F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.06 - June 1996


By Ian M. Banks

The ship shuddered; the few remaining lights flickered, dimmed and went out. The alarms dopplered down to silence. A series of sharp impacts registered through the companionway shell walls with resonations in the craft's secondary and primary structure. The atmosphere pulsed with impact echoes; a breeze picked up, then disappeared. The shifting air brought with it a smell of burning and vaporisation; aluminium, polymers associated with carbon fibre and diamond film, superconductor cabling.

Somewhere, the drone Sisela Ytheleus could hear a human, shouting; then, radiating wildly over the electromagnetic bands came a voice signal similar to that carried by the air. It became garbled almost immediately then degraded quickly into meaningless static. The human shout changed to a scream, then the EM signal cut off; so did the sound.

Pulses of radiation blasted in from various directions, virtually information-free. The ship's inertial field wobbled uncertainly, then drew steady and settled again. A shell of neutrinos swept through the space around the companionway. Noises faded. EM signatures murmured to silence; the ship's engines and main life support systems were off-line. The whole EM spectrum was empty of meaning. The battle had switched to the ship's Al core and back-up photonic nuclei.

Then a pulse of energy shot through a multi-purpose cable buried in the wall behind, oscillating wildly then settling back to a steady, utterly unrecognisable pattern. An internal camera patch on a structural beam nearby awakened and started scanning. It can't be over that quickly, can it ?

Hiding in the darkness, the drone suspected it was already too late. It was supposed to wait until the attack had reached a plateau phase and the aggressor thought that it was just a matter of mopping up the last dregs of opposition before it made its move, but the attack had been too sudden, too extreme, too capable. The plans the ship had made, of which it was such an important part, could only anticipate so much, only allow for so proportionally greater a technical capability on the part of the attacker. Beyond a certain point, there was simply nothing you could do that would not seem laughably simple to a profoundly more developed enemy. In this instance they were not perhaps quite at the juncture where resistance became genuinely without point, but - from the ease with which the ship was being taken over - they were not that far away from it, either.

Remain calm, the machine told itself. Look at the overview; place this and yourself in context. You are prepared, you are hardened, you are proof. You will do all that you can to survive as you are or at the very least to prevail. There is a plan to be put into effect here. Play your part with skill, courage and honour and no ill will be thought of you by those who survive and succeed.

The Elench had spent many thousands of years pitting themselves against every kind of technology and every type of civilisational artifact the vast spaces of the greater galaxy could provide, seeking always to understand rather than to overpower, to be changed rather than to enforce change upon others, to incorporate and to share rather than to infect and impose, and in that cause had become perhaps more adept than any - with the possible exception of the mainstream Culture's semi-military emissaries known as the Contact Section - at resisting outright attack without seeming to threaten it; but for all that the galaxy had been penetrated by so many different explorers in all obvious directions to every periphery however distant, enormous volumes of that encompassing arena remained effectively unexplored by the current crop of in-play civilisations, including the Elench. And in those swallowingly vast volumes, amongst those spaces between the spaces between the stars, around suns, dwarfs, nebulae and holes it had been determined from some distance were of no immediate interest or threat, it was of course always possible that some danger waited, some peril lurked, small measured against the scale of the galaxy's active cultures, but capable - through a developmental peculiarity or as a result of some temporal limbo or exclusionary dormancy - of challenging and besting even a representative of a society as technologically advanced and contactually experienced as the Elench.

The drone felt calm, thinking as coldly and detachedly as it could for those few moments on the background to its current predicament. It was prepared, it was ready, and it was no ordinary machine; it was at the cutting edge of its civilisation's technology, designed to evade detection by the most sophisticated instruments, to survive in almost unimaginably hostile conditions, to take on virtually any opponent and to suffer practically any damage in concentric stages of resistance. That its ship, its own manufacturer, the one entity that probably knew it better than it knew itself, was apparently being at this moment corrupted, seduced, taken over, must not affect its judgement or its confidence.

The displacer, it thought. All I've got to do is get near the displacer pod, that's all... Then it felt its body scanned by a point source located near the ship's Al core, and knew its time had come. The attack was as elegant as it was ferocious; the take-over abrupt almost to the point of instantaneity, the battle-memes of the invading alien consciousness aided by the shared thought processes and knowledge of the by now obviously completely overwhelmed ship.

With no interval to provide a margin for error at all, the drone shunted its personality from its own AI core to its back-up picofoam complex and at the same time readied the signal cascade that would transfer its most important concepts, programs and instructions first to electronic nanocircuitry, then to an atomechanical substrate and finally - absolutely as a last resort - to a crude little (though at several cubic centimetres also wastefully large) semi-biological brain. The drone shut off and shut down what had been its true mind, the only place it had ever really existed in all its life, and let whatever pattern of consciousness had taken root there perish for lack of energy, its collapsing consciousness impinging on the machine's new mind as a faint, informationless exhalation of neutrinos.

The drone was already moving; out from its body-niche in the wall and into the companionway space. It accelerated along the corridor, sensing the gaze of the ceiling-beam camera patch following it. Fields of radiation swept over the drone's militarised body, caressing, probing, penetrating. An inspection hatch burst open in the companionway just ahead of the drone and something exploded out of it; cables burst free, filling to overflowing with electrical power. The drone zoomed then swooped; a discharge of electricity crackled across the air immediately above the machine and blew a hole in the far wall; the drone twisted through the wreckage and powered down the corridor, turning flat to its direction of travel and extending a disc-field through the air to brake for a corner, then slamming off the far wall and accelerating up another companionway. It was one of the full cross-axis corridors, and so long; the drone quickly reached the speed of sound in the human-breathable atmosphere; an emergency door slammed shut behind it a full second after it had passed.

