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

"If this instrument is accurate," Refan-Haifeen said an hour or so later, tapping the glass cover of an antique-looking gauge, "We should be approaching the bottom now."

He operated the controls which controlled their rate of descent and peered through the porthole as if trying to penetrate the gloom using force of will alone.

"What's that over there?" Shoo asked suddenly, pointing through the thick glass.

"Dunno," he replied, "Let's take a closer look."

The Seahorse canted gently as it swung about.

The beams of light picked out what looked like a petrified forest rising from the abyssal plain. An array of towering structures like the boles of vast and ancient trees, all knobbed and gnarled, corroded by age, encrusted by growths and riven by vents and fissures. Where the branches and foliage of a tree would have been, each was emitting boiling towers of what looked like dense black smoke, but which could not possibly be so under the immense pressure of kilometres of seawater.

Shoo glanded Recall, ensuring that she would be able to remember everything she saw and heard in minute detail. She was in no doubt that Hub would be asking them a lot of questions later on.

"Somebody's put an active volcano on an Orbital?" Refan-Haifeen said, sounding shocked.

"Looks like it," Shoo said, "That would certainly explain the heat leaking through to the underside of the Plate."

She could imagine some vast furnace underneath them, no doubt carefully modelled on sub-sea hydrothermal vents found on many rocky worlds with still-molten interiors. The trunk-like vents were emitting vast quantities of superheated water under enormous pressure, mixed with particles of magma, and fuelled a torrent of microbial life fed by the extreme temperatures of the water emitted together with the rich soup of mineral particles and dissolved chemicals.

As they drew closer, they could see that the space around the smoking towers were swarming with living things. Each tower seemed to have just one kind of creature in the area immediately around it, and there were what looked like low walls or netting fences that separated the one species from another. One enclosure contained a swaying collection of translucent tubeworms, looking like a field of albino grass; another held a scuttling collection of white crabs, a few making determined but unsuccessful attempts to escape their cage.

"This is a farm," Shoo said suddenly, using one of those descriptive word-phrases that Marain tended to employ for technical or unusual concepts.

"I think you're right," Refan-Haifeen agreed, "But where are the farmers?"

The Seahorse drifted over the array of pens, the craft twitching very slightly as Refan-Haifeen stayed well away from the towering smokers.

The lights picked out a group of rapidly-swimming creatures heading not quite in their direction.

"I think this will be them now."

The undersea farmers had streamlined carapaces and sharply-pointed eyeless heads at the end of sinuous necks, with a cluster of feelers or prehensile whiskers around their mouths. The carapace sprouted four limbs which seemed to function as articulated arms with a claw-like hand at the end of each, and six more limbs splayed into paddles and a powerful tail which could, it seemed, propel them at considerable speed through the water.

The two humans watched as one of the beings signalled another, who turned about abruptly and chased away a large fish. The creatures' intelligence was clear, obvious in the way they coordinated their movements and cooperated in their activities. They seemed to communicate with sound, given the complex arrangement of concave patches on the sides of their long and flexible necks which might just have been ears, although neither Shoo or Refan-Haifeen could hear anything from within the bathyscaphe.

The creatures were clearly aware of the presence of the Seahorse but seemed inclined to ignore it, turning their heads to follow the craft's movements but making no attempt to either flee or investigate more closely.

"They don't seem interested in us," Refan-Haifeen said, looking distinctly puzzled.

"You're right," Shoo said, "I guess they must be used to visitors."

The Seahorse drifted on. The array of smoking towers seemed endless.

"What's in that enclosure there?" Shoo asked suddenly.

At first glance, the pen appeared to be entirely empty; on looking closer it was partially carpeted by glistening white dots that one of the creatures was placing there.

"She's laying eggs!" Refan-Haifeen exclaimed excitedly.

"Yes," Shoo agreed, "So what do their young look like?"

"I think this could be them in there," Refan-Haifeen answered, indicating another enclosure nearby.

This one appeared to have a dozen or more of the creatures clustered around it, each clutching what could only be described as spears. Shoo wondered what could be utilized down here to make weapons like these, then realised with a start that they were fashioned from the arm and leg bones of creatures just like themselves, cunningly fitted together and sharpened to a vicious point at both ends.

