/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space / Series: Culture

Surface Detail

Iain Banks

It begins in the realm of the Real, where matter still matters. It begins with a murder. And it will not end until the Culture has gone to war with death itself. Lededje Y'breq is one of the Intagliated, her marked body bearing witness to a family shame, her life belonging to a man whose lust for power is without limit. Prepared to risk everything for her freedom, her release, when it comes, is at a price, and to put things right she will need the help of the Culture. Benevolent, enlightened and almost infinitely resourceful though it may be, the Culture can only do so much for any individual. With the assistance of one of its most powerful — and arguably deranged — warships, Lededje finds herself heading into a combat zone not even sure which side the Culture is really on. A war — brutal, far-reaching — is already raging within the digital realms that store the souls of the dead, and it's about to erupt into reality. It started in the realm of the Real and that is where it will end. It will touch countless lives and affect entire civilizations, but at the center of it all is a young woman whose need for revenge masks another motive altogether. SURFACE DETAIL is Iain M. Banks' new Culture novel, a breathtaking achievement from a writer whose body of work is without parallel in the modern history of science fiction.

Iain M Banks

Surface Detail

For Seth and Lara

With thanks to Adèle


This one might be trouble.”

She heard one of them say this, only ten or so metres away in the darkness. Even over her fear, the sheer naked terror of being hunted, she felt a shiver of excitement, of something like triumph, when she realised they were talking about her. Yes, she thought, she would be trouble, she already was trouble. And they were worried too; the hunters experienced their own fears during the chase. Well, at least one of them did. The man who’d spoken was Jasken; Veppers’ principal bodyguard and chief of security. Jasken. Of course; who else?

“You think so… do you?” said a second man. That was Veppers himself. It felt as though something curdled inside her when she heard his deep, perfectly modulated voice, right now attenuated to something just above a whisper. “But then… they’re all trouble.” He sounded out of breath. “Can’t you see… anything with those?” He must be talking about Jasken’s Enhancing Oculenses; a fabulously expensive piece of hardware like heavyduty sunglasses. They turned night to day, made heat visible and could see radio waves, allegedly. Jasken tended to wear them all the time, which she had always thought was just showing off, or betrayed some deep insecurity. Wonderful though they might be, they had yet to deliver her into Veppers’ exquisitely manicured hands.

She was standing, flattened, against a flat scenery. In the gloom, a moment before she had spread herself against the enormous backdrop, she had been able to make out that it was just painted canvas with great sweeps of dark and light paint, but she had been too close to it to see what it actually portrayed. She angled her head out a little and risked a quick look down and to the left, to where the two men were, standing on a gantry cantilevered out from the side of the fly tower’s north wall. She glimpsed a pair of shadowy figures, one holding something that might have been a rifle. She couldn’t be sure. Unlike Jasken, she had only her own eyes to see with.

She brought her head back in again, quickly but smoothly, scared that she might be seen, and tried to breathe deeply, evenly, silently. She twisted her neck this way and that, clenched and unclenched her fists, flexed her already aching legs. She was standing on a narrow wooden ledge at the bottom of the flat. It was slightly narrower than her shoes; she had to keep her feet splayed, toes pointing outwards in opposite directions, to stop herself from falling. Beneath, unseen in the darkness, the wide rear stage of the opera house was twenty metres further down. If she fell, there were probably other cross-gantries or scenery towers in the way for her to hit on the way down.

Above her, unseen in the gloom, was the rest of the fly tower and the gigantic carousel that sat over the rear of the opera house’s stage and stored all the multifarious sets its elaborate productions required. She started to edge very slowly along the ledge, away from where the two men stood on the wall gantry. Her left heel still hurt where she’d dug out a tracer device, days earlier.

“Sulbazghi?” she heard Veppers say, voice low. He and Jasken had been talking quietly to each other; now they were probably using a radio or something similar. She didn’t hear any answer from Dr. Sulbazghi; probably Jasken was wearing an earpiece. Maybe Veppers too, though he rarely carried a phone or any other comms gear.

Veppers, Jasken and Dr. S. She wondered how many were chasing her as well as these three. Veppers had guards to command, a whole retinue of servants, aides, helpers and other employees who might be pressed into service to help in a pursuit like this. The opera house’s own security would help too, if called on; the place belonged to Veppers, after all. And no doubt Veppers’ good friend, the city Chief of Police would lend any forces requested of him, in the highly unlikely event Veppers couldn’t muster enough of his own. She kept on sliding her way along the ledge.

“On the north side wall,” she heard Veppers say after a few moments. “Gazing up at varied bucolic backdrops and scenic scenes. No sign of our little illustrated girl.” He sighed. Theatrically, she thought, which was at least appropriate. “Lededje?” he called out suddenly.

She was startled to hear her own name; she trembled and felt the painted flat at her back wobble. Her left hand flew to one of the two knives she’d stolen, the double sheath looped onto the belt of the workman’s trousers she was wearing. She started to tip forward, felt herself about to fall; she brought her hand back, steadied herself again.

“Lededje?” His voice, her name, echoed inside the great dark depths of the fly carousel. She shuffled further along the narrow ledge. Was it starting to bend? She thought she felt it flexing beneath her feet.

Lededje?” Veppers called again. “Come on now, this is becoming boring. I have a terribly important reception to attend in a couple of hours and you know how long it takes to get me properly dressed and ready. You’ll have Astil fretting. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”

She indulged a sneer. She didn’t give a damn what Astil, Veppers’ pompous butler, thought or felt.

“You’ve had your few days of freedom but that’s over now, accept it,” Veppers’ deep voice said, echoing. “Come out like a good girl and I promise you won’t be hurt. Not much anyway. A slap, perhaps. A minor addition to your bodymark, just possibly. Small; a detail, obviously. And exquisitely done, of course. I’d have it no other way.” She thought she could hear him smiling as he spoke. “But no more. I swear. Seriously, dear child. Come out now while I can still persuade myself this is merely charming high spirits and attractive rebelliousness rather than gross treachery and outright insult.”

“Fuck you,” Lededje said, very, very quietly. She took another couple of shuffling, sliding steps along the thin wooden band at the foot of the flat. She heard what might have been a creak beneath her. She swallowed and kept on going.

“Lededje, come on!” Veppers’ voice boomed out. “I’m trying terribly hard to be reasonable here! I am being reasonable, aren’t I, Jasken?” She heard Jasken mutter something, then Veppers’ voice pealed out again: “Yes, indeed. There you are; even Jasken thinks I’m being reasonable, and he’s been making so many excuses for you he’s practically on your side. What more can you ask for? So, now it’s your turn. This is your last chance. Show yourself, young lady. I’m becoming impatient. This is no longer funny. Do you hear me?”

Oh, very clearly, she thought. How he liked the sound of his own voice. Joiler Veppers had never been one to fight shy of letting the world know exactly what he thought about anything, and, thanks to his wealth, influence and extensive media interests, the world — indeed the system, the entire Enablement — had never really had much choice but to listen.

“I am serious, Lededje. This is not a game. This stops now, by your choice if you’ve any sense, or I make it stop. And trust me, scribble-child, you do not want me to make it stop.”

Another sliding step, another creak from beneath her feet. Well, at least his voice might cover any noise she might be making.

“Five beats, Lededje,” he called. “Then we do it the hard way.” Her feet slid slowly along the thin strip of wood. “All right,” Veppers said. She could hear the anger in his voice, and despite her hate, her utter contempt for him, something about that tone still had the effect of sending a chill of fear through her. Suddenly there was a noise like a slap, and for an instant she thought he’d struck Jasken across the face, then realised it was just a handclap. “One!” he shouted. A pause, then another clap. “Two!”

Her right hand, tightly gloved, was extended as far as she could reach, feeling for the thin strip of wood that formed the edge of the scenery flat. Beyond that should lie the wall, and ladders, steps, gantries; even just ropes — anything to let her make her escape. Another, even louder clap, echoing in the dark, lost spaces of the carousel fly tower. “Three!”

She tried to remember the size of the opera stage. She had been here a handful of times with Veppers and the rest of his extended entourage, brought along as a trophy, a walking medal denoting his commercial victories; she ought to be able to remember. All she could recall was being sourly impressed by the scale of everything: the brightness, depth and working complexity of the scenery; the physical effects produced by trapdoors, hidden wires, smoke machines and fireworks; the sheer amount of noise the hidden orchestra and the strutting, overdressed singers and their embedded microphones could create.

It had been like watching a very convincing super-size holoscreen, but one comically limited to just this particular width and depth and height of set, and incapable of the sudden cuts and instant changes of scene and scale possible in a screen. There were hidden cameras focused on the principal players, and side screens at the edge of the stage showing them in 3D close-up, but it was still — perhaps just because of the obviously prodigious amount of effort, time and money spent on it all — a bit pathetic really. It was as though being fabulously rich and powerful meant not being able to enjoy a film — or at least not being able to admit to enjoying one — but still you had to try to re-create films on stage. She hadn‘t seen the point. Veppers had loved it. “Four!”

Only afterwards — mingling, paraded, socialising, exhibited — had she realised it was really just an excuse and the opera itself a side-show; the true spectacle of the evening was always played out inside the sumptuous foyer, upon the glittering staircases, within the curved sweep of dazzlingly lit, high-ceilinged corridors, beneath the towering chandeliers in the palatial anterooms, around fabulously laden tables in resplendently decorated saloons, in the absurdly grand rest rooms and in the boxes, front rows and elected seats of the auditorium rather than on the stage itself. The super-rich and ultra-powerful regarded themselves as the true stars, and their entrances and exits, gossip, approaches, advances, suggestions, proposals and prompts within the public spaces of this massive building constituted the proper business of the event.

“Enough of this melodrama, lady!” Veppers shouted.

If it was just the three of them — Veppers, Jasken and Sulbazghi — and if it stayed just the three of them, she might have a chance. She had embarrassed Veppers and he wouldn’t want any more people to know about that than absolutely had to. Jasken and Dr. S didn’t count; they could be relied upon, they would never talk. Others might, others would. If outsiders had to be involved they would surely know she had disobeyed him and bested him even temporarily. He would feel the shame of that, magnified by his grotesque vanity. It was that overweening self-regard, that inability to suffer even the thought of shame, that might let her get away. “Five!”

She paused, felt herself swallow as the final clap resounded in the darkness around her.

“So! That’s what you want?” Veppers shouted. Again, she could hear the anger in his voice. “You had your chance, Lededje. Now we—”

“Sir!” she shouted, not too loudly, still looking away from him, in the direction she was shuffling.


“Was that her?”

“Led?” Jasken shouted.

“Sir!” she yelled, keeping her voice lower than a full shout but trying to make it sound as though she was putting all her effort into it. “I’m here! I’m done with this. My apologies, sir. I’ll accept whatever punishment you choose.”

“Indeed you will,” she heard Veppers mutter. Then he raised his voice, “Where is ‘here’?” he called. “Where are you?”

She raised her head, projecting her voice into the great dark spaces above, where vast sets like stacked cards loomed. “In the tower, sir. Near the top, I think.”

“She’s up there?” Jasken said, sounding incredulous.

“Can you see her?”

“No, sir.”

“Can you show yourself, little Lededje?” Veppers shouted. “Let us see where you are! Have you a light?”

“Um, ah, wait a moment, sir,” she said in her half-shout, angling her head upwards again.

She shuffled a little faster along the ledge now. She had an image in her head of the size of the stage, the sets and flats that came down to produce backgrounds for the action. They were vast, enormously wide. She probably wasn’t halfway across yet. “I have…” she began, then let her voice fade away. This might buy her a little extra time, might keep Veppers from going crazy.

“The general manager is with Dr. Sulbazghi now, sir,” she heard Jasken say.

“Is he now?” Veppers sounded exasperated.

“The general manager is upset, sir. Apparently he wishes to know what is going on in his opera house.”

“It’s my fucking opera house!” Veppers said, loudly. “Oh, all right. Tell him we’re looking for a stray. And have Sulbazghi turn on the lights; we might as well, now.” There was a pause, then he said, testily, “Yes, of course all the lights!”

“Shit!” Lededje breathed. She tried to move even faster, felt the wooden ledge beneath her feet bounce.

“Lededje,” Veppers shouted, “can you hear me?” She didn’t reply. “Lededje, stay where you are; don’t risk moving. We’re going to turn on the lights.”

The lights came on. There were fewer than she’d expected and it became dimly lit around her rather than dazzlingly bright. Of course; most of the lights would be directed at the stage itself, not up into the scenery inside the fly tower carousel. Still, there was enough light to gain a better impression of her surroundings. She could see the greys, blues, blacks and whites of the painted flat she was pressed against — though she still had no idea what the enormous painting represented — and could see the dozens of massive hanging backgrounds — some three-dimensional, metres thick, sculpted to resemble port scenes, town squares, peasant villages, mountain crags, forest canopies — hanging above her. They bowed out as they ascended, held inside the barrel depths of the carousel like vast pages in some colossal illustrated book. She was about halfway along the flat, almost directly above the middle of the stage. Fifteen metres or more still to go. It was too far. She would never make it. She could see down, too. The brightly shining stage was over twenty metres below. She tore her gaze away. The creaking sound beneath her desperately shuffling feet had taken on a rhythm now. What could she do? What other way out was there? She thought of the knives.

“I still can’t—” Veppers said.

“Sir! That bit of scenery; it’s moving. Look.”

“Shit shit shit!” she breathed, trying to move still faster.

“Lededje, are you—”

She heard steps, then, “Sir! She’s there! I can see her!”

“Buggering fuck,” she had time to say, then heard the creaking noise beneath her turn into a splitting, splintering sound, and felt herself sinking, being lowered, gently at first. She brought her hands in, unsheathed both knives. Then there was a noise like a gunshot; the wooden ledge beneath her gave way and she started to fall.

