"And finally we get to the bit not in the official records," Wollay interjected.
"Correct. The transmission was made by an obviously distressed officer barking out the short precise words of the Idiran language. It was a report, really, of an engagement which had gone unexpectedly wrong and, almost as an afterthought, a request for a rescue. Their ship was badly damaged and likely to blow up within a few hours, even though great efforts being made to stabilise the engine and hull management field array. A number of the crew were dead and others severely injured - which is significant given the inherent toughness of an adult Idiran, especially one encased in battle armour."
"And you were minded to help them?"
"I was, but this left me with not one, but two considerable difficulties."
The Avatar turned to face the human.
"Well, firstly," it said, "The distress message was heavily encrypted, of course, and it was an extremely carefully guarded secret that we, the Culture, had broken their most secure encryption schemes."
"So I couldn't have replied to the call directly and offered assistance. It would have been immediately clear that it wasn't a coincidence, that I had interpreted their supposedly secret message."
"So that possibility was completely out?"
"Just so." "And the second problem?"
The Avatar gave a very good impression of a sigh.
"This was in the middle of a period, quite short, when the consistent guidance from the various strategic planning councils and war-conduct advice boards was that appeals for mercy, for quarter of any kind from Idiran combat craft were always a ploy, a trick, intended to gain an advantage in ongoing hostilities. That their religious beliefs and their rigid martial code - orders are orders and prisoners are already dead - meant that any Culture warship should ignore any such request."
"So you should have destroyed them out of hand, then?"
The Avatar sighed again.
"That would have been consistent with the advice, yes."
"But you didn't?"
"So what did you do?"
The Avatar returned to the lounger and sat, looking directly at Wollay.
"Even with the construction of a vast arsenal of weapon systems, there were still a huge number of minor ships in my various bays," it said, "In most cases, I simply hadn't been able to find anything useful to do with them. They didn't represent any significant military value. So, I selected a larger module, an ancient model, with space enough for at least twenty Idirans, removed and stored the rather simple AI which would normally run such a craft, then flung it as far as my largest Displacer could manage, directly in the path of the Idiran cruiser but far enough away that it was just outside their sensor range."
"So the Idirans would just happen upon it, as if by chance?"
"That was my plan."
"Wouldn't the Idirans think it was a trick of some kind?"
"Perhaps. But their sensory equipment wasn't reported as damaged, and they would certainly scan it very carefully before any attempt to use it as a lifeboat."
"Did it work?"
"I have no idea."
"What?" Wollay exclaimed.
"I didn't dare risk leaving any recording or communications device which might allow the Idirans to track me. So, I don't know whether they found the module, or used it to get to safety, or were rescued in some other way, or perished."
"Whew," Wollay sighed, then went on, "And all this was never submitted to the archives?"
"No it wasn't. Since I may not have followed the then in-force guidelines, I was, well, embarrassed. I didn't relish the approbation of my peers. And the overall impact on the progress of the war must have been tiny: potentially saving the lives of a dozen or so Idirans, against the loss of a minor and frankly obsolete spacecraft."
"So, no lasting damage?"
"Damage? No. Perhaps even some good, in an indirect way. At the end if the Idiran War, a great many Idirans committed suicide, out of despair or some sense of dishonour. Others went their own way, of course, but some joined the Culture. Indeed, many were encouraged to join, with the hope of avoiding any more deaths. I myself was very active for a time in persuading more than a few to choose peace and comfort over death and humiliation. I believe it is not entirely a coincidence that this orbital has more resident Idirans than any other."
At that moment, a huge dark figure appeared at the patio doors, so large that it nearly blotted out the sun. The figure reached out one huge hand and knocked on the door frame, then boomed out a conventional greeting in slightly accented but entirely understandable Marain. Wollay waved a hand in greeting; the figure stooped low, ducking his saddle-shaped head to avoid the lintel.
"Hello, Xoxundra," Wollay said to his Idiran visitor, "Thank you for coming."
"My pleasure," the newcomer replied.
"Please, take a seat."
Wollay indicated on a large quilted mat on the floor. The Idiran stepped over, folded his three legs neatly and subsided onto the cushion. His huge head swung from Wollay to the silver Avatar and back, in a gesture Wollay knew was one of polite patience.
"I did know that there were a lot of Idirans here," Wollay said to the Avatar, "And I've met a number of them, including Xoxundra here. And he told me a story which he claims never to have told to another Culture citizen."
The Avatar did not in fact have eyebrows but nonetheless managed a very plausible attempt at a quizzical look. "This is quite true," the Idiran rumbled.
"And what is this story?"
"Shall I tell it?" Wollay asked the Idiran.
A shrug from a being as large and impressive as an Idiran was more than sufficiently expressive to make his views clear. Wollay grinned.
"Xoxundra was a serving soldier, as almost every adult Idiran was, of course," Wollay began, "It appears that he was at one time a crew member on a heavy cruiser, one which got badly damaged in a firefight with a very large Culture vessel. The devastation was so severe that they feared their engines would implode, killing everybody aboard."
"Ah," the Avatar breathed softly.
"Purely by chance, they discovered an abandoned Culture module, itself old and with damaged controls. After a certain amount of wrangling of interfaces and trying to figure out how to operate the manual controls - scaled for humans, of course - they managed to use it as a lifeboat to save fourteen Idiran crew - all those still alive by this time."
A beatific smile slowly grew over the silver face.
"The Idirans themselves felt dishonoured about abandoning their own ship in favour of one of the enemy's craft," Wollay went on, "And the precise details of their survival were quietly omitted from their reports."
The Idiran nodded gravely.
"Xoxundra remembered the model and serial number of the module," Wollay said to the Avatar, "And I found that its last recorded location was aboard a General Service Vehicle called the System Adjuster. The GSV in which, by some chance, you yourself were once embodied."
"So the module's presence was no accident?" Xoxundra rumbled.
"That is correct," the Avatar said, looking ineffably pleased with itself.
The Idiran stood suddenly, turned to face the silver-skinned Avatar and bowed deeply.
"My most sincere thanks," Xoxundra said, "I believe you acted with great honour and integrity, to your eternal credit, despite the hostilities between our civilizations at that time."
Wollay also looked ineffably pleased with himself. After all, it was not every day you got to tell a Mind something it did not already know.