in two with a single snap of her jaws, then swallowed the still-wriggling halves in a single gulp.

"With the old Gods diminished and set aside," the old female went on, "The new Gods created the world as we know it now, labouring for days uncounted to assemble a place where all would be welcomed. They placed what few survivors of the armies they could locate upon this new creation. The new Gods assured all that the new world was now under their protection, but we should not expect the direct intervention of the Gods again. The new Gods then withdrew from us, urging us to remember them for future generations yet unborn and to pass on the story of the creation of the world to our daughters."

Matron had concluded her tale, it seemed. She quickly scanned the clearing behind her, then swung her gaze over her daughter who was still unearthing fragments of tree root in a search for more juicy grubs to fill her belly. The old female returned to look directly at Mso once again, her eyes shining even more brightly. An expression which would have been a frown on almost any pan-human species flitted across her face. She tilted her her head on one side to look alternately at Mso and Emshala, her internal voice now sounding like she was conveying the results of some intelligent analysis, rather than a mere rote recital.

"I believe we were once more than we are now, and less." she said, in the not-speech which found its way effortlessly into the heads of the Strangers, "Once we spoke aloud to one another, used our voices to communicate the results of our intellect, our cogitation, as I perceive you do, amongst yourselves."

The drone shot into the air, reacting with inhuman speed to some intrusion into the space around them. There was a buzz and a crash, the sound of a heavy weight falling through dense undergrowth. Matron spun around and raced off over the sand in the direction of her daughter. Mso and Enshala could see that another Islander had appeared on the edge of the clearing while the old female was distracted by telling her tale. The intruder was seemingly intent on snatching Matron's daughter, but had been stopped by Schoma Xantic who had used its effectors to stun the other female, now laying half-in, half-out of the glade.

With no hesitation whatsoever, both Matron and her daughter tried to leap upon the unconscious Islander, as a suddenly-available source of food. Rather than stunning or inflicting pain on them, Schoma Xantic elected to project a mirrored cylinder around the fallen Islander, a forcefield which would be, Mso was certain, proof against any blow or bite that the Islanders could inflict.

Matron crashed against the chamber, which did not even move a millimetre, and fell back onto the sand with a cry of pain. She picked herself up, shook her head, then spent a few moments inspected the mirror finish and her own distorted reflection. She circled the projected force field perhaps looking for some weakness or entrance, even attempting - unsuccessfully - to dig under the base of the cylinder where it met the sand.

Finally, realising that she was not going to be able to reach her fallen fellow-cum-meal, she loped back to where Mso and Emshala still stood, guarded by the ever-vigilant drone. Her bright eyes blinked, then more words appeared in the heads of the humans.

"Are you the new Gods, returned to us?"

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.188.2271]
  xGCU One Hand Clapping
    oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
Latest developments at Island Rock. [Report attached.]

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.188.2271+]
  xGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
    oGCU One Hand Clapping
Very interesting. I shall study it closely.

I'm sure you will. It looks at least plausibly consistent with the rather limited knowledge collected by the Three Body Problem and the Protracted Development.

I agree it is highly consistent.

Hmm. Perhaps too consistent. What do you think the probability of such a tale remaining relatively uncorrupted after being handed down by nearly a thousand generations?

I see what you mean. But what other interpretation could there be?

I'm not sure yet. But I think a little time setting up some simulations may help to narrow the possibilities.

Me too.

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