She heard Jasken shout something.

She twisted, turned, stabbed both knives into the plasticised canvas of the flat, holding on grimly to each handle as she pulled herself in as close as she could, her gloved fists at her shoulders, hearing the canvas tear and watching it split in front of her eyes, the twin blades slicing quickly down to the foot of the enormous painting where the jagged remains of the wooden ledge sagged and fell.

The knives were going to cut right through the bottom of the canvas! She was sure she’d seen something like this done in a film and it had all looked a lot easier. Hissing, she twisted both knives, turning each blade from vertical to horizontal. She stopped falling and hung there, bouncing gently on the torn, straining canvas. Her legs swung in space beneath her. Shit, this wasn’t going to work. Her arms were getting sore and starting to shake already.

“What’s she—?” she heard Veppers say, then, “Oh my God! She’s—”

“Have them rotate the carousel, sir,” Jasken said quickly. “Once it’s in the right position they can lower her to the stage.”

“Of course! Sulbazghi!”

She could hardly hear what they were saying, she was breathing so hard and her blood was pounding in her ears. She glanced to one side. The now broken length of wood she’d been sidling along had been attached to the bottom of the scenery flat by big staples sunk into the double-folded hem of the giant painting; to her right, just under a body-length away from her, some of these still held. She started swinging herself from side to side, her breath whooshing and hissing out of her as she forced her arms to stay locked in position while her legs and lower body pendulumed. She thought she heard the two men shouting at her but she couldn’t be sure. She swung wildly to and fro, moving the whole rippling extent of the scenery flat. Nearly there…

She hooked her right leg onto the ledge, found purchase and detached one knife, hooking and stabbing at the canvas above her, keeping the blade horizontal. Flat, angled down behind the canvas, the knife held; she hauled herself up until she was about midway between prone and upright. She brought the other knife out and swung it up too, still higher.

“Now what’s she—?”

“Lededje!” Jasken yelled. “Stop! You’ll kill yourself!”

She was upright, hanging by the two embedded knives. She swung up and out, stuck a blade in still further up. Her arm muscles felt as though they were on fire, but she was pulling herself upwards. She’d had no idea that she possessed such strength. Her pursuers controlled the machinery, of course; they could rotate the whole vast apparatus and could lower her as they wished, but she’d resist them to the last. Veppers had no idea. He was the one who still thought this was a game; she knew it was to the death.

Then there was a deep humming sound, and with a low, moaning noise, the whole scenery flat, and all the others around, above and below it, started to move. Upwards; hauling the scenery flat up into the dim heights of the enormous carousel. Upwards! She wanted to laugh, but had no breath for it. She was feeling for the knife holes beneath with her feet now, finding them, using them as footholds, taking some of the strain off her protesting arm muscles.

“That’s the wrong fucking way!” Veppers screamed. She heard Jasken shouting something too. “That’s the wrong fucking way!” Veppers bellowed again. “Make it stop. Other way! Other way! Sulbazghi! What are you playing at? Sulbazghi!

The gigantic carousel continued to turn, rotating the sets and flats like a vast spit-roast. She glanced over her shoulder and saw that, as the whole assemblage rotated, lifting the backdrop that she was climbing away from above the stage itself, it was getting closer to the next flat, all of the stacked sets pressing in towards each other as they came to the horizontal limit of the space. The set closing in on her back looked plain and smooth and lacking in features; just another painted scene with a few thin supporting cross-beams and as hard to climb as this one. Above, she could see more complicated, three-dimensional sets, some boasting lights that must have come on when they’d turned on all the rest. She put her face against the canvas, stared through the knife hole she’d just made.

A very convincing olde-worlde rooftop scene greeted her; oddly angled gutters, quaintly tiny dormer windows, steep-pitched slate roofs, wonky chimney pots — some with real pretend smoke just starting to come out of them — and a net, a tracery of tiny blue lights strung right across the width of the set and for twenty metres or more above the chimneys and ridge tiles, impersonating stars. The whole thing was sliding gradually closer, edging slowly downwards as the carousel continued to revolve.

She ignored the still-shouting men, slit a hole in the canvas big enough for her to slip through and once on the far side launched herself at the rooftop set. The canvas flat she’d thrown herself from moved away as she kicked back at it; she started to fall, heard herself scream, then half her body from the waist up thudded into the fake slates. Winded, she found both her knives had gone and she was holding on with both hands to a set of flimsy-feeling railings in front of a tall set of windows. Something clattered far beneath her; the knives, she guessed.

The two men below were still shouting; it sounded like half at her and half at Dr. Sulbazghi. She wasn’t listening to either of them. Veppers and Jasken couldn’t see her now; part of the rooftop set was hiding her from them. She hauled herself up on the phoney wrought-iron railings, the plastic bending in her grip and threatening to break. She found more handholds on hoax gutters, dummy window ledges and counterfeit chimneys.

She was at the top, trying to make her way along the ridge through the cold fake smoke issuing from the chimney pots, when the carousel came grinding to a stop, making the whole set judder. She lost her footing, slipped and fell down the far side, screaming.

The tracery of tiny lights, the pretend star field of a clear night sky, caught her, entangling her in their chilly blue embrace, the net bowing and stretching but not breaking, the hard wires conjoining the lights seeming to wrap themselves around her and tighten as she struggled.

“Now!” she heard Veppers shout.

There was a single crack of rifle fire. An instant later she felt a blindingly sharp pain on her right hip, and then, moments after that, the little fake blue stars and the drifting smoke that wasn’t real smoke and the whole insane edifice all just drifted away from her.

Manhandled. She was being manhandled.

Now she was being laid down on a hard surface.

Her limbs flopped around her, feeling somehow disconnected. If she’d had to guess, she’d have hazarded that she had been gently placed here rather than just thrown down; that was a good sign. She hoped it was, anyway. Her head felt okay; not nearly as sore as the last occasion.

She wondered how much time had passed. They had probably taken her back to the town house, just a few city segments away from the opera house. She might even be back in Espersium; runaways were usually returned to the great estate to await Veppers’ pleasure. Sometimes you had to wait days or even weeks to discover the full extent of your punishment. One of Jasken’s tranquilliser rounds usually knocked you out for a good few hours; there would have been time to get her anywhere on the planet, or off it.

It struck her, as she lay there hearing muffled words spoken around her, that she was thinking a lot more clearly than she’d have expected. She found she could control her eyes, and opened them as narrowly as she could, peering through the lashes to see whatever was around her. Town house? The estate? Interesting to find out.

The surroundings were dim. Veppers was standing over her, all perfect teeth, radiantly elegant face, white mane, golden skin, wide shoulders and dramatic cloak. There was somebody else there, more felt than seen, doing something at her hip.

Dr. Sulbazghi — grizzled, brown, square of face and frame — walked into view, handing Veppers something. “Your knives, sir,” he said.

Veppers took them, inspected them. He shook his head. “Little bitch,” he breathed. “Taking these! They were—”

“Your grandfather’s,” Sulbazghi said, voice rumbling. “Yes, we know.”

“Little bitch,” Veppers said, and almost chuckled. “Mind you, they were her great grandfather’s before that, so you can see… But, still.” He slid both knives into his waistband.

Dr. Sulbazghi was squatting down now, to her left, looking at her. He put a hand to her face, wiping away some of the pale, millimetre-thick makeup she’d applied. He wiped the hand on his jacket, leaving a pale streak. It was very dim around her, dim above Dr. S, too. And their voices hardly echoed at all, as though they were standing in some enormous space.

Something didn’t feel right. There was a tug at her hip; no pain at all. Jasken’s pale, lean face came into view, made insectile by the Oculenses. He was squatting by her right side, still holding the rifle, the tranq dart in his other hand. It was hard to tell in the dim light with the lenses obscuring half the man’s face, but it looked like he was frowning at the dart. Behind him, a scaffolding tower reached up to an enormous roofscape hanging in the dimness, its roofs oddly angled and foreshortened, its comically askew chimneys still leaking pretend smoke.

Great God, she was still in the opera house! And quickly coming to, almost undrugged, by some miracle.

“I think her eye just flickered,” Veppers said, and started to lower himself towards her, cloak belling out around him. She closed her eyes quickly, shutting out the view. She felt a tremor run through her body, she half-flexed her hand and fingers and sensed that she would be able to move now if she wanted to.

“Can’t have,” the doctor said. “She ought to be out for hours, shouldn’t she, Jasken?”

“Wait,” Jasken said. “This round hit the bone. Might not have fully…”

“What absurd beauty,” Veppers said quietly, his deep, infinitely seductive voice very, very near to her. She felt him wipe at her face as well, removing the makeup she had applied to hide her markings. “Isn’t it odd. I rarely just… look at her this close, as a rule.” That is because, she thought calmly, when you rape me, sir, you choose to take me from behind. She sensed his breath; a wave of warmth on her cheek.

Sulbazghi took her wrist in his chubby hand, gently probing for a pulse.

“Sir, she might not—” Jasken began.

Her eyes flicked open. She was staring into Veppers’ face, immediately over hers, filling her field of vision. His eyes started to widen and an expression of alarm began to form on his fabulously smooth and perfect features. She pushed herself up and twisted her head, opening her mouth, baring her teeth and aiming for his throat.

She must have closed her eyes at the last instant but sensed him pulling up and away; her teeth crunched closed on something and Veppers shrieked. Her head was shaken back and forth as her teeth remained tight around whatever she had bitten and he tried desperately to pull himself free. “Get her off me!” he screeched, his voice strangled and nasal. She bit harder with the last of her strength and forced another anguished scream from Veppers as something tore free. Then her jaw was clamped from beneath, an iron grip causing astounding pain, and she had to let go. She could taste blood. Her head was forced back down to the floor with a painful thud and she opened her eyes to see Veppers staggering away clutching his nose and mouth; blood coursed down over his chin and shirt. Jasken was holding her head down, hands still clamped round her jaw and neck. Dr. Sulbazghi was rising from her side to go to his master.

There was something hard and grisly in her mouth, something almost too big to swallow. She forced it down all the same, gagging and sputtering; whatever it was it hesitated as it passed down her throat beneath Jasken’s clamping hands, and he might have thought to stop her swallowing, but didn’t. She grabbed a tight, wheezing breath.

“Has she—” Veppers sobbed as Sulbazghi came up to him, teasing the taller man’s hands away from his face. Veppers, staring down, cross-eyed, took a sudden breath too. “She fucking has! She’s bitten my fucking nose off!” he howled. Veppers pushed Sulbazghi away, sending the older man staggering, then took two steps to where she lay, held down by Jasken. She saw the knives in Veppers’ hands.

“Sir—!” Jasken said, taking one hand away from her throat and raising it towards his master. Veppers kicked Jasken aside and straddled Lededje before she could even start to rise, pinning her arms to the floor. Blood was flowing freely from his nose and spattering all over her face, neck and shirt.

Oh, not even the whole nose, she had time to think. Just the tip. A fine, ragged mess, though. Try laughing that off at your next diplomatic reception, Prime Executive Veppers.

He plunged the first knife into her throat and slashed sideways, the second into her chest. The second knife hit off a rib, bouncing away. Upper arms trapped, she tried as best she could to put her hands up as her breath bubbled out of her neck. The taste of blood was very strong and she needed to breathe and to cough, but could do neither. Veppers batted her hands away as he looked down and carefully aimed his next thrust a finger-width further down from the one that had been deflected. He briefly lowered his face to hers. “You little cunt!” he screamed. Some of his blood fell into her slackly open mouth. “I was supposed to appear in public this evening!”

He pushed hard and the blade slid between her ribs and into her heart.

She looked up into the darkness as her heart thrashed and jerked around the blade, as though trying to clutch it. Then her heart spasmed one last time and fell back to a sort of faintly trembling, pulseless calm for a moment. When Veppers jerked the knife out, even that ceased. A weight infinitely greater than that of just one man seemed to settle on her. She felt too tired to breathe now; her last breath fluttered from her torn-open windpipe like a departing lover. Somehow everything seemed to have gone very quiet and still around her, even though she was aware of shouting and could feel Veppers rise up and off her — though not without giving her a final slap across the face, just for good measure. She could sense the other two men were moving quickly to her side once again, touching, feeling, trying to staunch, to find a pulse, to plug her wounds.

Too late now, she thought,… Meant nothing

The darkness was moving in remorselessly from the edges of her field of vision. She stared up into it, unable even to blink. She waited for some profound insight or thought, but none came.

High above her, the simulated sceneries and architectures stacked within the giant carousel swung slowly back and forth, all slowly going dim. In front of the hanging roofscape above her she could see a flat, tattered-looking mountain scene; all soaring, snowy peaks and ruggedly romantic crags beneath a cloud-dotted sky of blue, the effect somewhat spoiled by rips and tears in the fabric and a broken lower frame.

So that was what she’d been pressed up against. Mountains. Sky.

Perspective, she thought woozily, slowly, as she died; what a wonderful thing.


Conscript Vatueil, late of Their Highnesses’ First Cavalry, now reduced to the Third Expeditionary Sappers, wiped his sweating brow with a grimy, calloused hand. He worked his knees forward a few centimetres across the stony floor of the tunnel, sending fresh darts of pain up his legs, and plunged the short-handle spade into the shadowy face of the pebble-dotted wall of dirt immediately ahead of him. The exertion set off further stabs of pain, which ran up his back and across his straining shoulders. The worn spade bit into the compacted earth and stones, its tip connecting with a larger rock hidden within.

The collision jarred his hands, arms and shoulders, setting his teeth on edge and ringing his aching back as though it was a bell. He almost cried out, but instead just sucked in a breath of stale, warm, humid air, pungently scented with his own bodily odours and those of the other sweating, straining miners around him. He worked the embedded spade to one side within the dirt and tried to sense the edge of the buried rock, pulling the spade out and heaving it back in again a little to the side in an attempt to find the edge of the obstruction and lever it out. The spade bit into solidity on both sides, making his arms and back ache again each time. He let the breath out, putting the spade down by his right thigh and feeling behind him for his pickaxe. He had moved too far forward since he’d last used it and had to look round, back muscles protesting, to find it.

