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

First Encounter

It had been the smallest of hints in the archives, the faintest of traces on the deep-space scans. It might have been nothing at all, a wild goose chase, a search for a proton-sized needle in a haystack the size of a gas giant. Even with the Culture presence being ubiquitous, its thirty-plus trillion citizens being distributed somewhat evenly over the main galaxy and large portions of the greater and lesser clouds, there were still plenty of unexplored wildernesses, bewildering vastnesses and final frontiers to be explored, mapped, and crossed and re-crossed time and again.

It was generally accepted by the Minds, drones and even humans who cared about such things that, with the space between the stars being so vast, any technically advanced artefact that wanted to stay undetected had a very good chance of remaining so, especially if it refrained from doing anything conspicuous that might advertise its presence. Even so, interesting things – often, very old interesting things – were discovered from time to time; often enough to be worth actively seeking.

So, as a matter of course, there were numerous vague suggestions and a myriad of low-probability contingencies included in the voluminous briefing that the General Contact Unit One Hand Clapping had received from the General Systems Vehicle Hence, Or Otherwise and the contingent of Contact Minds that took it upon themselves to orchestrate explorations in this particular region of space. One of those obtuse suggestions was that there was some hyperspace-capable technology in an otherwise empty region of space never visited by the Culture, even after eleven millennia, as well as not having been explored by any other species, at least as far as was revealed by the compendious records amassed by the Contact section.

Not that the records were in any way complete, or even definitive. It was generally assumed by members of the Culture that the Elder species and Sublimed civilisations, groups now completely retired from the normal life - and normal space - of the galaxy already knew everything there was to know about the universe. Unfortunately, they weren't telling, as a matter of intent, having disappeared from the comprehension of any of the currently in-play civilisations that co-existed with that of the Culture.

Such Sublimed civilisations rarely disappeared completely without trace, although in general the artefacts they left behind tended to be wholly inscrutable or wildly idiosyncratic, or just plain whimsical: suns and planets in improbable configurations; mega-structures with neither clear purpose nor plausible explanation, or devolved species that retained enigmatic truths in their oral (or equivalent) traditions. So an encounter with an artefact abandoned by one of the Sublimed was always interesting, even if it was not explicable, and just occasionally, insights could be gleaned into either the society or the technology of those long gone from the observable universe.

The One Hand Clapping edged its way out of the sub-bay within which it had been laid up for thirty-five days. For part of that time, it had been lavishly provided with resources to undertake a substantial refit, changes both cosmetic and crucial, all undertaken by the ship's own self-repair and maintenance sub-systems, and orchestrated by the ship's Mind itself. The rebuilding was based on an analysis of the most likely needs for the forthcoming journey, although the exact detail of the things that had been changed had not all been drawn to the attention of the human crew.

Apart from the opportunity to re-construct itself from first principles, the ship had used the sojourn to continue its extensive correspondence with a plethora of Minds - in ships, Orbital hubs, wandering rocks and an eclectic collection of other mobile habitats - and to review and sum up its previous mission: after a thirteen-month tour of a different but equally under-explored part of the main galaxy, it had encountered a dozen remnants of approximately the same number of no-longer-existent civilisations; observed the collapse of one neutron star - from a cautiously safe distance, of course - and the start of the formation of a new asteroid belt where a wandering planetoid deflected a gas-giant moon just enough that tidal gravitational forces began to tear the hapless rock to pieces.

The GCU had also investigated in depth several planets which were home to beings who might eventually be capable of space travel and might, some time in the next few millennia, worth being considered for a contact by Contact; always assuming that the Culture itself lasted for that long. Not that it showed any signs of not so doing; it seemed to be a commonly-held view by the other Involved civilisations that the determinedly moralistic and self-consciously interventionist characteristics of the Culture as a whole would keep them engaged in the real universe for quite some time yet.

There was another reason why the Hand had been collected by the larger ship: the GSV was much faster. At the speed relative to the skein of real space at which the GSV travelled, the GCU had been whisked a distance that would have taken more than a year to travel under its own power. The science of the Energy Grid that powered Culture ships through hyperspace determined that speed was mostly a function of engine mass, at least in the long term; for low-duty-cycle purposes, in short bursts, much higher speeds could be achieved.

