Work Header

The Deceivers

Work Text:

To GSV So Much For Subtlety, greetings.

It was an honour to hear from you, and of course I am glad to offer what perspective I can on the Cebarti affair. Rasd-Codurersa Diziet Embless Sma da'Marenhide and myself were, of course, at the proverbial "ground zero" of the resolution, and though I doubt our experiences and observations can shed substantial light on the motives of the agents involved, I know any good historian appreciates whatever primary sources they can get.

Most of the following was transcribed directly from my own records, but rather than simply provide raw transcripts, I thought it might be more interesting to present my account in prose-narrative form. There is something of a vogue for this at the moment, and while I would never consider myself a slave to fashion, I confess that I do enjoy this style of reportage; as well, it seems to be less boring for the recipient, lacking as it does the grinding tedium of individuals "shooting the shit", as it were. I do not wish to be imprecise, of course, and I recognise that this is a risk, but I believe I have done my best to keep my own views and opinions out of the narrative.

Please do not hesitate to contact me for any further questions. You may contact Ms Sma, of course, but naturally her own recollections will contain inaccuracies—and, if her usual methods are any indication, will be exceptionally subjective. As well, she has been somewhat reclusive in her retirement, and may not respond to entreaties.

Yours truly,

Fohristiwhirl Skaffen-Amtiskaw Handrahen Dran Easpyou
(Drone, Offensive)

Over the course of several standard decades, various SC agents had infiltrated both the government and main opposition movement of the ruling superpower of Cebarti and nudged that state into instability. Removal of the Dear Leader (his name was Jeremid Kose Erlic Carellian, but no one ever called him that; we suspect even his wife called him Dear Leader) would topple the state, and the opposition that waited in readiness would be easy to guide toward a more enlightened form of government.

In the months during which matters were coming to a head, Sma, myself, and several other SC personnel arrived in orbit on board the (D)ROU Thanks For Nothing to supervise the final stages of the operation. When we arrived, our current active agent Tamila Morgense informed us through her handler that the removal was due to proceed according to plan, and everything appeared to be going swimmingly. On the twentieth day of the planet's fourth month, mere days before the planned date for what some of us had come to refer to as the coup, the bad news arrived, though the exact quantity of shit that had just hit the fan remained to be seen.

Thanks For Nothing had, and as far as I know still has, a penchant for designing its ship avatars in the shape of almost-but-not-quite-human forms, just incorrect enough to make people uncomfortable. They were humanoid in shape, but the "skin" was just a little too smooth; the facial expressions tracked strangely; and the eyes were frankly glassy. Though of course drone aesthetics are not always aligned with human aesthetics, I admit that even I found the effect somewhat unsettling, though I appreciated the effort and artistry that went into it. It was one of these avatars that brought me the news that the Cebarti operation was not going to go so smoothly after all.

"There's a problem." Thanks For Nothing was not known for mincing words.

"And that is?" I inquired.

"Tamila Morgense has met with an unfortunate accident. And must be replaced if the coup is to go through as expected. Given the available agents and the general physique of the planet's natives, Diziet Sma is the only available SC agent who can be quickly modified and inserted planetside."

My aura went grey at the sound of this. "I see. And have you informed Ms Sma of this turn of events? Herself won't be very pleased. She was looking forward to this quasi-holiday continuing without incident."

"Quite." The avatar's eyes squinted in a way that was possibly meant as an amused grimace. Sma's usual shipboard liaisons were no secret. "No, I had hoped you would do the honours."

Of course it had.

Sma had just finished the midday meal when I intercepted her. I shall not clutter this account with the minutiae of her reaction to the news; "What is the meaning of this Orbital's worth of bullshit?" gives a more than adequate sense of the conversation. When she had calmed down, we asked for and received a full briefing from the ship.

