The Euthanasia Centre was set on the edge of a wooded and leafy park, its facilities, contained in low buildings of weathered concrete, were mostly hidden by mossy stone walls of grey-green fieldstone and thick hedges of fast-growing conifers whose roots dug deep into the rich soil.
The park itself was a large and pleasantly open space, partially laid to grass separated by copses and stands of mature trees, and liberally set about with paved pathways and parade-grounds; the whole was regularly used for fitness training exercises for young military recruits, and as a place for the badly wounded to regain their strength and for the oldsters, the lucky survivors of a lifetime of fighting, to live out their last days.
On this particular afternoon, the sun had been very warm and the park had been thronged with people of all ages. Now the sun was just beginning to set, the temperature was cooling rapidly, and most of the old folk had retired indoors, to the tiny flats or shared dormitories allocated to their ranks. The young cohorts had marched off to their evening meal and their further training exercises, singing songs with the requisite degree of fervour and zeal. For the few remaining people, the park took on a calm, placid feeling, despite the coolness of the air; even the roar of the military convey of tank transporters had been softened almost to inaudibility by distance and the trees.
On this quiet and tranquil evening, an elderly couple enters the grounds of the centre. They are both tall, fair-skinned, very slender - a slenderness which has more to do with a lifetime of rationing rather than genetics - and might be considered fit and sprightly for their age. They are dressed curiously alike, in one-piece trouser-suits in mottled shades of olive and khaki, with many buttons and pockets. The clothes are obviously old, worn with many washings, but have been carefully repaired and recently ironed.
People of this particular race and species almost always had hair in various pale shades when young and which tended towards a uniform silver-grey when aged. Dark hair and, worse, dark skin was regarded as an abhorrence, tainted evidence of past association with the dreaded Enemy. Few children were born with this kind of degenerate colouration, and even fewer survived.
The couple seem relaxed, at ease, at peace with the world and one another; they look around, then turn to each other; they smile simultaneously, as old couples sometimes do, subconsciously anticipating each other's reaction. They hold hands with tenderness and affection, touching without hesitation or embarrassment even in this public place, then they press their noses together for a long moment, staring deeply into each other's eyes.
The people of this devoutly militarised society had long expected nothing more than being required to carry out their duty, performing their allotted tasks and responsibilities efficiently and without complaint. This couple were quite exemplary: they had performed their duty both on the battlefield and for procreation; the women were expected to bear several strong daughters and brave sons in between their tours of duty in the trenches and foxholes of the front lines, or in the gun-turrets of vehicles of land and sea and air, or in the command centres and operations planning facilities at heavily-fortified headquarters.
Now, their direct usefulness to military operations was long past; even their more indirect support for the war effort - as instructors, teachers, coaches, child-minders - was now more a drain on scarce resources than their contribution was judged worthy.
"I'll go on first," the male says, with tears forming minutely in the corners of his eyes, finally breaking away from their mutual embrace, "You can join me on the other side when you're ready."
He kisses his wife one final time, then turns and enters the door - a door always open, never locked - of the Euthanasia Centre. The door shuts with a heavy dull thud; the female looks around, as if appreciating the serenity of the surroundings, then makes her own way inside.
Nobody even returned after entering that door. Nobody knew - or at least was ever willing to tell - what lay behind that door. There were never any sounds, no screams, no signs of movement or struggle. It was regarded as an honourable and fitting end for those who had, miraculously, survived a lifetime of military service.
The holographic projection which allowed Aneme to watch the old couple as perfectly as if she had been there in person - apart from the fact that they could not see her, of course - faded gently, taking with it the quiet sounds of the park and the muted tones of distant traffic. She found herself standing alone in the centre of the GCU’s general accommodation section. She had tears in her eyes, which she wiped away quickly, hoping for a moment that nobody had noticed them, then belatedly realised that of course the ship would have noticed, but would undoubtedly say nothing out of sheer politeness.
"What kind of society condemns their old folk to a death like that?" she said sadly, speaking mostly to herself.
"Well, this one, at least," the voice of the ship came from nowhere in particular, "And there are others - many others - who at some time in their development suggest, or invite, or even expect those no longer able to stand the pain of their own existence, the agony associated with every step, every breath, should end their own life. The prevailing view being that, when the time comes to die, one should be able to do so with dignity and with a minimum of pain."
The ship paused, more to let Aneme take in what she was hearing than for any other reason.
