Now that the last vestiges of secrecy have been discarded, the identities and locations of all of the remaining members of great debating group are revealed, the adherents of the secret cabal are known to all others. A number of the previously anonymous pundits and proponents intent on divining - or defining - the future direction of the Culture's society and morality have taken it upon themselves to oversee the grand experiment, the critical test itself. Three members - ex-members might be a better description - are worthy of note. All are the Minds of large craft still firmly associated with the Culture proper; all are now members of the Compass Alignment Group, the conclave of Minds whose self-imposed function is to advise and guide the investigations surrounding Island Rock, the promulgation of information about the Rock and its bizarre inhabitants, and the stimulation of debate and eventual decision-making within the Culture proper.
These three Minds are the GSV Hence, Or Otherwise, the LSV Some Revision Required and the LSV Thinking Things Through.
Aneme was sitting alone in the darkened little room aboard the One Hand Clapping normally used by Ingeta and Sa-Aliten to view early versions of segments of their film. She had asked Sa-Aliten to set up the introductory section of the documentary on the archaic projection device. She had thanked him graciously; he had taken the hint, set the projector in motion and then left quietly closing the door behind him.
There was a flickering of obscure symbols and numbers on the screen; then the image stabilised showing a view along the now-familiar sandy beach, an azure sea bounded by flecks of foam on one side and the dense foliage on the other side. The soundtrack played the noises of gentle surf and a breeze ruffling the leaves. The camera panned, the view pivoting to show one of the Islanders and her daughter at the water's edge, digging in the sand with their clawed hands. The mother unearthed some kind of shelled crustacean which she washed off briefly in the surf before biting it in half, swallowing one portion while handing the other to her child. The sea, the beach, mother and child sharing their meal: it all looked idyllic, peaceful.
Sa-Aliten's voice came over the soundtrack; he was providing the voiceover, speaking in a low, slightly breathy voice which seemed curiously appropriate to narrate this kind of material.
"We're here to look at a sentient humanoid species - non-Culture and, as far as we know, previously un-Contacted by any of the currently-active Involved or Aspirant civilizations. They are a species with some strange, grisly, even sickening or abhorrent traits. They all live here, on this single isolated Island, which is itself a construct, an artificial habitat inside an asteroid. These aliens don't have a name for themselves; we have taken to calling them the Islanders, the inhabitants of Island Rock."
The film cut to a close-up of a female Islander, a first-time mother judging by the lack of healed scar tissue on her chest and belly, holding her recently-emerged daughter tenderly while her belly bled profusely and her child lapped up the spilled blood ravenously.
"The Islanders are not just carnivorous, which most humanoid species were at some point in their distant past," Sa-Aliten's breathless voice continued, "But actually cannibals. For them, cannibalism is just a part of their life. Their young - they are always female - are born alive and eat their way out of their mother. Sometimes, their mother dies from their injuries; this would provide a few days of food for the infant if it were not for the predations of others of their kind; mother and child are invariably eaten by remaining members of their tribe."
The shot cut to an image of another female - or it might have been the same one, it was difficult to tell - with an older daughter. The mother was in good health, it seemed; no new injuries or recent wounds could be seen. Her chest and belly, and a fair proportion of her shoulders and back were covered with the pendulous excrescence of blood-filled food-bags.
"Mothers grow a large number of protuberances, bulbous growths filled with fats and proteins and blood over a fair proportion of their upper bodies. These are specifically food sources for their young."
As Sa-Aliten spoke, the daughter reached up, bit off a food-bag and swallowed it in a single swift movement. The mother did not seem to react at all, just caressed the head of her daughter while she licked at the blood from the newly-created wound on her chest.
The projector came to the end of the reel with a clatter which made her jump, the screen now a washed-out uniform whiteness. After a few moments, some automatic mechanism in the antiquated machine turned off the light, or perhaps it was just the ship quietly intervening.
Aneme sat in the near-darkness, turning things over in her mind. It was so balanced, she mused, the choice to intervene or not to intervene. The Islanders seem to be designed to be as grotesque and disgusting as possible to Cultured sensibilities but yet have just enough redeeming human qualities to make them worthy of charity, a chance of life. She considered first one side and then the other, mulling them over again and again; whatever internal sense of rightness, that inner certainty that she was Doing The Right Thing was silent on either option. She felt flat, deflated, exhausted.
She had an inspiration, a thought which blazed suddenly across her mind accompanied by what seemed like a cacophony of brass bells from that central core of her being, that intrinsic sensibility which indicated wisdom, as she understood it. She realised what she must do now.
"Ship," she said politely, "May I have some light in here please."
Subtle indirect lighting ramped up on all sides, making the tiny room suddenly feel perversely claustrophobic.
"Thank you, ship," she said, then added, "Could you invite all of the crew to join me in the shared accommodation section in ten minutes? Including Sa-Aliten and Ingeta?"
"I'll ask them, of course," the One Hand Clapping replied, sounding surprised, "May I ask what the purpose of this meeting would be?"
"I have an idea I want to explore, on what we should do about Island Rock," she answered, "But I will need to discuss it with the crew, and yourself of course. I suspect there will need to be a debate."
It did take a little longer than ten minutes, but eventually all of the crew gathered in the accommodation section. When Aneme entered, most of them were already there. Sharo Emshala was lounging in a recliner, his tattoos stirring lazily in patterns suggesting friendly amusement. Kitzean Mso was seated next to him, making speculations about why they had been summoned, judging by the way the conversation ceased when Aneme entered. Schoma Xantic hung quietly in the air, its aura field displaying a friendly green flecked with gunmetal motes of puzzlement. Quenlily Sikralis was equally silent on the other side of the room. Sa-Aliten and Ingeta came in together, a few seconds after Aneme. They both had the slightly tousled appearance and the rumpled clothes of people who had just got out of bed in a hurry. Mso smirked knowingly.