Morgense had, as far as anyone could tell, met with a genuine accident. Naturally everyone suspected foul play, but a thorough review of all data related to the incident and all communications traffic in prior weeks indicated that it was 99.99% likely that there was no malice whatsoever in the motor vehicle driver who struck down Tamila Morgense. It was a busy street during rush hour. There was some small amount of the local legal intoxicants, but no more than would be usual for any citizen. Thanks For Nothing was especially distressed; things beyond its—beyond our—control were simply not supposed to happen, particularly not at such a delicate stage.

Contingency plans were put into motion. Sma was given the eye- and chin-job required to match her features to the appropriate gene pool; she was provided with the appropriate records that named her as a representative of a nearby system, come to observe the festival, and she was installed in one of the better hotels near Morgense's old quarters. I accompanied Sma in my usual disguise under such circumstances; demeaning though it is to pose as a piece of hand-luggage, we all know that sometimes sacrifices must be made.

After we arrived, I had a day to sort through the agent's effects while Ms Sma got settled in the city. Tamila Morgense had been recruited from a non-Culture civilisation, as many of SC's field agents were, and her record was largely sound. Her reports to her handler were all neatly in order, and there were no particular irregularities to be found. At least not at first.

What struck me was the state of her quarters. She had, supposedly, gone out to run some sort of errand before her accident, but everything was simply too neat, too tidy—no unwashed laundry, for instance; no unfinished food packages. I suspected that she had been aware that she might not come back.

I began to scan the apartment much more closely. In the back of her closet that I found the real problem: papers and communiques, information she had somehow managed to hide from her handler, from Thanks For Nothing, from all of SC. She'd kept it on analogue media, of course; it couldn't simply be picked out of her computer by a ship scanner.

After reading enough to get the gist of what was going on, I scooped it all up and fired off a message to the Thanks For Nothing. A response came back moments later.

—Skaffen-Amtiskaw, this is by far one of the worst jokes in a long line of—

—It's not a joke, I snapped. —Morgense has been playing us. We are unbelievably fucked.

—Meat. Slag. Fuck. All right, you deal with Sma. I'll deal with Morgense's handler and the rest of SC. Hurry.

By the time I'd returned to Sma's suite, I'd heard back from Thanks For Nothing, who made it clear in no uncertain terms that SC was losing its collective shit. And here I was about to invite Sma to the party.

Sma was sitting in a large, very overstuffed, very pink armchair, getting caught up on the local news by way of their latest fibre-based daily. Briefly, I considered all the ways I could break this to her easily and rejected all of them.

"Dizzy, we're really in trouble."

She groaned. "Now what?"

"Well, in brief, previous to her death, our late agent Tamila Morgense had gone insane."

"Who's her handler?"

"Selin Perich. He's just as horrified; apparently Morgense has been feeding him false information for months, or at least a very, very edited version of her reports. He says, and I quote, 'If I'd known the mad bitch had a death wish like that, I'd have personally displaced her ages ago.'"

Sma sat up as stock-straight as the chair would let her. "Death wish?"

"This is what the lunatic's been up to. Seems that three months ago, she made contact with someone—name as yet unknown—within the Red Band. You know, the terrorist organisation affiliated with the opposition party that the opposition party doesn't acknowledge?"

"And she signed up with them?"

"Precisely. Now, we know the official plan was to give the Leader a heart attack or a stroke during this music festival that's coming up; his lieutenants are more or less guaranteed to fall upon each other and take each other apart, dismantling the ruling party and enabling the opposition to move into place."

"Yes, yes," Sma said impatiently, "now get to the stuff you just found out."

"Two words: suicide mission."


"You heard me."

"Explain, drone."

"At the opening festivities, Morgense is—was—to be armed with high-intensity explosives, to be detonated right before intermission. This wasn't going to be an unfortunate bit of bad health, Sma; this was going to be a conflagration. With massive collateral damage. And the Minds estimate that there's 90.77% it would have the exact opposite effect that we originally intended for this place."

Sma shook her head, a stunned look on her face. "The fuck. What was she going to gain by this? Why? Grief, I've never heard of any agent going this far off the rails. Even Zakalwe—"

"Even Zakalwe would have had the sense to not fucking blow himself up," I agreed.