"Almost all Culture citizens possess the ability to auto-euthanize, as well as the ability to control their own sense of pain," the sourceless voice went on, "Life or death. It is all about choice, in the end, or the lack of it."
A couple of wall-screens lit up, displaying flat views of the centre that Aneme had witnessed more immediately earlier. The screens showed accelerated views of people entering the centre. None seemed distressed, many seemed relieved, or phlegmatic, or displayed a kind of serene calmness which somehow reflected that the horrors and traumas of this life were about to end.
"In this society, it is, mercifully, a genuinely rapid and painless death," the ship went on, "And the bodies are disposed of efficiently and hygienically. All benefit. Nobody suffers unnecessarily - unlike, for example, most deaths on the battlefield."
Aneme sat heavily in one of the ridiculously comfortable chairs which dotted the accommodation section and thought about her own previous life. For a greater part of that life, her entire focus had been on the improvement of the lives of others. She had known many - far too many - people who had suffered with illnesses and infirmities for years, often fighting against an unending agony that she knew no way to counter or ease. Perhaps worse, she had tried to offer wise words and a sympathetic ear to those who had to care for the aged and the crippled, spending every day and night trying - without success - to ease the pain of another who was condemned to pain without surcease, a thankless and never-ending task which burdened the soul and exhausted the body.
"Besides," the ship added, "Is the euthanizing of the old and infirm really the worst part of their society?"
Aneme had recently spent several months on board the GCU Meretricious Persiflage investigating this particular planet in some considerable detail. It was the insanely sophisticated capabilities of the ship itself who did most of the investigation, of course, but GCUs had long had crews - perhaps passengers would be a better description, Aneme had wondered - to provide a human viewpoint to the exploration, to sample some tiny fraction of the information which the ship had captured and provide a view that might, just conceivably, be different from the conclusions reached by the ship and the bevy of Minds charged with oversight of the analysis.
It was just possible that the Culture was too late in arriving to be able to intervene in this society, at least without disruptive, even dangerous changes. Over a period of at least a century and a half, the peoples of this planet had polarised into two opposing hegemonies, subsuming almost all of the land areas and associated population into two almost equal halves with their membership, their peoples, almost entirely determined by the colour of their skin.
From the beginning, this bifurcation was driven by mutual suspicion and distrust, inevitably leading to fear and hatred. Now, almost everybody in both societies was xenophobic to the point of paranoia, terrified of strangers, seemingly entirely willing to inform on their neighbours to the secret police, even though they might have been acquaintances of many years. The same racist fear had led to an interminable internecine war against others of the same species, albeit with the minor genetic variations which altered the colour of the hair and their skin.
Both sides had developed crude fission-fusion weapons; bombs and missiles which could devastate a city or obliterate a military complex. Mercifully, both sides had managed to avoid first use, but all the signs and prognostications, models and simulations showed that this could not last; somewhere, sooner or later, somebody would decide to press the button and plunge the entire planet into the lunacies of Mutually Assured Destruction.
This was the reason Contact was engaging itself in this particular little planet. As it had done so before, with an exemplary record of success in numerous places across the millennia, the do-gooding outreach section of the Culture genuinely wanted to help the people on this world survive the possibility of a nuclear fire-storm. But there was a problem: the Culture could not, in all morality, coerce another species to change by force of arms, by waving a big stick; these two societies would have to alter their outlook and behaviour by themselves.
Of course, in typical primitive Stage Three places, there were plenty of ways by which change could be encouraged, wangled or engineered: incentives and rewards to those liable to be privately influenced; bribery or blackmail of key individuals in governments and the corridors of power, or even education and intellectual persuasion of the same.
None of these techniques seemed likely to work here. To a man and woman, the people in these societies were intensely moral, at least by their own lights. The achievement of military rank - there was no other, of course - was achieved almost entirely based on merit, through formal examinations, steady progression through the ranks and, in extremis, battlefield promotions. Those in very senior positions were generally genuinely talented and capable individuals. Perhaps this was inevitable, Aneme had considered, with the pressures of a century or more of an arms race, where a slight advantage of efficiency might make all the difference between victory and defeat on the battlefield, or where a single incompetent officer might wreck any elegantly-devised strategy or carefully-constructed master plan.
