The conversation is conducted at no particular time and in no particular location. The participants are not, at this instant, known, even to each other. It is a meeting place clothed in darkness, designed so that voices are distorted and bent so that neither direction nor speaker can be determined precisely. It is a place where the uncommitted meet the passionate, where the most fervoured believer and the determinedly agnostic interact, to debate the philosophical challenges and the ethical conundrums of the moment.
In this place, however indeterminate its location, the expression of the arguments and counterarguments take many forms. Some of these conversations use words, in several languages including that synthetic yet superbly expressive tongue known as Marain. It is a language spoken by almost all of the human members of the Culture, carefully constructed so that the most delicately nuanced shades of meaning can be expressed, clearly and unambiguously, in a formal yet flexible linguistic framework.
But even Marain embodies it own set of values, or attitudes, or morals; fundamental assumptions encoded in its underlying structures and underpinnings. Indeed, it was specifically intended to be so: it was designed as a social tool by a confederation of Minds many millennia before, for warping the thoughts of the speakers - which means almost everyone in the society, in practice – to follow the conventions and mores of the civilization. In many ways, Marain is the Culture.
Other forms of communication are also used, by human and non-human minds alike: glyph sequences - a form reputed to have been invented by Minds to be beyond human understanding, and therefore assiduously studied by some humans who rise to that kind of challenge; encoded partial mind-states structured to convey a particular point of view; a plethora of finely-wrought models and simulations of outcomes, and multiply-convergent concept-streams of the kind that Minds with much to say to other Minds are wont to use.
One particular tool of persuasion is proving popular: a series of still and moving images, the latter complete with recorded sound, and the whole overlaid with verbal commentary, a form that the Culture's primitive forebears might have recognised as film documentaries.
"But who are you going to show it to?" she insisted.
"Anybody who wants to see it, of course!" he replied, "Or at least anybody who will sit still long enough for me to project it for them."
Ingeta laughed. She had a rich, deep, throaty laugh, uninhibited and free. She would throw back her head, toss back her straight black locks and fix her dark, dark eyes on whatever person had become the object of her derision. She had, he had discovered, a keen sense of the ridiculous, the false, the pretentious. Conversely, her respect and admiration was reserved, and dispensed only in carefully measured doses, for the genuinely original, the scathingly critical or the deeply insightful. Sa-Aliten had learned to expect no such respect from her under any ordinary circumstances.
Towards the end of his artificially extended three-to-four centuries of life, at an age when most Culture citizens were considering growing old gracefully and dying peacefully, Sa-Aliten had made a Life Choice. He had opted for full regeneration, which was only a slightly unusual choice from the default-plus-options lifestyle model the Culture espoused, but - much more unusually - he had elected not to choose full immortality.
The Culture had its fair share of Lifers - those determined to live for the full timescale of the Culture's existence and to enjoy every minute of it - but Sa-Aliten would get only another standard lifetime. But his epiphany meant that he was determined to make his second life as different from his first as possible. He resigned from Contact - where he had spent a surprisingly long and productive time dutifully representing the Culture to other, usually much less developed societies - and cut himself off from the extensive group of friends, buddies, followers, acquaintances, admirers, cohorts, lovers and cronies he had amassed over the decades.
Now ex-Contact, even ex-Culture - depending on how you defined these things - he had travelled extensively in the generally less well-populated and certainly less fashionable parts of the Greater Galaxy. He had arrived at Q'aantar Orbital aboard a craft called the Thinking Things Through which too had once been a Culture LSV, but was now regarded as Eccentric - although that was the assessment of other Minds rather than the ship's own declared position.
It was widely understood that the TTT had taken a vow of silence and now pursued a quietly contemplative course among the stars. For a society which expected its machines to be communicative, even chatty, this was definitely eccentric, even obtuse, especially as for an intellect as richly-endowed with cognitive capability as a ship's Mind, the act of talking with a human used a vanishingly small fraction of its intellectual resources. It maintained no drone, avatar or any of the other kind of remote devices conventionally used for communicating with humans. It didn't even talk to other ships, other Minds, except for the most formal of communication required to announce its course schedule - again, unusual in a craft regarded as Eccentric - and Permission To Approach bursts on arrival at the few Orbitals, Rocks and Habitats it chose to visit.