He turned carefully, anxious not to get in the way of the man to his right, who was already swinging hard with his own pickaxe, cursing under his breath all the time. The new kid on his other side, whose name he’d already forgotten, was still stabbing weakly at the face with his spade, producing little. He was a big, powerful-looking lad, but still face-weak. He’d need to be relieved soon if they were to keep up to target, though he’d pay for such deemed lack of application.

Behind Vatueil, in the flickering, lamp-lit gloom, the tunnel stretched back into darkness; half-naked men, on their knees or walking bent over at the waist, shuffled about the confined space, loaded with spades and shovels, picks and pry bars. Somewhere behind them, over their coughs and wheezed, bitten-off exchanges, he heard the irregular hollow rumble of an empty rubble wagon approaching. He saw it thud into the buffers at the end of the line.

“Feeling delicate again, Vatueil?” the junior captain said, walking over to him, back bent. The junior captain was the only man at the face still wearing the top half of his uniform. He was sneering, and had tried to put some sarcasm into his voice, though he was so young Vatueil still thought of him as a child and found it hard to take him seriously. The delicacy the junior captain was referring to had occurred an hour earlier just after the start of Vatueil’s shift when he’d felt and then been sick, sending an extra unwanted shovelful of waste back to the surface in a rubble wagon.

He’d felt ill since just after breakfast back at the surface and on the walk to the face. The last part especially, doubled over, had been a nightmarish slog of increasing nausea. That was always a bad bit for him anyway; he was tall and his back hit more of the roof support beams than the other men’s. He was developing what the long-serving sappers called back buttons; raised welts of hardened skin above each bone in his spine like giant warts. Ever since he’d thrown up, his stomach had been rumbling and he’d had a raging thirst that the single meagre hourly water ration had done little to alleviate.

There was a chorus of shouting starting further back in the tunnel and another rumbling sound. For a moment he thought it was the start of a cave-in, and felt a sickening pulse of fear run through him, even as another part of his mind thought, At least it might be quick, and that would be an end to it. Then another rubble wagon came hurtling out of the darkness and slammed into the rear of the first one, sending dust bursting out from both wagons and knocking the leading wheels of the front wagon off the track just in front of the buffers. There was much more shouting and swearing as the track layers were blamed for unsettling the track behind, the surface wagon emptiers were cursed for not fully emptying the wagon in the first place and everybody else further up was shouted at for not giving them more warning. The junior captain ordered everybody away from the face to help get the wagon back on the rails, then added, “Not you, Vatueil; keep working.”

“Sir,” he said, lifting the pickaxe. At least with nobody around him he could get a proper swing at the obstruction. He turned back and heaved the pick at a spot to the side of where the spade had baulked, briefly imagining that he was swinging it at the back of the young captain’s head. He hauled the pick out, twisted it to present the flat blade rather than the spike towards the face, found a slightly different position and swung hard again.

You developed a feel for what was going on at the end of a shovel or a pick, you started to gain an insight into the just-hidden depths in front of you, after a while. There was another jarring strike to add to all the others that had run up through his hands into his arms and back over the year he’d been down here, but he sensed the slightly flattened blade make a sort of double strike inside the face, sliding between two rocks, or into a cleft in a single more massive rock. That felt hollow, he thought, but dismissed the idea.

He had leverage now, a degree of purchase. He strained at the worn-smooth handle of the pick. Something grated inside the face and the weak light from his helmet lamp showed a stretch of dirt face as long as his forearm and tall as his head hinging out towards him. Dirt and pebbles slumped about his knees. What fell out of the hole was a piece of dressed stonework, and beyond was a rectangular hole and a damp darkness, a dirt-free inky absence from which a thin cold wind issued, smelling of old, cold stone.

The great castle, the besieged fortress, stood over the broad plain on a carpet of ground-hugging mist, like something unreal.

Vatueil remembered his dreams. In his dreams the castle truly was not real, or not there, or genuinely did float above the plain, by magic or some technology unknown to him, and so they burrowed on for ever, never finding its base, tunnelling on without cease through the killing muggy warmth and sweat-mist of their own exhalations in an eternal agony of purposeless striving. He had never mentioned these dreams to anybody, unsure who amongst his comrades he could really trust and judging that if word of these nightmares got back to his superiors they might be deemed treacherous, implying that their labours were pointless, doomed to failure.

The castle sat on a spur of rock, an island of stone jutting above the flood plain of the great meandering river. The castle itself was formidable enough; the cliffs that surrounded it made it close to impregnable. Still, it had to be taken, they’d been told. After nearly a year of trying to starve the garrison into surrender, it had been judged, two years or more ago, that the only way to take the stronghold was to get a great siege engine close in to the rocky outcrop. Enormous machines had been constructed of wood and metal and manoeuvred towards the castle on a specially built road. The machines could hurl rocks or fizzing metal bombs the weight of ten men many hundreds of strides across the plain, but there was a problem: to get them close enough to the castle meant coming within range of the fortress’s own great war machine, a giant trebuchet mounted on the single massive circular tower dominating the citadel.

With its own range increased by virtue of its elevation, the castle’s engine dominated the plain for nearly two thousand strides about the base of the rock; all attempts to move siege engines to within range had been met with a hail of rocks from the fortress’s trebuchet, resulting in smashed machines and dead men. The engineers had been forced to concede that constructing a machine of their own powerful enough to remain out of range of the castle’s war engine while still being able to hit the fortress was probably impossible.

So they would tunnel to near the castle rock, open a pit and construct a small but powerful siege engine there under the noses of the castle’s garrison, and, supposedly, under the angle at which the castle’s trebuchet could fire. There were rumours that this absurd machine would be a sort of self-firing bomb device, some sort of explosive contraption that would throw itself into the air, up past the cliff and against the castle walls, detonating there. Nobody really believed these rumours, though the slightly more plausible idea of constructing a sufficiently powerful wooden catapult or trebuchet in a pit excavated at the end of a tunnel seemed just as fanciful and idiotic.

Perhaps they were expected to tunnel up inside the castle rock when they got to it, burrowing up through solid stone, or maybe they were meant to place a gigantic bomb against the base of the rock; these seemed no less absurd and pointless as tactics. Maybe the high command, immeasurably distant from this far (and, if rumour was to believed, increasingly irrelevant) front, had been misinformed regarding the nature of the castle’s foundations, and — thinking that the fortress’s walls rested on the plain itself — had ordered the mining as a matter of course, imagining that the walls could be sapped conventionally, and nobody nearer to the reality of the situation had thought, or dared, to tell them that this was impossible. But then who knew how the high commanders thought?

Vatueil put one fist to the small of his back as he stood looking out to the distant fortress. He was trying to stand up straight. It was getting harder to do so each day, which was unfortunate, as slouching was looked on unfavourably by officers, especially by the young junior captain who seemed to have taken such a dislike to him.

Vatueil looked about at the litter of grey-brown tents which made up the camp. Above, the clouds looked washed out, the sun hidden behind a grey, dully glowing patch over the more distant of the two ranges of hills that defined the broad plain.

“Stand up straight, Vatueil,” the junior captain told him, emerging from the major’s tent. The junior captain was dressed in his best uniform. He’d had Vatueil put on his best gear too, not that his best was very good. “Well, don’t malinger here all day; get in there and don’t take for ever about it. This doesn’t get you off anything, you know; don’t go thinking that. You’ve still got a shift to finish. Hurry up!” The junior captain clouted Vatueil about the ear, dislodging his forage cap. Vatueil bent to retrieve it and the young captain kicked his behind, propelling him through the flap and into the tent.

Inside, he collected himself, straightened, and was shown where to stand in front of the board of officers.

“Conscript Vatueil, number—” he began.

“We don’t need to know your number, conscript,” one of the two majors told him. There were three senior captains and a colonel present too; an important gathering. “Just tell us what happened.”

He briefly related prising the rock away from the face, sticking his head through the hole and smelling that strange, cave-like darkness, hearing and seeing the water running in the channel beneath, then wriggling back to tell the junior captain and the others. He kept his gaze fixed somewhere above the colonel’s head, looking down only once. The officers nodded, looked bored. A subaltern took notes on a writing pad. “Dismissed,” the more senior major told Vatueil.

He half turned to go, then turned back. “Permission to speak further, sir,” he said, glancing at the colonel and then the major who’d just spoken.

The major looked at him. “What?”

He straightened as best he could, stared above the colonel’s head again. “It occurred to me the conduit might contribute to the castle’s water supply, sir.”

“You’re not here to think, conscript,” the major said, though not unkindly.

“No,” the colonel said, speaking for the first time. “That occurred to me, too.”

“It’s still a long way, sir,” the junior major said.

“We’ve poisoned all the nearer sources,” the colonel told him. “To no obvious effect. And it is from the direction of the nearer hills.” Vatueil risked nodding at this, to show he had thought this too.

“With their many springs,” the senior major said to the colonel, apparently sharing some private joke.

The colonel looked at Vatueil through narrowed eyes. “You were with the Cavalry once, weren’t you, conscript?”

“Yes, sir.”


“Captain of Mount, sir.”

There was a pause. The colonel filled it himself. “And?”

“Insubordination, sir.”

“Down to conscript tunneller? You must have been spectacularly insubordinate.”

“So it was adjudged, sir.”

There was a grunt that might have been laughter. At the colonel’s instigation the offisorial heads were brought together. There was some muttering, then the more senior major said, “There will shortly be a small exploratory force sent along the water tunnel, conscript. Perhaps you might care to be on it.”

“I’ll do as ordered, sir.”

“The men will be hand-picked, though volunteers.”

Vatueil drew himself up as straight as he could, his back complaining. “I volunteer, sir.”

“Good man. You might need a crossbow as well as a shovel.”

“I can handle both, sir.”

“Report to the senior duty officer. Dismissed.”

The calf-deep water was cold, swirling round his boots and seeping into them. He was fourth man back from the lead, lamp extinguished. Only the lead man had a lit lamp, and that was turned down as low as it would go. The water tunnel was oval shaped, just too broad to touch both sides at the same time with outstretched arms. It was nearly as tall as a man; you had to walk with head lowered but it was easy enough after so long being bent double.

The air was good; better than in the mining tunnel. It had flowed gently into their faces as they’d stood in the water, ready to move off from the breach leading from the mining tunnel. The twenty men in the detail moved down the partially filled pipe as quietly as they could, wary of traps or guards. They were led by a fairly old, sensible-seeming captain and a very keen young subaltern. There were two other tunnellers as well as himself, both more powerful than he though with less combat experience. Like him they carried picks, spades, bows and short swords; the larger of the two also carried a pry bar slung across his broad back.

These two men had been chosen by the young junior captain. He had not been happy that Vatueil was being allowed to go on the exploration of the water tunnel while he himself was not. Vatueil expected further unsubtle persecution when he returned. If he returned.

They came to a place where the tunnel narrowed and horizontal iron bars ran across the channel, set at heights that meant they had to clamber over them one at a time. Then came a section where the floor of the tunnel angled down, and they had to brace themselves two-by-two, each with a hand on one wall, to stop themselves from slipping on the slimy surface under the water. The tunnel all but levelled out again after that, then another set of bars in a narrow section appeared out of the gloom, again followed by another downward sloped section.

He had not dreamed this, he realised as he walked. This was easier than anything he had imagined in his nightmares, or — as it felt — that they had imagined for him. They might stroll all the rest of the way to the castle without having to dig another spadeful. Though, of course, the way might be blocked, or guarded, or might not lead to the castle after all. And yet the water was here, in this carefully constructed tunnel, and where else would it be going on this otherwise near deserted plain if not to the castle? Guards or traps were more likely, though even then the castle was so old that perhaps those within just drew the water unthinkingly from a deep, seemingly unpoisonable well and knew nothing of the system that brought it to them. Better to assume that they did know, though, and that they or the water tunnel’s original designers and builders would have set up some sort of defence against enemies making their way down it. He started to think about what he would put in place if he had been in charge of such matters.

His thoughts were interrupted when he collided softly with the back of the man in front. The man behind him piled into his back, too, and so on down the line as they came to a halt, almost without a sound.

“A gate?” the subaltern whispered. Looking ahead, over the shoulder of the man in front, Vatueil could just make out a broad grating filling the tunnel ahead. The single lamp was turned up a little. The water sieved itself between thick bars of what appeared to be iron. There was more whispering between the captain and the subaltern.

The tunnellers were called forward and were confronted by the grating. It was locked shut against a stout, vertical iron stanchion immediately behind. It looked like it was designed to hinge back towards them and then up towards the ceiling. A strange arrangement, Vatueil thought. All three tunnellers were ordered to light their lamps, the better to inspect the lock. It was about the size of a clenched fist, the chain securing it made of links thick as a little finger. It looked rusted, but only slightly.

One of the other tunnellers lifted his pickaxe, testing his swing and where the point might strike to break the lock.

“That will be noisy, sir,” Vatueil whispered. “The sound will travel a long way down the tunnel.”

“What do you suggest, bite it?” the younger officer asked him.

“Try to lever it off with the pry bar, sir,” he said.

The senior officer nodded. “All right.”

The tunneller with the pry bar brought it over his shoulder and wedged it under the lock while Vatueil and the other miner held it out from the grating, angling it just so to increase the effect, then, once their comrade had taken the strain, joining him to pull hard on the end of the bar. They strained for a few moments to no effect beyond a faint creaking sound. They relaxed, then pulled again. With a dull snap and a loud clank the lock gave way, sending the three of them falling backwards into the water in a clattering tangle. The chain rattled down into the water to join them.

