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

Inspection Visit

There have been some determined and devious attempts - so far unsuccessful, it seems - at piercing the veil of secrecy which occludes the location and identity of the participants of the Great Debate. Most of these individuals are nonetheless resigned to having their true names discovered eventually; those few who fear such a disclosure have long since departed from the forum.

Nevertheless, the shrouds of secrecy are being slowly penetrated, the curtains obscuring individual identity are being gradually drawn aside, the haze and clouds that disguise distances and directions are being steadily swept away. There was nothing as crude as brute-force cracking of ciphers or triangulation of transmissions to determine a source - the Culture's technology is widely considered to be reliably proof against such countermeasures. Any analysis had to be based on things more subtle in presentation and more difficult to disguise: an habitual turn of phrase, perhaps, or the expression of an intellectual viewpoint aligned with one already publicly known. All these correlations could be faked or bluffed, of course, but with enough samples - coupled with the prodigious modelling capability of the average Culture Mind – the analysis would eventually lead to a high probability of positive identification.

Indeed, the need for such absolute secrecy, now that the key experiment had long been set up and the players all set in motion, was itself a subject for a debate. One faction argued that the meetings be discontinued, the debates stopped, the baffles and veils and cutouts dismantled and set aside, and so the whole question of continued anonymity would become moot. Some expressed themselves tired of the whole discussion, wanting the trial to run to completion as quickly as possible, so that they could turn their attentions to other concerns. Others perhaps feared opprobrium, condemnation - even attacks or reprisals - were their identity known; those countering this view advised that anybody so concerned should leave the halls of debate, as others had already done. Yet others argued for full disclosure for all, that the group should adopt a role of honest broker, if only to ensure that the agreements set in place were honoured: to oversee the grand experiment and ensure that it was not corrupted or hindered, to make sure the test results were genuinely representative.

After a marathon succession of arguments, forceful and intense even by the standards of this diverse group, a common understanding was finally reached. There would be one last grace period to give those who did not wish to disclose their identity a final chance to leave, and then all who remained would give a solemn undertaking to reveal simultaneously both their identity and location. Very few chose to withdraw at this stage and, perhaps surprisingly, all those who continued did indeed honour their commitment to discard the veils of secrecy and the cloaks of obscurity.

There were a great many surprises in the list of people and Minds so revealed.

"Ms. Mso? Ms. Crossmaddows?"

The mellifluous voice of the Friendly Feature Set emerged from the intricate piece of jeweller's handiwork which was the ship's remote drone. The drone hung in the air, twisting this way and that so that the light glistened from the iridescent sheets which formed its carapace.

Both women were seated comfortably in the shared accommodation section of the GCU watching yet another detailed analysis of Island Rock and its inhabitants. They turned to look at the drone.

"We will be rendezvousing with the GCU One Hand Clapping within the hour," the dulcet tones of the ship went on.

"That's good news," Mso said, watching carefully to gauge Aneme's reaction. The other woman seemed calm, collected, even serene to Mso's eyes.

Over the course of the two-day trip back to Island Rock, Mso had tried to explain why she had decided, quite so suddenly, to request Aneme's presence with such urgency; vital enough to request special transportation from the Compass Alignment Group.

"I'm missing something," she had said, "We're all missing something, something which even the prodigious intellects of the Minds can't see."

"I can't promise to be able to help," Aneme had replied, "I'm not even sure about what I am supposed to do. But I will certainly try."

The Friendly Feature Set had provided copious briefings on Island Rock and its grotesque inhabitants, as well as the evidence - such as it was - on their past unearthed by the Three Body Problem and the Protracted Development. The ship had also supplied detailed analyses of the near-impossible construction of the Rock itself and the unique, as far as the Culture was aware, hyperspace link to the energy Grid which provided the copious amounts of power the Rock needed to continue operations.

