An unfinished and by no means polished, chapter-excerpt from the short story I am trying to write which is set in the Culture universe of Iain M. Banks.
I wrote hopefully about this back in 2019 when after a period of inactivity, I had seemed to have regained my muse. Then 2020 happened and I had all the time in the world to continue with the story, but I didn’t. I have however been plugging away, here and there and slowly the story is taking shape.
If you are familiar with Bank’s science fiction work and even if you are not, please also feel free to indulge in critique, I would be interested in any feedback, negative or positive – there, I said it! 😉
Evana Murel au-Revento Kwinser, Archaeologist in Chief to the Second Protocol of Contact (Special Circumstances) stood in her assigned quarters and surveyed the star scene, it was artificially generated in real-time by the Ship’s NavCom function, she knew it was just a representation, but the vista always fascinated her.
‘Excuse me Eva, are you busy?’
She turned to see the hovering form of the drone Truusp Evhejay.
‘Oh, Hi Truu, er, no, not especially.’
The drone floated towards her and made a point of turning its broader side to face the screen.
‘Beautiful, it said.
‘Yes, as always’
‘I have a message from SC, they have found something and thought that we might be interested.’
‘No, something more interesting, something possibly outside of context.’
The drone had turned its broad face towards Eva and was exhibiting a green-yellow aura around the top of its casing.
‘An OCP?’ said Eva, focussing sharply on the drone, ‘a real, live OCP?’ she said, her voice barely concealing excitement.
‘Possibly.’ said the drone its aura field flashing a brief formal blue before returning to its green-yellow which gradually faded into a friendly green.
‘Oh, Truu, tell me everything you know! I’ve waited so long for this.’
‘I know my dear,’ the aura field flashed momentarily red/orange, then faded ‘there is not much to tell if truth be known but if you are ready, I will send to your net’
Eva had been a passenger on the GUV Out of Fashion, where she had spent 173 years in and out of hibernation researching sightings of possible Outside Context Problems. Before that she had been working on the Gol-aPerth Orbital as a fellow of the Department of Antiquities and had come to the attention of the drone Truusp Evhejay who was then working as an envoy for the Second Protocol arm of the Special Circumstances branch of Contact. It sounded grander than it was, Second Protocol (SP) was an archaeologists’ club more or less, a club for those with a deep or even sometimes an unhealthy interest in planetary civilisations.
By the time that the war with the Idiran Empire had started, Eva and the drone had become not only work colleagues but firm friends, they had taken up residence on the GCU Grace Under Pressure, Truusp Evhejay had told her that it would be fun. She had often mused that the drone’s idea of fun was sometimes radically different to hers but she had to admit that over the past eight years they had had some good times; routing out Idiran spies, gathering surveillance data on the edge of Idiran space, the odd planetary intervention here and there and all the while in the background following-up on reports of unexplained phenomena, happenings and reports of happenings that didn’t seem to have been expected and so on.
The last, indeed the first OCP that the Culture had encountered had been over 1900 years ago now and nothing reported since had seemed to be in the slightest bit outside of any known context. Every such case encountered was eventually resolved and pigeon-holed in one way or another and the reports sent to and filed by SC, and Eva and Truu kept on looking, searching. Eva liked this aspect of the research, planet-bound civilisations, it seemed so hard to imagine sometimes that beings could, did and still were living for generations, captive on the planets of their birth.
Grace Under Pressure, itself a member of Second Protocol, was exploring a particular region of the inner edge of one of the spiral arms of the galaxy that had once been rich in civilisations, most now long gone but a few planetary systems still had residents, who had either not yet broken the bonds of gravity and leapt into space or had once been spacefaring but had for one reason or another returned to their planets.
Eva turned back to the screen and closed her eyes, ‘Ready.’
Truusp Evhejay’s aura field flashed blue then settled into a magenta hue, the drone reached out and contacted Eva’s neural device and began the data transfer.
The afterimage of the ship’s screen faded on her eyelids and was replaced by a crisp view of a medium-sized rocky planet centred in the view seen from about 30,000 km out, the system’s star sat to the right of the image.
‘This’ she registered Truu’s voice informing her, ‘is a generated playback from interpolated data sent from the VFP Irregular Salient Mendacity’
It wasn’t really Truu’s voice but her neural device was configured to deliver it as such, the reality was a mind to mind contact via a little technology embedded in Eva’s skull.
‘Now’ she heard Truu saying, ‘watch the star…’
She watched; a dark silhouette was sliding across the stellar disc like an eclipse
‘A moon?’ she asked
‘No’ said Truu, ‘watch, the VFP was quite a way out and moving fast when it recorded this so the view point is shifting but watch what happens’
The silhouette spread across the star, imperceptibly getting bigger. The planet which has been framed centrally was drifting towards the left-hand side of the view. The silhouette almost completely eclipsed the star but revealed an elongated ellipsoid shape as its top edge passed in front of the star.