“Scarcely quiet,” the subaltern muttered.

They picked themselves up, sorted themselves out. “No sticks or branches or anything against it,” one of the other men said, nodding at the foot of the grating.

“Settling pool further back,” another suggested.

Through the grating, Vatueil could see what looked like stony blocks in the path the water took beyond, like square narrow stepping stones filling the base of the tunnel. Why would you put those there, he wondered.

“Ready to raise it?” the captain said.

“Sir,” the two tunnellers said together, taking a side each, arms thrust into the dark water to pull at the foot of the grating.

“Heave, lads,” the officer told them.

They pulled, and with a dull scraping noise the grating hinged slowly up. They shifted their grip as it rose and pushed it towards the ceiling.

Vatueil saw something move on the ceiling, just behind the slowly moving grille. “Wait a moment,” he said, perhaps too quietly. In any event, nobody seemed to take any notice.

Something — some things, each big as a man’s head — fell, one glinting in the lamp light, from the ceiling. They smashed on the edges of the raised blocks beneath and dark liquid came pouring out of them as their jagged remains vanished into the moving water. It was only then that the men hauling up the grating stopped; too late. “What was that?” somebody asked. The water around the blocks, where the liquid had entered, was bubbling and fuming, sending great grey bubbles of gas to the surface of the water, where they burst, producing thick white fumes. The gas was rising quickly into the air, starting to obscure what view there might have been down the tunnel beyond.

“It’s just…” somebody started, then their voice trailed away.

“Back, lads,” the captain said as the fumes drifted closer.

“That might be—”

“Back, lads, back.”

Vatueil heard water sloshing as some of them started to move away.

The pale fog now almost filled the place where the grating had been. The men nearest it, the two tunnellers, stood back, letting go of the grille; it crashed down into the water. One of them took a step back. The other seemed transfixed by the sight, remaining close enough to sniff the milky grey cloud; he started coughing immediately, doubling up, hands on knees. His lowered head met a long silky strand of the gas at waist level, and he wheezed suddenly, standing up and coughing again and again. He turned and waved down the tunnel, then seemed to have a seizure. He fell to his knees, clutching at his throat, eyes wide. His breath rattled in his throat. The other tunneller moved towards him but was waved away. The fellow slumped back against the wall of the tunnel, eyes closing. A couple of the other men, also now near to the advancing cloud, started to cough as well.

Almost as one, they started to run, suddenly pounding down the tunnel, slipping and sliding and falling, the surface underfoot that had supported slow and steady steps with barely a slip turning to something like ice as they tried to run through the calf-deep water; a couple of them pushed past Vatueil, who had not yet moved.

We will never get past the narrow places with the bars, he thought. We won’t even make it up the slopes before them, he realised. The cloud was flowing up the tunnel at a moderate walking pace. It was already at his knees, rising to his groin. He had taken a deep breath as soon as he’d seen the dirty looking bubbles rising out of the water. He let it out, took another one now.

Some of the others were shouting and screaming as they ran away up the tunnel, though the principal noise was a frenzied splashing. The cloud of gas enveloped Vatueil. He clamped his hand over his mouth and nose. Even so, he could smell something sharp, choking. His eyes began to sting, his nose to run.

The grating would be too heavy, he thought. He stooped, felt for it, then with an effort he would not have believed himself capable of, lifted it in one movement and swung himself beneath it, stumbling through the water beyond as he let the grille go. His boots crunched on shattered pieces of glass under the surface of the water. He remembered to lift his feet for the blocks the bottles had smashed on.

The grey cloud was all around him like a cloak, his eyes were stinging and starting to close up seemingly of their own volition. He stepped quickly over the blocks, staggered into the water on the far side, then ran as fast as he could into clear air beyond, his lungs feeling as though they were about to burst.

Somehow he managed to delay breathing until he could see no trace of the grey mist either in the air or rising in bubbles from the water. He could hardly see, and the first deep, heaving breath he took stung first his mouth and then his throat all the way down to his lungs. Even the exhalation seemed to sting his nose. He took more deep, deep breaths, standing doubled over with his hands on his knees. Each breath hurt, but stung less than the one before. From up the tunnel, he could hear nothing.

Eventually he was able to breathe sufficiently freely to move without gasping. He looked back into the darkness and tried to imagine the scenes he might find walking back to the breach, once the gas had cleared. He wondered how long that would take. He turned and made his way in the other direction, towards the castle.

* * *

Guards found him hollering at the far end, where a vertical well shaft descended to a deep pool. Taken before the castle authorities, he informed them that he would tell them anything they wanted to know. He was just a humble tunneller who’d been lucky and resourceful enough to evade the trap which had claimed the lives of his fellows, but he knew of the scheme to tunnel to near the castle and set up some sort of compact but powerful siege engine, and additionally he would tell all that he could about the little he knew of the disposition, numbers and quality of the forces besieging the castle if they would but spare his life.

They took him away and asked him many questions, all of which he answered truthfully. Then they tortured him to make sure he’d been telling the truth. Finally, uncertain where his loyalties might lie, unwilling to support yet another mouth to feed and judging his torment-broken body of little practical use, they trussed him and fired him from the giant trebuchet in the great tower.

By chance he fell to earth not far from the tunnel he had helped dig, landing with a thump that some of his old comrades heard above them as they tramped back to camp after another back-breaking shift stopping up one tunnel and continuing with their own.

His last thought was that he had once dreamed of flying.


It was some time before Yime Nsokyi realised she was the last one left firing.

The Orbital’s Hub had been the first thing to go, blitzed in an instant by a staggeringly bright CAM burst before there had been any warning whatsoever. Then the hundred or so major ships moored beneath the O’s outer surface, contained within Bulkhead Range docks or approaching or leaving the Orbital, had been destroyed in a single synchronised scatter-gun blaze, Minds precisely obliterated by exquisitely focused Line-gun loci, their already cram-packed substrates collapsing into particles more dense than neutron star material, all that prized wit, intelligence and knowledge-almost-beyond-measuring snuffed in every case to a barely visible ultra-dense cinder almost before they had time to realise what was happening to them.

While the shock waves from the gravity-point collapses were still propagating through the victim vessels’ internal structures and hulls, they were slammed with meticulously graded degrees of further destruction, the craft within or very close to the O targeted with small nukes and thermonuclear charges sufficient to destroy the ships themselves without compromising the strategic structure of the Orbital itself, while those further out were simply smithereened with anti-matter warheads, their megatonne bodies slashed across the outboard skies in blinding pulses of energy that threw jagged shadows across the vast internal surfaces of the world.

All of this in a handful of seconds. A heartbeat later the independent high-AI Defensive Nodes overseeing each of the O’s original Plates had been knocked out with pinpoint plasma displacements and simultaneously the few thousand nearby Interstellar-class ships were attacked, meeting their fates in a grotesque parody of size seniority; first the larger, more capable craft vanishing in nuclear or thermonuclear explosions, then the second-rank ships moments later, followed by smaller and smaller vessels until all those were gone and the blossoming waves of annihilation moved on to target the slowest, in-system craft.

Finally the semi-slaved AIs, dotted at random throughout the fabric of the entire bracelet world, had stopped communicating all at once, the weapon systems that they had fallen heir to as the higher-level control processes had been destroyed either subsiding to dormancy or actively starting to attack whatever defensive capability there was left.

Drones and humans taking command of independently controllable weapon and munition delivery systems made up what was left, the few machines and people in the right place at the right time scrabbling to take over from the blitzed machines even as they were struggling to comprehend what was happening to their world. Its end, Yime Nsokyi thought as she’d careened down a drop shaft from the traveltube interchange she’d been in as the attack began. She’d bounced into the little blown-diamond bubble of the ancient plasma cannon’s back-up control blister in time to be almost blinded by a detonating in-system clipper ship less than a millisecond away, the diamond’s outer protective film barely having time to switch to mirror and her own eyes reacting late, leaving her with dots dancing in her eyes as well as the blush of an instant radiation tan warming her face.

Not the end of the world, though, she thought as she settled into the seat and felt the restraints close around her. Not destroying the O itself, just everything about it. Probably the end of my world, though; this doesn’t look survivable. She tried to remember when she’d last backed up. Months ago? She wasn’t even sure. Sloppy. She kicked the gun’s systems out of network and into local control, dumbing its systems down to minimally interferable-with hardened optic communication with atomechanical back-up readied and mirroring, then flicked antiquely solid switches on a control panel, creating a great hum and buzz all around her as the thirty-metre turret woke up, screens bright, controls alive.

She brought the bulky helmet over her head, checked it was working on visual and audio and that there was air in the mask component, then left it in place for added protection as much as anything while the gun’s ancient control comms established direct links with her neural lace; systems designed and code written millennia apart met, made sense and established rules and parameters. It was a strange, invasively unpleasant feeling, like a spreading itch inside her skull she could not scratch. She felt the lace using her drug glands to jink her already quickened senses and reactions up to one of her pre-agreed maxima. Felt like the setting was deterioration within minutes and burn-out in less than a quarter of an hour. Ah, the very quickest, the all-out emergency mode. That wasn’t encouraging; her own lace was giving her just a handful of minutes to be of use as a fully functioning component of the Orbital’s last-ditch defence.

Outside, grippings and pressings all over her body, like being nuzzled by a few dozen small but powerful animals, confirmed that the gun control blister’s protective armour had enfolded her. She and the gun were as ready as they’d ever be for what came next.

She stared out into the darkness, senses enhanced to the point of nearly painful distraction as she searched for anything that wasn’t basically Culture stuff getting wasted. Nothing visible, appreciable at all. She established hardened comms links with a few other people and drones, all of them within the limit of this section’s original plate boundary. Her fellow warriors were shown as a line of blue tell-tale lights on a screen at the lower limit of her field of vision. They quickly determined that none of them knew what was happening and nobody could see anything to fire at. Almost immediately, there was a hoarse scream, quickly cut off, and one light turned from blue to red as a compromised high-kinetic cannon picked off another plasma turret a thousand kilometres away. Five hundred klicks spinward a drone controlling a Line-gun with links to a skein-sensing field reported nothing happening on the skein either, save for the fallback waves following the initial pulses that had wrecked the ship Minds.

“Whoever it is they want the O,” one of the humans said as they watched the spread of detonating sparks that were just a few of the nearby in-system craft meeting their ends. The ships’ deaths outshone the stars, replacing the familiar constellations with bright but fading patterns of their own. Her lace stepped her awareness speed down to a level where something like normal speech was possible.

“Grunts on the ground,” another agreed.

“Maybe they’ll just drop into the surface, displace onto the interior,” Yime suggested.

“Maybe. Edgewall stuff emplaced for that.”

“Anybody in touch with any Edgewall firepower?”

Nobody was. They had no contact with the O’s interior at all, or with any independent craft or with anybody manning the defences anywhere else. They busied themselves with scanning with what senses they had access to, checking and readying their own weaponry and trying to establish contact with survivors further afield. In the darkness, the wrecks of the last in-system craft winked out, brief fires exhausted. Around Yime’s position a few traveltube cars dropped away into the night as people tried to save themselves by using the cars as lifeboats. On average they got about ten klicks out before they were picked off too, quick tiny eruptions of light pinpricking the black.

“Anything—” somebody began.

—Got something, the drone with the skein sense sent, too quick for speech. Her lace kicked her awareness speed up to maximum so quickly the last syllable of the previous speaker’s word went on for many seconds, providing an impromptu soundtrack to what was happening in the skies beyond.

The ships were popping into existence just a few thousand klicks out, travelling at between one and eight per cent of lightspeed. No beaconry, IFF or any signal at all; not even trying to pretend they were anything else but hostile.

—Thinking these are targets, somebody communicated. Over the still-open voice comm channels came a high-pitched whine like something charging.

A first glance indicated hundreds of the ships, a second thousands. They filled the sky, darting like demented fireworks in as many different directions as there were craft. Some accelerated hard, some slowed to almost stationary seemingly within seconds; those incoming zipped in and were a few tens of klicks out and closing fast before there was time to get more than a few shots off. The drones, Yime thought. The drones will be reacting fastest, firing first. She swung the ancient plasma turret directly outwards, found a target and felt the antique machine’s senses and hers agree, lock and fire in the same instant. The old turret trembled and twin pulses of light lanced out, missing whatever it was they were aiming at. Plenty more targets, she thought, as she and the gun swung fractionally, retargeted, set for a wider beamspread and fired again. Something blazed within the cone of beam filaments but there was no time to celebrate as she and the gun swung again and again, flicking minutely from side to side and up and down like something trembling, uncertain.

There were more bursts of fire within the targeting focus and there was a certain desperate exultation in just firing, firing, firing, but in some still-calm part of her mind she knew they weren’t getting more than a per cent of the attacking craft, and the rest were still closing or had arrived.

Something at the lower limit of her vision attracted her attention; she watched the last of the little blue tell-tale lights turn red. All gone? So quickly? She was the last one, she realised; the last one left firing.

The view hazed, quivered, started to die. She killed the link systems, swept the helmet back over her head as its screens went blank and — staring out into the night through her own eyes and the invisible diamond blister — yanked the manual controls from the arm squabs and hauled the turret round to fire at a fast-approaching bright dot just starting to take on substance.

There was a thump that somehow felt nearby, back here by the turret, not out there where she was aiming, and the impression of something just outside the diamond bubble. She clicked a switch to let the gun’s atomechanical brain do its own targeting and turned her head.

The things scrabbling towards the turret across the O’s outer surface looked like metallic versions of a human ribcage plus skull, running and bouncing on six multiply jointed legs. Bizarrely, they appeared to be racing across the surface as though they were experiencing the equivalent of gravity drawing them down against it, rather than its exact opposite. She was still reaching for the control seat’s hand weapon when one of the creatures launched itself at the bubble, smashed through it and landed where her lap would have been had she not been swaddled in the turret’s control blister armour. The air in the diamond bubble left in a burst of white vapour that disappeared almost instantly as the skull-faced creature — a machine, she saw — stuck its face up to hers and, despite the lack of atmosphere and no visible method of producing the sound, said very clearly, “Drill over!”

