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

Shell Game

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.101.1040]
  xVFP Tell It To The Jury
    oGSV Meddlesome Kids
Got the real Dynastist's Foot, finally. Currently high-tailing it out of Blitteringueh territory, at something approximating my top speed.

[tight beam, M8, tra. @n4.29.101.1049+]
  xGSV Meddlesome Kids
    oVFP Tell It To The Jury
Well done.
The Conglo tracked you dashing through their home volume and are moaning loudly about it to the Ambassador. They don't seem to have spotted that you picked up anything on the way, though.


Good news, then. Please convey my apologies to the Ambassador. No doubt I am making her life more difficult.
I'm on my way back to Bhlan Orbital. I should still be able to make it on schedule to meet the Deluger Acting-Captain.


I wonder if you would consider an alternative plan of action. I'm not convinced that this Allthog Mathaclorian is entirely trustworthy.

I'm almost certain he is not. So very happy to consider an alternative.

Okay, here's the proposal. [Report attached.] I've debated this at length with other members of the local Coordination Committee, so I think it's sound.

Wow, that is exceptionally convoluted, even by Special Circumstances standards.
And I'll have to get Mister Hy-Golten to go along with it, it seems.


I'll leave you to consider your response. And, if you see fit, talk to Hy-Golten.

*

"Well, actually," the voice of the Tell It To The Jury said, sounding smug, "Neither of them."

"What?" Hy-Golten almost squeaked, "I thought the whole point of the exercise was to get the Dynastist's Foot to the Deluger Franchisement?"

"It was, and it still is, sort of," the ship replied, sounding just a little vague, "But, after a discussion with the Meddlesome Kids, "I don't entirely trust the Deluger Captain to hold up his end of the bargain."

"Well, I can see that possibility," Hy-Golten agreed, "He did seem like a conniving and backstabbing schemer, even by the demanding standards of the Franchisement."

"Agree. And we also have the problem that the Blitteringueh Conglo Artificer clan will eventually notice that the real Dynastist's Foot is missing from their secure storage, especially if the Delugers - in the person of Captain Mathaclorian - starts broadcasting his possession of the artifact to all and sundry."

"We could ask him not to," Hy-Golten suggested, "As part of the agreement?"

"Huh," the ship replied dismissively, "And I can see him ignoring any such request once the artifact is securely in his hands. No, we need something more devious, something which will convince both the Conglo and the Franchisement authorities to keep quiet, and to make sure that the Captain with a chip on his shoulder does not cause us any problems."

"So, what do we do?"

"Well, first," the ship said, using its Smug voice again, "I'm going to make a proper copy of the Dynastist's Foot."

A region of the floor suddenly raised itself up next to the low table, smoothly forming a rectangular white pedestal more than large enough to contain the wooden box of the artifact. After a moment, the top section faded to nothingness leaving yet another instance of the Dynastist's Foot in its ark perched next to the other two.

Hy-Golten did not even bother to closely inspect the third version of the artifact which had just appeared; he simply assumed it would be as indistinguishable from the real thing as the ship promised. He slumped into one of the ridiculously comfortable couches which littered the accommodation section and glared at the selection of apparently identical boxes in front of him.

"Okay, so now we have three," he said, sounding bemused, "What are we going to do with them all?"

"Firstly, you're going to give the Blitteringueh's copy of the artifact to Acting-Captain Mathaclorian," the voice of the Tell It To The Jury said, "This means you'll have to go through with your plot to Abscond."

"Surely that depends on the Captain sticking to his side of the bargain," Hy-Golten replied, "Which we just agreed did not seem particularly likely."

"It's not very likely," the ship said, "But not entirely impossible either. So you will need to be flexible, whatever happens. You will of course need to disappear from the Culture, to give us the required level of plausible deniability, regardless of what the Captain decides to do. There are plenty of places you could go, societies who would be happy to host you: the Culture's influence extends a long way in the galaxy and your genetic makeup would confirm your citizenship in a heartbeat to any civilization capable of interstellar travel."

Hy-Golten shrugged.

"I could do with a holiday. It might be fun."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll find plenty to amuse yourself," the ship replied, itself sounding amused, "And your suit will of course provide all the technical support you might need."

Hy-Golten nodded. He had chosen to wear, nearly all the time, a reasonably up-to-date Culture space suit. This was no clunky old-fashioned hard-shell device; the gelfield suit which covered his body was nowhere more than a centimetre thick and usually less than half of that, and could protect him indefinitely in a variety of extreme environments: the vacuum of space, the depths of oceans, even the crushing pressure and temperature of gas-giant atmospheres.

The suit was equipped with what was called a node-distributed intelligence – meaning that the suit’s really rather clever AI was implemented by processing substrates spread throughout the form-fitting skin and the helmet components which were currently furled neatly around his shoulders. It was of course the suit itself which had been translating his words for the benefit of the Deluger Captain – and vice versa – and was perfectly capable of engaging in conversation on almost any topic he might choose, although it did seem to prefer to keep its opinions to itself unless asked.