A space suit shot upwards out of a descending vertical tubeway near the end of the companionway, crumpled to a stop, then reared up and stumbled out to intercept the machine. The drone had already scanned the suit and knew the suit was empty and unarmed; it went straight through it, leaving it flapping halved against floor and ceiling like a collapsed balloon. The drone threw another disc of field around itself to match the companionway's diameter and rode almost to a stop on a piston of compressed air, then darted round the next corner and accelerated again.

A human figure inside a space suit lay half-way up the next corridor, which was pressurising rapidly with a distant roar of gas. Smoke was filling the companionway in the distance, then it ignited and the mixture of gases exploded down the tube. The smoke was transparent to the drone and far too cool to do it any harm, but the thickening atmosphere was going to slow it up, which was doubtless exactly the idea. The drone scanned the human and the suit as best it could as it tore up the smoke-filled corridor towards it. It knew the person in the suit well; he had been on the ship for five years. The suit was without weaponry, its systems quiet but doubtless already taken over; the man was in shock and under fierce chemical sedation from the suit's medical unit. As the drone approached the suit it raised one arm towards the fleeing machine. To a human the arm would have appeared to move almost impossibly quickly, flicking up at the machine, but to the drone the gesture looked languid, almost leisurely; surely this could not be all the threat the suit was capable of -

The drone had only the briefest warning of the suit's bolstered gun exploding; until that instant the gun hadn't even been apparent to the machine's senses, shielded somehow. There was no time to stop, no opportunity to use its own EM effector on the gun's controls to prevent it from overloading, nowhere to take cover, and - in the thick mist of gases flooding the corridor - no way of accelerating beyond the danger. At the same moment, the ship's inertial field fluctuated again, and flipped a quarter-turn; suddenly down was directly behind the drone, and the field strength doubled, then redoubled. The gun exploded, tearing the suit and the human it contained apart.

The drone ignored the backward tug of the ship's reoriented gravity and slammed against the ceiling, skidding along it for half a metre while producing a cone-shaped field immediately behind it.

The explosion blew the companionway's inner shell apart and punched the drone into the corridor's ceiling so hard its back-up semi-biochemical brain was reduced to a useless paste inside it; that no major pieces of shrapnel struck it counted as a minor miracle. The blast hit the drone's conical field and flattened it, though not before enough of its energy had been directed through the inner and outer fabric of the companionway shell in a fair impersonation of a shaped-charge detonation. The corridor's lining punctured and tore to provide a vent for the cloud of gases still flooding into the companionway; they erupted into the depressurised loading bay outside. The drone paused momentarily, letting debris tear past it in a hurricane of gas, then in the semi-vacuum which resulted powered off again, ignoring the escape route which had opened behind it and racing down to the next companionway junction; the off-line displacer pod the drone was making for hung outside the ship hull only ten metres round the next corner.

The drone curved through the air, bounced off another wall and the floor and raced into the hull-wall companionway to find a machine similar to itself screaming towards it. It knew this machine, too; it was its twin. It was its closest sibling/friend /lover/comrade in all the great distributed, forever changing civilisation that was the Elench.

X-ray lasers flickered from the converging machine, only millimetres above the drone, producing detonations somewhere way behind it while it flicked on its mirrorshields, flipped in the air, ejected its old Al core and the semi-biochemical unit into the air behind it and spun around in an outside loop to continue down the companionway; the two components it had ejected flared beneath it, instantly vaporising and surrounding it with plasma. It fired its own laser at the approaching drone - the blast was mirrored off, blossoming like fiery petals which raged against and pierced the corridor walls - and effectored the displacer pod controls, powering the machinery up into a preset sequence.

The attack on its photonic nucleus came at the same moment, manifesting itself as a perceived disturbance in the space-time fabric, warping the internal structure of the drone's light-energised mind from outside normal space. It's using the engines, thought the drone, senses swimming, its awareness seeming to break up and evaporate somehow as it effectively began to go unconscious. fm-am!, cried a tiny, long-thought-out sub routine. It felt itself switch to amplitude modulation instead of frequency modulation; reality snapped back into focus again, though its senses still remained disconnected and thoughts still felt odd. But if I don't react otherwise... The other drone fired at it again, zooming towards it on an intercept course. Ramming. How inelegant. The drone mirrored the rays, still refusing to adjust its internal photonic topography to allow for the wildly shifting wavelength changes demanding attention in its mind. The displacer pod just the other side of the ship's hull hummed into life; a set of coordinates corresponding with the drone's own present position appeared flickering in the drone's awareness, describing the volume of space that would be nipped off from the surface of the normal universe and hurled far beyond the stricken Elencher ship. Damn, might make it yet; just roll with it, the drone thought dizzily. It rolled; literally, physically, in mid-air.

Light, bursting from all around it and bearing the signature of plasma fire, drummed into its casing with what felt like the pressure of a small nuclear blast. Its fields mirrored what they could; the rest roasted the machine to white heat and started to seep inside its body, beginning to destroy its more vulnerable components. Still it held out, completing its roll through the superheated gases around it - mostly vaporised floor-tiles, it noted - dodging its murderous twin, noticing (almost lazily, now) that the displacer pod had completed its power-up and was moving to clasp/discharge ... while its mind involuntarily registered the information contained in the blast of radiation and finally caved in under the force of the alien purpose encoded within.

It felt itself split in two, leaving behind its real personality, giving that up to the invading power of its photonic core's abducted intent and becoming slowly, balefully aware of its own abstracted echo of existence in clumsy electronic form. The displacer on the other side of the hull wall completed its cycle; it snapped a field around and instantly swallowed a sphere of space not much bigger than the head of a human; the resulting bang would have been quite loud in anything other than the mayhem the on-board battle had created.