She sighed, sat back, somewhere else entirely, as the shattered control blister, the crippled plasma turret itself and the doomed Orbital dissipated like mist around her.

“It was unpleasant, distressing and of little practical use,” Yime Nsokyi told her drill supervisor sternly. “It was a punishment drill, a simulation for masochists. I saw little point to it.”

“Granted it is about as extreme as they get,” her supervisor said cheerfully. “All-out equiv-tech complete surprise attack just short of total Orbital destruction.” Hvel Costrile was an elderly-looking gent with dark skin, long blond hair and a bare chest. He was talking to her in her apartment via a wall screen; it looked like he was on a sea vessel somewhere, as there was a large expanse of water in the background and his immediate surroundings — a plush seat, some railings — kept tipping slightly this way and that. The screen display was in 2D, by her choice; Yime Nsokyi didn’t hold with things looking too much like whatever they were not. “Instructive, though, don’t you think?”

“No,” she told him. “I fail to see the instructional element implicit in being subject to a completely unstoppable attack and thus being utterly overwhelmed in a matter of minutes.”

“Worse things happen in real wars, Yime,” Costrile told her with a grin. “Faster, more complete destruction.”

“I imagine simulations of those would have even less to teach, apart from the wisdom of avoiding such initial condition sets in the first place,” she told him. “And I might add that I also fail to see the utility of causing me to experience a simulation in which I harbour a neural lace, given that I have never possessed one and have no intentions of ever having one.”

Costrile nodded. “That was propaganda. Neural laces are just useful in that sort of extremity.”

“Until they too are corrupted, and possibly the person invested by the device as well.”

He shrugged. “By that time the game’s pretty much up anyway, you’d imagine.”

Yime shook her head. “One might equally well imagine otherwise.”

“Whatever, they let you back-up really easily,” he said reasonably.

“That is not a life-choice I have chosen to make,” Yime informed him frostily.

“Oh well.” Costrile sighed, then accepted a long drink from somebody just out of shot. He raised it to her. “Till next time? Something more practical, I promise.”

“Till then,” she agreed. “Strength in depth.” But the screen was already blank. She said, “Close screen,” anyway, telling the relatively dumb house computer to kill any link at her end. Yime was entirely untroubled by intelligent house systems, but did not wish to be subject to one. She was happy to admit to feeling a degree of satisfaction that she was by some orders of magnitude the most intelligent entity within her immediate surroundings in general and her own living space in particular. It was not a claim one could convincingly make in very many Culture dwellings.

Prebeign-Frultesa Yime Leutze Nsokyi dam Volsh much preferred to be known only as Yime Nsokyi. She had moved away from her home Orbital and so her name now lacked utility, no longer working as even an approximate address. Worse; bearing the name of one location while living in another felt to her like something close to deceit. She walked over to the window, picked up a plain but functional brush from a small table and continued to brush her long hair, which was what she had been doing, meticulously, when the emergency militia drill alert had come through on her personal terminal and she had, reluctantly, had to submit to the induction collar and the resulting horribly realistic sim of the Orbital — even if it wasn’t this Orbital but a more standard, less militarily prepared Orbital — being so thoroughly savaged and so easily taken over.

Outside the oval of window she stood at, only very slightly distorted by the sheer thickness of the crystal and other materials forming the glazing, the view was of rolling grassy countryside punctuated with numerous lakes and strewn with forests, woods, copses and individual trees. All the windows in Yime’s apartment looked out in roughly the same direction, but had she been looking from any other apartment on this level, the view would have been much the same, plus or minus hazy views of mountains, inland seas and oceans, with no other buildings visible at all, beyond the occasional distant lake-side villa or drifting houseboat.

Despite this, Yime lived in a city, and although the construction she lived in was fairly substantial — a kilometre tall and perhaps a tenth of that across — it itself was not the totality of the metropolis, forming only a small part of it and being nowhere near the most impressive of its buildings. But then it was nowhere near any of the other buildings of the city. The building was part of a Distributed City, which to the naive or uninformed eye looked remarkably like no city whatsoever.

Most Culture cities, where they existed at all, resembled giant snowflakes, with greenery — or at least countryside, in whatever colour or form — penetrating almost to the heart of the conurbation.

Had its major buildings been gathered together on the same patch of ground, this city, Irwal, on the Orbital called Dinyol-hei, would have looked more like some vision of the far future from sometime in the enormously distant past; it was almost entirely composed of great soaring sleek skyscrapers hundreds or thousands of metres tall, generally slimly conical or ellipsoid in appearance and looking uncannily like ships, or starships, as they had once been called. Fittingly, the buildings were exactly that: ships, fully capable of existing and making their way in space, between stars, should the need ever arise.

All the thousand or so major cities on Dinyol-hei were composed in the same way, from hundreds of giant buildings that could happily double as spacecraft. It was a truism that as a scientific society progressed, its ships gradually ceased to be strictly utilitarian designs in which almost every part was in some way vital to the running of the craft. Normally they went through an intermediate stage where the overall conception was still limited by the necessities imposed by the environment in which the vessels travelled but within which there was considerable opportunity for the designers, crew and passengers/inhabitants to fashion them pretty much as they pleased, before — usually some centuries after the gross vulgarity of rocket power — simple space travel became so mature a technology it was almost trivial. At this point, practically anything not messily joined to lots of other important stuff could be quite easily turned into a space-capable craft able to transport humans — or any other species spectacularly maladapted to hard vacuum and the somewhat industrial radiation environment generally associated with it — to (at the very least) different parts of the same stellar system.

A stand-alone building was almost laughably easy to convert; a bit of strengthening and rigidising, some only semi-scrupulous sealant work, throw a gel coat over the whole thing as well just to be doubly sure, strap on an engine unit or two somewhere, and you were away. In the Culture, you could even dispense with sensory and navigation systems; stay within a light year or two of the nearest Orbital and you could navigate with your own neural lace, even an antique pen terminal. It was DIY space travel, and people did exactly that, though — always to the surprise of those just on the brink of contributing to the relevant statistics — the results made it one of the more dangerous hobbies pursued with any enthusiasm within the Culture.

The means, then, were readily to hand. The motive behind the sort of building Yime now stood in was simply survival; should some catastrophe befall the Orbital itself, its inhabitants could escape the place in what were essentially giant lifeboats.

The principle had swung in and out of fashion. At one point very early in the Culture’s history, many thousands of years ago, such high-redundancy safety consciousness had been the fairly strictly followed rule. It fell from favour as habitat and especially Orbital design, construction and protection rose to levels that pretty much guaranteed that those who lived in them had nothing catastrophic to worry about, then came very rapidly back into fashion when the Idiran war had gone from being an almost unthinkable absurdity through being an unlikely joke to — seemingly without warning — becoming a terrifyingly tangible reality.

Suddenly whole systems full of Orbitals and their vast populations had found themselves in a firing line they had never even imagined might exist. Nevertheless, almost all the humans most at risk, and even a few deeply wise machines, convinced themselves that no sentient space-faring species would actually attack a habitat the size of an Orbital, certainly not with the intention of destroying it.

By universal agreement almost completely irrelevant militarily, an O was simply a beautiful place for lots of people to live, as well as being an elegantly devised and artistically detailed cultural achievement; why would anybody attack one? Developing civilisations and barbarian under-achievers aside, things had been acutely civilised and agreeably quiet in the greater galaxy for centiaeons; a working consensus regarding acceptable behaviour between the Involved had long since been arrived at, inter-cultural conflict resolution was a mature technology, pan-species morality had quite entirely moved on from the unfortunate lapses of days gone by and outright destruction of major civilisational assets was rightly seen by all as inelegant, wasteful, counter-productive and — apart from anything else — simply shrieking of shamefully deep societal insecurity.

This entirely civilised and not unreasonable assumption proved ill-founded when the Idirans — thinking to make it very clear to all concerned who were the fanatical, invincible ultra-warriors in the matter and who represented the hopelessly decadent, simpering, irredeemably civilian bunch of martial no-hopers merely playing at war — attempted to traumatise the Culture straight back out of their newly begun war by attacking and attempting to destroy every Orbital its war-fleets could reach.

An Orbital was just a fabulously thin bracelet of matter three million kilometres in circumference orbiting a sun, the apparent gravity on its interior surface provided by the same spin that gave it its day-night cycle; break one anywhere around its ten million kilometres circumference — and some were only a few thousand kilometres across — and it tore itself apart, unwinding like a released spring, dumping landscape, atmosphere and inhabitants unceremoniously into space.

All this came as something of a surprise. Natural disasters occurring to an Orbital were almost unheard of, the systems they inhabited having generally been cleared of wandering debris to form the material from which the O itself had been constructed, and even the most carefree, socially relaxed Orbitals packed a healthy variety of defensive systems easily able to pick off any remaining rocks and ice lumps that might have the temerity to approach.

However, against the sort of weaponry the Idirans — amongst many others — possessed, Orbitals were both effectively defenceless and hopelessly vulnerable. When the Idiran ships fell upon the Orbitals, the Culture was still mostly reminding itself how to build warships; the few war craft and militarised Contact ships it was able to put in the way of the attacks were swept aside.

Tens upon tens of billions died. And all for nothing, even from the Idiran point of view; the Culture, insufficiently traumatised perhaps, conspicuously failed to retreat from the war. Orders obeyed, damage duly inflicted, the Idiran war-fleets fell back to more martially relevant, not to say honourable, duties. Meanwhile the Culture — arguably to its own amazement as much as anybody else’s — had hunkered down, gritted what needed to be gritted, did the same regarding girding and, to the chorus of umpteen trillion people telling each other stoically, “It’s going to be a long war,” got grimly on with putting itself onto a proper war footing.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many Orbitals, generally those closest to the action, were simply evacuated. Some were militarised, to the extent this made sense given they were so enormous and — patently, as had just been proved — fragile in the face of modern weaponry. Many were just left to revolve, empty, effectively mothballed. Some were destroyed by the Culture itself.

Orbitals could be moved, and some were, but it was an excruciatingly long-winded business. There was even, for this whole shifting-out-of-danger procedure, what was effectively a thing called a “waiting list”; a term and concept many devoutly pampered Culture citizens had some trouble getting entirely to grips with.

Regardless; having lots of pleasantly fitted-out buildings which could double as luxury lifeboats suddenly made unimpeachable sense. Even Orbitals almost certainly unreachably far away from the conflict took up the new construction trend, and giant skyscrapers, usually reassuringly sleek and ship-like in form, blossomed like colossal suddenly fashionable plants across the Culture’s Orbitals.

Distributed Cities came about when it was realised that even having the buildings/ships physically close to each other on the surface of an O was unwise, should an attack take place. Keeping them far apart from each other made the enemy’s targeting similarly distributed and confused. Fast, dedicated traveltube lines, in hard vacuum under the O’s outer surface, connected the buildings of any city cluster preferentially and directly, making the average journey time between buildings of any given city as quick or quicker than walking a conventional city block.

The absolute need to live in such cities or even such buildings had long since passed, unless you were cautious to the point of neuroticism, even paranoia, but the fashion still ebbed and flowed a little and throughout the fifty trillion people and many millions of Orbitals in the Culture there would always be enough people and Orbitals who still liked the idea for it never entirely to disappear. Some people just felt safer in a building that could casually survive even the destruction of an Orbital. Yime was one such person. It was why she lived in this building, and on this Orbital.

She combed her hair slowly, thoughtfully, looking out of the porthole window but not really seeing the view. She thought Costrile was not a particularly good supervisor for even a part of an Orbital’s emergency militia force. Ineffective. Altogether too lackadaisical. It was disgraceful that hardly anybody on most Orbitals even knew that such organisations existed. Even here, on staid, careful, buttoned-up, backed-up, fastened-down and just plain cautious Dinyol-hei, almost nobody was interested in such things. They were all too busy having fun. Attempts had been made before to get people more involved in last-ditch Orbital defence techniques, but to little avail. It was as though people just didn’t want to think about such things. When it was obviously so important. Odd.

Perhaps the problem was that it had been so long since there had been a proper, thorough-going war. It had been fifteen hundred years since the Idiran conflict; within living human memory for only the most determinedly so-called Immortalists, of whom there were surpassing few and who were anyway usually too obsessed with themselves to care about warning others what real warfare was like. Minds and drones who’d been involved were also surprisingly reluctant to share their experiences. Still, there had to be a way. The whole approach needed shaking up, and she might be just the person to make it happen. She doubted Costrile was up to it. Why, he hadn’t even bothered to reply in kind when she’d signed off with “Strength in depth”. How rude! She decided she would have to see about deposing Mr. Costrile from his post and having herself elected in his place.

One hundred and twenty-five, one hundred and twenty-six… She had almost reached her set number of morning hair-brushings. Yime had thick, lustrous brown hair which she kept in what was called an Eye cut, every hair on her head kept at a length such that when it was pulled round towards either eye, it was just too short either to obstruct her field of vision or otherwise cause annoyance.

A chime from her terminal, in the shape of a slim pen lying on another table, interrupted her reverie of power. She realised with an undignified lurch in her insides that the particular tone the terminal had used meant it was a call from Quietus.

She might actually be going to work.

Even so, she completed the last two hair-brushing strokes before answering.

One had to have rules.


In Valley 308, which was part of the Thrice Flayed Footprint district of the Pavulean Hell, level three, there was an old-fashioned mill with a tall external over-shot wheel, powered by blood. It was part of the punishment of some of the virtual souls in that place that each day they be profusely bled for as long as they could without falling unconscious. There were many thousands of such unfortunates to be bled during each session and they were duly dragged screaming from their nearby pens by grotesquely formed, irresistibly powerful demons and strapped to canted iron tables with drains at their foot. These tables were arranged in serried ranks on the steep banks of the arid valley, which, had one been able to look at it from far enough above, would have been revealed as a ridge forming part of a truly gigantic footprint; hence the district’s name.

