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.

After near-endless debates and numerous factional resolutions, the nature of the test has been agreed. A small sub-group - with members from all the major groupings, inevitable given the mistrust and mutual antagonism - has been delegated to set up the experiment. They are now incommunicado, out of communication with everybody - including all the debating parties - and accepting that their efforts might be unrecognised and unrewarded and, at worst, never heard of at all.

Now the focus of the main groups of disputants has changed. The key point: exactly how the test case should be put to the Culture as a whole? How should the question be asked, and answered? Should it be a vote by the myriad people of the Culture - human, drone and many other forms - and the Minds of ships, great and small, Orbitals, Manufacturies, Rocks and all the other Habitats the Culture had built, converted, colonised, appropriated or otherwise acquired over the millennia.

A particularly energetic side debate has also emerged, as so many have done so in the past, on exactly what was meant by "The Culture". Did it include those groups who had once been part of the Culture proper, but were now at some little distance from it? The Peace Faction, the Elench, the AwFuckIt Tendancy, the Ulterior and all the rest - they might be plausibly affected by the same decision, the outcome of the same test. Should they be accorded a voice, a vote? On the same terms as the Culture proper? And, if not, what justification could be used to ignore some huge number of people historically associated with the Culture, or to treat them as second-class citizens?

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 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, now 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.

Both women were aware of the tiny but ultimately unfinessable risk associated with Displacement, a one-in-sixty million chance of total failure and death, an occurrence which would end up scattering one's component atoms over several cubic lightyears of surrounding space. Culture Minds, being generally regarded as appearing to be prissy perfectionists and obsessive sticklers for risk-avoidance in all its forms, preferred to avoid even this infinitesimal possibility, especially when repeated transfers were required, but in this case there appeared to be no other option.

The use of physical transport, such as a shuttle or module of which the Culture had a myriad of kinds, was still being discouraged. Firstly, there was genuine concern that the appearance of sophisticated machinery would cause alarm to the natives, the visitors preferring to simply appear in their world as if by magic. Partially, this was just to avoid cultural contamination; for all that the camouflage and cloaking technology which could be deployed, the unique and still not well-understood abilities of the natives to hear the minds of humans and at least some intelligent machines might lead to undesirable information leakage.

In any case, there were no physical entrances to Island Rock: no ports, airlocks, hatches, doors or openings of any kind, and no evidence that there had ever been such accesses, not even any evidence of holes which had been filled in subsequently, nothing visible even when the structure of the rock was examined in microscopic detail.

A physical transport would have had to cut its way in, a process which could feasibly have damaged some vital part - although the Mind of the One Hand Clapping asserted that it could have guided the process without mishap - or, perhaps more pertinently, might conceivably have provoked some defensive or even hostile reaction from whatever dimly-aware and not yet entirely mapped intelligence that remained in the Rock, or from some buried subsystem or hidden capability not currently making itself visible - however unlikely that might be - to the scans of the small flotilla of GCUs, modules and other craft that still accompanied the wandering asteroid.

The conclave of Minds who had made themselves experts on Island Rock tended to refer to themselves as the Compass Adjustment Group, although they were not forthcoming on why that name had been selected. The One Hand Clapping - still functioning as the hub of the on-site presence, relentlessly tagging along with the drifting rock - and the Hence, or Otherwise itself had been joined by a dispersed group of Minds variously self-selected, invited, press-ganged, badgered, volunteered or just joined-up-on-a-whim.

An early entrant to the group - speaking logically, the ship itself being physically located on the far side of the Galaxy at the time - was the LSV Some Revision Required. This ancient craft had been built when the Very Large Self Sufficient Craft concept was just being developed. It had been originally commissioned as one of a small number of General Service Vehicles but, at a mere three kilometres in length, it was tiny in comparison with the fifty or a hundred klicks of more modern examples. The entire class had been demoted to Limited Systems Vehicles some millennia before and many of the examples had become Eccentric, gone into a Retreat, been rebuilt to a more modern form, destroyed in the chaos which was the Idiran war, or just plain disappeared.

The Some Revision Required had resisted all of these various fates and temptations, and had resolutely maintained its original fabric, or some very close approximation thereto, and its Mind had, presumably, retained much of its original mindset and character. Still formally part of Contact, it was regarded by many of its peers as an old fossil and, perhaps appropriately, had made a special study of ancient artefacts across the Greater Galaxy: the inscrutable puzzles, unexplained constructions and infeasible configurations of suns and planets left behind by the Elders.

More coming soon...

Read the story so far from the beginning.

Previous Top of Page Next