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

Return Journey

Hy-Golten had been warned about this; but it was still a shock to see the Library clan's favourite pastime in action. The Librarians curated records of everything: census results in regions on their home planet which no longer had a distinct existence or, in some cases, had been literally wiped from the map by acts of war or industrial accident; dress codes for men, women and children of both genders at expensive schools which no longer functioned or whose teachings were obvious baloney or suspiciously deviant.

The Library clan's function, therefore, was preserving history, or at least historical records and artifacts; as a hobby, it seemed, clan members sought to recreate the human condition of ages past. The man was dressed in no doubt authentic peasant garb made from badly cured leather and under-laundered cloths, and was genuinely suffering, with convincing sores and genuine pain, from several debilitating diseases. A festering lesion on his face caused one eye to weep constantly. His teeth were irregular, blackened or just absent, and he had a portion of one earlobe missing, removed not by any kind of surgery or even a sharp knife, but chewed off by what looked like another human's teeth.

"Culture citizen Trista Hy-Golten?"

The Librarian bowed low, sweeping off a rather grubby hat and dislodging something Hy-Golten could not immediately recognise from his greasy hair which fell to the floor with a noticeable click.

"That's me," Hy-Golten replied, nodding politely, "Do you have a name?"

"Call me Phlick," he suggested, smiling lopsidedly and revealing more spaces where teeth ought to have been, "Now come quickly. You have an audience with the Master."

With that, he spun on his heel and limped off down a gloomy concrete tunnel. Hy-Golten followed quickly; he had to rely on his genofixed night vision to avoid colliding with the boxes, canisters and miscellaneous pieces of unidentifiable equipment which lined the tunnel walls.

The tunnel opened out onto a platform - mercifully slightly more well-lit - where a monorail car of ancient design sat with its doors open. Phlick bowed again; Hy-Golten stepped aboard, suppressed a grimace at the state of the seats and sat carefully on what he considered the cleanest bit. Phlick hopped on; the doors closed with an audible grinding noise; there was a noticeable jerk and the car set off. Hy-Golten glanced at the worn and scuffed floor, and the scratches on the windows; maintenance here seemed to be optional, at best. Phlick stood unsteadily at the very front of the car, seemingly content to look out onto what Hy-Golten had to assume were the less fashionable parts of the habitat; in this kind of society, he thought, you always get to see the worst bits when you travel by train.

Despite its decrepit appearance, the car managed a fair clip and soon emerged from a tunnel into a lushly verdant landscaped park. The view ahead showed a collection of airy towers, their glass glinting in the synthetic sunlight from a glowing line which seemed to stretch from one habitat end-plate to the other. The car sped on, ducking into a second tunnel, it slowed and drew up surprisingly smoothly at a platform which was clean, polished and brightly-lit.

"You don't get many visitors, do you?" Hy-Golten asked as the doors creaked open.

"Not really," Phlick agreed, "Now come along. The Master is waiting."

A pair of doors slid open behind them; the two men stepped inside. The lift moved quickly enough for Hy-Golten to feel both the acceleration and deceleration, as well as the reduction in apparent gravity due to the spin of the habitat; wherever they were going must be a significant fraction of the diameter of the habitat away from the platform.

The lift doors opened again onto a vast penthouse office with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, sparsely decorated but laid with acres of carpet. Behind a vast desk topped with some kind of smooth green material, a man sat in a complicated-looking chair. He was dressed in a heavy dark suit with a white shirt and a colourful necktie. The Master, it seemed, was intent on reproducing the appearance of some captain of industry or oligarch from this society's Age of Scarcity, when money still held sway and the accumulation of huge amounts of money, and the power and influence which went with it, was still seen as acceptable, even desirable. Phlick's medieval serf appearance was as out of place as Hy-Golten's form-fitting gel-field suit.

The Master looked up from some document he was reading, then tossed it aside and stood up, strode the considerable distance around the desk and approached, extending his hand to shake that of the visitor.

"Welcome, welcome, Mister Hy-Golten," he said, waving affably to a seat at the desk and retracing his steps to his own chair, "You are here about the Dynastist's Foot, I understand?"

"That is correct," Hy-Golten replied, sitting himself comfortably.

"We have received a request that we release this important historical artifact to you," the Master went on, giving Phlick a dismissive wave. The little man bowed, then limped off around a corner.

"Well, it's not really yours to keep," Hy-Golten suggested, "It's a spoil of war, deliberately taken to enrage the Delugers to act precipitously, against their best interest."

"Yes, well, of course, this was a legitimate tactic," the Master replied unapologetically, "And it was, indeed, successful at the time."

"Perhaps," Hy-Golten agreed dubiously.

"But all that was long in the past," the Master went on, "And nobody in the Conglo really cares any more. I agree with the senior governance: if you want to take the thing away, there is no reason to stop you."

Phlick reappeared, labouring under the weight of a large antique-looking box. The Master beckoned him over.

"Here is the Dynastist's Foot, complete with its preservation devices."