The strange pair - Sa-Aliten was the only long-term passenger aboard the TTT - had arrived at the Orbital only a couple of months before. The ship’s leisurely schedule allowed the man to throw himself wholeheartedly into the furious round of parties, engagements, receptions, fairs, concerts, conferences, orgies, assemblies, exhibitions, festivals and the riotous host of other social engagements a seriously fun-loving society like the Culture prided itself in doing to excess, as if to counterbalance the quiet solitude of his recent existence.
Ingeta had arrived more conventionally, in a party of friends and acquaintances taking a Grand Tour on a GSV. This was a conventional avenue for many young people, a sort of finishing-school-cum-post-education-party, a many-years-long opportunity to be adventurous, to explore, to grow and to grow up, mostly. The Death and Gravity was widely regarded as a staid, even boring, old machine but that did not impede the excess of youthful enthusiasm in any measurable way.
"But why?" Ingeta pressed, "What do you expect your audience - willing or otherwise - to gain from this, ah, unusual experience?"
He laughed, spread his arms.
"I'm well-travelled, Ingeta; a Wanderer. I am older than I look, I have met many people and given and shared and received many things. I have been most places, at a certain scale. I have spend time with all the major Involveds, I have talked to Gods, shared thoughts with the Sublimed and tasted, as far as a human can, something of the joy of what the Minds call Infinite Fun space. I am not the person I was when I left the Culture, and I am not definable by the Culture now. Trust me."
Ingeta thought about this. He had called himself a Wanderer (they were talking Marain; it had a specific emphasis to indicate upper cases). There had always been a proportion of people in the Culture, or at least people who were from the Culture originally, who termed themselves so. She found it difficult not to think of them as a class. They did indeed just wander; most doing so within the Culture, going from Orbital to Orbital, place to place, travelling on cruise ships and trampers as a rule and on Contact ships when they could.
Others travelled amongst the rest of the Involved and Aspirant species, existing - when they encountered societies shockingly unenlightened enough not to have cast off the last shackles of monetary exchange - through inter-civilisational co-supportive understandings, or by using some vanishingly microscopic fraction of the allegedly infinite resources the Culture commanded to pay their way.
She had never heard of a Wanderer having his own ship, though, however Eccentric the craft was thought to be.
Unusually, Sa-Aliten had chosen to return, more-or-less, to the mainstream of Culture society - the Mainland, as some factions called it - rather than join the Ulterior, the AwFuckIt Tendency, the Elench, or any of the myriad of other groupings, clans, federations, factions or associations which had split away from the Culture over its long history.
Trust me, he had said.
"I think I do not," she told him at last, narrowing her eyes a little.
"Really?" he asked, looking hurt. "I'm telling the truth," he said quietly. He seemed half small boy and half untroubled ancient, darkly self-possessed.
"I'm sure it appears so to you," she said, arching one eyebrow.
She sipped at her drink cautiously, glancing around at the party-goers which part-filled the reception room. Nobody seemed to be paying them any particular attention. Most of her friends from the Death and Gravity were dispersed across half the Orbital; Mia, the girl she had come here with this evening, was engaged in flirtatious conversation with a small group on the other side of the room, entertaining her companions with flashing eyes and wild arm movements as she regaled them, no doubt, with another tale of her mischievous life and hare-brained adventures. Ingeta knew that no-one would miss her for an hour or two, or a day or two for that matter - for all that she had never been a great one for casual sexual encounters - and besides, she had her terminal with her.
Sa-Aliten has been watching her closely. This tall slender woman with translucently pale skin and wild dark hair, her fearsome scorn and her scathing wit had endeared herself to him, to the point that he had tracked her down again at yet another party, just to persuade her to see his film.
"So come to my screening," he said as her gaze returned to his face.
It was not her first encounter with Sa-Aliten, nor was it the first time he had made his earnest offer to show her this work of art, as she supposed it to be. She admitted to herself that she was fascinated, at least a little, by this old man's intensity, his dedication to a point of view that was supposedly so alien to the Culture that it could not be communicated in words alone.
