The seemingly endless discussions take a curious turn, with some unexpected agreement - at least on minor points - emerging between groups and individuals who had hitherto offered viewpoints diametrically opposed to one another. The focus of the debate crystalizes around one possibility, one test, one experiment whose outcome cannot be satisfactorily modelled or simulated. This promises to determine the response of the Culture to a critical question, a situation where the society as a whole can clearly express a choice which is virtuous and principled, but potentially dangerous for many people, or a different conclusion which is benign but morally ambiguous, ethically equivocal or, worse, entirely negligent.
As the interminable discussions continue, it seems that several distinct factions emerge amongst those who argue about the nature of the test and the interpretation that should be placed upon the results. But it seems agreed that what is required is the kind of moral dilemma which would engage the whole society, one gnarly and involuted enough to provide a focus for informed debate, a nexus for moral consideration and personal introspection which would leave no person - human, drone or Mind - unengaged or vacillating.
Indeed, it was obvious to all the disputants that there must be a stick, as well as a carrot. But what could plausibly be a threat to both the society, the Culture as a whole, and to every individual therein? Surely this could only be an existential menace, the risk of utter oblivion in making the wrong choice, or even interfering at all?
After near-endless debates and numerous factional resolutions, the nature of the critical test, the form of the grand experiment, 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 key elements of the experiment. They are now entirely incommunicado, not speaking to anybody - including all the debating parties - and have accepted 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, planets 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, and all the rest of the Ulterior - 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?
"It seems we have arrived," Ingeta said.
She was looking intently at a flatscreen carefully disguised as an ornate mirror in the little salon they had adopted as their informal social area. The few rooms which formed their apartments aboard the Thinking Things Through would have easily been lost in the vast bulk of the ship, unoccupied as it was by anyone even remotely human other than Ingeta herself, her companion Sa-Aliten, and Oscar, the humanoid - but quite definitely not human - avatar that the ship had created a few weeks before. The salon, separate bedrooms - for the occasions where their none-to-frequent arguments required that they slept separately - and various rooms for bathing and exercise - the bare essentials, for most Culture citizens - occupied a vanishingly small fraction of the total volume of the ship, a vessel which seemed strangely content to ferry the two humans across a substantial fraction of the Galaxy to undertake an idiosyncratic, even archaic artistic commission: a film documentary.
Oscar was serving them breakfast, still wearing the old-fashioned uniform and comical box hat he had appeared in on their first introduction. He carefully poured a gently-steaming warm infusion into fine china cups, and added a dash of some creamy-coloured liquid to Sa-Aliten's drink. Returning the polished silver pot to its place on the white linen tablecloth, he then took up a basket covered in a soft cloth and a pair of tongs, and set about serving them warm rolls. The avatar of the TTT seemed determined to keep them in an environment which could have belonged to the ancient past of several of the species who once came together to form the Culture.
Oscar placed the bread-basket on the table, then stood back, clasping his hands neatly behind his back.
"Welcome to Island Rock," he said smoothly, "We can begin your filming as soon as you are ready."
In the nearly two week period while the ship had been ferrying them across the non-trivial fraction of the galaxy necessary to reach their destination, the human crew of the TTT had as a matter of course been given guided access to the most recent reports and near-real-time digests of current activities, as well as intelligent summaries of the social, psychological and physiological makeup of the Islanders themselves, as well as the characteristics of the flora and fauna with which they co-existed. Inevitably, they had already exchanged numerous messages - greetings, introductions, queries, briefings - with the small flotilla of ships even now investigating the mysteries of the asteroid, and held numerous interactive debates with the many humans, drones and avatars occupying those craft.
Sa-Aliten had spent most of the intervening weeks making proposals for the film, planning his shots and rapidly creating sketches, scene descriptions, images, coloured graphic organisers and storyboards for Ingeta to review, then just as rapidly revising - or more often discarding - these after her incisive and sometimes acerbic opinions and criticisms. Despite herself, Ingeta had been impressed by his ability to draw using the archaic medium of pencil on paper, as well as the more mundane tools and techniques commonly used in the Culture.
