The ceremony bell rang out again, deep and sonorous, echoing across the square. From all over the village, people began to gather: the women with their loose grey gowns disguising their gaunt shape, their toothless mouths silent and unmoving; the men, chattering and joking, slapping backs gregariously and laughing uproariously.
The women filed into the rear to the temple, conducted by the Master of the Women with his imposing whip of office, through a rather sorry-looking and unimportant entrance. The ones still of child-bearing age were directed to the lower floor, discarding their robes as they entered and moved to stand in a circle facing outwards. The aged females were guided to the higher of the viewing galleries, supported by the girls still too young to take part in the rites, those women already pregnant as a result of previous debauches and those with infants not yet weaned.
A very few of the younger women, no more than one or two, were noticeably plumper and more well-nourished than the others. These few were also instructed to strip and were directed to the lower floor, but were required to face inwards, immediately in front of a stout wooden trestle.
The men, too, were segregated as they made their way up the grand stairway to the main entrance. The younger men and those in robust middle age strode confidently into the changing room, stripping naked and carefully hanging their clothing on pegs each emblazoned with their name. The oldsters and boys made their way up a wide staircase to take their seats in the lower gallery.
The bell sounded once again. As one, the women facing outwards sank to their knees and opened their mouths. Simultaneously, the women facing inwards bent forward over the trestles. The men, already aroused, stepped forward to enjoy the pleasurable openings now on display.
"They really do that all the time?"
Engata was a petite bubbly woman with thick, lustrous blonde hair which she kept in what was called an Eye cut, every hair on her head kept at a length such that when it was pulled round towards either eye, it was just too short either to obstruct her field of vision or otherwise cause annoyance.
"Just about every fifthday, at noon or shortly afterwards," the ship confirmed, sounding apologetic. The ship's voice came from a tiny drone, a silvered ball no bigger than a fist, which hung motionless in the shared accommodation section.
The General Contact Unit Displacement Activity, currently describing graceful power orbits around a planet which the natives called Tellus, had been on-station for less than twenty hours. Still, this was more than long enough for the ship to have completed a first-pass deep scan of the entire planet, saturated all of the interesting bits with invisible high-resolution recording devices and undertake many lifetimes of analysis on the results.
"It's utterly barbaric! Disgusting!"
Ditsean M'Tozo was a tall slender woman with translucently pale skin and dark hair which grew long and straight to her waist. She was opinionated by nature, it seemed, and tended to express herself rather bluntly, forcefully, even at the best of times.
"It does seem so," the ship agreed, "But what can we do about it?"
The Culture's Contact section had been nosing about almost all parts of the greater galaxy for nearly as long as the Culture had been in existence. Its mission had always been about finding other societies, other cultures - generally, and almost inevitably, less well developed than the Culture itself - studying them closely and, if deemed appropriate, intervening to guide and direct the contactees on a path more well aligned with the Culture's own morality.
Over the course of many millennia, Contact ships had travelled far and undertaken a great many good works but, with the galaxy being so vastly huge, there were still enormous regions of space never visited by the Culture as well as not having been explored by any other species, at least as far as was revealed by the compendious records amassed by the Contact section. Not that the records were in any way complete, or even definitive, but it was still something of a surprise to discover a functioning human society whose existence was not even hinted at in the archives.
"Why do the women have their teeth removed?"
"It’s a, ah, contraceptive technique," the ship-slaved drone said, sounding even more apologetic, "Intended to make un-needed conception less likely."
"So how have they ended up like this?" Engata demanded, looking aghast.
"They carefully and deliberately de-industrialized their planet, millennia ago," the ship replied promptly, "There's copious evidence of a large-scale industrial society that once existed, but all of that has been dismantled, destroyed or just covered up, and the evidence hidden away to the best of their ability."
"What do you mean?" M'Tozo shouted, spinning around to glare at the drone.
"This is an artificial society," the ship said, "Intentionally set up the way it is."
"Why?" M'Tozo almost squeaked.
"It's an example of the Gaia Principle at work," the voice of the Displacement Activity replied, now using its Reasonable voice, "A solution to the complex problem of long-term stability while remaining on a single planet."