She struggled out of the pink chair and began pacing. "And I don't suppose that her being dead means the whole thing's off."

"The Thanks For Nothing is 97.87% certain that a substitute plan is already in place. Odds are on sabotage to a heating fuel line running under the building."

"So." Sma stopped pacing and stood in front of me, her hands on her hips. "We've got to pull off a government-ending coup by stealth-assassinating the Dear Leader during the course of this festival, and we've got to stop a suicide bomber from doing the job for us in a way that'll probably make things worse. Is that all?"

"Well, you haven't asked about the nature of this festival."

Sma sighed. "No, drone, I haven't. Hit me."

"It's a semiannual festival-cum-competition celebrating the accomplishments of a caste of specialty singers whose peculiar vocal gifts are due to having their reproductive glands and other hormone-producing glands removed at an early age. For every hundred children so treated, perhaps one or two actually have successful careers. There are approximately four hundred singers competing at this festival."

"Fantastic." Sma buried her face in her hands and rubbed her temples. "Sometimes I think Li'ndane has the right idea, with his whole obsession with dropping micro black holes into planetary cores."

In a civilisation where the native AIs were just above the level of an extremely stupid household pet, I could not openly accompany Sma. The level of security at the event meant that a casual piece of luggage wouldn't do either, so I had to arrange to get myself loaded into a catering van. Meanwhile, one of my knife-missiles was placed in a brooch setting for Sma to wear, through which I could observe her own doings. "Observe only," she said pointedly as she pinned the thing on. "Not to be used as a weapon at all. Understand, drone?"

Sma's tendency to talk to me as if I were either deficient or in the habit of ignoring her has never been one of her more stellar qualities.

We went our separate ways, she to the festival, and I to my own infiltration. After I had been slung into the catering van with all the tender care of a steamshovel, I checked in with Sma. She was at that moment stepping away from the bar with a drink in hand, and from the knife-missile's vantage point on her shoulder I could survey the crowd.

The idle and oblivious wealthy tend to be much the same wherever one goes, and the ruling class of Cebarti was no exception. The men were clad in the shoulder-ruffed suits that were customary formal-wear at the time (and which invariably struck others in the face in close quarters); the women wore lavish gowns and jewels—all much as one expects, no surprises there. Also obvious from the bits of conversation one could pick up was the usual ignorance of the cost of their indulgences.

"...exceptionally fine work, each bead individually placed..."

"...said to him, 'well, just fire the man if he can't deliver'; there's no point in keeping dead weight around, is there?"

"...spent a week at that sanatorium but look at all the good it did her..."

"...can't have them at the bargaining table, of course, not as long as they're still blowing things up..."

Sound-fielding the knife missile so that only Sma could hear me, I interjected. "Enjoying yourself?"

Subvocalising, she answered, "Not even slightly. How're you doing?"

"I'm currently wedged between a cooler full of some kind of meat and a crate of allium vegetables and being grateful that I don't have your fleshy olfactory sensors. Have you spotted the target yet?"

"Visual contact made. See, right there?" She turned slightly and held up her drink; to an outside observer it was a casual weight-shift, but I saw that she was indicating a tall, pale man with a particularly ostentatious shoulder-ruff and a decidedly overbearing manner; though he was at least ten metres away, we could hear his conversation quite well. "I should be able to get to him with the drug before the show begins."

"Be careful. I'll check in again later." Verbally check in, anyway; a part of my consciousness remained with her even as I turned my full attention to my own surroundings and the van finally arrived at the performance hall. I slipped out and drifted down through the service tunnels, where we estimated the saboteur would be. The individual had done a good job of covering his tracks, but I was able to pick up slight traces of unusual biologicals here and there, enough to know I was on the right track, until I finally picked up the infrared trace of a human body up ahead.

(Meanwhile, Sma shook the Dear Leader's hand, filling his ears with banalities while she pressed a quick-dissolving dermal patch against his wrist. It would be gone and the drug absorbed into his skin before he knew it.)

