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

Final Judgement

The tension in the shared accommodation section of the One Hand Clapping was intense, electrifying.

"I have to say," the disembodied voice of the ship said into the shocked silence, "That I've had my suspicions on that score, too."

"What?" shouted Sa-Aliten and Mso, jumping to their feet together in strangely perfect synchronisation. Schoma Xantic leapt up in the air, its aura fields a coruscating rainbow while Quenlily Sikralis muttered a barely audible "huh".

"When did this happen?" Emshala added, "How long have you been holding out on us?"

"Well, I had noticed the astonishing, even improbable balance between the possible choices, right from the start," the voice of the One Hand Clapping said, sounding very slightly apologetic, "This always was, from the very beginning, from the first few seconds when I - and most of us, indeed - encountered Island Rock, a choice, a decision which had to be made by our entire society."

"Why didn't you say something before?" Emshala demanded, his tattoos whirling in confusion.

"Well, I've been thinking about this, a lot, over the years," the ship replied, "But I couldn't find anything I could be certain of. Or prove, for that matter."

This might have been the biggest understatement of all time, or perhaps merely the millennium. A Culture Mind could think, model, cogitate, analyse, deliberate and simulate billions of times faster than any human. If the ship had been considering this possibility seriously for many years, and still could not make up its mind, then it must be really obscure.

"If this is the kind of thing some recondite group of semi-detached Minds who are considered wise - or at least consider themselves wise - would dream up as a way of assessing the Culture's cultural fortitude - or even, more worryingly, change its metaphorical direction of travel," the Hand went on, "Then I can't be sure. Although when two ancient LSVs, apparently unpopulated and very significantly upgraded, suddenly appear in the same volume, and for whom the historical records of course schedules are definitely incomplete and seem wilfully obscure in parts, perhaps I should have re-evaluated my position."

Aneme had nodded steadily, thoughtfully, throughout the ship's commentary.

"So you think Aneme is right?" Emshala demanded.

"I think she may be right," the Hand answered with gentle emphasis, "I'd be very interested to hear what it is that makes Ms. Crossmaddows so certain."

All human eyes focussed on Aneme. Schoma Xantic returned to shoulder height, its sensing band alive with an oil-on-water sheen and its aura fields a calm blue swirling with motes of pale grey. Even Quenlily Sikralis edged forward from the corner in which it had been ensconced.

"Aneme," Kitzean Mso said softly, stepping forward and taking the other woman’s hands, "I know I brought you into this, and you've barely been here any time at all compared with many of us. So it's very unfair to ask you for an answer you might not be ready to give."

Aneme smiled, looking suddenly wan. She squeezed Mso's hands, shaking them as if thinking deeply on her next step. Then she stepped back and addressed the entire crew.

"The One Hand Clapping is right, of course, about the Some Revision Required and the Thinking Things Through. There's something very strange there but, for me, I think the concluding factor is that the Islanders don't seem to smell. I mean, to us. At all."

There was another long moment of confusion in the shared accommodation section.

"I mean, they clearly can smell very well themselves. They sniff out creatures to eat without difficulty," Aneme went on, "But, in my experience of a past life, everything had a smell. Beasts, places, people - they all had strong scents, not all of them pleasant. But in the Culture, people don't smell, hardly at all. Culture people are almost always clean, hygienic."

She paused for a moment, then went on.

"If the Islanders smelled strongly, smelled bad in some way, we would be less inclined to consider them people, which might, I think, upset the careful balance which appears to have so elaborately put in place."

"Hmm," the voice of the One Hand Clapping said, "I think Ms. Crossmaddows may have a point. I simulated likely outcomes of the Culture's reaction to Island Rock with starting conditions where the Islanders themselves were reported to be smelly - even very slightly - then the results were uniformly 'abandon them to their fate'. Culture people would just not like them as much, and feel much less inclined to act to save them."

"So it is a set-up?" Sa-Aliten demanded.

"Very likely," the ship replied gloomily.