"Sure," he replied, "And the other two boxes?"

"My copy will go directly to the Deluger Franchisement Federalised Endorsement Council - their central government, essentially - with the Culture's thanks for their patience for all these years. Not that they see it that way, of course - they'll still moan and whinge extensively about the Culture's duplicity and lack of humility."

Hy-Golten frowned.

"You're confident that they won't be able to detect that it's a copy?"

"I am," the ship replied, "To be honest, even I would have difficulty in telling them apart if I have not made the copy myself."

"I see. And how will this excellent copy get to the FEC?"

"I'll take it myself, Displace it into the metaphorical hands of our Ambassadorial staff there and left them decide on the most politically-sensitive way of delivering the artifact to them. In conjunction with the local Contact Minds, of course. As soon as I've delivered you to your rendezvous on Bhlan Orbital."

"Leaving me at the tender mercies of the Deluger Captain?" Hy-Golten said with obvious irony.

"That's it. The module will drop you at the Orbital as before and make its own way back to me. Then you'll be on your own, mostly. The suit will sometimes be able to get a message to me, but don't expect a quick response - it could be hours or days before I will be able to answer."

"Huh. So I'll have to make my own way in the galaxy," he snorted, "And the original Dynastist's Foot? What's to become of that?"

"It's going back to the Blitteringueh Conglo," the ship replied immediately, "Via a roundabout and frankly rather devious route. I'm preparing a cock-and-bull story - in conjunction with other Culture Minds, of course - that we, the Culture, have foiled a plot, conspirators unknown - but that it could be some Special Circumstances gang is hinted at - to steal the Dynastist's Foot so that neither the Conglo nor the Deluger Franchisement could have it."

"And why would these mythical SC conspirators want to prevent neither society from having this thing?"

"Well, who knows why Special Circumstances does anything," the voice of the Tell It To The Jury said with what sounded very much like a yawn, "Fomenting political tensions, perhaps, or a lesson on the excesses of hanging on to the past rather than embracing the future, maybe. But it doesn't matter: we'll get the blame anyway, but with more of the aforementioned plausible deniability."

"So I needn't worry about it, then?"

"Yep. You just need to get the artifact to the Captain and then disappear, one way or another."

"Okay," Hy-Golten said, adding, "So, technically, I'll be an Absconder?"

"You will. Although you'd be welcomed back after a few years, of course," the ship replied, "And, in any case, any Mind worth the name would be able to find you very quickly, if it came to that."

"Well, that all seems settled, then," Hy-Golten said, looking satisfied, "So how long before we get to the Safanariumal Empire?"

"About forty-nine hours, plus another three or so aboard the module," the ship replied, "So you should have just enough time to track down Captain Mathaclorian during the ambassadorial reception."

"Great. So have you got any more of those games for me?"

*

Captain Allthog Mathaclorian hop-walked and waddled his way around the vast floor space of the throne room of the High Seat of the Safanariumal Empire, which was once again hosting the quarter-monthly ambassadorial reception. He gaped politely at any even vaguely humanoid person he happened to encounter - humans did tend to all look alike to him - but none of them so far turned out to be the Culture-human called Forytal Ynarrisa Trista Shilde Hy-Golten dam Bruchalle.

He was beginning to lose hope that the dratted Culture person would appear at all when a booming voice addressed him in the polite but convoluted speech form used when addressing one of identical social standing. He grinned inwardly, while composing his face into a formal welcoming grimace, even though these kinds of expressions were notoriously difficult to translate satisfactorily.

"Ah, Mister Hy-Golten," the Captain said, turning around slowly, "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to honour our little agreement."

The human stepped forward with a hand raised in greeting. He was followed by a float-pallet supporting a large white box which looked, the Acting-Captain was certain, quite big enough to contain the precious Dynastist's Foot. The box was quite opaque to the Captain's eyes, and indeed to any of the limited equipment he had about his person.

"But I am here, and only a few moments late," Hy-Golten replied, flopping one arm vaguely in the direction of the pallet, "And I have brought the item we discussed with me."

"Well, that is excellent," Mathaclorian said, adding suspiciously, "If indeed your box does contain the artifact you promised."

"It does," the human said, in a tone which could have been construed as mollifying, "And of course you will have the opportunity to verify its authenticity as soon as we get to your ship."

"Well, that will have to do," the Acting-Captain replied gruffly, "So how long before we can get out of here?"

"I am afraid," the human said with what sounded like genuine distress, "That we will have to wait until after the address from the Empress. Tedious, I know, but anything else would be impolite. And I am sure that the Deluger Franchisement would not want to be seen as disrespectful to the Safanariumal Empire, and the Culture similarly. Let's avoid any kind of diplomatic incident, shall we?"

"Ugh!" the Deluger Captain harrumphed loudly, "I suppose we must. But let's move quickly once the old dear has finished her whittering."

"Deal!"

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