In the Culture, where physical appearance generally had little to do with the actual age of the individual, a majority of people had become quite skilled at estimating the true age of another citizen, based largely on character and behaviour. Really old people, for example and regardless of their body-age, tended to move with considerable economy and efficiency and, it had to be said, with a certain amount of hard-to-fake style.
Ingeta looked again at the man opposite her, seeing his experience and weight of years in the depth and wisdom which shone, it seemed to her, from his eyes, belied by the still-youthful look of his body, his smoothly muscular appearance, his swarthy skin and neatly-trimmed grey hair and beard - a conscious choice, she surmised, not an artefact of his considerable age.
She raised her chin, keeping her eyes on Sa-Aliten, then drained her drink and slid the empty glass on a nearby table, all in one smooth movement.
"Let's go then," she said, taking the man by the arm and guiding him towards the exit.
The Mid-Bay in which the Thinking Things Through was temporarily housed was underneath the same Plate as the party that Ingeta and Sa-Aliten had attended. Their journey took them by drop-tube to the under-surface of the Orbital and then by travel-car to the underside of the Bulkhead ranges where space was readily available to accommodate hangers, repair and engineering plant, and all the other miscellaneous and often inscrutable machinery that the knowledge and resources of the Culture deemed necessary.
Sa-Aliten deftly deflected conversational overtures about the work he wanted to present, merely smiling serenely and muttering variations on "wait and see" in response, but seemed more than happy to talk about his motivations and the history behind them. As they stood in the small car, he talked about his time in Contact in a way that made it plain he was not showing off to a pretty woman - Ingeta would have given him short shrift if she suspected anything so gauche and, in any case, many people in the Culture spent some time in Contact - but rather as an honest background to his views.
"I spent a lot of time listening to aliens explaining their own culture, to me as a representative of the Culture," he went on, "To a species, they were so blind to the strange beliefs, the fascinating inconsistencies, the logical fallacies which so often underpinned their most fundamental tenets. Errors of understanding hidden behind ambiguous words, stock phrases and truisms which often sounded good but which ultimately begged the question they were trying to answer."
"Such as?" Ingeta asked. She found herself giving serious consideration to advancing this man a small measure of the respect she normally so carefully hoarded.
"Oh, a belief in gods and deities which could be influenced by a word, or a prayer, or an offering, a sacrifice," Sa-Aliten said airily, "Or another example: the view that money was a fair way of rationing scarce resources, even when some of those resources were thinking, suffering human beings. Or that justice was naturally even-handed and the processes of delivering it could be made transparent and unbiased, that punishment could be made to fit the crime, and that the crimes themselves could somehow be graded, scaled from bad to worse."
Intega watched him coolly.
"But all this is unsurprising in un-Contacted Stage 3 or Stage 4 societies," he went on, suddenly looking intense, "But throughout, the unspoken assumption is that the Culture itself does not suffer from the same inconsistencies, that our ways are perfectly rational and consistent and represent the best of all possible worlds. So we are all taught from childhood."
He spun around so quickly that Ingeta took an involuntary step backwards, suddenly pressed up against the wall of the travel-car. Sa-Aliten was right in front of her, almost pinning her in place and stared directly into her eyes.
"But is all that actually true?" he demanded, "I have spent a long time outside the Culture, and I believe I can now view our own society with renewed and perhaps more impartial eyes. Perhaps you can see it like that, too?"
The car stopped with a soft ping and the door slid open.
"Let's find out, shall we?" he said, suddenly softly. He stepped back and gestured to the open door.
A Limited Service Vehicle, although officially considered "small" in current Culture nomenclature, and even with its fields withdrawn to their minimum extent, was still an immense object to be viewing from the outside. It was like standing by a unimaginably smooth cliff, three hundred metres tall and more than two kilometres long, apparently made of some smooth grey material which, this close, seemed to swirl with a milky opalescence barely visible under the surface.
"How do we get in?" Ingeta asked warily.
Normally, access to a Culture vessel was achieved simply by walking from one comfortably-appointed and brightly-lit transit area to another equally-comfortable reception lounge. Here, in this vast gloomy echoing hanger nearly filled by the bulky mass of the LSV, Ingeta was suddenly struck by the latent power, the brooding energies that the Culture, even manifested in this most ordinary and outmoded of devices, could bring to bear.