The once very important person to whom the flayed hand belonged was still, in some sense, alive, and suffered every moment from having had their skin removed. They suffered in a magnified sense, too, concomitant with their pelt having been so grotesquely scale-exaggerated that a single ridge on one of their feet — or paws, there being some fairly irrelevant disagreement concerning the correct terminology — was now vast enough to form part of the landscape on which so many others lived their post-death lives and suffered the multitudinous torments which had been prescribed them.

The released blood from the iron tables ran glutinously down pipes and runnels to the stream bed where it collected, flowed downhill as liquids are prone to do, even in entirely virtual environments, and ran — with increasing vigour and force as the blood of more and more sufferers paid tribute to the stream — down to a deep, wide pool. Even there, bound by the synthetic rules of the Hell, it resolutely refused to coagulate. From the header pool a broad channel directed it to the summit of the mill’s wheel.

The wheel was constructed of many, many ancient bones, long bleached white by the action of the acid or alkali rains that fell every few days and caused such torment to the people held in the pens upstream. The wheel turned on bearings made of cartilage laced with the nerves of yet more of the condemned whose bodies had been woven into the fabric of the building, each creaking, groaning revolution of the wheel producing seemingly unbearable agony. Other sufferers made up the roof slates with their oversized, painfully sensitised nails — they too dreaded the harrowing rains, which stung with every drop — or the mill’s thin walls with their painfully stretched skins, or its supporting beams with their protesting bones, or its creaking gears and cogs, every tooth of which hurt as though riddled with disease, every stressed and straining bone bar and shaft of which would have screamed had they possessed voices.

Far beyond, beneath boiling dark skies, the stream gave out onto a great blood marsh where sufferers planted and rooted like stunted trees drowned again and again with every acidic rain and each fresh wash of blood.

Much of the time, the mill didn’t even use the flow of blood collecting in its upstream pool; the fluid simply went on down the overflow and back to the stream bed on its way to the dark swamp in the distance beneath the darkly livid, lowering skies.

And besides, the mill powered nothing; the little energy it produced when it did deign to function went entirely to waste. Its whole purpose and point was to add to the excruciation of those unfortunate enough to find themselves within Hell.

This was what people were generally told, anyway. Some were told the mill did power something. They were told it held great stone wheels which ground the bodies and bones of those guilty of crimes committed within hell. Those so punished suffered even greater agonies than those whose bodies still in some sense resembled those they had inhabited before death; for those who had sinned even within Hell, the rules — always entirely flexible — were changed so that they could suffer with every sinew, cell and structure of their body, no matter how atomised it might have become and how impossible such suffering would have been with an utterly shredded nervous central system in the Real.

The truth was different, however. The truth was that the mill had a quite specific purpose and the energy it produced did not go to waste; it operated one of the small number of gates that led out of Hell, and that was why the two small Pavuleans sheltering on the far side of the valley were there.

No, we are lost, entirely lost, Prin.

We are where we are, my love. Look. The way out is right there, in front of us. We are not lost, and we shall shortly escape. Soon, we’ll be home.

You know that is not true. That is a dream, just a dream. A treacherous dream. This is what is real, not anything we might think we remember from before. That memory is itself part of the torment, something to increase our pain. We should forget what we think we remember of a life before this. There was no life before this. This is all there is, all there ever was, all there ever will be. Eternity, this is eternity. Only this is eternity. Surrender to that thought and at least the agony of hope that can never be fulfilled will disappear.

They were crouching together, hidden within the lower part of a cheval de frise, its giant X of crossed spikes laden with impaled, half-decayed bodies. Those bodies and the bodies all around them littering this section of hillside — indeed the seemingly living or apparently dead bodies of everybody within the Hell, including their own — were Pavulean in form: metre-and-half-long quadrupeds with large, round heads from which issued small twin trunks, highly prehensile probosces with little lobes at the tip resembling stubby fingers.

Agony of hope? Listen to yourself, Chay. Hope is all we have, my love. Hope drives us on. Hope is not treachery! Hope is not cruel and insane, like this perversion of existence; it is reasonable, right, only what we might expect, what we have every right to expect. We must escape. We must! Not just for selfish reasons, to escape the torments we’ve been subject to here, but to take the news, the truth of what we’ve experienced here back to the Real, back to where, somehow, some day, something might be done about it.

The two Pavuleans presently hiding under the covering of rotting corpses were called — in the familiar form they used with each other — Prin and Chay, and they had journeyed together across several regions of this Hell over a subjective period of several months, always heading for this place. Now, finally, they were within sight of it.

Neither resembled Pavuleans in the peak of health. Only Prin’s left trunk was intact; the other was just a still-ragged stump after a casual swipe from the sword of a passing demon some weeks ago. The poisoned sword had left a wound that would not heal or stop hurting. His intact left trunk had been nicked in the same strike and made him wince with every movement. Around both their necks was a twist of tightened barbed wire like a depraved version of a necklace, the barbs biting through their skin, raising welts that seeped blood and left itching, flaking scabs.

Chay limped because both her hind legs had been broken just days after they’d entered the Hell; she had been run over by one of an endless line of bone-and-iron juggernauts transporting mangled bodies from one part of the Hell to another. The juggernauts moved along a road whose every cobble was the warted, calloused back of screaming unfortunates buried beneath.

Prin had carried her on his back for weeks afterwards while she healed, though the bones in her legs had never set properly; in Hell bones never did.

You are wrong, Prin. There is no Real. There is no outside reality. There is only this. You may need this delusion to make the pain of being here less for you, but in the end you will be better off accepting the true reality, that this all there is, all there ever has been and all there ever will be.

No, Chay, he told her. At this moment we are code, we are ghosts in the substrate, we are both real and unreal. Never forget that. We exist here for now but we had and have another life, other bodies to return to, back in the Real.

Real, Prin? We are real fools, fools to have come, if what you say is true and we came from somewhere else; fools to think we could do anything of use here, and most certainly fools to think we can ever leave this ghastly, filthy, sickening place. This is our life now, even if there was another one before it. Accept it, and it may not be so terrible. This is the Real; this that you see and feel and smell around you. Chay reached out with her right trunk and its tip almost touched the partially rotted face of a young female impaled face down on the spikes above, her emptied eye sockets staring blankly in at the two people cowering beneath. Though terrible it is. So, so terrible. Such a terrible place. She looked at her mate. Why make it worse with the lie of hope?

Prin reached out with his surviving trunk and wrapped it around both of hers as best he could. Chayeleze Hifornsdaughter, it is your despair that is the lie. The blood-gate across this valley opens within the hour to let out those who’ve been allowed a half-day glimpse of Hell in the hope of making them behave better back in the Real, and we have the means to leave with them. We shall, we will go back! We will leave this place, we will return to our home and we will tell of what we’ve seen here; we’ll let the truth of it out for ever, free into the Real, to do whatever damage to this outrage upon kindness and sentience it is possible to do. This vast obscenity around us was made, my love: it can be unmade. We can help, we can begin that unmaking. We can, we will do this. But I will not do it alone. I can’t and won’t leave without you. We go together or not at all. Just one last effort, please, my love. Stay at my side, come with me, escape with me, help me save you and help me save myself! He hugged her to his chest as hard as he was able.

Here come osteophagers, she said, looking out over his shoulder.

He let her go and looked round, peeking under hanging, rotting limbs to the uphill entrance to their impromptu shelter. She was right. A detail of half a dozen osteophagers were moving down and across the barren hillside, dragging bodies off the chevaux de frise and the other spiked and barbed barriers that littered the slope. The osteophagers were specialist demons, flesh- and bone-eating scavengers who lived off the carcasses of those re-killed either in Hell’s never-ending war or just in the normal course of its perpetual round of mutilation and pain. The souls of those they ate would already have been recycled into fresh, mostly whole if never entirely healthy bodies better able to appreciate the torments in store for them.

Like almost all the demons in the Pavulean Hell, the osteophagers resembled predator beasts from the Pavulean evolutionary past. The osteophagers moving down the hillside towards where the two small Pavuleans were hiding looked like glossily powerful versions of animals that had once preyed upon Chay and Prin’s ancestors, millions of years earlier: four-legged, twice the size of a Pavulean, with big, forward-facing eyes and — again like most demons — perversely sporting two, more muscular versions of Pavulean trunks from the sides of their massive, crushing jaws.

Their shining pelts of bright red and yellow stripes looked lacquered, polished. The colours were as much a hellish amendment as the trunks that the original animals had never possessed; it gave them the bizarre look of having been coloured in by children. They moved hulkingly from barbed barrier to barbed barrier along the hillside, lifting the hooked bodies off with their trunks or tearing them free with vicious-looking teeth nearly half a trunk long. They sucked down what were obviously the more prized parts, crunching on some smaller bones on occasion, but most of the bodies they collected were thrown onto ill-made bone carts pulled by blinded, de-trunked Pavuleans, following them along the valley side.

They will find us, Chay said dully. They will find us and kill us all over again, or part eat us and leave us here to suffer, or impale us upon these hideous works and come back for us later, or break our legs and throw us up onto one of their carts and take us to more senior demons for more refined and terrible punishment.

Prin stared out at the advancing, ragged line of demons, mutilated Pavuleans and giant carts. For a few moments he was unable to think properly, unable to take stock of their suddenly changed situation, and allowed Chay to mutter on, letting her words leech away the hope he had been trying to fill her with, letting her fill him instead with the despair he was constantly trying to hold at bay and which he could never admit to her was for ever threatening to overwhelm him.

The detail of osteophagers and their grisly retinue had come close enough now to hear the crunch of bones in massive jaws and the whimper of the bridled Pavuleans. He turned and looked in the opposite direction, towards the mill with its dark pool and the thick, unsplashing stream of blood that was now powering the giant, creaking wheel.

The mill was working! It had started up!

The gate it controlled must be about to open and the way out of Hell would present itself to them at last.

Chay, look! Prin told her, using his trunk to turn her away from the view of the advancing line of osteophagers and towards the mill.

I see it, I see it. Another flying death machine.

He wondered what she was talking about, then saw the moving shape, dark grey upon the still darker grey of the low, restlessly moving clouds.

I meant the mill; it’s working! But the flier, too; it must be bringing the ones who’re meant to get out! We’re saved! Don’t you see? Don’t you get it? He turned her towards him again, tenderly using his trunk to bring her round to him. This is our chance, Chay. We can, we will get out of here. He gently touched the barbed wire necklaces they each wore; first hers then his own. We have the means, Chay. Our lucky charms, our little kernels of saving code. We brought these with us, remember? They did not put these on us! This is our chance. We must be ready.

No, you’re still a fool. We have nothing. They will find us, give us to the superiors in the machine.

The flier was in the shape of a giant beetle; it buzzed furiously towards the mill on a blur of iridescent wings, its legs extending as it approached a shaved-level patch of ground by the building’s side.

Ha! Chay, you’re wrong, my love. We are destined to get out of here. You’re coming with me. Keep a hold of your horrible necklace. This barb; this one right here. Here, can you feel it?

He directed two of her still-perfect, still-unscarred, undamaged trunk fingers to the control barb.

I feel it.

When I say so, you pull hard on that. Do you understand?

Of course I understand, do you think me a fool?

Only when I say; pull hard. We shall look like demons to those who are demons themselves, and have their power. The effect will not last long, but long enough to get us through the gate.

The great beetle-shaped flier was settling on the patch of ground by the mill. A pair of demons, yellow and black striped, emerged from the mill to watch it land. The beetle’s fuselage body was about half the size of the mill; lower, longer, darkly sleek. Its wings settled, folded into its carapace. The rear of its abdomen hinged down and a small group of sturdy, grinning demons and quivering, obviously terrified Pavuleans in rough-looking clothes came out.

The Pavuleans’ clothes alone marked them out as different, here. In Hell all suffered naked, and any who tried to cover their nudity only ensured themselves further torments as punishment for having had the effrontery to imagine they could exercise any control whatsoever over their suffering.

The eight Pavuleans exiting the giant beetle were also distinguished from the damned around them by being whole, carrying no scars or obvious injuries, seeping wounds or signs of disease. They looked well fed too, though even from this distance Prin could see a sort of hungry desperation in their movements and their facial expressions, a petrifying sense of probably being about to escape this landscape of pain and terror, but with the realisation dawning on at least some of them that perhaps they had been lied to. Perhaps this was not the end of a brief warning tour of Hell, designed to keep them on the straight and narrow back in the Real, but rather a taste of what was about to become their settled and already inescapable fate; a cruel trick that would be just the first of innumerable cruel tricks. Perhaps they were not getting out at all; perhaps they were here to stay, and to suffer.

From what Prin knew, for at least one of their number this would be brutally true; such groups were inevitably traumatised in the course of what they were forced to witness during these tours and — utterly unable to establish any rapport with the rapaciously forbidding and utterly disdainful demons who escorted them — quickly drew together, bonding like a tiny herd, finding a rough but real companionship amongst their equally horror-struck companions no matter how various their personalities, situations and histories might have been back in the Real.

To then have one of your number cut out of your little group, somebody you knew and felt some camaraderie towards, made the experience all the more vivid. It was just about possible to experience one of these horrific excursions and convince yourself that the unfortunates you saw suffering were quite different from you just because of the extremity of their degradation (they appeared sub-Pavulean; little more — perhaps no more — than animals) but to watch one of your group having all of his or her worst fears confirmed, consigned to everlasting torment just at the point when they thought they were about to be allowed to resume their life in the Real, made the lesson the tour was meant to teach stick much more thoroughly in the mind.