As a Special Circumstances offensive drone, one tends to be ready for all kinds of eventualities. Traps, deceptions, double-crosses, psychotic violence, and so on. However, I was not prepared to actually recognise the individual currently hard at work at creating a rupture in the gas heat line.

"Escoerea!" I blurted out.

Sma had recruited Escorea years ago: found him after a war that cost him his legs. She gave him a job and a Culture upgrade to his physique, and for a while he'd done some good work for us. But a decade previously, he'd decided he was done and had settled on M'rane, a quiet Uncontacted world not unlike his native planet, but minus the wargames. He'd given every indication of being finished and not wanting to meddle again; though he'd kept his new legs, he'd even had the rest of his Culture modifications removed.

So what the hell was he doing here?

At the sound of my voice, he froze. Slowly he turned to face me. "Skaffen-Amtiskaw," he said, a slow and unpleasant smile creeping across his face. "Diz must be here too, huh? How's she doing these days? Still working her way through the crew of whatever ship you came on?"

"There's no need to be crass, Escoerea," I retorted.

He chuckled. "Still a protective little shit." He set the spanner down on top of the gas line and held up both hands. "Well, Skiffy? Go ahead. I know what you're like. There's no way I can put a dent in your shiny metal ass before your knife missiles reduce me to ribbons." He grinned mirthlessly. "Don't let me stop you, drone."

I had already deployed a knife missile even before he spoke, and it hovered less than ten centimetres from the back of his head, but I hesitated. Perhaps it was the show of bravado, or the fact that I (and Thanks For Nothing, which was eavesdropping on the entire conversation) were still stunned to see Escoerea here.

"Why are you doing this?" I asked, even knowing that this only gave him time that I could not afford to waste.

"What? You want the my-cunning-plan speech, that it?" He shook his head and laughed. "Not giving you the satisfaction, drone. You can reconstruct it all. Your Minds will find all my notes, just like you found Morgense's. Too bad the bitch lost her nerve. Stepped in front of that taxi all on her own, you know. Took the coward's way out so she wouldn't have to answer to you." He spat the word, indicting all of the Culture in his tone. "So go ahead. You found me out: remove the threat. Or do you really want me to do this?" He seized the spanner and started to bring it down on the fuel line; the motion fell apart as the knife missile sliced through his wrist and the top of his head.

At that moment, Sma informed me that she had successfully administered the cardiac glycosides to the Dear Leader. Which of course I knew already, and she would have realised that if she'd thought about it for a moment, but I wasn't terribly interested in pointing that out to her this time.

"The saboteur's been neutralised as well," I replied. "And ... Sma, on that count, I've got more bad news."

"Don't tell me this place is going to go up anyway."

"No, no." As I spoke, my effector fields were tidying up the last of the damage done to the pipeline; it would, in fact, function better than before anyone had gone about messing with it. "But the saboteur ... it was Escoerea."

There was a long silence from Sma, and then, "And let me guess—his boss was Zakalwe?"

"You know as well as I do—"

"That's he's been dead for a while now; I know, but that is the only way this affair could have been more fucked." A heavy sigh. "Come on, drone; I'm going to the lavatory to get the ship to displace me out of here. Let's go home."

All's well that ends well, as the saying has it, and from a certain point of view the Cebarti affair did indeed finish in the planned-for manner. During the second half of the evening's programme, right at the height of one of the greatest Cebartian arias, the Dear Leader collapsed from a massive cardiac arrest and died.

His body was still warm when the Secretary of the Interior attempted to take over the government and was neutralised by the Minister for Defence, who in turn fell victim to the Minister for Economic Development. The opposition leader was able to present herself as the only properly functioning adult in the place, and within a matter of weeks had formed a solid ruling coalition. The state-building aspect of the entire operation had, we felt, gone very well indeed.

As for the rest, however...

