The walls of shadow and the virtual cut-outs and redirects are still in place, maintaining the physical obscurity of location and the concomitant indefiniteness of identity. Amongst the participants in the ongoing and seemingly endless debate in this not-space and non-place, there are those who argue for a complete absence of intervention in events, as a matter of general policy and expediency, as well as specifically in certain situations even now unfolding in the greater spaces of the galaxy.
But for all those entities who argue for masterful inaction in this shadowy arena, there are a dozen who argue for a definite course of action, proposing plans for changes to societies and modifications of attitudes, recommendations for deeds variously radically emotional or subtly forceful, harshly violent or understatedly psychological. It is all but unknown for any two candidate acts to even remotely resemble one another. In this venue of populist pundits and proponents of unpalatable options, little or no agreement can be found, even on the nature of the questions to be asked, let alone the answers themselves.
The larger debate in this forum, as always, is on the direction of the Culture's own development and objectives. From the very beginning, the structure and actions of the society has been the result of prodigious amounts of conscious thought and exquisitely careful analysis from the concentrated mental powers of the early AIs and, later, proper Minds, but influenced, directed and, ultimately, selected by the votes of the population at large.
Of course, for issues perceived to be local, the election would only be undertaken by the appropriate subset of the population, although deciding who could vote was sometimes itself an issue which required a ballot. The fact that this approach could be applied recursively, leading to an infinite regression of voting about voting, was a potential anomaly that triggered much ironic amusement in those Minds, drones and people who were so inclined; fortunately, the voting cycles rarely went on for very long, and these local issues were not often that important anyway.
But there were sometimes important votes where the entire population, now numbering thirty trillion, took part. The war against the Idirans - a war for the basic moral right for the Culture to exist at all - had been an example where voting was especially intensive. Was it morally right to use violence, to end the lives of thinking intelligent creatures, even to protect one's own existence? Should the Culture simply agree to cease to exist? Or to run away, to disperse itself beyond the reach of even the most intractable enemy? The options had been earnestly argued back-and-forth, analysed, debated, and weighed in the balance, and voted on again and again, even as the first skirmishes had been fought, often by proxies or agents at arm’s length from the societies themselves.
The vote had, eventually, been for resistance by force, a defence against expansion and aggression, coupled with a clear expression of a willingness to negotiate, to reach a settlement which would allow the societies of the Culture and the Idirans to coexist. The military strategies devised by the Minds best placed for this kind of modelling had recommended falling back, trashing and destroying Culture artefacts - ships, habitats, even Orbitals - which might have lent military advantage to the enemy. The war had ultimately been won by the Culture, at great loss of life and cost of materiel, and the Idirans had eventually been persuaded, against their vehemently-expressed religious beliefs, of the virtue of allowing the Culture its own continued existence.
Even so, the vote for this action had not been unanimous; a sizeable fraction of the Culture had split away after that final ballot, forming the Peace Faction. It was a split whose intensity had been tempered over the last millennia, as mainstream Culture had reverted, with a speed and diligence which had surprised even the most cynical of outside observers, to the peace-loving, hedonistic and un-militarised society it had been before.
The Culture split off factions and groups all the time, offshoots wanting to pursue a slightly different path down the ultimately unpredictable timelines of the future. Generally, the relationships between these diverse groups remained friendly, or at least cordial, but those who considered these matters seriously, in this forum and elsewhere, were aware that the tendency of the Culture to fragment under pressure might be one of its weaknesses.
Oscar turned on his heel and made his way calmly up the shallow steps of the auditorium, his torch fitfully illuminating the carpets and seat backs. Sa-Aliten and Ingeta hesitated for just a second, glanced at each other both quite speechless, then scrambled out of their seat and followed the little man up the stairs. They emerged just in time to see the Avatar disappearing through one of the curtained openings that led from the foyer. Again they followed, finding themselves in a small saloon populated by numerous round tables and over-stuffed armchairs, each table lit with an individual lamp whose light was abated by a cylindrical shade edged with hanging tassels.
Oscar was already behind the bar, holding a cocktail shaker casually in one hand. The torch was lodged on the end of the bar-top, apparently abandoned.
"Drink, sir, madam?" he asked, using the archaic forms of address and adding, without waiting for an answer, "Take a seat, I'll bring them to your table."
