A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Shell Dynamics

The discovery of Island Rock and its blue-skinned natives, the existence of technology apparently unreproducible by the Culture and the implication of involvement by some unknown Elders or Sublimed remnant, the collision course which would – whether by accident or design – utterly destroy the Rock and wipe out the entire population, and the dilemma of the action – or inaction – which was required to resolve the situation was of course headline news throughout the Culture in a matter of days.

Some opinionated individuals - inevitably, the Culture had plenty of those - lost no time in arguing that one or the other of the immediately obvious possibilities should be carried out without delay, and deriding mercilessly those whose views differed from their own. Those of a more thoughtful turn of mind offered a more balanced view of the situation, pointing out that, while important, a decision of what action to take, if any, need not be rushed - there was plenty of time - and suggesting deeper and more informed analysis, careful consideration of more nuanced alternatives and the identification of alternate courses of either action or procrastination.

The level of immediate engagement by citizens of all kinds - human, non-human, drones, Minds - and the passions of the arguments and deliberations made it clear that the society needed a vote, that this was something upon which the Culture as a whole should express a view. The doubters pointed out that this would be a poll which might split the Culture, in much the same way that the outcome of the vote to fight the Idirans, to wage war to allow the Culture to continue its very existence, caused a significant fraction of the civilisation to peel away to form the Peace Faction.

The various groups which made up the Culture Ulterior - like the Peace Faction themselves - and their own various news services, commentators, reporters, analysts, specialists, critics and observers also widely reviewed and commented on the discovery. Perhaps unexpectedly, this diverse group very rapidly clustered around a common view - there was no such thing as an "official" position, of course, the cultural memes these groups had inherited from the Culture being too strong - that this tricky business was frankly none of their concern. They were not part of the Mainland, the Culture proper, not any more, it was widely argued, and it was up to the people of the Culture should to make up their own minds about whether to intervene and risk repercussions from parties unknown, or to condemn a - possibly innocent, possibly guilty - group of slightly grotesque sentients to certain death.

The other Involved would have certainly heard about this strange discovery, too - the Culture made no effort to conceal its news feeds and commentary channels from anybody - but it seemed to provoke very little reaction. Apart from a few avid alien-watchers in those societies - generally considered harmlessly eccentric or comically insane in their own ways - everybody seemed strangely reluctant to discuss the encounter and its implications, or just seemed disinterested in the consequences.

It seemed like the Culture really was on its own on this one.

"Hold it steady!" shouted T'wou, labouring under the weight of the camera.

Emshala braced the tall tripod, forcing the pointed legs further into the sand. T'wou grunted and lifted the heavy and awkwardly-shaped box still higher.

"That's it" Emshala called, as the bear-like man lowered the socket joint neatly onto the spigot. There was a satisfying click and T'wou stepped back flexing his shoulders.

"Right, let's get it connected up."

In the last few days, the human crew of the One Hand Clapping had become extremely practiced in the art of shifting the archaic and cumbersome movie-making equipment around the interior of Island Rock. Of course, even though Ingeta and Sa-Aliten had insisted on using the heavy camera, unwieldy sound recording apparatus and clunky lights, the ship could have arranged to have it all simply float around using AG projectors or have it disappear and reappear elsewhere using Displacement induced wormholes.

The guidance from the Compass Adjustment Group was to minimise the use of particularly high-tech capabilities wherever possible, and to disguise their use otherwise. This couldn't be avoided entirely, of course, but in practice the sudden Displacement of half-a-dozen wasp-striped Strangers was almost always unobserved by any of the Islanders.

The crew were well 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 Compass Alignment Group's studies, reflections, simulations, thoughts, speculations, ruminations, analyses and cogitations had suggested two basic possibilities for the construction of Island Rock. The first was the obvious one: that the rock had been constructed around the inner island and its intricate machinery for managing the illusion of being on a planet, from the inside out; that the whole outer shell had been forged from matter scavenged from some convenient asteroid and reformed with great care and incredible attention to detail. This possibility was judged the more unlikely one, given the authentic-looking impact craters on the outer surface. Of course, the craters could have been constructed to look realistic, using faked-up collisions with associated detritus including miniscule amounts of materials with minute differences in metallurgic content and isotope ratios that would have been deposited by very occasional impacts that a real asteroid would be have subjected to in the aeons it had been in existence. But, if it was a fake, it was a very good one; too good to be true, in the Group's combined opinion.

The second and more likely possibility was that the asteroid was hollowed out without making a hole in the exterior anywhere. This apparent impossibility was made conceivable by the controlled use of hyperspace; the interior material removed and the sophisticated equipment which maintained Island rock emplaced without any direct three-dimensional connection.