‘Okay Truu, what am I looking at? Give me some scale’
The dark silhouette filled most of the bottom of the view now, still expanding and now moving upwards finally blotting out the star.
Truu spoke again, ‘At this point the ‘darkness’ is estimated to be 750,000 km from the surface of the planet…’
‘What?’ Eva sounded startled, ‘I thought I was looking at something much further away.’
Then as the scene played out the dark silhouette seemed to flow over the surface of the planet enveloping it.
‘I will just forward it a bit, this phase lasts a few minutes’ said Truu as the image flickered and once again the star was visible, now centred in the view, the lower left hand of the view was dark but that darkness was receding towards the bottom of the image, the planet by now almost at the left hand extremity of the view was slowly revealed as the darkness flowed from it and the silhouette disappeared from the bottom of the scene.
Eva opened her eyes, ‘Truu, what the fuck was that?’
‘An anomaly’, said the drone, ‘more than that we do not know, but that is what we are going to try to determine.’
‘Okay, where was that?’
‘A system on the core-side edge of the spiral arm we are currently in, about a week away at full speed’.
‘And that thing, that shadow anomaly just flowed over the planet like, like oil?’
‘That is what it looks like, remember though that the visuals are generated from interpo…’
‘Yes, quite’ said Eva, thoughtfully, ‘do we know what happened to any life that may have been on the planet?’
No, we do not. But we do know that it was not inhabited by any of the Involved civilisations.
‘The thing was moving quite fast; do we have a trace on it?’
‘Irregular Salient Mendacity sent a trace request to all nearby ships, hubs and so on, nearby though being a relative term here but we did get some triangulation data back, it is headed off towards the Third Intersect Rift somewhere near to the Da’poVel Void, here is the trace image’
‘Third…’ began Eva
‘It’s on the other side of this galactic arm, said the drone, ‘away from the core’
An image of the galactic disc formed before Eva’s eyes with annotations overlaid indicating the probable direction of travel of the strange anomaly.
‘So… it’s travelling across the galactic disc; do we have enough data to plo…’
‘No, not at this time, all we can say is that if we plot in the opposite direction to that in which it is currently travelling it would have come in edge-on to the galactic plane and is moving across a chord about a third of the way out from the galactic centre.’
‘And that course takes it through the Da’poVel Void…’
‘Exactly’, said the drone.
The image faded, Eva blinked and turned to face the machine hovering at her side.
Eva was quiet momentarily, querying her neural lace.
‘Da’poVel’ she said, slowly, not a complete void, ‘there’s a Culture outpost there, an “O”.
‘Yes at Da’poVel, 4, the Orbital is called Arudobasyl, it’s quite old’
‘Truu,’ said Eva testily, ‘don’t you pay attention to the reports from SC regarding the Idirans?
‘Of course I do my dear, they are my bread and butter; there’s an Idiran battle fleet bound for the Da’poVel system even as we speak.’
‘Yes, so I just found out, Well?’ Eva’s voice betrayed her frustration, ‘this shadow, this blackness, is it something to do with the Idirans do you think?
‘I do not think so’, the machine responded in an even tone, ‘whatever that thing is it is far beyond Idiran means’
‘Ah, there you both are’
Eva turned to the doorway, a tall female-looking humanoid stood there wearing loosely fitting clothes, a pair of trousers which stopped mid ankle revealing bare feet and a, quite frankly, tatty grey t-shirt with a faded red handgun print on the chest.
‘Hi Grace’, said Eva, looking round at the ship’s Avatar,
‘I suppose that this ancient machine has told you the good news?’
‘About the OCP? Yes…’
‘Suspected OCP’, said the Avatar, raising an eyebrow, ‘no, the good news is that we again have a purpose, so, with the agreement of both of you I intend to do a 180 and head back “under” this spiral arm and towards the Da’poVel Void and try to find out what this thing is, plus, I’ve also received “intelligence” from SC, that the Idirans are playing up in that region too, something else to look into I suppose, so, are we all in agreement?”
‘Yes, we are.’ said Eva, ‘um, I mean I am.’
‘I am too’ said the drone, turning imperceptibly and nodding towards Eva, ‘and we, um, know about the Idirans’ movements towards he Da’poVel system.’
‘You do?’ said the Avatar, feigning surprise, ‘Alrighty then, here we go.’
Eva turned back to the screen; the stars wheeled.
‘I’ve already adjusted our course away from the core’ said the Avatar, ‘and very shortly we will be making best speed for the Da’poVel system so you, Eva, had better get snuggled into your stasis bubble.
Eva looked away from the screen towards the Avatar, ‘OK, I’m going’, she looked towards the Drone, the drone turned to face Eva, its aura field pulsing briefly red then orange with a flash of blue before the aura faded.
‘Well then,’ said the drone, ‘this promises to be interesting.’
‘I do hope so’ said Eva, studying the machine beside her before making for the corner of her quarters where the stasis bubble hung limply from a node in the ceiling.