Mso took it upon herself to outline the delicate moral balance faced by the society as a whole: should the Culture take the technically trivial decision to nudge Island Rock out of its current collision course with a stellar nova, thereby saving its inhabitants from a fiery death and allowing them to live as they currently do for millennia, but risking the ire of some unknown but evidently powerful Elder civilization or remnant of the Sublimed in the interference with their cunningly wrought plans for ultimate punishment. Or, should the Culture remove any risk to its own wellbeing from some - possibly non-existent - superpower by leaving Island Rock well alone, and abandoning the Islanders to an inevitable and painful death.

After the second day's briefings had run their course, Aneme had become withdrawn, distracted for many hours by her own thoughts. Mso had thought it best to leave the other woman to her cogitations and sat in companionable silence. Eventually, Aneme appeared to rouse herself, and then asked the ship for a recap of several of the more recondite aspects of Island Rock construction, history and the society which existed therein.

"Would you consent," the voice of the Friendly Feature Set said, "To be Displaced aboard the One Hand Clapping?"

Mso, who had always preferred physical transports, glanced at Aneme.

"If you think it's best, ship," the other woman answered calmly, "Then that will be just fine."

Some tens of minutes later, the two women quietly appeared just inside the shared accommodation section of the One Hand Clapping, apparently unnoticed.

"That went well," Mso muttered, sounding faintly relieved.

By now, the entirety of Island Rock was comprehensively littered with bugs and monitoring devices, courtesy of the many Culture vessels which had spent some time in the volume, as well as being under surveillance by a gamut of active and passive remote sensors. There was nothing which could occur here without being the subject of a dozen recording devices of various kinds, as well as being subjected to the kind of intensive analysis a Culture Mind could bring to bear.

Still, the human crew were all intently focussed on a dazzling variety of screens, holos and projections variously showing real-time views, the results of analyses and readouts of the performance of the Rock’s myriad of systems, talking quietly amongst themselves, or sitting quite still with the slightly preoccupied look many people adopted when their attention was fixed on whatever information was being projected internally using a neural lace.

It was Quenlily Sikralis who first spotted the arrival of Aneme and Mso. The ancient drone spun around and zoomed across the accommodation section displaying for a brief second - unless Mso's eyes deceived her - a rare flash of a rosy aura field.

"Kitzean, my dear," the drone said, surprisingly warmly, "How good to see you back."

Mso had been a member of this crew for many years and inevitably she had grown to know them all very well indeed. The humans looked around, startled at the drone's words for a few seconds, but then bounced up to greet Mso enthusiastically, with many hugs and uninhibited kisses all round. Aneme hung back, very slightly stunned at this unbridled outpouring of emotion despite her many years in the Culture in general and Contact in particular. Eventually the intense barrage of welcoming greeting died down and Mso was able to step back and draw Aneme gently forward by the hand.

"Let me introduce you to the crew of the Hand," Mso said with a degree of formality, "Quenlily Sikralis you already know, of course."

"Ms. Crossmaddows, good to see you again," the drone said, "I have been following your career in Contact with great interest. And I am personally very glad that you have been able to join us here at this time."

Aneme beamed in response.

"It is very good to see you again, too," she said, tears forming minutely in her eyes, then added with the absolute frankness which was the cornerstone of her personality, "But I really am not sure what I am doing here. It's very confusing, so unclear."

"We will have to help you, my dear," the drone responded, "Although I confess I'm not yet sure myself what we might do."

The drone backed away carefully allowing the others to crowd forward. Mso introduced Sharo Emshala, his tattoos swirling in what Mso interpreted as a mixture of welcome, enthusiasm and - perversely, she thought - hope, followed by Lezert T'wou - his bear-like bulk managing a surprisingly graceful bow - and the rest of the crew.

Mso looked around.

"Where are Ingeta and Sa-Aliten?" she demanded.

"In the Rock, filming, as we speak," the ship answered immediately, "Dn Schoma Xantic is accompanying them."