The GCU would shortly rendezvous with the Cliff class Superlifter Can't You Drive Faster?. Enveloped in its outermost fields, the Superlifter would decelerate them both down to a speed where the GCU’s own engines could cope, a manoeuvre designed so that the GSV did not have to slow down just to drop off an explorer, and thereby avoid a colossal expenditure of energy and a similarly huge waste of time. The Culture in general tended to the obsessive in the efficient use of matter and energy - the same thing really, as any elementary school class in Physics, or, How The Universe Works, would have taught even the most recalcitrant Culture citizen.

Earlier that day, the Hand had watched its fellow ship, the GCU Extended Adolescence, depart. The other craft had received much of the same briefing from the Hence and the bevy of Contact Minds that coordinated the explorations in this region of space. After a certain amount of discussion which just fell short of bickering, the two ship Minds had agreed to follow slightly divergent courses, to maximise the joint probability of either of them finding something of worthwhile interest and significance, with both jostling to take the route with the highest chance of success.

Having extricated itself from the minor bay where it had been garaged, the One Hand Clapping flew slowly over the topside park of the GSV, a vast black shape hanging impossibly against the blue-and-white cloudscape that lined the innermost of the fields that formed the true hull of the great ship. Below it was the vast rectangular slab, measured precisely in kilometres, that was the material part of the GSV, the part that housed the engines and field projectors, the accommodations for people and for ships, the manufactories for new ships and Minds like that of the Hand itself. The whole process of spinning off its children ships was like a tree dispensing seedpods to the four winds: machines and people flung into the void to encounter who-knows-what, to propagate the Culture's societal and cultural memes across the galaxy.

People in pleasing numbers had turned out to bid farewell to the departing craft, and its crew. A profusion of flyers clouded around the GCU: brightly-painted fixed-wing aircraft and sports autogyros, their smoke-trails and streamers criss-crossing the simulated sky, and people in AG harnesses and even a few drones moved sedately amongst them. They were joined by people on the ground, or what passed for it here, many of them letting off fireworks, and sounding horns and klaxons. The Hand responded by creating artificial auroras using its electromagnetic effectors, and causing messages and images to flicker across its outer hull. Then its hull darkened to black again, and it slipped away through the layers and folds of the field fabric, the integument that formed the actual, if not real, hull of the great ship.

The crew of the One Hand Clapping had more than enough diversions to entertain them during the extended period of ship-leave and, against all expectations, all thirteen of them had elected to rejoin the Hand when it came time for the ship to leave. Conventional probabilities would indicate that at least one of the crew would abandon ship, distracted by a new love or diverted by an old entertainment, and would prefer to remain on the GSV with its teeming millions of people, an endless and ever-changing parade of diverse amusement and personal satisfaction.

Of the thirteen now on board, there were two drones, five women, four men, one person who was in the process of changing from a woman to a man, and one other who had remained determinedly androgynous for a great many years. The crew had got to know one another very well indeed during previous voyages; for the human members, in most cases, physically and intimately well. But, despite the familiarity of the company, the atmosphere on board was one of starting a new semester, a final year at a college with no chance of a re-sit examination; while the welcome back party was as exhilarating and uninhibited as one could hope for, there was a slight tinge of restraint, and a pervasive feeling of getting ready to knuckle down to some serious work in the morning.

Breakfast, ship-time, saw nearly all of the human members in attendance at what was, psychologically, a desperately early hour. Not that there was real urgency: to everyone’s understanding, the first possibility of any kind of interesting encounter lay some days ahead. Even so, there was something about this particular cruise that had already leached its way into the minds of the crew: things they had not been told, omissions from the briefings held so far, and things which might conceivably be absent from the vast databases and information stores available on request to any Culture citizen.

"What is all this secrecy?" Kitzean Mso demanded.

She was sitting at a table in the common area and ingesting some warmed broth and glanding Snap – the Culture's favourite breakfast drug - in approximately equal quantities.

"I'll explain," the sourceless voice of the One Hand Clapping said, "Just as soon as everyone's here."