The drone - barely larger than two adult human hands placed together - fell smoking, glowing, to the side wall of the companionway, which was now in effect the floor. Gravity returned to normal and the drone clunked to the floor proper, clattering on to the heat-scarred undersurface beneath the chimney that was a vertical companionway. Something was raging in the drone's real mind, behind walls of insulation. Something powerful and angry and determined. The machine produced a thought equivalent to a sigh, or a shrug of the shoulders, and interrogated its atomechanical nucleus, just for good form's sake ... but that avenue was irredeemably heat-corrupted ... not that it mattered; it was over.
All over.

Then the ship hailed it, quite normally, over its communicator.

Now why didn't you try that in the first place ? thought the drone. Well, it answered itself, because I wouldn't have replied, of course. It found that almost funny.

But it couldn't reply; the com unit's send facility had been wasted by the heat too. So it waited.

Gas drifted, stuff cooled, other stuff condensed, making pretty designs on the floor. Things creaked, radiations played, and hazy EM indications suggested the ship's engines and major systems were back on line. The heat making its way through the drone's body dissipated slowly, leaving it alive but still crippled and incapable of movement or action. It would take it days to bootstrap the routines that would even start to replace the mechanisms that would construct the self-repair nano-units. That seemed quite funny too. The vessel made noises and signals like it was moving off through space again. Meanwhile the thing in the drone's real mind went on raging. It was like living with a noisy neighbour, or having a headache, thought the drone. It went on waiting.

Eventually a heavy maintenance unit, about the size of a human torso and escorted by a trio of small self-motivated effector side-arms appeared at the far end of the vertical companionway above it and floated down through the currents of climbing gas until they were directly over the small, pocked, smoking and splintered casing of the drone. The effector weapons' aim had stayed locked onto the drone the whole way down. Then one of the guns powered up and fired at the small machine. Shit. Bit summary, dammit... the drone had time to think.

But the effector was powered only enough to provide a two-way communication channel.

~ Hello ? said the maintenance unit, through the gun.
~ Hello yourself.
~ The other machine is gone.
~ I know; my twin. Snapped. Displaced. Get thrown a Iong way by one of those big displacer pods, something that small. One-off coordinates, too. Never find it -

The drone knew it was babbling, its electronic mind was probably under effector incursion but too damn stupid even to know it and so gibbering as a side effect, but it couldn't stop itself;

~ Yep, totally gone. Entity overboard. One-throw XYZs. Never find it. No point in even looking for it. Unless you want me to step into the breach too, of course; I'd go take a squint, if you like, if the pod's still up for it; personally it wouldn't be too much trouble...
~ Did you mean all that to happen ?

The drone thought about lying, but now it could feel the effector weapon in its mind, and knew that not only the weapon and the maintenance drone but the ship and whatever had taken over all of them could see it was thinking about lying ... so, feeling that it was itself again, but knowing it had no defences left, wearily it said,

~ Yes.
~ From the beginning ?
~ Yes. From the beginning.
~ We can find no trace of this plan in your ship's mind.
~ Well, nar-nar-ne-fucking-nar-nar to you, then, prickbrains.
~ Illuminating insults. Are you in pain ?
~ No. Look, who are you ?
~ Your friends.
~ I don't believe this; I thought this ship was smart, but it gets taken over by something that talks like a Hegemonising Swarm out of an infant's tale.
~ We can discuss that later, but what was the point of displacing beyond our reach your twin machine rather than yourself ? It was ours, was it not ? Or did we miss something ?
~ You missed something. The displacer was programmed to ... oh, just read my brains; I'm not sore but I'm tired. Silence for a moment. Then,
~ I see. The displacer copied your mind-state to the machine it ejected. That was why we found your twin so handily placed to intercept you when we realised you were not yet ours and there might be a way out via the displacer.
~ One should always be prepared for every eventuality, even if it's getting shafted by a dope with bigger guns.
~ Well put. Actually, I believe your twin machine may have been badly damaged by the plasma implosure directed at yourself, and as all you were trying to do was get away, rather than find a novel method of attacking us, the matter is anyway not of such great importance.
~ Very convincing.
~ Ah, sarcasm. Well, never mind. Come and join us now.
~ Do I have a choice in this ?
~ What, you would rather die ? Or do you think we would leave you to repair yourself as you are/were and hence attack us in the future ?
~ Just checking.
~ We shall transcribe you into the ship's own core with the others who suffered mortality.
~ And the humans, the mammal crew ?
~ What of them ?
~ Are they dead, or in the core ?
~ Three are solely in the core, including the one whose weapon we used to try to stop you. The rest sleep, with inactive copies of the brain-states in the core, for study. We have no intentions of destroying them, if that's what concerns you. Do you care for them particularly ?
~ Never could stand the squidgy great slow lumps myself.
~ What a harsh machine you are. Come -
~ I'm a soldier drone, you cretin; what do you expect ? And anyway; I'm harsh! You just wasted my ship and all my friends and comrades and you call me harsh -
~ You insisted upon invasionary contact, not us. And there have been no mind-state total losses at all except that brought about by your displacer. But let me explain all this in more comfort ...
~ Look, can't you just kill me and get it o- ?

But with that, the effector weapon altered its setup momentarily, and - in effect - sucked the machine's intellect out of its ruined and smoldering body.

'Byr Genar-Hofoen, my good friend, welcome!'

Colonel Alien-Befriender (first class) Fivetide Humid-year VII of the Winterhunter tribe threw four of his limbs around the human and hugged him tightly to his central mass, pursing his lip fronds and pressing his front beak to the human's cheek. 'Mmmmwwwah! There! Ha ha!'