"Just wait," Sa-Aliten said softly, "The TTT knows we're here."
A section of the grey field wall in front of them peeled open and a long tube rapidly extruded from the opening, moving so quickly that both Ingeta and Sa-Aliten rapidly stepped back from the edge of the dock they were standing on. The tube was rectangular in cross-section, and more than large enough to accommodate the two of them walking side by side. The extrusion stopped a centimetre from the dock edge, and a door irised open. Sa-Aliten stepped inside - the unsupported gangway not flexing by even a millimetre - then turned to Ingeta.
"Are you coming?" he asked.
"Of course," she said haughtily, following him into the ship.
The shared accommodation section of a Culture vessel was normally a place alive with people and light and energy. True, the internal topology might change overnight, in anticipation of a specific social fixture the next day or merely on a whim of the ship's Mind. Many ships ran a standard day/night cycle - even though there was absolutely no need for any such division - and the social sections would be much quieter in the wee small hours.
Ingeta had never heard real silence on a ship of this size. Normally, there would be a few late-night party-goers determined to continue their revels, or the earnest conversations of friends in debate, or the whispered utterances of lovers new and old. Here, nothing, no words or movement, just dimmed lights outlining tall facades and shadowed corridors leading off in many directions.
"Are you really the only passenger?" she asked in a hushed voice.
She had heard this stated before, overheard in conversations and gossip, but she had never quite believed the assertion. Although, as she thought about it now, she realised it was never a statement made by Sa-Aliten himself, in any of their meandering, sometimes confrontational conversations.
"Usually," Sa-Aliten replied softly, "It's very quiet here. The ship rarely speaks, although it will do what you request if you ask it nicely."
"How do you handle the silence?" Ingeta asked again, her hushed words spinning off into the darkened spaces around them.
"I like it," he replied, "It gives me the time and space to think for myself."
Sa-Aliten guided Ingeta across the floor of the accommodation section, threading their way between terraced platforms and glazed walls which rose to four or five levels on either side. There was more light coming from in front of them, she noted; it was the direction she would have naturally walked if she had been here on her own.
They turned a corner, where the walkway opened out into what could have been mistaken for a small square or plaza in a provincial town centre, complete with a stone fountain (dry and unmoving), flower beds (now home only to raked gravel) and stone public benches upon which, it seemed, nobody had ever sat.
Ahead, light was streaming from an open double door, reached by a short flight of steps and covered by a portico supported by pillars apparently made from colourfully-veined pale stone. Their footsteps changed from the click of boot-heels on marble to the hush of rich carpet as they crossed the threshold. Inside, there were doors to either side of a glass-fronted booth directly in front of them, each flanked by curtained recesses. More stone pillars held up the high ceiling, and the spaces between them were filled by walls covered in flocked wallpaper in shades of burgundy and magenta.
"What is this place?" Ingeta asked.
"It's a copy of a building used for displaying animated pictures to many people at a time," Sa-Aliten said, "A facsimile of an ancient cinema, a movie-theatre."
"So when you said you wanted to show me some moving pictures..."
"I really meant it," he interjected, "It's a project of mine, a hobby, you might say."
"Really?" she huffed, recovering just a little of her normal irascibility.
Sa-Aliten merely smiled charmingly in response.
"Perhaps you'd care to take a seat?" he asked, opening one of the doors, "And the entertainment will begin."
The space beyond was dimly lit, but Ingeta could see it was filled by a tiered array of several hundred padded, folding seats set in long rows, separated into three banks by sets of shallow stairs dropping down from the doors. The seats faced a large screen of some silvery reflective material at the far end of the room, flanked by dark curtains. Sa-Aliten slid himself into a seat just a few rows from the top, moving over to leave a space for Ingeta to join him, which she did with only the slightest of hesitation.
The screen lit up, displaying the words "Introducing the Culture"; the light was coming from some kind of projection device set in another glassed-in booth at the very top of the array of seats. The lights in the rest of the auditorium dimmed slightly.