In between writing and sketching feverishly, Sa-Aliten had taken to pacing one or another of their shared living spaces, speaking almost incessantly, and waving his hands about in a fashion which had caused Oscar, reacting with more than human speed, to catch, steady or otherwise rescue a variety of ornaments, bric-a-brac, decorations, objects d'Art, smaller pieces of furniture and crockery that cluttered the rooms. Ingeta watched him carefully, interjecting with comments and corrections, and laughing unhesitatingly and uninhibitedly at anything she perceived as absurd, false or otherwise ridiculous to her finely-tuned perceptions.
Their arguments, as Oscar had predicted, had been frequent, loud and intense; exploding out of nowhere in a moment, blasting away for a few minutes and then disappearing as if it had never occurred. To nobody's surprise, the pair had also become lovers; their frequent bouts of sex were as loud and intense as their arguments, although the sex generally went on for longer.
Sa-Aliten had discovered, to his slight surprise, that when their post-coital conversations turned to the topic of their film, his ideas became more wild, off-beat, tangential, divergent, oblique and subversive, and more often met with Ingeta's grudging approval, measured critique and sometimes even veering towards outright agreement.
Perhaps more surprisingly, they seemed to be becoming genuine friends. Although admirably dedicated, not all of their conversations had been about the film they were making. In more relaxed moments, Ingeta had been persuaded to appreciate some of Sa-Aliten's curious tales from his time in Contact, and a few of his stranger experiences as a Wanderer in the backwoods of the Galaxy. In his turn, Sa-Aliten found himself amused and entranced by Ingeta's witty and incisive remarks about friends, acquaintances, fellow students and ex-lovers. The genuine affection between them, on the one hand, and the creative tension, on the other, was a source of some quiet satisfaction to the good ship Thinking Things Through, although Oscar was directed to keep this to himself.
There were numerous other preparations ahead of their arrival. Sa-Aliten fabricated a great many of the rolls of the photo-sensitive celluloid materials he would use while making the documentary, as well as cleaning, polishing, lubricating, adjusting and generally fettling the mechanisms of the cameras, projectors, lenses, microphones, editors, splicers and sundry miscellaneous equipment that would be needed during filming.
For their own protection, the ship had produced a pair of the wasp-striped suits which long and painful training had conditioned the inhabitants of Island Rock to respect as unassailable - most of the time - to somehow resist their most basic instincts to attack and kill anything that might be either a threat or a source of food. The Thinking Things Through insisted on putting them through a series of training exercises, designed to teach them the best way of avoiding triggering the Islanders' aggressive instincts and, after a very considerable argument with both Ingeta and Sa-Aliten, insisting on backing up both of them. Ingeta privately considered that she had agreed to being backed-up only because she suspected that the ship would have recorded her mind-state anyway, notwithstanding the general Culture prohibition of reading the minds of sentient creatures.
Ingeta glanced at Sa-Aliten, who nodded.
"Let's go," she said.
Their immediate destination was the GCU One Hand Clapping, to meet the crew and record their impressions of their first encounter with the Rock. Oscar guided the two humans to one of the travel cars which were used to traverse larger distances inside the LSV. The surprisingly large and heavy equipment that Sa-Aliten had declared was the bare minimum necessary for their initial shots was packed neatly on a float-pallet which tagged along behind them like a well-trained pet, following them into the car and parking itself at the rear.
Less than a minute later, the car's doors irised open again, allowing them access to a departure lounge. The transit area was furnished in what Sa-Aliten privately regarded as standard Culture decor - stylishly comfortable furniture, lush potted plants and subtly indirect lighting - although it did occur to him that this part of the ship seemed more brightly-lit and apparently alive than the hushed solitude which infected the rest of the craft.
The Thinking Things Through had produced a standard twelve-person Module for their use - no doubt until recently stored in one of the innumerable Bays, hangers and storage areas a ship of its size would have. A second door from the lounge slid open silently and Oscar ushered them forward, chairs mushrooming out of the floor and forming a comfortable seating area as they entered the module.
"Take a seat," Oscar said, "We'll rendezvous with the Hand in less than ten minutes."
Ingeta threw herself into one of the couches almost before it had stabilised, while Sa-Aliten stalked over to check that his hand-built equipment was still securely stowed on the pallet. Satisfied, he joined Ingeta on the couch.