But, even here, the Compass Alignment Group would not come to a consensus on the exact approach used. The standard way the Culture would fabricate something like this - it had been used to build hidden ship stores, for example - would be to Displace out the material to form empty halls and caverns, then Displace in the machinery as components and assemble it all in-situ. The problem was there was not really very much empty space to do this. Apart from the space occupied by the air and water of the environment - a relatively small fraction of the whole - the interior of Island Rock was packed solid with equipment, with no leftover spaces or voids to allow for any kind of movement during assembly.

A second theory suggested that nanotechnology to assemble the interior and the environmental features, as well as the supporting machinery, simply by converting the original rocky material. But there was no evidence that nanotech was used - nano tended to leave certain distinguishing marks, chemical traces and distinctive patterns at the atomic level - and certainly none remained in use: for all its apparent sophistication, the whole Rock worked on macroscopic engineering principles.

The most likely possibility, in the opinion of some of those in the Group, involved the direct use of Displacement through hyperspace to both remove the material and to immediately replace it with the appropriate chunk of machinery. This obviously required two Displacements to the same space with an accuracy of some minute fraction of a millimetre. Such an approach would have been a marvel of hyperspacial engineering; the ability to reach through hyperspace with such accuracy for the huge number of operations which would have necessary without mishap was frankly astonishing.

Schoma Xantic took on his usual role during the filming. Although it was a standard model of Contact drone and not really built to a military - that is to say, Special Circumstances - specification, the tiny machine was responsible for protecting the fragile humans from the predations of the Islanders. Even though it had been retro-fitted with a number of upgrades and enhancements, and was supported by a large number of bugs and camera platforms under the direct control of the One Hand Clapping, and a much smaller number of knife missiles and other autonomous devices, it had admitted, in private discussion with the other drone on the ship, that it wasn't entirely sure it was up to the job.

Quenlily Sikralis - who had been judged too bulky and, perhaps, too physically intimidating to appear in person within Island Rock - had accreted considerable experience over several millennia in the ways of Contact in general and newly-contacted species in particular. While agreeing with the collective Minds' view that the Islanders were indeed unique, Sikralis maintained that some aspects, including their ferociousness and cannibalism, were not entirely without precedent. The old drone quietly directed the younger machine to a carefully curated collection of reports, manuals, observations, briefings and other documents, which it believed would assist the youngster in its responsibilities.

T'wou, Emshala and the others scurried about, under the close supervision of Ingeta and Sa-Aliten in their adopted roles of Director and Cameraman, concentrating on laying out and connecting archaic thick insulated cables from the camera, lights and sound amplifiers to a small but heavy box which sported numerous heavy-duty power connectors. This was the sole concession to proper Culture technology: the power box could supply enough electricity to light a large town and would effectively last for ever; the One Hand Clapping and the other Contact Minds simply could not abide the prospect of pollution from crude fission power plants or, still worse, some kind of gasoline-powered generator.

Schoma Xantic circled the clearing in which they were setting up, a space chosen to be close to the homes of several different Islanders without being in the undisputed territory of any of them. The drone was on maximum alert, using its upgraded senses to maximum effect while maintaining continual contact with some large fraction of the surveillance devices deployed on the Rock, most of which were effectively invisible to anything resembling a human eye.

Some significant fraction of the problem faced by the drone was simply that there were more humans within Island Rock today than there had ever been in the past. Usually, the expeditions were limited to two or three people, which was designed to limit the level of interference in the affairs of the Islanders themselves as well as making the protections afforded by the forces under its direction less widely dispersed.

But the arrival of Sa-Aliten and Ingeta, and their monomania for movie-making had changed all that. The sudden and entirely genuine enthusiasm of the crew of the One Hand Clapping for the filming itself and all the supporting functions that were required, together with the understandable desire for Sa-Aliten and Ingeta to be on the ground directing and supervising every tiny part of the operation, meant that sometimes almost the whole crew was inside Island Rock. The increased number of Strangers meant that the Islanders themselves tended to keep their distance during the lengthy periods when the film gear was being set up, and only started making an appearance when the bulk of the crew had retired back to the ship to watch the proceedings remotely, leaving just Sa-Aliten and Ingeta to run the show.

They did not have long to wait. The Islanders had excellent hearing and a very good sense of smell, and so any nearby would have been immediately aware of the departure of the bulk of the humans. Being by now familiar with the routines of the film crew, one of the more curious Islanders almost immediately poked their head through the curtain of foliage and inspected the clearing with bright eyes and wary head movements. Satisfied that there was no immediate danger, she stepped out onto the warm sand, still looking all around, and paced towards them cautiously. The humans knew that not immediately pouncing on them and tearing the flesh from their bones was an act of superhuman willpower on her part. Both Sa-Aliten and Ingeta concentrated to remaining still and calm, trusting to Schoma Xantic and his cohort of supporting devices to protect them if necessary.

As she game closer, they recognised the old female they had met on one of their earlier visits.