"But you asked the Thinking Things Through if there was any kind of cover-up," Ingeta interjected, glaring at Sa-Aliten, "And it denied it!"

Sa-Aliten thought for a moment.

"I remember the conversation," he said slowly, "And the ship said there was no cover-up by Special Circumstances. It didn't say there was no cover-up at all. So it didn't actually lie."

"Huh," Ingeta muttered angrily, "Still economical with the truth, though."

Sa-Aliten nodded slowly. Culture Minds never lie. They dissemble, evade, prevaricate, confound, confuse, distract, obscure, subtly misrepresent and wilfully misunderstand with what often appears to be a positively gleeful relish and are perfectly capable of contriving to give one an utterly unambiguous impression of their future course of action while in fact intending to do exactly the opposite, but they never lie.

"What are we going to do?" Mso asked.

Aneme turned to face her.

"There is a great deception here," she said, stepping forward to taking the other woman's hands again, "A deception carried out on almost every single citizen of the Culture. I cannot imagine how we can decide to keep what we now know to ourselves."

A murmur of approval filled the shared accommodation section. Even Quenlily Sikralis made a sound that might have been a grunt of agreement.

"But, how can we get a communication out there in a way we can be sure people will hear about it?" she concluded.

"I very much share Ms. Crossmaddows' concern on the difficulty in sending out messages," the Hand said, "Sure, I could communicate with some trusted confidants in various parts of the galaxy. But, I see two problems: one, as we already suspect, the Some Revision Required and the Thinking Things Through both may have both the will and the capability to stop any communication if they suspect that we are trying to sabotage their experiment, perhaps by disabling this ship or even me, personally. And, two, how could I know that my so-called trusted confidants are not themselves part of the conspiracy?"

Sa-Aliten looked very thoughtful.

"I've an idea," he said slowly, "When we started making this film on Island Rock, I called in some favours with old friends. Some of these friends now run news agencies. I was going to send them early copies of our film" - he indicated Ingeta with an inclusive gesture - "to get some feedback from their subscribers. A fairly small group, it must be said, but quite a mixture of humans and retired drones, all of whom have a certain, ah, independent turn of mind."

"This is quite true," the ship said, "The Thinking Things Through forwarded several messages from Sa-Aliten and received replies from all of the agencies he contacted."

"Yes, they were pleasingly enthusiastic about the possibility," Sa-Aliten said, sounding smug.

"So," the ship continued, "Ingeta's and Sa-Aliten's film would have been encoded and transmitted and, if we did this now, it would seem a perfectly normal and expected thing to do."

"I said I wanted to get Aneme into our film," Ingeta said, "And this looks just like the right opportunity."

Sa-Aliten nodded firmly in agreement.

"So how long do you think it will take for you to complete your film?" Emshala asked politely.

Sa-Aliten glanced at Ingeta.

"Under other circumstances," she said carefully, "I might have expected another ten or twenty days before we would have something I might regard as acceptable."

"And under the current circumstances?" Emshala pressed, his tattoos contriving to display encouragement.

Ingeta pursed her lips, shook out her dark hair and bunched it at the nape of her neck as she composed her thoughts.

"We've got material which covers most of the points I wanted to make, although there are some gaps in the storyboard," she said eventually. She glanced an Sa-Aliten, who nodded. "So, I guess we could stitch those pieces together with causing me too much annoyance, and then conclude with an interview with Aneme."

Sa-Aliten nodded again, more energetically this time.

"Well," T'wou growled, who had been following the discussions closely over the top of his steaming beverage, "Let's get this kit set up again, shall we?"

"Hi there, old friend."

Sa-Aliten spoke directly to the camera. In this case, though, it was a floating speck, a tiny almost-not-there-at-all Culture device, not the bulky and cumbersome contraption he had built himself.

"Good to hear that you liked the idea of reviewing my most recent efforts. I've attached a draft for your perusal; if you can find the time, please watch it closely and let me know your views. I should stress it's a first cut and quite possibly incomplete, but I'd like to get some initial reactions. Looking forward to hearing from you soon."