"Why are we taking so long?" he asked Oscar, who was standing motionless near the door.
All of the people and equipment could have been instantaneously transported from their living space on the TTT to the shared accommodation section of the Hand using a Displace, rather than this rather leisurely transfer from vehicle to vehicle. Displaces used a remotely induced singularity via hyperspace, widely regarded as a mature technology as far as the Culture was concerned. Nevertheless, there was an unfinesseable risk, a one-in-many-millions chance of catastrophic failure to the process, and Culture Minds tended to shy away even from that admittedly miniscule risk.
"We're trying to keep our profile of hyperspace usage as low as possible," Oscar said, looking uncharacteristically shifty, "We don't want to attract any further attention unnecessarily."
"Ah. And do you think that might work?"
"Frankly, no," the ship replied, "With high probability, any civ capable of building Island Rock in the first place is likely to be able to detect our activities from a thousand lightyears away."
"So why bother?"
"It costs little in time, when there's no urgency," the Avatar replied, "And it might just make a difference in the future."
Nine-and-a-half minutes of subluminal travel later, the module door slid open to reveal a wide and brightly-lit corridor which opened out into what Sa-Aliten immediately identified as the common area of a General Contact Unit. There was a certain utilitarian appearance typical of these places, he had noticed over the years, when compared with the understated luxury and comfortable elegance of most Culture accommodation. It was, he had supposed, part of the ingrained ethic of Contact: seriously-minded people (and Minds) doing serious things for the benefit of all, in the Culture and in the societies of those Contacted. Crews of GCUs were small and cut off, very nearly, from the Culture as a whole and tended to develop a certain pioneering zeal: a group of people roughing it, mucking in together, pulling their weight and generally putting the needs and desires of others above their own.
The accommodation section contained a couple of drones of very different designs and a dozen or so humans of various shapes, sizes and genders, although nothing outside the very considerable range of appearances it was possible to find in the Culture. As Ingeta and Sa-Aliten entered, trailed by Oscar, all heads turned in their direction. A tall slender person with pale blue skin and an eclectic collection of abstract tattoos stood up and stepped towards them, a hand raised in greeting.
"Welcome to the One Hand Clapping," he said with slight but noticeable formality, as if he were speaking on behalf of all those present.
Sa-Aliten stepped forward and grasped the others hand warmly.
"Sharo Emshala," he said, "Good to meet you in person at last."
Ingeta and Sa-Aliten were suddenly surrounded by the crew of the Hand, all excitedly shaking hands and embracing warmly. They had of course conversed at length - at a remove necessitated by the distances involved - and corresponded extensively with the various members of the ship's crew during their journey to Island Rock, as well as the ship's Mind itself. Their shared interest in this mysterious artefact, and the ineffable dilemma which seemed to surround it, had rapidly engendered a common bond of friendship and camaraderie, despite the fact that they had never before met in their physical forms.
Oscar hung back from the scrum, looking as imperturbable as always, as did the larger of the two drones - the one Ingeta and Sa-Aliten knew as Quenlily Sikralis. The filmmakers had already formed the view that the ancient machine was naturally reticent - although, compared with the Thinking Things Through, it was positively chatty.
The younger and smaller drone, Schoma Xantic, was not so reticent, hovering over the crowd of people with its aura fields displaying rotating patterns in the green of friendliness interspersed with the rosy red of humorous pleasure. After a few moments, Sa-Aliten noticed the tiny machine over his head, and extended a hand in its direction. The drone extended a maniple field and gently took his hand, the force-field taking on the same green-and-red striped pattern as its aura field.
Finally, Lezert T'wou stepped back from the crush, flexed his broad shoulders and clapped his massive hands together twice in quick succession.
"People," he bellowed, "Let's give our guests some space. They've got a job to do here."
The throng surrounding the newcomers abated somewhat, although everybody still seemed to have friendly smiles on their faces.
Sa-Aliten stepped forward, gesturing towards the collection of complex-looking equipment on the float pallet.
"We'll need some help," he said, looking around the room expectantly, "at getting set up ready for filming."
T'wou grinned hugely, stretching his burly frame and looking around at the heaped pallet.