Having been brought up on a Culture Orbital, Ingeta was used to the machines around her being invariably polite and helpful, ready to answer questions or assist with any task - sometimes to the point where she had almost to shoo them away when she wanted to do something herself. Still, she knew that the Culture valued a high degree of individuality and personality in its machines, and she had certainly heard of drones and Minds being obtuse, even cranky, when it suited them.
Sa-Aliten was much older, and had travelled in the Culture and beyond much more extensively, and thus had encountered machines which behaved oddly, idiosyncratic to the point of converging on insanity on more than one occasion. He was, therefore much more worried. He was well aware that it tended to be older machines which developed behaviour which was unusual, eccentric, bizarre or just plain weird; the Thinking Things Through's vow of silence was clear evidence that the ship, now one of the oldest craft still part of the Culture proper, was already slightly loopy. He had never been entirely sure why the ancient device had adopted this mute silence or, for that matter, why it had agreed to ferry him around the less-Cultured parts of the greater galaxy; but something must have happened to bring the TTT out of its self-imposed shell after all these years.
Ingeta and Sa-Aliten sank into a couple of armchairs and watched Oscar warily. The Avatar shook and poured drinks into glasses expertly and arranged them on a shining metal tray with paper coasters and a small bowl of what would turn out to be authentically salty spicy nuts. He hoisted the tray balanced on the fingers of one hand and moved smoothly over to the table where the humans sat, then arranged the refreshments neatly on the brocade tablecloth. Sa-Aliten picked up the glass in front of him, sniffed it with initial suspicion and then sipped with considerable approval. It was, of course, exactly the mix he would have selected himself under these circumstances.
Oscar stepped back from the table and stood motionless, still holding his shiny tray aloft in a fashion that suggested he was prepared to wait all day if necessary.
"All right, what's happened?" Sa-Aliten demanded, still looking warily at the unmoving Avatar, "Something has changed, hasn't it? What's the emergency?"
Ingeta picked up the urgency and underlying worry in Sa-Aliten's voice.
"Are we in some danger?" she squeaked, her normally haughty facade cracking for just a moment.
"There is no emergency. You are not in any danger," Oscar said unperturbedly, "Although there is a situation developing in another part of the galaxy, some way from here, that I have been invited to involve myself in. I wish to take up that invitation, and I will be leaving from here very shortly. So I need to explain the position to you."
"So you're leaving, just like that?" Sa-Aliten exclaimed, "After all this time? Do we get an explanation?"
"I wish to go," the Avatar re-iterated, "And, I wish you - both of you - to accompany me."
"Me?" Ingeta said, looking quizzically at the little man in the archaic uniform, "You want me to drop everything, leave my friends behind, to run away to parts unknown in the company of a man I hardly know on a ship whose sanity has been brought into question by everybody I've ever spoken to about it?"
"Yes, precisely so."
"Cool!" she said, looking ineffably pleased and taking up her cocktail with a flourish, "An Adventure!"
"So why do you want us to come with you?" Sa-Aliten asked suspiciously, "And where are we going anyway?"
The Avatar appeared to think for a moment. This was always a dubious action from any machine - or even a representative of a machine - that could think as fast as a ship's Mind. Then he turned to the woman, who was taking a hearty swallow from the cocktail glass.
"Ingeta, tell me what you thought of Sa-Aliten's efforts?"
She placed her drink on the table, aligning it carefully with the unblemished paper coaster. Then she shook out her long hair and bunched it at the nape of her neck with one hand as she stared into the distance composing her thoughts.
"It was a triumph of critical analysis, a work of real genius," she began, ignoring Sa-Aliten sudden look of smug self-satisfaction, "It was like turning the intense beam of a searchlight on the cosy illusions, cheering self-deceptions and comforting delusions that we - the Culture itself! - seem to live by. We are so proud of our fairness, our friendly helpfulness to others, our pursuit of pleasure and happiness for all. Yet, we brainwash our children, arm our exploratory ships with enough firepower to turn every planet in a solar system into incinerated slag, and our individual recklessness when at play suggests we might be equally reckless when it comes to something serious."
The Avatar nodded thoughtfully.
"But do you think he could do better?"