Ingeta stepped forward.

"Matron, would you consent to being interviewed once again?" she asked, "And for us to film you as we talk?"

Matron ducked her head and blinked, her jaws moving alarmingly.

"You must do what you must," the prim and cultured voice appearing in the humans' heads said, "I will tell you what I can."

It had been a very successful day's filming, in Sa-Aliten considered opinion. Even Ingeta had expressed herself not entirely dissatisfied with the proceedings. Havin assisted the crew in dismantling all the film equipment and returning it to the One Hand Clapping, Sa-Aliten had thrown himself into the complex business of processing the celluloid strips to fix the sounds and images captured, and to produce a rough print for an initial screening. Once satisfied, he had slotted the reel of film on the projector and carefully threaded the delicate celluloid through the arcane complexities of the gate mechanism which projected the series of images onto the screen.

Now Sa-Aliten and Ingeta were sitting together to view the rushes in a small darkened room they had requisitioned, provided for their private use by the ship. They had politely requested that the crew leave them alone during this initial screening - which they had agreed - on the grounds that they wanted to have an unbiassed and open-minded assessment of the finished result - or at least the Director's cut - for which the other people on the ship - humans and drones - would be the very first audience.

The reels on the projector started turning and the screen flickered briefly, then sprang to life. The image showed Matron and Ingeta standing in the clearing, a couple of metres apart - any closer would have been inadvisable, even with the intricate web of near-invisible protective mechanisms that surrounded them.

"Do you have any doubts, any misgivings about the way you live your life?" the Ingeta on the screen said, "The hunting of others of your kind? The cannibalism? The eating of a mother's flesh, at the moment of birth, or the continued consumption of food-buds for years afterwards?"

There was a moment's pause while the face of the projected Ingeta glazed slightly.

"But you are mammals," screen Ingeta said prissily, echoing rather well - to Sa-Aliten's ears, at least - the apparent voice of the old Islander, "Your bodies produce milk to be consumed by your young, in great quantities. Fats and proteins and water. Ideal nutrients for your babies. And you consume the milk of other species too, or at least your distant ancestors did."

There was a pause in which the Ingeta on the screen opened her eyes wide, as if she was finally hearing what she herself had just said aloud. There was a sudden intake of breath from the Ingeta in the room.

"Those same ancestors ate the flesh and organs of other species," Matron went on, as parroted by the version of Ingeta that appeared on-screen, "And, even now, many of your foodstuffs are deliberately created to resemble those same creatures, those same prey, those same livestock animals. Are you to judge us for our ways, ways we did not choose for ourselves? Ways which are not so different from those of your own ancestors?"

Matron scanned the clearing instinctively, finding nothing which caused her alarm, then faced the camera again.

"In any case," she added, through Ingeta's voice, "Do not the Gods eat their own young?"

Ingeta turned to face the Islander, her ashen face clearly visible on the screen. Before she could say anything, Matron turned and loped away, without another word, disappearing into the wall of foliage with barely a rustle.

The moving images on the screen disappeared in a flurry of arcane symbols, then the projection lamp went out and the reels of film slowed to a halt.

A sourceless light slowly returned the room. Ingeta stood up, tilted her head back and ran her hands through her long dark hair. She looked thoughtful. Sa-Aliten watched her intently.

"Just how much do they know about us?" Ingeta demanded, turning on Sa-Aliten, "How did they find out? And how did she know all that about our preferences for food? Sure, I enjoy a feyl steak from time to time, like everybody, but it's not like I'm actually eating meat."

"Perhaps we've not been quite as careful with our thoughts as we should have," Sa-Aliten responded carefully, "Or we have underestimated just how deep into our minds the Islanders can reach. Surely the ship will know. Or the Compass Adjustment Group."

He stood up suddenly, stretching his back, then looked quizzically at Ingeta.

"Still, it was very perceptive, wasn't it?" he said, "Worryingly so. But that scene has got to go in the movie somewhere."

"It absolutely has to," she responded, still looking bleak, "If we really are going to represent all sides of the argument."

There was a sound which somehow resembled somebody politely clearing their throat without giving the impression that any actual coughing or spitting was going to be involved. It was followed immediately by the voice of the One Hand Clapping.

"My apologies for intruding. But there's a development to which I need to draw your attention."

Ingeta and Sa-Aliten exchanged glances. Sa-Aliten sat heavily in his seat.

"Okay, tell us about it," Ingeta said carefully.

"The LSV Some Revision Required has just announced that it is currently en-route here," the One Hand Clapping said, "It expects to arrive in less than forty hours."

"But I thought that ship was somewhere on the other side of the Galaxy!" exploded Sa-Aliten.

"So did I," the ship replied, sounding genuinely disapproving, "It looks like somebody has not been entirely frank about their current disposition."