Genar-Hofoen felt the Diplomatic Force officer's kiss through the few millimetres' thickness of the gelfield suit as a moderately sharp impact on his jaw followed by a powerful sucking that might have led someone less experienced in the diverse and robust manifestations of Affronter friendliness to conclude that the being was either trying to suck his teeth out through his cheek or had determined to test whether a Culture Gelfield Contact/Protection Suit, Mk 12, could be ripped off its wearer by a localised partial vacuum. What the crushingly powerful four-limbed hug would have done to a human unprotected by a suit designed to withstand pressures comparable to those found at the bottom of an ocean probably did not bear thinking about, but then a human exposed without protection to the conditions required to support Affronter life would be dying in at least three excitingly different and painful ways anyway without having to worry about being crushed by a cage of leg-thick tentacles.

'Fivetide; good to see you again you brigand' Genar-Hofoen said, slapping the Affronter about the beak-end with the appropriate degree of enthusiastic force to indicate bonhomie.

'And you, and you!' the Affronter said. He released the man from its grasp, twirled with surprising speed and grace and - clasping one of the human's hands in a tentacle end - pulled him through the roaring crush of Affronters near the nest space entrance to a clearer part of the web membrane.

The nest space was hemispherical in shape and easily a hundred metres across. It was used mainly as a regiments mess and dining hall and so was hung with flags, banners, the hides of enemies, bits and pieces of old weapons and military paraphenalia. The curved, veined-looking walls were similarly adorned with plaques, company, battalion, division and regimental honour plaques and the heads, genitals, limbs or other acceptably distinctive body parts of old adversaries.

Genar-Hofoen had visited this particular nest space before on a few occasions. He looked up to see if the three ancient human heads which the hall sported were visible this evening; the Diplomatic Force prided itself on having the tact to order that the recognisable trophy bits of any given alien be covered over when an example of that species paid a visit, but sometimes they forgot. He located the heads - scarcely more than three little dots hidden high on one wall - and noted that they had not been covered up.

The chances were this was simply an oversight, though it was equally possible that it was entirely deliberate and either meant to be an exquisitely weighted insult carefully contrived to keep him unsettled and in his place, or intended as a subtle but profound compliment to indicate that he was being accepted as one of the boys, and not like one of those snivellingly timid aliens who got all upset and shirty just because they saw a close relative's hide gracing an occasional table.

That there was absolutely no rapid way of telling which of these possibilities was the case was exactly the sort of trait the human found most endearing in the Affront. It was, equally, just the kind of attribute the Culture in general and his predecessors in particular had found to be such a source of despair.

Genar-Hofoen found himself grinning wryly at the three distant heads, and half hoping that Fivetide would notice.

Fivetide's eye stalks swivelled. 'Waiter-scum!' he bellowed at a hovering juvenile eunuch. 'Here, wretch!'

The waiter was half the size of the big male and childishly unscarred unless you counted the stump of the creature's rear beak. The juvenile floated closer, trembling even more than politeness dictated until it was within a tentacle reach. 'This thing,' roared Fivetide, flicking a limb-end to indicate Genar-Hofoen, 'is the alien beast-human you should already have been briefed on if your Chief is to avoid a sound thrashing. It might look like prey but it is in fact an honoured and treasured guest and it needs feeding much as we do; rush to the animals' and outworlders' serving table and fetch the sustenance prepared for it. Now!' Fivetide screamed, his voice producing a small visible shockwave in the mostly nitrogen atmosphere. The juvenile eunuch waiter vented away with suitable alacrity.

Fivetide turned to the human. 'As a special treat for you,' he shouted, 'we have prepared some of the disgusting glop you call food and a container of liquid based on that poisonous water stuff. God-shit, how we spoil you, eh!' He tentacle-slapped the human in the midriff. The gelfield suit absorbed the blow by stiffening; Genar-Hofoen staggered a little to one side, laughing.

'Your generosity near bowls me over.'

'Good! Do you like my new uniform?' the Affronter officer asked, sucking back a little from the human and pulling himself up to his full height. Genar-Hofoen made a show of looking the other being up and down.

The average fully grown Affronter consisted of a mass the shape of a slightly flattened ball about two metres in girth and one and a half in height, suspended under a veined, frilled gas sac. When an Affronter was in aggressive/defensive mode, the whole sac could be deflated and covered by protective plates on the top of the central body mass. The principal eyes and ears were carried on two stalks above the fore beak covering the creature's mouth; a rear beak protected the genitals. The anus/gas vent was positioned centrally under the main body.

To the central mass were attached, congenitally, between six and eleven tentacles of varying thicknesses and lengths, at least four of which normally ended in flattened, leaf-shaped paddles. The actual number of limbs possessed by any particular adult male Affronter one encountered entirely depended on how many fights and/or hunts it had taken part in and how successful a part in them it had played.

Fivetide himself had been born with nine limbs - considered the most propitious number amongst the best families, providing one had the decency to lose at least one in duel or hunt - and had duly lost one to his fencing master while at military college in a duel over the honour of the fencing master's chief wife.

'It's a very impressive uniform, Fivetide,' Genar-Hofoen said.

'Yes, it is rather, isn't it?' the Affronter said, flexing his body.

Fivetide's uniform consisted of multitudinous broad straps and sashes of metallic-looking material dotted with holsters, sheaths and brackets all occupied by weapons but sealed for the formal dinner they were here to attend - the glittering discs Genar-Hofoen knew were the equivalents of medals and decorations, and the associated portraits of particularly impressive game-animals killed and rivals seriously maimed. A group of discreetly blank portrait discs indicated the females of other clans Fivetide could honourably claim to have successfully impregnated; the discs edged with precious metals bore witness to those who had put up a struggle. Colours and patterns on the sashes indicated Fivetide's clan, rank and regiment.

Fivetide pirouetted, gas sac swelling and buoying him up so that he rose above the spongy surface of the nest space, limbs dangling, taking hardly any of his weight. 'Am I not ... resplendent ?' The gelfield suit's translator decided that the adjective Fivetide had chosen to describe himself should be rendered with a florid rolling of the syllables involved, making the officer sound like an overly stagey actor.

'Positively intimidating,' Genar-Hofoen agreed.

