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 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.

The displacer containment field dissipated quickly with a soft pop, nearly inaudible over the noise of 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 Kitzean 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.

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

More coming soon...

Read the story so far from the beginning.

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