"Well, let's get started then."
Under Sa-Aliten's direction, the unloading, positioning and assembling of the film-maker's equipment didn't take long at all. The heavy camera was unloaded by several pairs of willing hands and set on its tripod in the centre of the shared accommodation section. The subsidiary paraphernalia - microphones and sound recorders, lighting assemblies and dollies - were positioned and adjusted minutely until Sa-Aliten was satisfied with the arrangements.
The ship - which had chosen to be uncharacteristically silent during the introductions - helped quietly by producing a selection of stylishly comfy seating and elegant low tables in exactly the right places for the interviewees to sit comfortably and to look their best in front of the camera. Ingeta and Sa-Aliten had agreed that Ingeta herself would perform the interviews on camera, while Sa-Aliten operated the recording equipment.
Once the equipment had been checked and rechecked, Sa-Aliten clapped his hands together a couple of times.
"OK, everybody," he announced, "Can I ask you to gather round?"
He waved his arms around with only moderate effectiveness as the crew milled about him, trying to direct the individual people - human and drones - to spots where they could sit, stand or hover to best effect. Ingeta positioned herself in the interviewer's chair, armed with a thick wad of notes printed on actual paper, produced - without being asked for - by the Thinking Things Through before they had arrived.
Sa-Aliten stood for a few moments with his hands on his hips, surveying the scene, then went to peer through the viewfinder of the camera. Apparently satisfied, he addressed the crew, who were taking the proceedings with slightly bemused good humour.
"Right then. I want to get a shot of you all, and then we'll move on to the opening questions from Ingeta. Smile, everybody."
The buzz of chatter subsided as Sa-Aliten once again bent over the viewfinder of the camera.
"Lights!" he called. The One Hand Clapping obliged, dimming the normal subdued indirect lighting in the accommodation section to darkness and then supplying old-fashioned - indeed, archaic - electrical current to the stage lighting that Sa-Aliten had fabricated with so much effort. The sudden clunks and bangs which accompanied the production of stark beams from the backlights and spots visibly, if briefly, alarmed even the most cosmopolitan members of the crew.
"Camera!" He pressed a solid, chunky button which started moving the film through the camera, producing a subdued clatter which whirred up to speed in a few seconds.
"And... Action!" Sa-Aliten panned the camera smoothly over the assembled crewmembers, who were - to a man and woman - now smiling broadly, with at least one of the drone members displaying the yellow-green aura of calm friendliness. The camera finally came to a halt trained on Ingeta. He nodded minutely; she took his cue like one born to the role.
"Hello. I am here with the crew of the good ship One Hand Clapping, to talk about the discovery of Island Rock and the curious circumstances behind that event," Ingeta began, displaying her most winning smile for the benefit of the camera.
She turned to face the crew, the luminosity of her smile managing to edge up a notch.
"So you're the entire crew, everybody who was present at the moment of first contact?" she asked brightly.
There was a sudden moment of hesitation, a stiff silence in the room, despite the muffled clatter of the camera and the glare of the lights. Sa-Aliten stepped back from the viewfinder, every sense suddenly at full alert. Ingeta turned in his direction, suddenly looking panic-stricken at this unexpected diversion.
"Actually, no, not quite," said Emshala, "There's one person absent."
"Oh, who's missing?"
The human crew members glanced at each other, clearly signalling confusion and disquiet. For a moment, nobody spoke.
"Q'aantar Forlarkis Losaet Kitzean Mso dam T'salis," Schoma Xantic blurted.
Sa-Aliten shouted "Cut!" and flipped the switch on the camera, which subsided to silence in a few seconds. The ship followed its cue and cut the power to the stage lights with another unsettling series of clunks and brought up the normal internal lighting.
Ingeta stood up and turned to face the crew again.
"We were informed that everybody was here," she said, with more than a trace of irritation in her voice.
"She left, suddenly, yesterday," Lezert T'wou growled, standing up to face Ingeta, "aboard the Friendly Feature Set. Surely you were told about this?"
"It was in one of my regular reports to the Thinking Things Through," interjected the voice of the One Hand Clapping, "Perhaps it simply forgot to pass the information on to you?"