"Do you still have that abstracted mind-state, or whatever it is, around somewhere?" Ingeta demanded, "You could ask it what's going on?"

"It's still here," the disembodied voice of the ship replied, "But it is insisting that it has no knowledge whatsoever of the intent or purpose of an immediate visit from its original. To be honest, it sounds nearly as annoyed as I feel."

"There's something going on here," Sa-Aliten said, failing to conceal a suspicious tone of voice, "Something we're not seeing. Something is being concealed from us."

"I'm afraid you're quite probably right," the ship said, "But nobody's telling me anything."

There was a bang on the door of the little viewing room, then Emshala burst in, followed by T'wou and several others from the crew and trailed by the quietly floating form of Quenlily Sikralis.

"You've heard the news?" Emshala demanded, "About the Some Revision Required being on its way here?"

"Yeah, the ship's just told us," Sa-Aliten confirmed, "But the Hand doesn't seem to know why."

"Oh, I could speculate," the ship said, "But that's not the point."

There was a brief pause, then the One Hand Clapping spoke again.

"Ah, the Thinking Things Through has just deigned to contact me, finally. It announces that it is still in the general volume - although not giving its precise location, of course - and that it is aware of the imminent arrival of the Some Revision Required."

"Great," mumbled T'wou, "Unexpected visits from not one but two Eccentric LSVs."

"Not Eccentric," the ship said, emphasising the capitalization carefully, "Just a bit eccentric, perhaps. They are both members of the Compass Adjustment Group."

Emshala looked sharply at Sa-Aliten.

"Is it true that the Thinking Things Through had no passengers other than you and Ingeta?" he asked, "And it hadn't had other passengers for a long time?"

"Yes, that's right," Sa-Aliten replied, frowning, "Why do you ask?"

"Ship," Emshala went on, ignoring the question, "What's the last known human population of the Some Revision Required?"

"The records show a gradually decreasing population over the last sixty or so years. It never was particularly high." the ship replied with no perceptible pause, "It could be effectively zero now."

"So what's the point of two empty LSVs?" Ingeta demanded.

"Remember the Sleeper Service?" said Quenlily Sikralis softly.

"Ah." said Sa-Aliten, sitting down heavily and looking bleakly at the others. Ingeta looked nonplussed. T'wou and Emshala glanced at each other, both looking very worried.

The Sleeper Service was a prime example of the Culture's long-term planning and risk-mitigation strategy. It had started life as a perfectly ordinary GSV called the Quietly Confident. After some bizarre bust-up between various Minds, the ship had renamed itself, removed almost all of its living passengers, declared itself Eccentric and started travelling around the galaxy collecting Culture citizens being Stored to populate vast static dioramas of ancient battles.

Despite being under not one, but two forms of surveillance, it managed to prepare for a hyper-rapid build programme as well as carry around enough extra mass to complete it - most of it in the form of highly-compressed gas masquerading as a zoo for gas-giant flora and fauna - to fill all its Bays with engine components large enough to travel at a speed unmatched by any Culture craft. It had also produced, effectively instantaneously, an astonishing number of semi-independent warships, thus managing to intercede at a critical moment in the mercifully abbreviated war between the Culture and the Affront.

"The Thinking Things Through seems to have carried out a substantial engine configuration change," the voice of the One Hand Clapping said, "Given the speed it transported Ingeta and Sa-Aliten here."

"Oscar did tell us that the TTT was making some modifications," Ingeta said, "I thought nothing of it at the time." She drew back her long hair with both hands. "Too distracted by all the talk of filming the Islanders, I suppose."

"The Some Revision Required may well have done the same," the ship went on, "Neither of them are responding to my requests for information. And who knows what other modifications they might have carried out?"

"So," Emshala said, speaking carefully, "Are we sharing the volume with two large and very fast ships, potentially militarized, with eccentric dispositions and whose intentions towards us, Island Rock or even each other is unknown?"

"I'm afraid so," the voice of the One Hand Clapping replied gloomily.

"Great," Ingeta said, "First kidnapped and now dumped in a war zone."

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.2522]
  xLSV Some Revision Required
    oLSV Thinking Things Through
This wasn't part of our agreement! You're not supposed to be anywhere near Island Rock.

  xLSV Thinking Things Through
    oLSV Some Revision Required
[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.188.2522+]
I'm just delivering my film crew. I announced that to the Group some time ago. Besides, the agreement says you're not permitted to be there either, and I can tell you're currently approaching at a very impressive velocity. How long did it take you to make all that extra engine?

About the same as you took, I imagine. I warn you, I won't tolerate any interference in the experiment.

I have no intention of loading the dice, whatever happens. My purpose is simply to make sure that nobody else interferes - even if they discover they don't like the outcome.

There's only two possible outcomes. I will respect the decision, whichever way it goes.

Really? I really think you need to consider things in a little more detail.

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