Hy-Golten stood, then knelt and gingerly accepted the ornate cask which looked like it had been made from hand-carved wood and intricately wrought metal bindings, so heavy that he needed two hands to carry it.

"Thank you," Hy-Golten said graciously.

"So, our business here today is done," the Master said dismissively, "Phlick will return you to your craft."

And with that, he picked up the document he had been studying previously.

*

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.101.1044]
  xVFP Tell It To The Jury
    oGSV Meddlesome Kids
It seems the Blitteringueh Conglo, or at least their Library Clan, are indeed attempting, in your words, some monkey business. [Report attached].

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.101.1044+]
  xGSV Meddlesome Kids
    oVFP Tell It To The Jury
I'm not really surprised. Although we do need that artifact.

You want me to go get it, then?

Yes, please. As quickly as you like.

Okey-dokey.
Perhaps you would give our Ambassador to the Conglo a heads-up. Before the shouting starts.


Will do.

*

"Hy-Golten, sorry to disturb you," the voice of the Tell It To The Jury said, via the module's sound system.

He had been watching the airlocks and pylons retreating on the rear-view screen as the module powered away from Mattaringhalg Habitat. He had dumped the heavy casket containing the Dynastist's Foot on the floor of the module as soon as he had entered; the module had neatly maneuvered it into a storage locker. Hy-Golten had flopped into a reclining seat the module had produced, having correctly predicted that after carrying the heavy box for some distance in varying gravity, the man would be a bit tired.

"What's up?"

"We have a problem," the ship's voice went on, "The module's had a very close look at the artifact and I've been taking a peek, too."

"And?"

"Weeell, the cellular structure and the technology - creakingly ancient, of course - of the preservation system all seem plausible."

"So, it is the real thing?"

"Actually, no. It's a fake - a very good one. An extremely good one. Certainly good enough to fool poor Captain Mathaclorian, but probably just detectable by the best of Deluger technology."

"Ah. So what do we do now?"

"I've received direction from the GSV Meddlesome Kids that I should just go and retrieve the real thing," the disembodied voice of the VFP said.

"Well, you did say it was easier to steal it," the man replied, "So when are you going to do it?"

"I'm already on my way. I'll snap-Displace you and the module aboard once I get in range. About forty seconds. I'm pretty certain I know exactly where the real Dynastist's Foot is located and I'll Displace that too, without slowing down. Then we'll be on our way out of here."

Hy-Golten nodded.

"That's really going to annoy the Blitteringueh Conglo," he said levelly.

"Too true. I've lined up the Ambassador to do some serious grovelling on our behalf."

"Huh. So where is the real deal?"

"Interestingly, it's not in the Library Clan's facilities at all."

The ship explained that the Blitteringueh Conglo - a fairly typical Aspiring Level-7 civilization - was generally forward-looking and outgoing. The relatively few backward-looking and introspective individuals tended to gravitate to organizations like the Library Clan. But there were other institutions of a similar disposition; the Artificers, for example, had developed considerable xeno-technology expertise - skilled at identifying (often more difficult than might be thought) and reverse-engineering technologies and artifacts variously found, donated, traded, stolen, discovered, unearthed, obtained, exchanged, or otherwise acquired from other societies, extant or otherwise.

"The Artificers also maintain a considerable presence in Mattaringhalg Habitat," the ship's voice went on, "And might well have acquired technology capable of producing atomic-level duplicates of complex systems. Very good duplicates. The main giveaway is the unexpected regularity of crystalline structures: the crystal structures are just too evenly-sized."

"And that's enough to be sure?" Hy-Golten sounded dubious.

"Once I started looking very closely, there's all sorts of other details which are just slightly off. So, yes, I'm sure."

"So how are we doing?" Hy-Golten asked.

"Coming up on the Displace right now."

In that instant, there was a sensation of a kind of titanically enveloping slippage, the merest hint of vast energies being gathered, cradled, unleashed, contained, exchanged and manipulated; unimaginable forces called into existence seemingly from nothing to writhe momentarily around him, collapse back into the void and leave reality, from the perspective of himself and the module, barely altered.

"Success," the voice of the Tell It To The Jury said, sounding vaguely relieved, "Welcome back."

The module door slid open, revealing the familiar interior of the VFP. Hy-Golten stepped out and looked around. The storage locker slid open and the fake casket levitated, presumably by fields manipulated by the ship, and floated out of the module, coming to rest on a low table in the centre of the ship's shared accommodation section.

"And here's the real one," the ship said, sounding pleased with itself.

A gleaming silver sphere sprang into existence over the table, then dissipated with a soft pop; the second casket floated gently down to land on the table top.

Hy-Golten stalked over and examined the two wooden boxes minutely. He could not see the slightest difference between the two artifacts, although he realised that, with near-equiv-tech replication, there would be absolutely no disparity visible to the human eye.

"Okay," he said, "Now we've got two. Which one are we going to give to the Deluger Franchisement?"

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