Sa-Aliten waved politely at the camera which flashed a green pinprick to indicate it had finished recording.

He looked around at the group clustered on the other side of the shared accommodation section of the One Hand Clapping.

"Was that okay?" he asked.

"Pretty good," Ingeta said, showing an unusual level of unconditional support for his largely unscripted and entirely unrehearsed performance. A general murmur of approval supported this view.

"So, can I take it," the voice of the One Hand Clapping said, "That we are all happy to send a scanned copy of Ingeta's film - Sa-Aliten's too, of course - to all of Sa-Aliten’s contacts?"

The humans looked at each other uncertainly.

"Any sign of the Thinking Things Through and the Some Revision Required?" Emshala enquired, his tattoos indicating a strange mixture of doubt and determination.

"None," the ship confirmed, "I can't detect either of them anywhere."

"Grief!" Aneme exclaimed, her eyes blazing, "Let's just do this, shall we?"

The general reaction of the Culture to Aneme's view, as expressed in some detail in the closing section of the film, was even more extreme, provoking genuinely civilization-wide reactions within minutes. It would be hard to find an adult or machine in the Culture who did not express a strongly-held view.

Some research into the announced course schedules for both the Thinking Things Through and the Some Revision Required clearly showed long periods of time where their movements were unaccounted for. Of course, old ships in the Culture quite often went off course-schedule, regarding it as a kind of retirement and preferring to wander eccentrically as they wished, or undertake some long journey, perhaps aiming for a distant galaxy. Such ships almost never returned to announcing their future courses, as the Some Revision Required had done. This detailed research also demonstrated that the ship had more than enough time to construct Island Rock and set it on its way in its blackout period, which was regarded as confirming, if not conclusive evidence.

Initially, the reactions were mainly shock and disbelief, denial that some group of citizens - mostly Minds - would have the nerve to even consider setting up an experiment on the entire society. This was short-lived, especially when some erstwhile members of the hitherto-secret debating group, seeing the writing on the wall, more-or-less admitted to the truth of Aneme's firmly-held view. A great ground-swell of opinion rapidly built up, holding that this kind of cultural manipulation on the Culture was definitely rude, feasibly dangerous and quite certainly immoral. The summary was usually expressed: Do Not Do This Again.

"Ship?" Mso asked, "Could you get a message to the Imagine A Swift Exit?"

Kitzean Mso was again in the shared accommodation section of the One Hand Clapping watching, with the entirety of the crew, rolling news feeds reporting on what was now generally being called the Great Deception. Privately, she thought that, when a common name for something appeared across a society as diverse as the Culture, that society had largely come to terms with the result.

"I certainly could," the Hand replied, sounding cheerful, "What do you wish to say?"

"Could you ask it to send back the Friendly Feature Set, or some other ship, to collect me. I think I would like to get out of here."

Aneme was sitting close by and overheard the conversation.

"I think I, too, would like to leave. I feel I have done everything I can here."

Quenlily Sikralis made a sound like a soft cough.

"Me, too."

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.3104]
  xLSV Some Revision Required
    oLSV Thinking Things Through
This is all your fault!
If you hadn't roped in this blasted film crew, we wouldn't be in this disastrous position!

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.3104+]
  xLSV Thinking Things Through
    oLSV Some Revision Required
The film was a magnificent production. A masterpiece of critical presentation: insightful, balanced, beautifully constructed. Ingeta and Sa-Aliten are to be congratulated.
It was just the last bit which gave us a problem.
Besides, it wasn't me who invited Ms. Crossmaddows to Island Rock.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.3107]
  xLSV Some Revision Required
    oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
This is all your fault!
If you hadn't agreed to transport this Aneme Crossmaddows to Island Rock, we wouldn't be in this disastrous position!

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.3107+]
  xGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
    oLSV Some Revision Required
I couldn't have predicted that Ms. Crossmaddows would see through our little test. I just wanted to make sure the result was right.

Well, you failed. We all failed. Completely. Miserably.
I've had enough. I'm getting out of here. Goodbye.

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