They’re about to go in. Be ready. Prin glanced back to see the nearest osteophager alarmingly close to their hideout. We have to go now, my love. He’d hoped to be closer when they made their approach, but there was no choice.

Pull on the barb, now, Chay.

So still you seek to deceive me. But I’ve seen through your shallow hope.

Chay! We have no time for this! I can’t do it for you! It only works at our own touch. Pull the fucking barb!

I will not. I press it instead, see? She winced as she pressed the barb further into her own neck, the other end impaling the tip of her trunk finger.

Prin sucked in his breath so hard and fast he saw the nearby osteophager turn its massive head in the direction of their shelter, ears twitching, gaze flicking this way and that, then settling on them

Shit! Right…

Prin pulled on his own necklace’s barb; the contraband code it symbolised started running. Instantly, he had the body of one of the grinning demons, and the biggest and most impressive type at that; a giant six-limbed predator long extinct in the Real, trunkless but with trefoil-fingered forelimbs that doubled as trunks. The rationalising rules of the Hell immediately caused the body-laden cheval de frise to rear up to accommodate his suddenly increased bulk so that he wore it on his broad, green and yellow back like some monstrous piece of armour. Chay cowered at his feet, suddenly small. She voided her bladder and bowels and curled into a rigid ball.

With one forelimb he picked her up by both of her trunks, the way he had seen demons do to his kind countless times before, and with a roar shrugged the cheval de frise off his back, letting it thunk down to one side, bodies and parts of bodies flopping and falling from its spikes.

There was a shrill scream; one of the carts carrying the corpses had been almost alongside, hidden by the weight of bodies on that side of the device, and when it had fallen, one of its spikes had pierced the foot of the Pavulean hauling the cart, pinning the creature to the ground. The osteophager who had been looking suspiciously in their direction took a step back, its ears suddenly bolt upright, an emotion between surprise and fear evident in its stance.

Prin snarled at it; the creature took another half-step back. Its fellows across the hillside had stopped and now stood motionless, looking on. They would wait and see which way this was going to go before deciding either to join in with leave-some-for-me! bravado, or pretend it had been nothing to do with them in the first place.

Prin shook the still-catatonically-inert Chay towards the osteophager. She’s mine! I saw first!

The osteophager blinked, looked round with apparent unconcern, checking to see what the rest of its detail was doing. Not coming bounding to its side to face down this sudden interloper steadfastly and together, clearly. The creature looked down, brushed at the ground in front of it with the back of one paw, claws mostly retracted.

Take it, it said in a grumbling, seemingly unconcerned voice. Consider it yours, with our blessing. We have plenty. It shrugged, lowered its head to sniff at the patch of ground it had scuffed, apparently having lost interest in the whole exchange.

Prin snarled again, clutched Chay to his chest, turned and bounded down the hillside past decaying corpses and spikes pennanted with ragged strips of flesh. He splashed through the dark stream of blood and went springing diagonally up the slope towards the mill. The group from the giant beetle had disappeared inside the building. The beetle itself had closed its abdomen and was unpacking its wings from beneath its gleaming wing covers. Prin was close enough to see demons moving inside its enormous faceted eyes.

Pilots, he thought, for an assemblage of code that might as well have been kept aloft through the wielding of an enchanted feather, or a magic anvil for that matter.

He leapt on up the hillside, towards the mill.


From somewhere came the idea that there were many different levels of sleeping, of unconsciousness, and therefore of awakening. In the midst of this pleasant woozy calm — warm, pleasantly swaddled, self-huggingly curled up, a sort of ruddy darkness behind the eyelids — it was an easy and comforting thing to contemplate the many ways one might be away, and then come back.

You fell asleep just for an instant sometimes; that sudden nod and jerk awake again, lasting a moment. Or you had short naps, often self-timed, limited by knowing you had a few minutes or a half-hour or whatever.

Of course you had your classic Good Night’s Sleep, however much things like shift systems and all-night facilities and drugs and city lighting might sometimes interfere.

Then there was the deeper unconsciousness of being knocked out, put carefully under for some medical procedure, or randomly banging your head and briefly not even knowing your own name. Also, people still lapsed into comas, and came out of those very gradually; that must be an odd feeling. And for a while there, for the last few centuries, though not so often these days because things had moved on, there was the sub-sleep of deep space travel, when you were put into a sort of deep, long-term hibernation for years or decades at a time, kept frigidly cold and barely alive, to be revived when your destination approached. Some people had been kept like this back at home, too, awaiting medical advances. Waking up from something like that must be quite a strange thing, she thought.

She felt an urge to turn over, as though she was nestled in a fabulously comfortable bed but now had spent enough time on this side and needed to shift to lie the other way. She felt very light, she realised, though even as she thought this she seemed to feel very slightly, reassuringly heavier.

She felt herself take a deep, satisfying breath, and duly turned over, eyes still tightly closed. She had a vague feeling that she didn’t entirely know where she was, but it didn’t bother her. Usually that was a slightly disturbing sensation, occasionally even a very disturbing, frightening experience, but not this time. Somehow she knew that wherever she was she was safe, cared for, and in no danger.

She felt good. Really good, in fact.

When she thought about it, she realised that she couldn’t remember ever having felt so good, so secure, so happy. She felt a tiny frown form on her face. Oh, come on, she told herself. She must have felt like this before. To her slight but undeniable irritation, she had only a vague memory of when she had last felt anything like this untroubled and happy. Probably in her mother’s arms, as a little girl.

She knew that if she woke up fully she would remember properly, but — much as a part of her wanted to be completely awake, to answer this question and sort all this out — another part of her was too happy just lying here, wherever she was, drowsy, secure and happy.

She knew this feeling. This was often the best bit of any day, before she had to wake and fully face the realities of the world and the responsibilities she had fallen heir to. If you were lucky, you really did sleep like a baby; completely, soundly and without care. Then it would be only as you awoke that you were reminded of all the things you had to worry about, all the resentments you harboured, all the injustices and cruelties you were subject to. Still, even the thought of that grim process somehow couldn’t destroy her mood of ease and happiness.

She sighed; a long, deep, satisfying sigh, though still with an element of regret as she felt her sleepiness drift away like mist under a gentle breeze.

The sheets covering her felt outrageously fine, almost liquidly soft. They moved about her naked body as she completed the sigh and stirred a little under the warm material. She was not sure that even Himself possessed such fine—

She felt herself spasm and jerk. A terrifying image, the face of someone hateful, started to form before her, then — as though some other part of her mind came to soothe her fears — the fear subsided and the anxiety seemed to be brushed away, like dust.

Whatever she had once feared, she didn’t need to fear it now. Well, that was nice, she supposed.

She supposed, too, that she really ought to wake up.

She opened her eyes. She had the vague impression of a wide bed, pale sheets and a large, high-ceilinged room with tall open windows from which gauzy, softly billowing white curtains waved out. A warm, flower-scented breeze stirred around her. Sunlight leant in golden shafts against the window apertures.

She noticed that there was some sort of fuzzy glow at the foot of the bed. It swam into focus and spelled out the word SIMULATION.

Simulation? she thought, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. The room swam properly into focus when she re-opened them. The place looked perfectly, entirely real, but she was no longer really paying attention to the room. Her jaw had dropped and her mouth hung open as she took in what she had glimpsed as she’d casually raised her arms and hands to her eyes a moment earlier.

She dropped her head very slowly and brought her hands up in front of her face again, staring at the backs, then at the palms of her hands, then at her forearms, then down at what she could see of her chest and breasts. She leapt back, upwards to the headboard of the bed, throwing the sheet off her as she did so, and stared down at her naked body.

She brought her hands up yet again, stared hard at them, inspecting her fingers, her fingernails, peering at them as though trying to see something which was almost but not quite too small to see. Finally she looked up, her gaze darting round the room; she threw herself out of the bed — the word SIMULATION stayed where it was, just visible at the bottom of her field of vision — and ran to a full-length mirror between two of the tall windows with their softly billowing curtains.

Nothing on her face, either. She stared at herself.

First of all, she was entirely the wrong colour. She ought to be almost soot black. Instead, she was… she wasn’t even sure what you called this colour. Dirty gold? Mud? Polluted sunset?

That was bad enough, but there was worse.

“Where the fuck is my intaglia?” she heard herself say.

SIMULATION, said the word now hovering around her feet as she took in the view of a beautiful but entirely un-bodymarked pale-skinned young woman standing naked in front of her. It looked something like her, she supposed, in bone structure and general bodily proportions, but that was being generous. Her featureless skin was a sort of wan, reddish-gold and her hair was entirely wrong; far too long and much too dark.

SIMULATION, the word still said. She slammed one fist into the side frame of the mirror, felt pretty much exactly the amount of pain she’d have anticipated, and sucked warm, fragrant air through her teeth (her teeth were also unmarked, too uniformly white, as were the whites of her eyes). When she’d hit it, the mirror frame had wobbled and the whole mirror and its base had shifted a few millimetres along the polished wooden floor, slightly altering the angle it presented to her.

“Ow ow ow,” she muttered, shaking her tingling hand as she stepped to the nearest window and, ducking a little, armed away the delicate translucence of a curtain.

She looked out from a bowed, balustraded stone balcony a floor above ground, gazing across a sunny landscape of elegantly sculpted green and blue trees, pale yellow-green grass and some mist foregrounding a soft tumult of wooded hills, the furthest ridges distance-blued against high, far-away mountains, summits glitteringly white. A river sparkled in the yellow-white sunlight off to one side, beyond a meadow where a herd of small dark-coated animals were grazing.

She stared hard at the view. She stepped back, snatched at the floating expanse of the wispy curtain, bringing a section of it up to her nose, frowning at it as she inspected the precision of its near microscopic weave. A set of shutters and glass windows lay open behind; she caught another glimpse of herself in the windows. She shook her head — how strange the hair on her head made the movement feel! — then went down on one knee by the stone balcony rail, rubbing two fingers along its ruddy broad top, feeling the slight graininess of sandstone under her fingertips, a little of which remained when she lifted her fingers away and rubbed them against each other. She put her nose to it; she could smell the stone.

Still, SIMULATION, the word said. She let out another sigh, of exasperation this time, and inspected the sky with its many little puffy white clouds.

She had experienced simulations before; she had been in virtual environments, but even the ones that relied on you being dosed with just the right drugs, so that you did a lot of the detail-filling yourself, were nothing like as perfectly convincing as this. The simulations she had experienced were closer to dreams than reality; convincing at the time, but pretty much the moment you started looking for the pixels or the grain or the fractals or whatever they were — or just the processing short cuts and inconsistencies — you found them. What she was looking at here — and feeling, and smelling — was effectively, uncannily flawless. She almost felt faint for an instant, head briefly swimming before quickly clearing again before she even started to sway or stagger.

Nevertheless: the sky was too blue, the sunlight too golden, the hills and especially the mountains didn’t quite fade and drop away like they did on a real planet, and while she still felt entirely like herself within herself — as it were — she was inside a body which was perfectly, flawlessly unmarked, causing her to feel more naked than she had ever felt in her life. No intaglia, no tattoo, no markage whatsoever. That was the biggest clue of all that this could not be real.

Well, the second biggest; there was that word, floating in red, always at the lower limit of her vision. SIMULATION. That was about as unambiguous as you got, she supposed.

From the balcony, she took a look around what she could see of the building. Just a big, rather ornate red sandstone house with lots of tall windows; some sticky-out bits, a few turrets, a pathway of small stones around the base. Listening carefully she could hear what might be the breeze in the nearest treetops, some high, slightly plaintive calls that probably represented birdsong and a faint lowing from the herd of four-legged grazing animals in the meadow.

She walked back into the bedroom and stood in its relative silence. She cleared her throat.

“All right, it’s a simulation. Anybody here I can talk to?”

No answer. She drew in the breath to say something else, but then there came a polite knocking from one of the room’s two broad wooden doors.

“Who’s there?” she called.

“My name is Sensia,” a pleasant-sounding female voice said. She’d have guessed it belonged to a relatively elderly woman, and one who was smiling as she spoke. She’d had a favourite aunt who’d sounded like this person, though perhaps not quite as well-spoken.

“One moment.” She looked down at herself. She imagined wearing a plain white dressing gown. Nope; her body remained stubbornly naked.

What looked like a tall wooden wardrobe stood near the door. She swung open the doors, wondering why she was doing so even as she did it. She was in a simulation, this didn’t even look like her own body anyway and she had never been especially self-conscious about her physical form — how could she be, as an Intagliate? The notion would have been hilarious if not so intimately connected with bitterness. Still, she did feel exceptionally naked with no markings, and the general feel and polite, highly monied ambience of this sim would appear to demand a certain decorum.

There were lots of rather gorgeous clothes inside the wardrobe; she threw on a plain, dark blue robe of what felt like the same material the liquid-soft sheet had been made of. She stood before the broad door, cleared her throat again, drew herself up and pulled on the fist-sized handle.

“Hello,” said the rather plain but very amiable-looking lady of late middle age standing outside. Behind her was a broad hallway with more doors leading off on one side and balustrades giving out onto a double-level hall on the other. “May I come in?” She had bunned white hair, sparkling green eyes and was dressed in a plain dark suit, unadorned.

“Please, do,” she said.

Sensia looked around, softly clapping her frail-looking hands once. “Shall we sit outside? I’ve sent for some drinks.”

They dragged a couple of heavy, brocaded seats out through the middle window onto the most generous of the room’s balconies, and sat down.

Her eyes stay too wide, she found herself thinking. She’s facing into the sunlight; a real person would be squinting by now, wouldn’t they?

On a ledge above, two small blue birds appeared to be fighting, rising at each other on a furious flutter of wings and almost touching breasts in mid-air before falling back again, all of this accompanied by a great deal of high-pitched twittering.