The Hand preferred to communicate indirectly with the human crew, sending messages to terminals or neural lace, or just speaking aloud. Other ships deployed an avatar, often humanoid - at least very approximately - or in the disguise of a furry pet or cuddly toy. It was one of those character traits typical of a GCU, which tended towards idiosyncrasy polished to a form of high art and which, together with a certain tame paranoia, tended to rub off on the human crew.

Mso mused listlessly over her breakfast. She knew the ship was perfectly capable of providing individual, elegantly-crafted briefings tailored to each member of the crew, using a transcendentally minute fraction of the near-infinite mental resources such a Mind had at its disposal. There must be a reason why it wanted the crew together, however inscrutable that reason might be. Perhaps it just wants to see our reactions to each other, she concluded glumly.

The drone Schoma Xantic floated in at high speed.

"Am I late? What's happening?" it asked urgently, sounding almost as if it was out of breath, its fields flashing the purple of contrition flecked with the motes of pale grey which denoted mild frustration.

"Ship's not telling," Mso said around a mouthful of soup, "Either that, or it's gone senile in its old age."

"Or maybe it's come over all Special Circumstances on us," Sharo Emshala interjected from across the table.

Emshala was the androgynous crew member, already ready to see both sides of any discussion. Invoking the great benign bogey of SC was not something anyone did lightly, even in jest; it was the spying-and-dirty-tricks arm of the Culture's Contact section, effectively the military intelligence unit - not that there had been a serious need for military might since the end of the Idiran War. It was safe to say that Emshala was not the only crew member nursing such thoughts.

"Oh, it's not like that," the ship said laconically, "I just don't want to have to repeat myself, that's all."

Mso was not in the slightest bit convinced by this explanation, but kept her council to herself.

Schoma Xantic was a tiny machine, an example of a relatively new type of device. Its nearly spherical shape was the diameter of the dish from which Mso was eating, and about twice as deep. Its casing was as white as the porcelain of the bowl, set off with some sort of sensing band of mirrored metal which swirled with subtle colours when the drone was using its senses at their maximum intensity.

The other crew drone was already in the mess area, floating quietly in a corner as if trying to remain inconspicuous. Quenlily Sikralis was a much older and larger model which appeared to be formed from a pair of circular cones a half-metre high and wide, bonded together base to base. Its casing was the rich sheen of an old bronze statue and appeared minutely battered as if with the distressed patina of millennia. The drone had been friends with Mso’s family for generations and Mso herself had long suspected that its appearance was mere affectation: drone self-repair mechanisms had been by design perfect for centuries and any appearance of imperfection was therefore almost certainly a fashion statement of some kind.

As Schoma Xantic entered the common room, Mso was almost certain she heard a distinct sigh from the older machine. The two drones had, apparently, become close friends during their time on the GCU, even though Quenlily Sikralis chose not to display aura fields to convey its emotional state as Culture convention expected of its sentient machines. But this did not seem to prevent the old device from expressing its persistent dissatisfaction, in multitudinous ways just unsubtle enough to be detected by the human crew, of the gaucheness of the more recently manufactured machine. It was a pose, of course, as almost any attitude projected by a drone that was perceivable to a human was likely to be; an artfully created message intended for consumption by its slow-moving, slow-thinking biological companions.

The final previously-absent crewmember wandered in, yawning and looking around bleary-eyed at the assembled company that stood or sat or lounged around the common area in various states of wakefulness and dress. Lezert T'wou was a bear-like man, tall and broad-shouldered and considerably more hirsute than anyone else on board, although still well within the range of human-basic norms. He seemed to have developed bear-like sleeping habits, too, most comfortable with extended periods of near-hibernation for days on end, followed by any number of sleepless nights while he pursued whatever fascinating curiosity had currently attracted his interest.

Mso beckoned him over. T'wou slumped in the chair between her and Emshala and reached for the mildly stimulating drink that one of the ship's servitors had placed in front of him. The ship had seen him in this state before and knew what would be required to get him to be capable of a tolerable level of attention.

"Thanks," he muttered, blowing on the steaming liquid and nodding politely to Emshala.