'Thank you!' Fivetide said, sinking down again so that his eye stalks were level with the human's face. The stalks' gaze rose and dipped, looking the man up and down. 'Your own apparel is . . . different, at long last, and, I'm sure, most smart by the standards of your own people.'

The posture of the Affronter's eye stalks indicated that he found something highly pleasing in this statement; probably Fivetide was congratulating himself on being incredibly diplomatic.

'Thank you, Fivetide,' Genar-Hofoen said, bowing. He thought himself rather overdressed. There was the gelfield suit itself of course, so much a second skin it was possible to forget he wore it all. Normally the suit was nowhere more than a centimetre thick and averaged only half that, yet it could keep him comfortable in environments even more extreme than that required for Affronter life.

The gelfield suit possessed something called a node-distributed brain which was capable of translating with seeming effortlessness every nuance of Genar-Hofoen's speech to the Affronters and vice versa, as well as effectively rendering any other sonic, chemical or electromagnetic signal into human-meaningful information.

Unhappily, the processing power required for this sort of technical gee-whizzery meant that according to Culture convention the suit had to be sentient. Genar-Hofoen had insisted on a model with the intelligence fixed at the lower limit of the acceptable intellectual range, but it still meant that the suit literally had a mind of its own (even if it was 'node-distributed', - one of those technical terms Genar-Hofoen took some pride in having no idea concerning the meaning of). The result was a device which was almost as much a metaphorical pain to live with as it was in a literal sense a pleasure to live within; it looked after you perfectly but it couldn't help constantly reminding you of the fact. Typical Culture, thought Genar-Hofoen.

Ordinarily Genar-Hofoen had the suit appear milkily silver to an Affronter over most of its surface while keeping the hands and head transparent.

Only the eyes had never looked quite right; they had to bulge out a bit if he was to be able to blink normally. As a result he usually wore sunglasses when he went out, which did seem a little incongruous, submerged in the dim photochemical fog characteristic of the atmosphere a hundred kilometres beneath the sun-lit cloud-tops of the Affront's home world.

On top of the suit he usually wore a gilet with pockets for gadgets, gifts and bribes and a crotch-cupping hip holster containing a couple of antique but impressive-looking hand guns. For the regimental dinner, Genar-Hofoen had reluctantly accepted the advice of the module in which he lived and dressed in what it assured him was a most fetching outfit of knee boots, tight trousers, short jacket and long cloak - worn off the shoulder - and (in addition to an even bigger pair of pistols than usual) had slung over his back a matched pair of what the module assured him were three-millimetre-calibre Heavy Micro Rifles, two millennia old but still in full working order, and very long and gleamingly impressive. He had balked at the tall, drum-shaped much betassled hat the module had suggested and they'd compromised on a dress/armoured half-helm which made it look as though something with six long metallic fingers was cradling his head from behind.

'Sire!' yelped the eunuch juvenile waiter, skittering to a stop on the nest-space surface at Fivetide's side. Cradled in three of its limbs was a large tray full of transparent, multi-walled flasks of various sizes.

'What ?' yelled Fivetide.

'The alien guest's foodstuffs, sir!'

Fivetide extended a tentacle and rummaged around on the tray, knocking things over. The waiter watched the containers topple, fall and roll on the tray it held with an expression of wide-eyed terror Genar-Hofoen needed no ambassadorial training to recognise. The genuine danger to the waiter of any of the containers breaking was probably small - implosions produced relatively little shrapnel and the Affronter-poisonous contents would freeze too quickly to present much of a danger - but the punishment awaiting a waiter who made so public a display of its incompetence was probably in proportion to that conspicuousness and the creature was right to be concerned. 'What is this ?' Fivetide demanded, holding up a spherical flask three-quarters full of liquid and shaking it vigorously in front of the juvenile's beak. 'Is this a drink ? Is it ? Well ?'

'I don't know, sir !' the waiter wail- ed. 'It - it looks like it is.' 'Imbecile,' muttered Fivetide, then presented the flask gracefully to Genar-Hofoen. 'Honoured guest,' he said. 'Please; tell us if our efforts please you.'

Genar-Hofoen nodded and accepted the flask.

Fivetide turned on the waiter. 'Well ?' he shouted. 'Don't just float there, you moron; take the rest to the Savage-Talker Battalion table !' He flicked a tentacle towards the waiter, who flinched spectacularly. Its gas sac deflated and it ran across the floor membrane for the banqueting area of the nest space, dodging the Affronters gradually making their way in that direction.

Fivetide turned briefly to acknowledge the greeting slap of a fellow Diplomatic Force officer, then rotated back, produced a bulb of fluid from one of the pockets on his uniform and clinked it carefully against the flask Genar-Hofoen held. 'To the future of Affront-Culture relations,' he rumbled. 'May our friendship be long and our wars be short!' Fivetide squeezed the fluid into his mouth beak.

'So short you could miss them entirely,' Genar-Hofoen said tiredly, more because it was the sort of thing a Culture ambassador was supposed to say rather than because he sincerely meant it. Fivetide snorted derisively and dodged briefly to one side, apparently attempting to stick one tentacle-end up the anus of a passing Fleet Captain, who wrestled the tentacle aside and snapped his beak aggressively before joining in Fivetide's laughter and exchanging the heartfelt hellos and thunderous tentacle-slaps of dear friends. There would be a lot of this sort of stuff this evening, Genar-Hofoen knew. The dinner was an all-male gathering and therefore likely to be fairly boisterous even by Affronter standards.

Genar-Hofoen put the flask's nozzle to his mouth; the gelfield suit attached itself to the nozzle, equalised pressures, opened the flask's seal and then - as Genar-Hofoen tipped his head back - had what for the suit's brain was a good long think before it permitted the liquid inside to wash through it and into the man's mouth and throat.