She grinned, her usual sense of scathing criticism returning unabated. It had never been very far away.
"Of course he could," she said, watching with some satisfaction as the smug look on Sa-Aliten's face was wiped away, "Even at a first viewing, I could see that there were several parts which could be tightened up, wasted passages, poor cuts, unnecessary repetition. He barely scratched the surface of the subject, and I was certainly left with a sense of wanting more: more insightfulness, more depth, more complexity."
Oscar nodded again, this time with more animation.
"Well, then. To answer your earlier question more directly, I - that is, the good ship Thinking Things Through - represent a consortium who want to commission a work from you. Specifically, a full-length film documentary using, if you please, the ancient techniques and technologies that have been reproduced here."
"And what's my role in all this?" Ingeta demanded, again irritated by the look of self-satisfaction now returning to Sa-Aliten's face.
"You are the film-maker, my dear," the Avatar said calmly, "The director, the executive in charge of artistic judgment. Sa-Aliten will be your assistant, cameraman, sound recordist, film editor, projectionist. But you will be the one making the decisions."
Ingeta took a great deal of only-slightly-guilty pleasure in seeing the look of unutterable smugness wiped from Sa-Aliten's face for the second time in as many minutes. He, on the other hand, was not immediately prepared to take this sudden demotion lying down.
"Hey! It was my film!" he said, more angrily that he had felt in several decades, at least, "I made it, I made the equipment for making it. And she said she liked it, well, mostly" - he added, with a degree of personal integrity which was probably the result of five centuries of experience - "She said it was 'a work of genius'."
"Yes, I fully concur with Ingeta's opinions," Oscar interjected, "Your work is undoubtedly brilliant, insightful, original - but you lack the talent of criticism, of your own work or anything else. By contrast, she is a natural critic, readily able to identify the limitations, the blind spots, the misconceptions in the work of others."
Oscar paused, looking from one to the other.
"So what I propose is simply to push you outside your individual comfort zones: for you" - he indicated Ingeta with a nod - "the opportunity to create something truly original which will stand up to the most intensive review and criticism that the Culture as a whole can bring to bear, while you" - Sa-Aliten, this time - "are in a position where you cannot simply ignore any criticism of your work."
He paused again, letting these words sink in.
"Look, we - the consortium - want you to work together as a team," he went on, employing a Reasonable tone of voice, "We feel certain that, working together, you will create a genuine masterpiece, an original work of passion and energy, a work of artistic integrity which could, nevertheless, influence the Culture as a whole or, at least, its views on an important decision which is even now fast approaching."
Sa-Aliten sagged, almost unnoticeably, although both Oscar and Ingeta identified the subtle change to his demeanour. His body language spoke volumes: he was, at least for the moment, grudgingly willing to accept this assessment of his aptitudes and the concomitant implications. Ingeta's unspoken position was equally clear: she was entirely ready to be in a position to boss Sa-Aliten around, magnanimously accepting that she would need his undoubted talents and capabilities in areas she could not immediately hope to approach, and more than happy to accept the challenge of creativity and originality whose gauntlet had just been metaphorically thrown at her feet.
"So what's the subject of this documentary to be?" Sa-Aliten asked, frowning.
"A good question," Oscar replied, "Give me a moment and I will show you."
The Avatar walked back to the bar and deftly slid the tray onto the bar-top. Then he picked up the torch he had been using earlier and returned to the table where Ingeta and Sa-Aliten were still watching him closely.
"So, let me give you a little flavour of the subject of this study," he went on, flicking on the torch and pointing it at a section of the far wall. Where the beam of light fell, a section of the dark patterned wallpaper faded to a pale silvery colour with a strong resemblance to the screen in the auditorium they had been watching earlier. The light flickered once, then moving images started to appear on the screen accompanied by sounds from some unidentified source. Ingeta and Sa-Aliten twisted in their seats to get a better view while the lights in the saloon dimmed to near-darkness.
The screen showed images of a tropical shoreline. The gentle curve of a sandy beach dotted with huge rocks of grey granite stretched into the hazy distance, edged on one side by lines of gentle waves which were the last gasp of the white-topped breakers which could be seen and heard crashing against some unseen reef out to sea, the sun-flecked foam dazzlingly bright against a darker blue that hinted at deeper water beyond.