"That's right," Emshala said, indicating the screens and holos even now displaying portions of the interior of Island Rock, "We were all watching the action when you arrived."

Aneme drew closer to the displays, her eyes flicking from one to another, seeming to take in everything and nothing.

"I think," she said, speaking slowly, almost to herself, "It's time to visit Island Rock."

"Ship," Mso said firmly, "I think we need another one of those stripy suits."

The displacer containment field dissipated quickly with a soft pop, nearly inaudible over the noise of birds and insects that filled the jungle clearing, although the sudden cessation of the sounds of life was indication enough that something had disturbed the myriad of industrious lifeforms.

Aneme and Mso stood in the sudden warmth and stillness, broken only by the intermittent hiss of windblown foliage and the pounding of the surf on the distant reef. Their suits, protectively striped in yellow and black, stood out against the sun-mottled sand and the khaki and olive-drab of the foliage; they were making no attempt to hide.

As the buzz of insect life returned to normal, Aneme closely watched Sa-Aliten and Ingeta in action at the far end of the clearing. The bulky and cumbersome camera, the heavy and glaring lights and all the antique paraphernalia required for filming had already been set up, presumably by Emshala and T'wou and the rest of the human crew. The background clatter from the camera operated by Sa-Aliten must have masked the quiet sounds of the new arrivals, and Ingeta seemed intent on her conversational interview with one of the Islanders. Schoma Xantic and its myriad of supplementary sensor platforms was supposed to be around somewhere, although the tiny machine was not making itself apparent at the moment.

Looking closer, Aneme could see that the two filmmakers were documenting another interview with Matron, the old female who had provided such insight into the oral history of the inhabitants of Island Rock during a previous conversation with Mso herself. Despite having watched endless recordings of the Islanders in extremely high fidelity during her trip aboard the Friendly Feature Set, she was nonetheless immediately fascinated seeing the beings in person.

Matron had positioned herself a couple of metres from the camera. She twitched and fidgeted endlessly, torn between the relentless lessons of the striped suits - pain and unconsciousness - and the equally relentless cravings for nourishment in her belly. Her head swung this way and that, constantly scanning the edges of the clearing for anything which might harm her daughter, while her alarmingly reptilian jaws champed and slavered continuously.

Ingeta stood to one side of the camera, reading what must have been prepared questions from a board or terminal in her hand and speaking aloud the words which formed in her head for the benefit of the microphones. From their current distance, neither Mso nor Aneme could directly 'hear' Matron's words, but they could just make out Ingeta's voice; Aneme noticed that she had become extremely proficient in parroting the words placed there by the not-quite-telepathic ability of the Islanders, speaking the old creature's words fluidly with scarcely a delay.

Matron's daughter, the last child she would bear, had grown rapidly over the last months and was now at least three-quarters full-grown. Her appetite was unabated, of course, although she was now getting most of her sustenance from creatures she caught herself. This was just as well, since the blood-filled food-bags on her mother's chest were all but exhausted. The juvenile paced impatiently about the clearing, frequently stopping to sniff at the sand in search of some edible morsel - without much success, it seemed to Mso - but never ranging too far from the protection of her mother, nor too close to the myriad dangers of the clearing boundaries.

Mso and Aneme could not expect to go long unobserved by a creature whose very existence depended on continual surveillance of her surroundings. Eventually, Matron's scan spotted Aneme and Mso at the far end of the clearing. Matron turned from the camera and loped over to where the two women stood with a half-heard command to her daughter to follow. Sa-Aliten wrestled with the heavy camera, struggling to turn it quickly enough to keep Matron in shot, while Ingeta looked annoyed, even petulant, that her carefully choreographed interview had been so rudely interrupted. Schoma Xantic emerged from whatever hiding-place it had previously occupied, its sensing band glowing bright, ready to intercept Matron if she showed any sign of incipient violence.

Matron stopped, her clawed feet scuffing at the sand, and regarded Aneme with a bright-eyed intelligence entirely at odds with the vicious blades in her mouth, and now standing more than close enough to smell.