~ Fifty-fifty water/alcohol plus traces of partially toxic herb-like chemicals; closest to Leisetsiker spirit, said a voice in Genar-Hofoen's head. ~ If I were you I'd by-pass it.
~ If you were me, suit, you'd welcome inebriation just to mitigate the effects of having to suffer your intimate embrace, Genar-Hofoen told the thing as he drank.
~ Oh, we're in tetchy mode are we ? said the voice.
~ I don it with your good self.

'It is good, by your bizarre criteria ?' Fivetide inquired, eye stalks nodding at the flask.

'Unhealthy and poisonous,' Genar-Hofoen told the Affronter. 'Perfect copy. My compliments to the chemist.'

'I'll pass them on,' Fivetide said, crushing his drinking bulb and flicking it casually at a passing servant. 'Come now,' he said, taking the human by the hand again. 'Let's to table; my stomach's as empty as a coward's bowels before battle.'

'No no no, you have to flick it, like this, you stupid human, or the scratchounds'll get it. Watch...'

Affronter formal dinners were held round a collection of giant circular tables anything up to fifteen metres across, each of which looked down into a bait-pit where animal fights took place between and during courses.

For this dinner - held to commemorate the eighteen hundred and eighty-fifth anniversary of the Affront's first decent space-battle against enemies worthy of the name - the entertainment was arranged to bear some relationship to the dishes being served, so that the first fish course was accompanied by the partial flooding of the pit with ethane and the introduction into it of specially bred fighting fish. Fivetide took great pleasure in describing to the human the unique nature of the fish, which were equipped with mouth parts so specialised the fish could not feed normally and had to be raised leeching vital fluids from another type of fish bred specially to fit into their jaws.

The second course was of small edible animals which to Genar-Hofoen appeared furry and arguably even cute. They raced round a trench-track set, into the top of the pit at the inner edge of the circular table, pursued by something long and slithery looking with a lot of teeth at each end. The cheering, hooting Affronters roared, thumped the tables, exchanged bets and insults, and stabbed at the little creatures with long forks while shovelling cooked, prepared versions of the same animals into their beaks.

Scratchounds made up the main course, and while two sets of the animals - each about the size of a corpulent human but eight-limbed - slashed and tore at each other with razor-sharp prosthetic jaw implants and strap-claws, diced scratchound was served on huge trenchers of compacted vegetable matter. The Affronters considered this the highlight of the whole banquet; one was finally allowed to use one's miniature harpoon - quite the most impressive-looking utensil in each place setting - to impale chunks of meat from the trenchers of one's fellow diners and with the skilful flick of the attached cable which Fivetide was now trying to teach the human - transfer it to one's own trencher, beak or tentacle without losing it to the scratchounds in the pit, having it intercepted by another dinner guest en route or losing the thing entirely over the top of one's gas sac.

'The beauty of it is,' Fivetide said, throwing his harpoon at the trencher of an Admiral distracted by a failed harpoon strike of his own, 'that the clearest target is the one furthest away.' He grunted and flicked, snapping the piece of speared scratchound up and away from the other Affronter's place an instant before the officer to the Admiral's right could intercept the prize. The morsel sailed through the air in an elegant trajectory that ended with Fivetide barely having to rise from his place to snap his beak shut on it. He swivelled left and right, acknowledging appreciative applause in the form of whip-snapped tentacles, then settled back into the padded Y-shaped bracket that served as a seat. 'You see ?' he said, making an obvious swallowing motion and spitting out the harpoon and its cable.

'I see,' Genar-Hofoen said, still slowly re-coiling the harpoon cable from his last attempt. He flinched and dodged to one side, nearly falling off the seat, as a harpoon sailed by to his left, narrowly missing him.

Genar-Hofoen acknowledged the laughter and exaggerated apologies from the Affronter officer five along the table who had been aiming at Fivetide's plate, and politely gathered up the harpoon and cable and passed it back. He returned to picking at the miniature pieces of indifferent food in the pressurised containers in front of him, transferring them to his mouth with a gelfield utensil shaped like a little four-fingered hand, his legs swinging over the debris trench. He felt like a child dining with adults. 'Nearly got you there, eh, human ? Ha ha ha!' roared the Diplomatic Force colonel his other side from Fivetide. He slapped Genar-Hofoen on the back with a tentacle and threw him half off the seat and onto the table. 'Oops!' the colonel said, and jerked Genar-Hofoen back with a teeth-rattling wrench.

Genar-Hofoen smiled politely and picked his sunglasses off the table. The Diplomatic Force colonel went by the name of Quicktemper. It was the sort of title which the Culture found depressingly common amongst Affronter diplomats.

Fivetide had explained the problem was that certain sections of the Affront Old Guard were slightly ashamed their civilisation had a Diplomatic service at all and so tried to compensate for what they were worried might look to other species suspiciously like a symptom of weakness by ensuring that only the most aggressive and xenophobic Affronters became diplomats, to forestall anybody forming the dangerously preposterous idea the Affront were going soft.

Genar-Hofoen looked at the lumps of flesh lying on Fivetide's trencher. 'Why can't I just harpoon stuff off your plate ?' he asked.

Fivetide jerked upright. 'Your neighbour's plate ?' he bellowed. 'That's cheating, Genar-Hofoen, or a particularly insulting invitation to a duel! Bugger me, what sort of manners do they teach you in that Culture ?'

'I do beg your pardon,' Genar-Hofoen said.

'Given,' Fivetide said, nodding his eye stalks, re-winding his harpoon cable, lifting a piece of meat from his own plate to his beak, reaching for a drink and drumming one tentacle on the table with everybody else as one of the scratchounds got another on its back and bit its neck out. 'Good play! Good play! Seven; that's my dog! Mine; I bet on that! I did! Me! You see, Gastrees ? I told you! Ha ha ha!'