Evidence of significant corruption simply could not be discovered by even the most intensive sleuthing by the ship. It seemed that the powerful - the Generals, the Admirals, the Air Commodores - were not rich in any meaningful way - and in any case, money had almost ceased to exist, except as an abstraction for judging the effectiveness of manufacturing techniques or agricultural efficiencies. Oh, the senior officers might have their own messes and a bedroom they did not have to share with others of the same rank, but otherwise their life was not so different from the lowliest foot soldier.
Unusually, in the Culture's immodestly considerable experience, this species seemed inherently inclined to adhere to a view - although it was also one which was promulgated by each of the two officially-sanctioned religions which were ultimately just a part of the same two hegemonies - that their world - a perfectly ordinary rocky carbon-water planet though it was - was the centre of the universe and the only place where intelligent God-fearing creatures could possibly live. So the idea, the very concept that their world could be visited by beings from elsewhere - from Heaven or Hell or another planet - was unheard of; the notion of Angels or Devils or Aliens simply did not appear in the culture, not even in their most speculative fiction or recondite spiritual texts.
Worse still, it seemed it just wasn't possible to have any direct, person-to-person interactions with the peoples of this world. Usually, when the Culture examined a society with a view to undertaking a formal Contact - it was the raison d'être of the Contact section, after all - the crew of a GCU would investigate the planet in person - surreptitiously, of course, and supported by all the unfathomably glittering hi-tech that the Culture could bring to bear - before any kind of overt communication took place. Contact's experience in making the next step was legendary in its breath and scope of options, from the carefully-tailored private interview with a few well-connected and influential personages to the simultaneous broadcasting of "We Are Here" messages on every radio, television and comms channel on the hitherto unsuspecting planet.
Here, it seemed that it was not possible to appear in person anywhere on the planet's surface - at least, not without almost immediately causing immediate confusion, a state of rapid alarm amongst the populace at large which degenerated into panic and chaos.
The ship had modified several of the crew members to appear indistinguishable from an average member of one of the two competing ethnic groups/power blocs, in terms of looks, and the timbre of voices, and even body odours. The crew themselves had all learned the languages, with help from glanded drugs and the kind of compressed educational techniques that were by now second nature. It just did not work; neither did any of the attempts by the ship to construct a synthetic being - an Avatar - to mimic the natives.
The Meretricious Persiflage swore that the impersonation was perfect, and both ship and crew seemed shocked that the inestimable resources of the Culture couldn't pull off the illusion. People on this world had an unerring ability to identify the outsider, the stranger, the alien, even if they couldn't articulate what it was they were seeing or why it was causing them such distress and confusion. There was some subliminal inter-personal messaging of such intricate subtlety that even the ship could not positively identify the root cause. Whatever it was, it was so deeply intertwined with the homogeneity and integrity of each society that there appeared to be no way to counteract or finesse the impact on individuals of either.
It was all an immensely, intensely frustrating impasse. The strain was definitely beginning to show amongst the crew and, unless Aneme was imagining it, in the Mind of the Meretricious Persiflage as well.
"So, there's no way of intervening, then?" she asked.
The ship made a sound that sounded like a sigh.
"There are guidelines for this kind of thing," the disembodied voice of the Meretricious Persiflage said, sounding convincingly exasperated, "Strategies and procedures, directions and instructions, advice and guidance, basically a whole playbook of possibilities based on innumerable interventions undertaken - or not, in the relatively rare cases where it was adjudged that a formal Contact was not appropriate - over the last seven-and-a-bit millennia."
"I know this," Aneme answered carefully, "Contact techniques have featured in many of my lessons, and in conversations with many people - including you."
"And there's nothing in the history, the prior art, nothing which gives the slightest clue on what to do, here and now," the ship responded, sounding, to Aneme's ears, genuinely frustrated, "And not intervening, which is, I suppose, the default option under normal circumstances, is so repugnant in its ramifications, given that the all the most likely scenarios end in mutually assured genocide, even if it is not by way of the deployment of thermonuclear warheads."
"So we need something new," she said, a sudden stillness in her voice and in her heart.
Aneme reached deep into herself, searching her very being, seeking out that sense of rightness, that sureity of purpose that she had experienced for the greater part of her life, before, and had not, she sincerely hoped, had not entirely deserted her now.
"Their religions," she said slowly, "The two creeds, they're basically the same - the same tenets, the same proscriptions and sanctions. Although I'm sure you could find nobody on the surface of this world who would admit to such a thing."
"That's almost literally true," the ship said, "They have been at war for so long, for so many generations, that they have almost forgotton that the enemy are even people, let alone crediting the Other with any sense of morality or faith."