In her first life, Aneme was no stranger to bad smells of all kinds. The rich stink of the farmyard and the slaughterhouse; the acrid odour of cesspits and long-drop latrines; the reek of decaying flesh and writhing maggots; the cloying stench of sickrooms and impromptu surgeries and the fetor of charnel houses and morgues.

You never really came across smells like these in the Culture, of course. People were always in perfect health, and injuries which would have been disfiguring or even fatal on her original home would be repaired quickly and perfectly. Food and drink were created by amazing machines carefully fine-tuned to the sensibilities and senses of those they fed, and did not involve the growing and harvesting of plants or the slaughtering of animals. Deaths were generally elective, and the bodies left behind were disposed of immediately by Displacement into the core of the nearest star. Toilet facilities were always scrupulously clean and pleasantly fragranced.

Culture people were never subjected, in the normal course of their lives, to offensive odours, let alone the kind of vile emanations which would make even the most strong-stomached person retch. It was one of the observations Aneme had come to, rather belatedly: the Culture never, ever smelled bad.

Aneme had subconsciously expected a creature that ate only the flesh of animals, and indeed often the flesh of its own kind, to have a strong odour: not necessarily offensive, perhaps, but certainly the musky scent of a large predator. She could sense the breeze blowing the tang of salt spray from the beach, and the notes of freshness from the leaves around the clearing, but there was no hint of an aroma from the Islander in front of her, from an intelligent predator now shifting her weight from one leg to the other and visibly struggling with the desire to pounce and bite her throat out.

Matron regarded Aneme for a long time, pacing to and fro like a caged animal, more than long enough for Sa-Aliten to re-focus his camera and for Ingeta to move warily closer to where the two other women stood. The old Islander seemed to have nothing to say, initially; she just inspected Aneme closely from several angles. She ignored Mso entirely.

"Another Stranger?"

Aneme heard Matron's clearly enunciated Marain in her head, followed moments later by Ingeta parroting for the camera.

"Hello," Aneme said politely, "Yes, I'm another one here to help you."

"Oh, you are more than that," Matron replied firmly. The voice appeared disconcertingly like somebody whispering immediately behind her head.

Aneme looked nonplussed.

"I'm sorry, but I don't know what you mean."

"You are the One they have all been waiting for," Matron said calmly, "The One who will answer all the questions."

With that, Matron turned and trotted in the direction of one of several openings in the lush foliage which surrounded the clearing, tailed closely by her daughter. Again, Sa-Aliten struggled to turn the heavy camera quickly enough to keep up with the pair of Islanders disappearing into the dense olive-drab cover of the jungle.

The clatter of the camera rolled to a halt and the lights dimmed as he shut down the old-fashioned equipment, obviously concluding that Matron would make no more appearances today. He moved warily over to where Ingeta stood, still looking shocked at the words she had just overheard from Matron.

"Grief! What happened there?" he demanded.

"I don't know," Aneme admitted, "But she did seem to know more about what we are doing than we do ourselves."

Sa-Aliten turned to Ingeta, who narrowed her eyes.

"We have got to get Aneme into our film," she said firmly.

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.188.2601]
  xGCU One Hand Clapping
    oGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
Well, you were right. Ms. Crossmaddows has certainly stirred things up here [report attached].

[tight beam, M16, tra. @n4.29.188.2601+]
  xGSV Hence, Or Otherwise
    oGCU One Hand Clapping
The Friendly Feature Set delivered her and Ms. Mso on time, then?

It did, although the Friendly Feature Set seemed disinclined to stick around afterwards, or even slow down enough for a physical transfer.

Strange. I was not aware that it had any other pressing assignments. I'll signal the thing immediately and see if I can get any kind of explanation.

You might get more joy if you contact the Imagine A Swift Exit for an explanation.

Really? Well, I'll give that a try as well.

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