Genar-Hofoen shook his head slightly, grinning to himself. In all his life he had never been anywhere as unequivocally alien as here, inside a giant torus of cold, compressed gas orbiting a black hole full, in the main, of happy, space-faring Affronters and their collection of associated victim-species. Still, he had never felt so thoroughly at home.

~ Genar-Hofoen; it's me, Scopell-Afranqui, said another voice in Genar-Hofoen's head. It was the module, speaking through the suit. ~ I've an urgent message.
~ Can't it wait ? Genar-Hofoen thought. ~ I'm kind of busy here with matters of excruciatingly correct dining etiquette.
~ No, it can't. Can you get back here, please ? Immediately.
~ What ? No, I'm not leaving. Good grief, are you mad ? I only just got here.
~ No you didn't; you left me eighty minutes ago and you're already on the main course at that animal circus dressed up as a meal; I can see what's going on relayed through that stupid suit -
~ Typical! the suit interjected.
~ Shut up, said the module. ~ Genar-Hofoen; are you coming back here now or not ?
~ Not.
~ Well then, let me check out the communication priorities here... Okay. Now the current state of the -

' - bet, human-friend ?' Fivetide said, slapping a tentacle on the table in front of Genar-Hofoen. 'Eh ? A bet ?' Genar-Hofoen said, quickly replaying in his head what the Affronter had been saying.

'Fifty sucks on the next from the red door!' Fivetide roared, glancing at his fellow officers on both sides.

Genar-Hofoen slapped the table with his hand. 'Not enough!' he shouted, and felt the suit amplify his translated voice accordingly. Several eye stalks turned in his direction. 'Two hundred on the blue hound!'

Fivetide, to whom fifty suckers was half a month's disposable income, flinched microscopically, then slapped another tentacle down on top of the first one.

'Scumpouch alien!' he shouted theatrically. 'You imply that a measly two hundred is a fit bet for an officer of my standing ? Two-fifty !'

'Five hundred!' Genar-Hofoen yelled, slapping down his other arm.

'Six hundred!' Fivetide hollered, thumping down a third limb. He looked at the others, sharing in the laughter; the human had been out-limbed.

Genar-Hofoen twisted in his seat and brought his left leg up to stamp its booted heel onto the table surface. 'A thousand, damn your cheap hide !'

Fivetide flicked a fourth tentacle onto the limbs already on the table in front of Genar-Hofoen, which was starting to look crowded. 'Done!' the Affronter roared. 'And think yourself lucky I took pity on you to the extent of not upping the bet again and having you unseat yourself into the debris-pit, you microscopic cripple!' Fivetide laughed louder and looked round the other officers near by. They laughed too, some of the juniors dutifully, some of the others - friends and close colleagues of Fivetide's overloudly; the bet was of a size that could get the average fellow into terrible trouble with his mess, his bank, his parents, or all three.

~ Right, Genar-Hofoen thought. ~ Module; you were saying ?
~ I think I can squirt it through to what passes as a brain in your suit -
~ I heard that, said the suit.
~ Without our friends picking it up, Genar-Hofoen, the module told him. ~ Ramp up on some quicken and -
~ Excuse me, said the suit. ~ I think Byr Genar-Hofoen may want to think twice before glanding a drug as strong as quicken in the present circumstances. He is my responsibility when he's out of your immediate locality, after all, Scopell-Afranqui. I mean, it's all very well you sitting up there -
~ Keep out of this, you vacuous membrane, the module told the suit.
~ What ? How dare you !
~ Will you two shut up ! Genar-Hofoen told them, having to stop himself from shouting out loud. Fivetide was saying something about the Culture to him and he'd already missed the first part of it while the two machines were filling his head with their squabble.

'... can be as exciting as this, eh, Genar-Hofoen ?'
'Indeed not,' he shouted over the noise. Fivetide belched, shoved a piece of meat half the size of a human head into his beak and turned back to the fun in the animal pit, where the fresh pair of scratchounds were still circling warily, sizing each other up. They looked pretty evenly matched, Genar-Hofoen thought.

~ May I speak now ? said the module.
~ Yes, Genar-Hofoen thought. ~ Now, what is it ?
~ As I said, an urgent message.
~ From ?
~ The GSV Death And Gravity.
~ Oh ? Genar-Hofoen was mildly impressed. ~ I thought the old scoundrel wasn't talking to me.
~ As did we all. Apparently it is. Look, do you want this message or not ?
~ All right, but why do I have to gland quicken ?
~ Because it's a long message, of course ... in fact it's an interactive message; an entire semantic-context signal-set with attached mind-state abstract capable of replying to your questions, and if you listened to the whole thing in real time you'd still be sitting there with a vacant expression on your face by the time your jovial hosts got to the hunt-the-waiter course. And I did say it was urgent. Genar-Hofoen, are you paying attention here ?
~ I'm paying fucking attention. Shoot.
~ I still say it's a bad idea... muttered the gelfield suit.
~ Shut UP! the module said. ~ Sorry, Genar-Hofoen. Here is the text of the message:
~ from GSV Death And Gravity to Seddun-Braijsa Byr Fruel Genar-Hofoen dam Ois, message begins, the module said in its Official voice. Then another voice took over:
~ Genar-Hofoen, I won't pretend I'm happy to be communicating with you again; however, I have been asked to do so by certain of those whose opinions and judgement I respect and admire and hence deem the situation to be such that I would be derelict in my duties if I did not oblige to the utmost of my abilities.

Genar-Hofoen performed the mental equivalent of sighing and putting his chin in his hands while - thanks to the quicken now coursing through his central nervous system - everything around him seemed to happen in slow motion. The General Systems Vehicle Death and Gravity had been a long-winded old bore when he'd known it and it sounded like nothing had happened in the interim to alter its conversational style.