"Ship wants to talk to us, all together," the androgyne said, putting down his own steaming mug, "Probably got some grand announcement it wants to make."

"It's not an announcement," the voice of the One Hand Clapping said, "Although I do have some good news to impart."

Emshala leaned forward across the table conspiratorially.

"It's up to something," he said in a stage whisper, "The Hand's done something it thinks is clever."

Sharo Emshala almost never wore clothes of any kind. His skin was hairless, everywhere; smooth and pale blue and as polished as a marble statue. It was also decorated extravagantly with tattoos which looped and whorled across shoulder and belly and thigh, and which changed quickly to reflect his inner mood. Right now, the scarification denoted some mixture of private amusement and mild frustration at the antics of ship and crew. He was the most long-standing of the humans aboard and seemed to have made a hobby, or perhaps a study, of the reactions of the Hand. Either way, he managed to have developed an uncanny knack of predicting when the ship's Mind was about to come out with some portentous declaration or madcap scheme.

The One Hand Clapping made a sound as if it were clearing its throat. The crew stiffened almost imperceptibly, excepting T'wou whose attention remained focused on his breakfast drink.

"Here it comes," Emshala said, his whisper even louder than last time.

"Well, as it happens," the ship's voice continued calmly, "I have managed to gain us a little advantage, a certain opportunity, a course option which might just give us an edge in the next few months."

Emshala and Mso twisted in their chairs to face each other over T'wou's slumped form. The androgyne nodded once, looking irremediably smug.

"So we're going to find something, ah, interesting then?" Mso said, smirking at the sexually-ambiguous person opposite.

"There's a very good chance that we will encounter something previously unknown," the disembodied voice said.

Mso knew, even without a view from Emshala, that this was as close to an unequivocal "yes" that the ship was likely to get. Minds did not deal in absolute certainty; even with their near-infinite capacity for cogitation and simulation, they understood that, in the face of the complexity of the universe, any prediction should always be hedged in probabilities and percentages. Of course, Minds also revelled in deliberate ambiguity when it suited their purposes, and a wise Contact section operative always kept that propensity in the front of their minds.

"And there is at least a slight chance that the experience might be distressing, or even dangerous."

Emshala's air of smugness froze on his face. Seeing his reaction, Mso stiffened too. It occurred to her that, if the Hand was admitting to the possibility of danger at this remove, then there might genuinely be something to worry about.

"Now just a minute.." the androgyne squeaked, rising to his feet, his tattoos suddenly swirling in patterns of alarm and distress.

"The probability of danger is very small," the ship went on unperturbedly, "But I am fairly certain that there is something with slightly worryingly unknown capabilities out there. My task - our task - is to understand the position, agree a course of action and, if we agree, of course, go and find out exactly what it is."

The other crew members - at least, the human ones - reacted with feigned or real shock, or a certain gung-ho quality which would have seemed shocking to many in the Culture, at least those outside the specialised organisations like Contact.

"I need you to consider two different strands of data, two different bundles," the Hand said, "First, some information I received during the briefings before we left, information which was not released into the general records."

About half of the biological members of the crew had a neural lace - rather more than the statistical norms for the Culture as a whole. A neural lace was an intricate web of impossibly fine fibres which wrapped and enfolded a sizeable percentage of the neurons of the biological brain, and giving the user immediate and immersive access to all the richness and wonder of the information networks. Drones, as a matter of course, had high-bandwidth transceivers as part of their basic construction. The other humans habitually carried a pen, broach or earring which functioned as a terminal which provided unlimited access to the network of communications, as well as the myriad of records, stores, files and databases which formed the non-sentient part of the memory of the Hand itself. Away from the immediate vicinity of the ship, this communication was not instantaneous, given the finite speed of even HS light over the not-inconsiderable distances of the greater galaxy and the extent to which the ships, Rocks, worlds and Orbitals of the Culture were distributed throughout this vast volume.

For those with a lace, the ship flashed a distilled summary into their heads, allowing those crew members a chance to assimilate some tiny fraction of the briefing the ship itself had received, studied, analysed, dissected, queried repeatedly and undertaken intensive research on the relevant background. For the benefit of those without a lace, the One Hand Clapping delivered an elegantly-worded and carefully structured précis which summed up to the simple statement: There Is Something Out There.