"The religions are the key," she went on, "The key to their societies, their mutual hatred. They both talk about uniformity, conformance, duty; it's part of their morality. Any kind of duality is anathema to them - even the forms of their bodies and the differences in hair and skin colours."
To their own eyes, Aneme considered, they're so different from one another - just as, not so long ago, she would have regarded dark-skinned strangers as outlandish and perhaps even frightening - for all that, she knew, from the Culture's point of view, the two creeds were virtually identical and, genetically, entirely the same species; the differences in appearance entirely the result of culturally-mandated selective breeding.
"What they need is a Messiah," she said firmly.
"Prophets, seers, soothsayers, fortune tellers, prognosticators, oracles, augurs and messianic leaders are all part of the playbook," the voice of the Meretricious Persiflage said, now sounding bored, "All considered as options, none considered likely to be helpful here."
"But what if the Messiah was from the other society?" Aneme said, "At least originally. Perhaps we can get them to believe to have been put on this world to lead to a greater future, but then announce that he was destined to save both groups. And that the two peoples have to work together to bring about their peaceful heaven-on-earth?"
There was a noticeably long interval, long enough that Aneme got the distinct impression it genuinely represented an interval for the kind of prodigious amount of deep thought, in-depth simulation, situational modelling, and what-if and probabilistic analysis that a ship's Mind could undertake in a fraction of a second.
"That could work," the Meretricious Persiflage said, suddenly sounding both confident and - just possibly - impressed, "We could take advantage of the symmetry of the situation. Each culture can have their own Messiah. We'll spread rumours, make sure that nobody actually sees this mystery man but everybody's heard of him. Play up their sense of duty and worth, their personal morality, and outweighing their anathema for the Others."
There was another pause.
"I'll have to discuss it with the other Minds, of course," the ship went on, "But I rather think they will agree to your suggestion. And then, we'll have some real work to do."
Aneme had followed the directions in the message precisely and, somewhat to her surprise, she now found herself standing in a graveyard. She would have recognised it as such even without her Culture training, even though the slab-like headstones with their carved lettering - now mostly submerged in moss and etched by lichen - were quite different from the tall elaborately-decorated stones which marked final resting places in her home culture. The burial ground was edged by stone walls and old trees, both nearly as moss-covered as the gravestones, although the neatly-raked gravel and carefully-tended grass made it clear that somebody hereabouts took some pains over keeping the place tidy.
She looked around. The graveyard was quiet and still, no sign of any caretaker or visitors. Even the sunshine and birdsong, which had seemed to bright and cheery during the short walk here, were now muted and hidden, silenced in the shadow of the old church. The architecture of the ancient building - all fluted pillars and arched windows - seemed strangely familiar to Aneme; this was, she supposed, an artefact of the fact that there really were only a very few ways of making a building from blocks of stone.
There was a crunch of gravel on the path behind her. Aneme turned, startled by the noise, then smiled warmly as she recognised the figure approaching. The other woman held out her arms in welcome; Aneme rushed forward and hugged her friend unashamedly.
"I got your message," Aneme said finally, stepping back, "I had wondered if I would ever see you again."
"Did you really doubt me?" Kitzean Mso asked, her eyes bright and slightly moist with emotion.
"Perhaps just a little. It was foolish of me," Aneme answered, then added, "But I remember you once said you had a mission, a task for me. Is it that task that brings you here today?"
Mso nodded, smiling ruefully.
"Insightful and wise, as always," she replied, "And, yes, you're right, of course."
Aneme raised her hands in a show of reasonableness.
"But it has been more than thirty years since you brought me here, to the Culture, and nearly as long since you introduced me to Contact," she said, "Yet it is only now that you ask me undertake this mysterious task. I thought you said it was important."
"Oh, it is important, very important," Mso replied, looking suddenly grave, "Indeed, I can't convey to you just how important it is, not here, not now. I think I need to show you the situation."
"So you want me to come away with you? Now?" Aneme asked.
"Why the urgency? After all this time?"
"It's not that urgent," Mso said carefully, "Or, at least, it wasn't. Now, the moment is upon us, the optimum time for action, according to the wisdom of the Minds."
Aneme was silent for a moment.
"Let's go, then," she said finally, "No time like the present. And I've nothing to pack."
A shimmering shape materialised further along the path, a door sliding down to reveal the softly-lit interior of a standard Culture module.
"Your carriage awaits, my lady," Mso said with an ironic bow.