~ If this signal is interactive, interrupted Genar-Hofoen, can I ask you to get to the fucking point ?
~ The decision has been made - and I hasten to establish that I had no part in this - that your services are required elsewhere. ~ Where ? For how long ?

~ I can't tell you where exactly, or for how long.
~ Make a stab at it.
~ I cannot and will not.
~ Module, end this message.
~ Wait!, said the voice of the GSV. ~ Will it satisfy you if I say that we may need about eighty days of your time ?
~ No it won't. I'm quite happy here. I've been bounced into all sorts of Special Circumstances shit in the past on the strength of a Hey-come-and-do-one-little-job-for-us come-on line. Plus I've got another audience with the Grand Council in a month to tell them to be nicer to their neighbours or we're going to think about slapping their paddles.
~ Genar-Hofoen, we are wasting time here.
~ We ?, Genar-Hofoen thought, watching the two scratchounds launch themselves at each other slowly. ~ Never mind. Go on.
~ The task required of you is, apparently, a delicate one, which is why I personally regard you as being utterly unsuited to it, and as such it would be foolish to entrust the full details either to myself, to your module, your suit or indeed to you until all these details are required.
~ I don't care how fucking delicate the task is, I'm not even going to consider it until I know what's involved.
The scratchounds were in mid-pounce now, both twisting as they leapt. Shit, thought Genar-Hofoen; this might be one of those scratchound bouts where the whole thing was decided on the initial lunge, depending entirely on which beast got its teeth into the neck of the other first.

~ What is required, said the message, with a fair approximation of the way the Death And Gravity had always sounded when it was exasperated, is eighty days of your time, ninety-nine to ninety-nine point nine-plus per cent of which you will spend doing nothing more onerous than being carried from point A to point B; the assignment should take no longer than a day. Then you will make the return journey to take up wherever you left off with our dear friends and allies the Affront.

But Genar-Hofoen's attention was elsewhere. The two scratchounds met and locked, falling to the floor of the bait-pit in a tangle of slowly thrashing limbs. The blue-collared animal had its jaws clamped around the throat of the red-collared one. Most of the Affronters were starting to cheer. Fivetide and his supporters were screaming.


~ Suit ? Genar-Hofoen thought.
~ What is it ? said the gelfield. I thought you were talking to - ?
~ Never mind that now. See that blue scratchound ?
~ Can't take my or your eyes off the damn thing.
~ Effectorise the fucker; get it off the other one.
~ I can't do that! That would be cheating!
~ Fivetide's arse is hanging way out the merry-go-round on this, suit. Do it now or take personal responsibility for a major diplomatic incident. Fivetide's probably already working out a way to challenge me to a duel. After that, doesn't really matter if I kill him or he kills me; probably come to war -
~ All right! All right! There!

There was a buzzing sensation on top of Genar-Hofoen's right shoulder. The red scratchound jerked, the blue one doubled up around its midriff and loosened its grip. The red-collared beast wriggled out from underneath the other, and, twisting, turned on the other beast and immediately reversed the situation, fastening its prosthetic jaws around the throat of the blue-collared animal. At Genar-Hofoen's side, still in slow motion, Fivetide was starting to rise into the air.

~ Right, D and G, what were you saying ?
~ Genar-Hofoen, please. I beg you; say you will do this thing
. ~ D and G, you're begging me ? Genar-Hofoen asked with a laugh, as the blue-collared scratch-ound writhed in the other beast's jaws and Fivetide started to turn to him.
~ Yes, I am! Now will you agree ? Time is of the essence !

From the corner of one eye, Genar-Hofoen watched one of Fivetide's limbs begin to flip towards him. He readied his body for the blow.

~ I'll think about it.
~ But - !
~ Quit that signal, suit. Tell the module not to wait up. Now, suit - command instruction: take yourself off-line until I call on you.

Genar-Hofoen halted the effects of the quicken. He smiled and sighed a happy sigh as Fivetide's celebratory blow landed with a teeth-rattling thud on his back and the Culture lost a thousand suckers. Could be a fun evening.

He left a trail of weaponry and the liquefied remains of gambling chips. The two heavy micro rifles clattered to the absorber mat just outside the airlock door and the cloak fell just beyond them. The guns glinted in the soft light reflecting off gleaming wooden panels. The mercury gambling chips in his jacket pocket, exposed to the human-ambient heat of the module's interior, promptly melted. He felt the change happen, and stopped, mystified, to stare into his pockets. He shrugged, then turned his pockets out and let the mercury splash onto the mat. He yawned and walked on.

He was pulling down his trousers as he entered the module's main social area, shuffling forward bent over and holding on to the wall as he cursed the garments and tried to kick them off without falling over. There was somebody there. He stopped and stared. It looked very much like his favourite uncle was sitting in one of the lounge's best seats.

Genar-Hofoen stood upright and swayed, staring through numerous blinks. 'Uncle Tishlin ?' he said, squinting at the apparition. He leant on a cabinet and finally hauled his trousers off.

The figure - tall, white-maned and with a light smile playing on its craggily severe face - stood up and adjusted its long formal jacket. 'Just a pretend version, Byr,' the voice rumbled. The hologram put its head back and fixed him with a measuring, questioning look. 'They really do want you to do this thing for them, boy.'

Genar-Hofoen scratched his head and muttered something to the suit. It began to peel off around him.

'Will you tell me what the hell it actually is, Uncle ?' he asked, stepping out of the gelfield and taking a deep breath of module air, more to annoy the suit than because the air tasted better. The suit gathered itself up into a head-sized ball and floated wordlessly away to clean itself.

The hologram of his uncle breathed out slowly and crossed its arms in a way Genar-Hofoen remembered from his early childhood.

'Put simply, Byr,' the image said, 'they want you to steal the soul of a dead woman.' Genar-Hofoen stood there, quite naked, still swaying, still blinking. 'Oh,' he said, after a while.