But there was an addendum. The ship had been instructed - or asked, to maintain the proprieties the Culture valued so highly - not to provide a full briefing until they were well under way. The crew would naturally be exchanging messages with friends and acquaintances, family and lovers, but they were already far enough away from the Hence, or Otherwise that there was no real-time chat; only the equivalent of a letter or telegram rather than a phone call.

"So, a request," the Hand added, "I have to ask you to consider not communicating any of this briefing, at least until we have discovered more information."

The Culture had theoretical freedom of information; there was limitless access to the stores and databases. But there was an important caveat: information in one's own mind - whether it was biological or otherwise - was sacrosanct. A person, drone or Mind could hold any collection of ideas and knowledge and opinions in its own head, as it were, without having to tell anyone else about it.

While a legitimate request, the idea of keeping a secret was enough to raise the hackles of anyone who felt they should defend the principles of society and therefore, naturally enough, the starting point for the kind of intensive and convoluted debate that was the other Involved species in the Galaxy thought was typical of the Culture. Even T'wou managed to rouse himself enough to express a point of view in his usual brusque fashion.

By the prevailing standards, the debate was quite short and structured, converging on a position of wait-and-see with no more than grudging opposition from even the most recalcitrant and opinionated individuals. It occurred to Mso that the ship would not be concluding the briefing until a consensus was reached and this slowly-dawning realisation would keep the whole process mercifully short.

"And so, the second and rather simpler piece of information," the Hand said, once the crew had reached a grudging agreement to keep what they learned to themselves, "My latest refit included a number of sensor upgrades; specifically, it included one intended to detect unusual disturbances in the energy grid."

The Culture made some use of the grid for millennia: it was the stuff that separated universes in hyperspace; filaments of it had been used as a weapon, and strands were used to power spaceships. But it remained imperfectly understood by any of the Involved, and anything which might represent a chance, however slight, of extending the Culture's understanding of - and ability to use - the energy grid would be regarded as of considerable strategic importance.

Mso found herself feeling just a little wary; this was the kind of sensory apparatus which would normally be fitted to a military vessel, a warcraft, in order to detect the positions and movements of other, presumably enemy vessels at a great distance. Was there a possibility of conflict with an artefact of unknown provenance and capabilities, not to mention unknown hostility, out there somewhere and never before encountered?

"We have been at maximum cruise speed since we left the Hence, or Otherwise, on a heading which my analysis suggests gives us the best chance of encountering an Object of Interest."

Again, unusual. Normally, a GCU on a mission like this would be loitering amongst the star systems, clusters, novae, clouds and swarms, using all its sensory equipment and vast analytic capacity to investigate anything of the slightest interest along the route, and rarely exceeding more than a few dozen kilolights. It seemed to Mso liked the Hand was behaving more like a warcraft than a nicely timorous GCU.

Even as the Hand spoke, Schoma Xantic leapt in the air, fields rainbowed with surprise. The older drone avoided such exuberant displays, merely emitting a sound like a softly-breathed "ah". Those amongst the human crew fitted with lace suddenly became still and slightly distant-looking, as their attention was focussed on something that the ship had detected. Mso was not one of those with a lace - a distraction she had long resisted - but she was alert even before the soft ping indicating a contact.

"Now we've found something," the ship said, sounding ineffably satisfied.

The One Hand Clapping approached the Rock in real space, engines throttled right back to produce a mild warp along which the ship slid like a novice on a nursery ski slope. It was intended to be a cautious, wary approach designed to be unthreatening, impossible to be mistaken as any kind of munition even to an entity inclined to the Reconnaissance By Fire approach. The ship's many passive sensors - and a few carefully selected active devices - were at full sensitivity, probing gently, listening carefully, questioning curiously every return, echo and reaction, all the while singing approach requests and hailing calls using every channel, wavelength and protocol as could be imagined.

The Hand came to a dead stop alongside the object at a trivial distance measured precisely in kilometres without invoking any kind of reaction or response. Every screen, terminal, projection, hologram and internal schematic presented by neural lace showed some aspect of the Rock.