It was, Sa-Aliten explained, a film in the genuinely anachronistic sense: made from long strips of photo-sensitive celluloid mounted in reels, which had been sequentially exposed to light focussed by glass lenses mounted in tubes, and then processed with chemicals under darkened conditions to fix the images in place. The sound had been captured by antique electrical microphones and converted to soundtracks of varying widths and opacity on the same strips of celluloid, aligned with the sequence of images.
The processed reels were then mounted on another device which focussed the light from a powerful source through the moving celluloid, serving to both project images on the distant screen as well as to convert the soundtracks back to modulated electricity and thence to loudspeakers placed in bulky boxes which were mounted on the walls on either side.
"I made most of the machinery myself," Sa-Aliten went on, with an understandable touch of pride in his voice, "With only a very little help on the more complex photochemistry from the ship."
Ingeta nodded. This was exactly the kind of hobby activity a Culture person might indulge in, when on a long voyage away from other people. Of course, it was quite pointless, from one point of view; any Culture ship worth the name could have fabricated this kind of simple equipment in seconds or, even easier, immediately provided any amount of higher-quality, higher-resolution recording and playback facilities for immediate use. It was the sense of personal achievement that counted, she understood, that a person could still make something with his own hands for his own enjoyment.
The lights dimmed still further and the static title slide was replaced by the opening moments of a short film, and Ingeta's very faint admiration for Sa-Aliten's reproduction of antique technology was almost immediately overwhelmed by her impressions of the film itself.
It was indeed an introduction to the culture of the Culture, as explained by a series of short interviews with Culture citizens being asked to explain some aspect of their own civilisation. The questions came from off-camera in what sounded like Sa-Aliten's measured tones, and the spoken answers were interspersed with video clips accompanied by a voice-over from the interviewee or, sometimes, shown behind the speaker as if displayed on a wall screen.
Statements about the fundamentally peace-loving nature of the society were shown in juxtaposition with scenes of massive destruction from the Idiran War, and a section taken from a technical exposition of the martial capabilities of a perfectly ordinary GCU.
Another interviewee who expounded the virtues of the Culture's hedonistic lifestyle and the ability for everybody to have exactly what they wanted without competition and confrontation had her words cut with scenes from kindergarten lessons on sharing and politeness, and lessons for older children on the elegance of the efficient use of resources and the lack of any necessity for antagonism.
Yet a third extolled the virtues of responsible behaviour against a background of Culture citizens engaging in hobbies which were insanely dangerous to the point of suicidal, which required the diversion of massive resources to keep them safe, or to recover and re-animate their bodies when they died, or even to re-incorporate their recorded mind-states into revented bodies if the bodies themselves could not be recovered.
There was a long silence after the clatter of the projector and the thunder of the soundtrack had died away. Ingeta stared at the now-blank screen as the auditorium lights returned to their previous level. Her own innate sense of the ridiculous, the fake, of injustice and inconsistency hiding behind a facade of worthiness and merit had been stretched almost to the point of breaking by the insights that Sa-Aliten's little production had presented.
"That was astonishing," she said at last, when she felt she could control the thumping of her heart and the throbbing in her head, "I've never experienced anything that has made me so angry."
Sa-Aliten had been watching her reaction, judging it as a measure of his own success, the impact of his own art. Before he could speak, there was a sound like a soft cough that seemed to come from behind them, startlingly loud against the gloomy silence which still seemed to cover the old ship like a shroud.
The two people that made up the entire audience twisted their heads in perfect unison. A small man with a balding head partially concealed under a hat shaped like a cylindrical box was standing on the stairs, at a level only a couple of rows behind them. He wore a tight-fitting uniform in red and black, liberally decorated with brass buttons and gold braid, and looked as if he might, in another era, have been the usher in a cinema like this. He held a cylindrical device which emitted a beam of light, which he flicked briefly across their faces before directing the torch onto the stairs at his feet.
"Who are you?" Sa-Aliten demanded, so sharply that Ingeta had absolutely no doubt that his response was genuine, not an act of any kind.
The small man bowed politely, formally, the torchlight bobbing and weaving.
"I am the Avatar of the Thinking Things Through," he said formally, "You can call me Oscar."
There was a stunned silence.
"But I thought this ship didn't have an Avatar!" Ingeta blurted.
"That no longer appears to be the case," Oscar said firmly, raising an eyebrow, "Come. I have a proposition to put to you."