As the humans watched, one of the farmers jabbed down with its spear, bringing it up with a ten-limbed creature with a stubby tail and a thin neck, pierced through and wriggling weakly. Others in the party followed suit, each neatly skewering a youngster, dismembering them alive and picking the flesh from the carapaces using their prehensile feelers.

"They're eating their own young!" Refan-Haifeen exclaimed, aghast, "Farming their own young!"

"Ah," Shoo said, suddenly looking very sick, "No wonder SC are taking an interest."

*

Shoo and Refan-Haifeen were once again in one of the Orbital's sub-Plate travel cars looking down at the underside of the Great Grafikic Ocean and the slowly churning hotspot. Hub had suggested this was the best place for a private discussion after the dive and, to nobody's surprise, they had been joined by another of the silver-skinned Avatars.

The two humans had carefully described everything they had seen under the ocean, gently directed by numerous pointed questions. The Avatar had given every impression of listening intently and, when questions and clarifications have finally run out, the sliver-skinned being stood silent and motionless for a few long seconds.

"Now I know what I'm looking for, all has very quickly become clear, " the Avatar said, finally showing some animation, "Some data searches, a few polite queries, a couple of favours returned, that sort of thing."

Shoo nodded. The Culture's Minds more-or-less ran on what was probably best described as a galactic-scale gossip network. It was one of several reasons why the Culture, as a whole, was notoriously bad at keeping secrets.

"The proto-sentient species you observed were natives of a planet also home to a land-dwelling humanoid species rapacious in their use of their world's natural resources," the Avatar went on, "They had started aggressively mining the deep oceans, intent on extracting the mineral wealth from deep ocean hotspots, unawake that they shared their planet with another culture perhaps only very slightly less advanced as their own."

"Ah," Shoo said, recalling her extensive Contact experience, "The slash-and-burn mentality?"

"Just so," the Avatar confirmed, "So, our friends in Special Circumstances have apparently been asked by another Involved civilization - I don't know who, and I don't propose to try and find out - to provide a secure long-term home for these creatures."

"Why?" Refan-Haifeen asked quietly, thoughtfully, almost as if he was merely talking to himself.

"Hmm. I have my suspicions. A favour asked for a favour previously received, I expect - I don't know for sure, but it probably involved some civilization’s studied neutrality during the Idiran War."

"That long ago?" Shoo demanded, sounded shocked.

"Yes, very probably," the Avatar said, offhandedly, "Some species have very long memories, especially when it comes to The Culture."

"A good deed is never truly forgiven," Refan-Haifeen said sadly, adding, "So, this was 'the package' as delivered to you?"

"The entire species, and the technologies which drive the deep-ocean hot-spot? Yes, that's what it seems," the Avatar confirmed, "So, the request is to allow this deep-sea society to evolve to a level where they might then be mentored towards true Galactic involvement."

Again, Shoo nodded with understanding. Without anybody knowing, there was now a vast undersea area filled with very nearly the entire underwater population of another planet on the Plate still visible below their feet. However, the prodigious amount of space available on a full Culture Orbital allowed a whole planet's worth of living creatures to be installed in some tiny fraction of the overall volume and with negligible impact on the - generally - land-dwelling population.

"So why didn't the ITG just tell you what they were doing?" she demanded, "And why they were doing it?"

"It's the cannibalism, of course," the Avatar said, suddenly sounding infinitely saddened, "This is the kind of thing that Culture citizens as a whole - if I can speak so generally about forty-plus trillion individuals - tend to find abhorrent. If I had been asked, with full disclosure, I might have expected that the proposal to house these beings be put to a vote, for everybody on this Orbital at the very least. But now, I think the balance has shifted."

"So, you're going to leave well alone?" Shoo demanded.

"I am," the Avatar confirmed, "I'm going to say nothing, to anybody, further on this topic, for the foreseeable future. And I would urge the both of you to keep whatever you saw down there to yourselves."

Shoo and Refan-Haifeen exchanged a long and meaningful glance.

"I don't suppose we really have a choice here, do we?" she said ruefully.


[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.28.757.2077]
  xGSV Wisdom Like Silence
    oOrbital Y'grath
So, old friend, you have discovered the contents of our package?

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.28.757.2079]
  xOrbital Y'grath
    oGSV Wisdom Like Silence
I'm afraid I have absolutely no idea to what you are referring.

Ha! Wisdom indeed....

Previous Top of Page