Lezert T'wou was the last to arrive, looking like he had just been awakened from a cold season's hibernation. He scowled at Aneme then slumped into one of the many form-fitting couches. A ship-slaved serving tray drew up smoothy at his elbow, carrying a large mug of hot drink. T'wou grasped the steaming beverage as if his life depended on it.
Aneme stepped forward.
"Thank you all for humouring me," she said simply, "I believe I know the way forward, the direction we must take in untangling the problems surrounding Island Rock."
There was a stunned silence in the lounge for a few moments, then all the humans started asking questions at once. Aneme held up her hands. The group subsided into silence, somewhat grudgingly.
"Of course I will explain," Aneme went on, "But it will require a number of unusual things, from all of us. So, please, hear me out. Is that okay?"
There was a round of muttered approvals which Aneme took to be a good sign.
"First, I need to ask the Hand a few things," she went on.
Aneme had been in the Culture for long enough to adopt the slightly formal pose one used when addressing an unseen Mind.
"Ship," she asked, "Are there any other vessels in the immediate vicinity?"
"I strongly suspect that both the Thinking Things Through and the Some Revision Required are still in the volume somewhere," the disembodied voice of the One Hand Clapping said, "But neither LSV is making itself obvious and neither is responding to any of my messages."
"Yes, I had heard about them from Kitzean," Aneme said, "Anything else?"
"The Friendly Feature Set is currently high-tailing it out of here at something close to its maximum sustainable velocity," the ship said, "It didn't seem to want to slow down much when it got here, just threw you and Ms. Mso aboard as quickly as it could, and then scarpered."
"Ah," muttered Mso, "So that's why we were asked to Displace."
"And that's it? No other ships?" Aneme pressed.
"None," the Hand confirmed, adding, "To the best of knowledge. I have been taking the precaution of making regular scans at frequent intervals and nothing is showing up. Oh, a highly capable ship - ours or from one of the Involved - might just be able to remain undetected but, short of deploying a small fleet of ROUs in the volume, there's nothing I can do to be any more sure."
"Thank you, ship," Aneme said, "And another question: I believe you could not outrun either of the Thinking Things Through and the Some Revision Required and, if they wanted to, either of them could disable or even destroy you with relative ease?"
Of course, this caused another uproar; Aneme just waited patiently until it died down enough for the ship to answer.
"Unfortunately, you are correct," the disembodied voice of the One Hand Clapping said sadly, "If either of those LSVs really meant us ill, there's nothing I could do to prevent it."
"But why is this relevant?" Emshala demanded, "Why would any ship want to destroy the Hand?"
"It's because of me or, at least, what I want to say," Aneme replied, "To be quite clear, I am asking you all, including the One Hand Clapping itself, to consider a course of action which might get us all killed."
"And if we don't want to consider this course of action?" Emshala shouted out over the hubbub, his tattoos now in a swirl of excitement and confusion.
"I simply have to remain silent, keep my little insight a secret inside my own head. A place, I have been often told, where nobody or nothing in the Culture will attempt to look. To remain private and unspoken forever."
"So what do you want us to do?" Mso asked thoughtfully, "This course of action you're very carefully not telling us?"
"I want to get an announcement out, a communication to the entire Culture or as much of it as we can manage," Aneme replied promptly, "And I don't want the message intercepted, censored or distorted - which I am certain will be attempted if it is suspected we are going to send such a message."
"And what is this message," Mso pressed gently.
"Before I tell you what the message is," Aneme said, "I need you all to give an undertaking, a promise - including you, Hand - not to communicate with anybody, at all, any ship or Mind outside this vessel until we have managed to send the message, or agreed that we will not."
Humans and drones in Contact seemed to be self-selected so as to be even more opinionated and argumentative than the average Culture citizen - if there really was such a being. So it was inevitable that Aneme's unorthodox and possibly immoral proposal was earnestly and loudly debated from every conceivable angle: ethical, practical, logistical, strategic. On the other hand, such practiced debaters were also good at finding compromises and shared positions; in this case, the consensus fairly rapidly converged on a shared view which was, basically, agree to promise to remain silent, incommunicado, for the time being, with an option of being able to vote for a reversal of that promise if Aneme's secret message so warranted.
The One Hand Clapping had obviously heard and understood the debate amongst its crew.
"I agree," the ship said, sounding very faintly relieved, "And I will certainly refrain from sending any communications until we have heard what Ms. Crossmaddows has to say."
"Okay, that will have to do," Aneme sighed, then drew herself up straight and looked around the common area.
"Island Rock is a fake," she said flatly, "And the moral judgement the society is being asked to make is a test, deliberately set up."
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n126.96.36.19982]
xGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
oLSV Thinking Things Through
oLSV Some Revision Required
I had expected a further report from the One Hand Clapping by now, but nothing's turned up.
Anything going on out there which I should be aware of?
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n188.8.131.5284]
xLSV Some Revision Required
oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
oLSV Thinking Things Through
Nothing here. Still that silly archaic filming process going on, talking to the locals interminably and explaining everything in words of one syllable. Or less.
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n184.108.40.20685]
xLSV Thinking Things Through
oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
oLSV Some Revision Required
I'm sure the movie-making is serving its purpose. And it is more the critical intellects - even if they are only human intellects - behind the filming rather than the technology which are the interesting aspects.
But, otherwise, business as usual.