Neither Ingeta nor Sa-Aliten believed a word of that explanation for a moment. Intellects as refined and powerful as ship Minds simply did not forget to pass on information of that nature. Both of them were also equally sure that any attempt to find out what was actually going on would be met by a haze of obfuscation, cloudy reasoning, misdirection and spurious logic without, of course, deploying anything which approached an outright lie or deliberate untruth.
"Okay," Ingeta said, without a hint of placation in her voice, "It's seems we didn't get the message. How strange."
"Indeed," Emshala added, sounding as if he was sharing a private joke, "Just as strange as your arrival today, weeks before we had expected it."
Ingeta glanced in the direction of Oscar, who had last been seen loitering quietly at the back of the accommodation section. He seemed to have disappeared in all the excitement of installing and setting up the film equipment. Then she turned in the direction of Sa-Aliten, who had followed the direction of her glance, and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Ship," she asked, "Do you know where Oscar has gone?"
"The avatar returned to the Thinking Things Through aboard the inter-ship module that transported you here about ten minutes ago," the One Hand Clapping replied calmly, "The LSV has just announced its immediate departure from the volume."
There was a pause before the ship added, "And it's not telling me where it's going."
Sa-Aliten had always known there was a risk, when travelling with an elderly and quite possibly Eccentric LSV, that it might just up sticks and hightail off on some inscrutable errand of its own without anything resembling prior notice. It was entirely possible he would never find out what had motivated the old ship to slip away while he was distracted, and he was certain there was little point in pressing the matter right now.
"Well," he said slowly, turning to address the assembled crew, "It seems Ingeta and I are going to be with you for some time."
Ingeta was, as always, much less restrained in her reaction.
"How rude!" she exclaimed, "Ship! Are you still in contact with the Thinking Things Through?"
"It's not acknowledging anything I'm sending it," the Hand replied, sounding just a trifle annoyed, "So I can't tell if it's hearing anything I say."
"Huh," she snorted, "Well, of all the selfish, capricious, underhanded..."
"I can assure you," the ship interrupted, "That I have already transmitted a great many messages which convey all these sentiments, and more besides. No responses so far, though."
Ingeta subsided into her seat, still looking cross and, in Sa-Aliten's opinion, even more attractive because of it.
"I think you have just joined the crew of the One Hand Clapping," the ship added.
"Cool!" she responded, suddenly smiling broadly, "Does this mean I'm now in Contact?"
The titter of laughter which ran around the accommodation section did much to reduce tension.
Sa-Aliten probably had more experience in dealing with the general inscrutability, utter unpredictability, complete opacity and apparent wilfulness of Culture ship behaviour than any human aboard. The ships had reasons for their actions - no doubt carefully considered, logically sound and relentlessly debated reasons - but there was no guarantee that these would be comprehensible to mere humans. One of the problems with the Culture, he had considered - although this was by no means an original observation - was that the Minds tended to make all the vital decisions while leaving the humans to get on with the important task of enjoying themselves.
Sa-Aliten stood in that slightly formal posture so often used in the Culture when addressing a disembodied Mind.
"Do you know when Ms. Mso will be returning to us?"
"If it's on schedule," the Hand replied immediately, "The Friendly Feature Set will be back here in a little over fifty hours."
"With Ms. Mso aboard?"
"Yes. But she should have a companion for the return trip."
"A companion? Who?"
"She's called Aneme Crossmaddows. No complete Full Name known."
[tight beam, M16, tra. @n188.8.131.520]
xGCU One Hand Clapping
oGSV Hence, or Otherwise
Do you know about this little jaunt by the Friendly Feature Set?
[tight beam, M16, tra. @n184.108.40.2060+]
xGSV Hence, or Otherwise
oGCU One Hand Clapping
Of course. At the request of Kitzean Mso.
Oh? And what reason did she advance for this sideshow?
She suggested a need for an independent assessor. And, when I reviewed the background on this Ms. Crossmaddows, I found her credentials to be remarkably persuasive. [Report attached.]
But a human? Surely a single individual isn't going to make any difference?
Perhaps not. But I think her reactions are probably worth observing closely.
I'll take your word for it. Although I suspect all this will be happening under my non-existent nose anyway.
Probably. Keep an open mind.