While Thanks For Nothing took Sma and me home, many SC resources were directed toward reconstructing Morgense and Escoerea's movements. There were gaps in the record, naturally—including a vast one where Escoerea had claimed his notes would be. The bastard had destroyed almost everything, quite plainly out of spite; and Morgense herself had apparently been reluctant to document their relationship except in the most oblique way, even in her own secret diaries. But we eventually concluded that the agents first crossed paths while both were on the GSV Congenital Optimist, she en route to Cebarti, and he to his comfortable retirement on M'rane. They were seen to have spent some time together, but what they said, how many times they met, whether they became lovers or not—these things are unclear.

But somehow each must have drawn out the other's discontents, and seen in them a kinship. What is eminently clear from the scraps of documentation that we have is that both harboured a distrust of the Culture—and specifically of Special Circumstances—that they kept quiet even as they did their jobs. Reviewing the evidence, I recalled that Escoerea had never quite seemed to like Sma, though he always treated her with politeness. Early on, he had more than once vocally questioned SC's authority, the justification for intervention. Apparently he had never stopped questioning SC, and those private questions had twisted on themselves into a deep, carefully-concealed hatred.

And Morgense—there was a sort of romantic streak in her, and like many frustrated romantics, she'd hardened into a cynic; her writings reflect a belief that nothing SC ever did was without layers of deception, and she was unconvinced of Perich's truthfulness with her. Escoerea must have impressed her as someone who told it like it was, who saw through the uses to which they'd been put.

How they remained in contact after their respective disembarkations is also a mystery; the systems were light-years apart, and the only speedy means of communication they would have had would have been through their SC associates. And Sma and Perich had barely spoken to each other over those years, so there was no question of any passing of coded messages, witting or otherwise. Perhaps they had simply agreed to meet again after a certain period of time.

So Escoerea left his wife and family, supposedly for travel in remote regions the planet he now called home—he was writing a book, he said. In reality, he hopped on a cruiser in M'rane's one spaceport and made his way to Cebarti, where he joined the Red Band and re-established contact with Morgense. And, apparently, plotted with her to subvert the Culture's operation. All that effort and sacrifice, just to stick one thorn in Special Circumstances' collective side.

"I'm getting too old for this, drone," Sma said. She was drifting in a small rowboat on the lake below the power station that she had called home since long before the Zakalwe affair; she had set the oars and was now leaning back on a cushion, one hand idly trailing in the water. She had pulled her hat down to shield her eyes from the sun, and from where I hovered nearby, I could not quite see the expression on her face.

"If you expect me to offer some form-letter contradiction, you know better than to ask me for it," I said. "If the Escoerea business troubles you so deeply, SC will accept your resignation, should you offer it. With regret, of course, but it's your—"

"Everything about the man indicated he was done," she said, and I realised she'd tuned me out almost as soon as I'd begun to speak. Which was typical, when she was in a mood like this. "Every time we'd talked to him, even the last check-in, what, a year ago? Year and a half? He was so settled we didn't even feel the need to set a tail on him. He had a wife, drone. How could we have gotten him so wrong? How could he have possibly concealed so much hate for us? And Morgense. She must have been unstable from the start; I can't believe now that Perich even thought it was a good idea to recruit her in the first place. Hell, you read her notes. All that stuff about 'wanting to teach us a lesson' and all..." She sat up, still hiding behind the brim of her hat, and stared down into the clear blue water, her shoulders hunched moodily. "How many time-bombs have we left, scattered throughout the galaxy?"

"Probably not as many as you think," I said. "SC's usually on top of—"

"Usually," she said. "That's the thing, though, isn't it? Usually we have a handle on our operations and our people, usually things don't go particularly wrong. We were even able to pull our asses out of the fire at the last minute this time. But one of these days one of those exceptions is going to really blow up in our collective face." She took off her hat and looked up at me, her expression weary and her mouth sad. "I really do think I'm done, Skaffen-Amtiskaw. SC can get along just fine without me."

The usual response would have been some kind of humour, perhaps, or an attempt to jolly her out of her dark mood. But the fact that she hadn't called me "drone" told me everything I needed to know. I drifted around to her side and used my effector field to pat her on the back. She said nothing, but she did smile a little, and began to row back home.