The shoreward edge of the beach was lined with the occasional piece of flotsam marking the high-water point - not a great deal of detritus seemed to be washed up hereabouts - and, a few metres beyond, a wall of luxurious and seemingly impenetrable olive-brown vegetation that piled and tumbled over itself in an effort to reach toward a yellow sun which burned in the nearly cloudless blue sky above.
The beach itself was deserted, and there were no visible footprints or other markings which would have suggested the presence of large creatures. It looked like the kind of tropical paradise which would have been re-created as a matter of course on any Culture Orbital for the enjoyment and entertainment of the residents, although many of those instances would have been populated with more sun-loungers, brightly-coloured parasols, refreshingly-chilled cooling drinks and, of course, people.
The camera panned, swinging towards the line of vegetation so that the viewers could make out a gap in the foliage, one which looked to be made deliberately by the intervention of some external agency rather than a natural irregularity. The artificial appearance was enhanced by a line of fresh footprints - in at least two different sizes - leading from the opening down to the sea and back again.
The camera now moved smoothly forward, heading for the break in the vegetation, its viewpoint well above head height for almost all of the Culture's citizens and was therefore likely to have been shot by a drone or other small flying machine. Beyond the opening, which was just a cutting in the growth a couple of metres wide, the space opened up to form a sandy clearing, again giving every evidence of having been made by some conscious entity.
In the exact centre of the clearing was a small hut entirely constructed from the kind of materials one would expect to find on such an island. Its roof was made from broad leaves no doubt cut from a plant they could see an example of at the edge of the space. The building, if it could be so termed, was only partially walled, some panels made from other kinds of vegetation which might provide some shelter from wind-blown rain, Sa-Aliten noted, but did not significantly obscure the view from any direction.
Outside the hut, sitting on a low rock of the same grey granite which littered the beach, was a blue-skinned and entirely naked humanoid with its legs folded neatly. The nakedness allowed the viewers to surmise that the being was female, a conclusion supported by the way she was watching her offspring playing in the sand a few metres away. There could be no mistaking the maternal love in her large bright eyes, the motherly protectiveness in the way she watched the youngster intently, breaking off only to scan the edges of the clearing for any threat or intruder.
The humanoids were entirely hairless, with distinctly reptilian features in the shape of their heads and the set of their thighs and legs. They both had large elongated jaws which moved endlessly, filled with long sharp teeth washed frequently by a long tongue of a startling pinkness against the blue skin. No mouth like that, Sa-Aliten knew, was capable of forming the nuanced sounds that were required for intelligent verbal communication. But the rude hut, and the artefacts of stone and wood which could be seen about the clearing, showed without doubt that these beings were smart to some level.
The two beings appeared to be oblivious to the camera; perhaps it was completely hidden to them. The Culture could produce self-powered camera platforms which were so small that the principal limitation on image stability was Brownian Motion; or perhaps it was a larger device which was projecting a hologram of its surroundings to become effectively invisible.
"This is a race of intelligent humanoids who appear to have no name for themselves," Oscar's voice came from the darkness of the Saloon, "They have a rather unusual biology and, perhaps as a consequence, an unusual social organisation as well."
"What do we call them?" Ingeta asked curiously.
"Oddly, they don't seem to have garnered a name as yet," the Avatar replied calmly, "Generally, they're referred to as 'the natives of Island Rock', although even that is itself slightly misleading."
Ingeta's sense of inequity instantly went on high alert: the lack of a name rang numerous alarm bells in her head. In the Culture, names seemed to pop up all the time, and were appropriated, argued over, re-defined, over-used and replaced on a fashionable whim. She had never heard of a group of people who didn't have a name at all!
The camera swung and focussed on the youngster, who appeared to be an immature female. The child was squatting, motionless, intently watching a multi-legged creature - perhaps some species of large tree-crab, Sa-Aliten thought - make its way slowly down the bole of a large tree at the edge of the clearing. The camera moved to the tree-trunk. The crab stopped periodically, waving its eye-stalks this way and that, its mouth-parts tasting the air for hints of anything that might make a meal, or might want to make a meal of it.