Views from real space - the flat three-dimensional view - showed a gently-rotating, tumbling, craggily irregular asteroid against a field of very few and rather faint stars. On the wrap-around screen forming three-quarters of the walls, ceiling and floor of the accommodation section, even in the emphasised colour rendering the ship had been using, the surface seemed dull, featureless, ablated over aeons by interstellar dust. It could have been a typical rocky asteroid, flung out of its home system by a chance close encounter with a gas giant. On that evidence alone, nobody would have given the Rock more than a second glance.

Views from hyperspace, of course, showed something quite different and altogether more remarkable.

On one presentation, the asteroid was represented by an irregular closed loop filled with a uniform red-grey representing the iron-rich outer fabric. This shell entirely surrounded a concentric series of very precise circles filled with complexities not readily visible at this scale but which demanded a closer investigation. The loop sat on an endless flat plain apparently formed from impossibly thin smoked glass which represented the skein of Reality. The asteroid's mass was such that the surface of the skein was barely indented, an impression no deeper than a footprint on packed earth.

Below the irregular disk lay a flat grey sea which rippled and chopped continuously and randomly, its dullness offset very occasionally by flashes and sparkles which vanished almost as soon as they were observed. That was the ship's view of the energy grid, the impassable barrier between Universes, and also the source of traction which the ship's engine fields drew upon to propel itself through hyperspace.

An impossibly slender thread of grid fabric reached from the ever-changing grey sea to the very centre of the asteroid like the tallest, thinnest waterspout imaginable, wavering and rippling visibly along its length. It looked far too delicate to support its own weight, as if threatening to snap out of existence in an instant.

"There's still no response," the Hand reported, using its Puzzled voice, "It doesn't appear to have any kind of outward-facing sensors at all."

"So it doesn't know we're here?" Mso asked.

"It knows we're here, all right," the ship replied, "At least, it does now. I used the Effectors; a few seconds of protocol negotiation from first principles and I've managed to talk to it..."

The disembodied voice tailed off suddenly. Ship's Minds exist entirely in hyperspace; normally, there is never any appreciable delay in responding to a question, at least on timescales matched to biological brains. There was a delay long enough to be worrying, as if the Hand was using its incomprehensibly vast intellect at something close to its full capacity and still not liking the answers it was coming up with.

Mso turned to Emshala, who frowned deeply, looking more worried than she had ever seen him before.

"It's not sentient!" the Hand squeaked. The ship sounded shocked, genuinely so. The Culture's conventions required machines over a certain degree of complexity to be self-aware, intelligent, with integral personalities and peccadilloes of their own.

"Perhaps it's just broken, damaged," Emshala suggested.

"Oh, it's working all right," the ship replied, "Its own assessment of its internal systems function suggests a 99%-plus operational readiness. It's packed with elaborate maintenance systems, self-repairing and wildly resilient, with an immensely sophisticated degree of control. It would be almost impossible to malfunction, short of outright total destruction."

The Hand now sounded peeved, almost as if personally affronted.

"But it's so stupid," it went on, "Autonomous, hugely complex, but not sentient; almost as if it was designed not to be so, and could never become so!"

"But what is it that's actually in there?" Mso demanded.

The One Hand Clapping sighed. "You've got to see this for yourselves."

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.177.1403]
  xGCU One Hand Clapping
    oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
You were right. I found something, roughly where you said it might be.

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.177.1403+]
  xGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
    oGCU One Hand Clapping
I’m gratified. And what form would this mysterious "something" take?

An Ark, a generation ship. Highly sophisticated, non-threatening, non-sentient, sub-light but with an unprecedented degree of hyperspace access to the Grid. (Report attached.)

Interesting indeed. And the inhabitants?

A new species, with some - shall we say - challenging characteristics. And the trajectory is curious, to say the least.

A once-in-a-generation encounter. I think you’re going to need some backup.

I agree. Be glad of some company out here.

I suspect there will be no shortage of volunteers when the news gets out. Expect to be inundated.

I’m bracing myself already.

I think I’m going to hold off on a general report for a while. Do you think you and yours could keep quiet for a while?

I’ll do what I can.

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