The tree-crab had descended to what would be head-height for a typical Culture citizen when the youngster reacted. It moved with sudden, alarming speed, rushing to the tree and leaping up in a single furious movement which culminated in her snatching the crab in her mouth. There was a sudden cracking crunch as those powerful jaws crushed the crab's shell as the child dropped to the sandy floor and rolled over.
The older female stood up, more wary now that her child was at the edge of the open space and therefore possibly threatened by others hidden in the undergrowth. The movement accentuated the curious features on her upper body; where a mammalian humanoid female might have breasts or at least nipples, her chest, from her shoulders down to the level of her navel was covered by a profusion of pendulous protrusions, none bigger than a clenched fist, which swayed and wobbled as she moved.
The mother's jaws champed and twisted, but no sound came from them; even so, the youngster bounded upright and loped over to where her parent stood, the crab with its legs writhing weakly still clutched firmly in her jaws. The viewers in the darkened saloon expected the Mother to congratulate the child, or offer criticism or encouragement, but still no sound came from either creature. After a few seconds, the youngster bobbed its head, pulled the dying crab from its mouth with one hand and began to eat the luckless creature, shell and all.
"Are they talking to one another?" Sa-Aliten asked, watching with intense fascination, "Can they talk to each other?"
"They don't talk, in any ordinary sense," Oscar answered, "But they have evolved some kind of short-range telepathy which these two were indeed deploying when these images were made."
"Telepathy?" Ingeta said, incredulously, "Is that even possible?"
"It is possible," Oscar confirmed, "We can hear them too, and they can hear our thoughts as well, sometimes. In fact, if you were close enough, there's no way you could not hear it."
Ingeta noticed that the beam of light from the torch - if that was indeed what was producing the images on the screen - did not waver or shake in the slightest. Oscar held it as steady as a rock, clear evidence - if such was really needed - that the Avatar was no flesh-and-blood creature but some complex machine that the TTT had put together, presumably specifically for the purpose of addressing Sa-Aliten and herself.
As they watched, the youngster finished eating the last of the tree-crab, while her mother returned to her seat on the stone. Her child nuzzled up to her, again apparently engaged in that strange soundless communication. Then, without warning, the daughter bit off one of the hanging protrusions on her mother's chest and, in a few swift movements, chewed and swallowed the whole thing. The older female might have winced minutely when a portion of her own flesh was ripped off, but otherwise she did not react at all.
Both of the human viewers gasped in horror; Ingeta clapped a hand over her mouth and Sa-Aliten started so energetically that his chair slid several centimetres backwards along the carpet.
"What happened there?" he demanded, eyes wide.
"The mother was feeding her child," Oscar explained with icily calm, "Their society is based on organised, even ritual cannibalism. They're not just carnivorous - which most humanoid species are at some point in their past - but for them, cannibalism is a way of life. The young are born alive, and they eat their way out of their mother. They understand what they are doing, too: the telepathic communication between mother and daughter is established while the young are still in the womb."
As they watched, a filament of blood, brightly red against her blue skin, ran down the older female's chest. Absently, her daughter ran her tongue over her mother's bleeding wound, swallowing the drops of blood hungrily.
"Don't the mothers bleed to death?" Sa-Aliten asked, still horrified by the casual carnage.
"Not often," Oscar replied, "More mothers die protecting their young from predation from others of their kind. They are fiercely protective of their offspring."
"What about the males?" Ingeta asked.
"All are born female," the Avatar said, "After one or two or, rarely, three children, they become male. The men tend to be wizened and bent, their female organs destroyed by the exigencies of birth, and a male organ sometimes emerges from the wreckage. Only the very strongest, and strong-willed, survive to manhood and a chance to spread their genes to a wider pool."
The humans watched silently as mother and daughter again silently communed, the older female still holding her child protectively and stroking her hairless scalp gently.
"This is all true?" Ingeta demanded, her eyes narrowing, "You're not making this up?"
"It is entirely true," Oscar replied, phlegmatically, "All this footage, and a vast amount of additional material is of course publically available. There is quite a considerable library, in fact."
"So, no Special Circumstances cover-up shit, then?" Sa-Aliten said nastily.
"To the best of my knowledge," the avatar answered, "And I can assure you that my - that is, the Ship's - knowledge in this area is extremely detailed, there has been no attempt at a cover-up by SC or anyone else, for that matter."