Sensia smiled warmly, clasping her hands. “So,” she said. “We are in a simulation.”

“I gathered,” she said, the word itself seemingly printed across the legs of the woman opposite.

“We’ll remove that,” Sensia said. The word disappeared from her field of vision. That felt briefly scary, though presumably she was always going to be under somebody’s control, in a sim. Sensia sat forward. “Now, this might sound a little odd, but would you mind terribly telling me your name?”

She stared at the other woman. Just for the merest instant, she had to think. What was her name? “Lededje Y’breq,” she said, almost blurted. Of course.

“Thank you. I see.” Sensia looked up towards the mad tweeting coming from the little birds above. The noise stopped suddenly. A moment later both birds flew down, settled briefly on one of Sensia’s fingers and then darted off in different directions. “And you are from where exactly?”

Another nearly imperceptible delay. “Well, I… I’m of the Veppers retinue,” she said. Veppers, she thought. How odd to think of him without fear. It was as though all that was in another life, and one that she would not have to go back to. Even as she thought about it, turning it over in her mind, the idea still held no terror. She started trying to remember where she had been last, before she ended up here. It felt like something she’d been hiding from herself, like something that some other part of her had been keeping from her. “I was born in Ubruater City and brought up in the mansion house of the estate of Espersium,” she told Sensia. “Lately, I still generally live either in Ubruater, Espersium, or sometimes just wherever Mr. Veppers might be.”

Sensia was nodding, gaze distant. “Ah-hah!” she said, sitting back, smiling. “Ubruater City, Sichult, Quyn system, Ruprine Cluster, Arm One-one Near-tip.”

Lededje recognised “Quyn” as the name the Sun went by in the rest of the galaxy and she had heard the term “Ruprine Cluster” before. She had no idea what “Arm One-one Near-tip” was; this bit of the galaxy, she supposed.

“Where am I?” she asked as a small, thick-bottomed tray arrived, floating out from the room. It held glasses and a pitcher of pale green liquid with ice in it. The device lowered between them so that it effectively became a table.

Sensia poured their drinks. “Presently, literally,” she said, settling back again, swirling her drink, “you’re in a computational substrate node of the General Systems Vehicle Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly, which is currently travelling through the ’liavitzian Blister, in the region called God’s Ear, Rotational.”

Rather than fully catching all this, Lededje had been thinking. “‘Vehicle’?” she said. “Is that a Wheel, or…?” She took a drink. The pale green liquid was delicious, though probably non-alcoholic.

Sensia smiled uncertainly. “A Wheel?”

“You know; a Wheel,” Lededje said, and became aware they were now staring at the other with mutual incomprehension.

How could this woman not know what a Wheel was?

Then Sensia’s face brightened. “Ah, a Wheel! A specific thing, with a capital letter and so on. I see. Yes, sorry; got you now.” She looked away, seemingly distracted. “Oh, yes, fascinating things…” She shook her head. “But no, not a Wheel. Bit bigger than that. Plate-class General Systems Vehicle: getting on for a hundred kilometres long if you go tip-to-tip of the outer field structure and four klicks high measuring just the naked hull. Roughly six trillion tonnes, though the mass assay gets fiendishly complicated with so much exotic matter making up the engines. About a fifth of a billion people aboard right now.” She flashed a smile. “Not counting those in virtual environments.”

“What’s it called again?”

“The Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly.” Sensia shrugged. “Where I take my name from; Sensia. I’m a ship’s avatoid.”

“That sounds like a Culture ship,” Lededje said, feeling her skin warm suddenly.

Sensia stared at her, looking genuinely surprised. “Good gracious,” she said. “You mean you didn’t even know you were on a Culture ship, even within the Culture at all? I’m surprised you’re not more disoriented. Where did you think you might be?”

Lededje shrugged. She was still trying to recall where she’d been last, before she woke up here. “No idea,” she said. “I’ve never been in a sim this good. I’m not sure we have them to this standard. I don’t think even Veppers has them this detailed.”

Sensia nodded.

“Where am I really?” Lededje asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Where’s my real self, my physical body?”

Sensia stared at her again. She put the drink down on the floating tray, her expression unreadable. “Ah,” she said. She made an o with her mouth and sucked air in, turning her head to look out at the parkland surrounding the house. She turned back to look at Lededje. “What is the last thing you remember, before you woke up here?”

Lededje shook her head. “I can’t remember. I’ve been trying.”

“Well don’t try too hard. From what I can gather it’s… traumatic.”

Lededje wanted to say something to that, but couldn’t think what. Traumatic? she thought with a sudden shiver of fear. What the hell did that mean?

Sensia took a deep breath. “Let me start by explaining that I have never had to ask for somebody’s name in these circumstances. I mean, someone — you — suddenly popping into existence un-announced.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t happen. Mind-states, souls, dynamic full-brain process inventories; whatever you call them, they always come with copious notes. You didn’t.” Sensia smiled again. Lededje formed the uncomfortable impression that the other woman was trying hard to be reassuring. This had never proved to be a good sign in Lededje’s past and she seriously doubted the pattern was about to change now. “You just immaterialised here, my dear,” Sensia told her, “in a one-time, one-way emergency-entanglement vicariously inherited legacy system event of what us Minds would generally call Laughably High Unexpectancy. And most bizarrely of all you came with what one might call no paperwork, zero documentation. Absolutely without accompanying context material. Docketless.”

“Is that unusual?”

Sensia laughed. She had a surprisingly deep, almost raucous laugh. Lededje found herself smiling despite the apparent gravity of the subject. “Not so much unusual,” Sensia said. “More entirely without precedent in roughly the last fifteen hundred busy years. Frankly I’m finding that hard to believe myself and, trust me, I have lots and lots of other avatars, avatoids, agents, feelers and just plain old requests out at the moment asking if anybody else has heard of such a thing — all without positive reply so far.”

“So you had to ask me my name.”

“Quite. As a ship Mind — as any kind of Mind, or even AI — I’m sort of constitutionally forbidden from looking too deeply into you, but even so I had to do a bit of delving just to get a matchable body profile for you to wake up in without causing you further trauma, here in the Virtual.”

Didn’t entirely work, Lededje thought. I’m a negative of my real self’s colour, and— Where’s my damn tat?

Sensia continued: “Plus there’s the language protocols, obviously. They’re actually quite involved, but highly localised across pan-humanity, so easy enough to pinpoint. Could have gone deeper and got your name and other details but that would have been invasively rude. However, following some ancient guidelines so obscure that I had to actively dig them out and consult them — designed to cover situations like this — I did what is called an Immediate Post-Traumatic Emergency Entanglement Transfer Psychological Profile Evaluation.” Another smile. “So that whatever suddenly caused you to need an entanglement event in the first place, back wherever you came from, didn’t compromise your safe transfer into Virtuality.” Sensia raised her glass again. She looked at it then put it back down again. “And what I discovered was that you’ve had a traumatic experience,” she said, quite quickly, her gaze not meeting Lededje’s. “Which I’ve sort of held back, edited from your transferred memories, just for now, while you settle in, get yourself sorted out, until you’re ready. You know.”

Lededje stared at her. “Really? You can do such a thing?”

“Oh, trivially easy, technically,” Sensia said, sounding relieved. “The constraints are entirely moral; rule-based. And it is, obviously, up to you when you come fully up to speed with yourself, if you know what I mean. Though frankly if I were you I wouldn’t be in too great a hurry.”

Lededje tried very hard to recall what had happened before she came here. She remembered being at Espersium, walking down a tree-lined avenue in the estate, alone, thinking that… it was time to escape.

Hmm, she thought. That was interesting. Was that what had happened? Had she finally found a practical, Veppers-proof method of getting away from the bastard and all his money, power and influence, using this entanglement thing? But that still left the question: where was her real self? Not to mention, why could she remember so little, and what exactly was this “trauma” Sensia kept talking about?

She drained her glass, sat up straight. “Tell me everything,” she demanded.

Sensia looked at her. She looked worried, concerned, compassionate. “Lededje,” she began slowly, carefully, “would you say that you’re a… psychologically strong person?”

Oh, fuck, thought Lededje.

When she had been very young, there had been a time she could still remember when she had felt nothing but loved, privileged and special. It was something more than the usual feeling of blessed distinction that all good parents naturally communicate to their children. There was that — that feeling of being at the focus of unquestioning regard and care — but for a while she had been just about sufficiently mature to realise that she was lucky enough to have even more than that. First of all, she lived in a great and beautiful house within a vast rural estate of extraordinary, even unique grandeur, and, secondly, she looked utterly different from the other children, just as her mother looked quite different from the other adults in the great household.

She had been born an Intagliate. She was certainly a human, and a Sichultian (you learned early on there were other types of human, but it was taken for granted that Sichultians were the best sort) but more than just a Sichultian: an Intagliate, somebody whose skin, whose entire body, whose every internal organ and part of their external physical appearance was different — markedly different — from that of everybody else.

Intagliates looked like ordinary people only in silhouette, or in lighting conditions so poor you could hardly see them at all. Turn on a lamp, come out into the daylight, and they were revealed as the fabulous creatures they were. An Intagliate was covered, head to foot, in what was called a congenitally administered tattoo. Lededje had been born tattooed, emerging from the womb with the most fabulously intricate patterns indelibly encoded at a cellular level onto her skin and throughout her body.

Usually, a true Indented Intagliate, as fully recognised by the Sichultian judicial and administrative system, was born with mist-white skin, the better to display the classically ink-dark designs imprinted on them. Their teeth bore similar designs, the whites of their eyes were similarly ornamented, their translucent fingernails held one design while another was just visible on the nail-pad beneath. The pores on their skin were arranged in a precisely formulated, non-random way, and even the minute tracery of their capillary system was patterned just so, according to design, not developmental chance. Cut them open and you would find similar designs on the surfaces of their internal organs, their designated motif carried into their heart and guts. Bleach their bones; the design would be stamped on the pale surface of their very skeleton; suck out their marrow and break those bones open, the ornamentation continued. At every possible level of their being they bore the mark that distinguished them from the blank sheets that were other people, as well as from those who had merely chosen to have themselves in some way marked.

Some, especially over the last century or so, were born almost night black rather than nearly snow white, their skins, especially, laced with even more exotic and colourful designs that could usefully include iridescence, fluorescence and the effect of mercurial silver, all of which were held to show up better on black skin. Lededje had been one of these even more flamboyantly marked creatures, the elite of the elite as she’d thought and felt at the time.

Her mother, who carried her own marks on her much paler skin — though hers were simple conventional ink — cared for Lededje and made her feel exceptionally fortunate to be what and who she was. The girl was proud that she was even more fabulously tattooed than her mother, and fascinated both by her mother’s wildly swirling patterns and her own. Even then, when she was just little, less than half her mother’s height, she could see that for all the greater area of her mother’s body surface and the fabulous artistry of the designs on her skin, her own flesh was the more intricately patterned, the more precisely and minutely marked. She noticed this but didn’t like to say anything, feeling slightly sorry for her mother. Maybe one day, she’d thought, her mother too could have skin as beautifully intagliated as her own. Lededje decided she would grow up rich and famous and would give her mother the money to make this happen. This made her feel very grown-up.

When she began to mix with them, the other toddlers and younger children from the estate seemed in awe of her. For one thing they were each a mixture of colours, and many of them were rather pale and wan-looking; she was pure. More importantly though, the other children had no markings, they boasted no astounding design upon their skins or anywhere else, obvious or hidden, slowly growing, gradually maturing, subtly changing and for ever becoming more complicated. They deferred to her, prioritised her own needs and wants over their own, seemed practically to worship her. She was their princess, their queen, almost their sacred goddess.

It had changed gradually. She suspected her mother had used all the influence she possessed to protect her only child from the demeaning truth for as long as she’d been able, probably to the detriment of her own position and standing within the household.

For the truth was that the Intagliate were more than just human exotica. They were both more, and less, than extravagant ornamentations in the household and retinue of the rich and powerful, to be displayed like walking, living jewellery at important social events and within the halls of financial, social and political power — though they were most certainly that.

They were trophies, they were the surrendered banners of defeated enemies, the capitulation papers signed by the vanquished, the heads of fierce beasts adorning the walls of those who owned them.

Intagliates recorded with their very being the fall of their families, the shame of their parents and grandparents. To be so marked was to bear witness to an inherited debt which your very existence was part of the paying-off.

It was a feature of Sichultian law — carried over from the practices of the particular nation-caste that had emerged victorious in the fight to stamp their way of doing things on the coalescing world state, two centuries earlier — that if a commercial debt could not be fully settled, or if the terms in some deal were deemed not entirely sufficient due to shortage of funds or other negotiables by one of the parties, then the defaulting or inadequately provisioned side could compensate by undertaking to have a generation or two of their progeny made Intagliate, signing over at least some of their children and grandchildren — usually though not always for life — to the care and control, indeed the ownership, of those to whom they were either indebted or at a fiscal disadvantage.

Sichultians, on encountering the rest of the galactic community following their contact by a species called the Flekke, were generally quite indignantly insistent that their rich and powerful loved their children just as much as the rich and powerful of any other decently civilised species, and that they simply had an elevated respect for the letter of the law and the honour involved in paying one’s debts on time, rather than a reduced regard for the rights of minors, or those who were otherwise innocent but indebted-by-inheritance in general.

The rights and well-being of the Intagliate, they would point out, were protected by an entire network of strictly applied laws to ensure that they could not be neglected or mistreated by those who effectively owned them, and indeed those who were Marked could even be regarded as being amongst the most privileged people in society, in a sense, being raised in the absolute lap of luxury, mixing with the very cream of society, attending all the most important social events and formal court occasions and never being expected to have to work for their keep. Most people would happily surrender their so-called “freedom” to live like that. They were esteemed, precious, and almost — though not quite — beyond price. What more could somebody who would otherwise have been born into grinding poverty ask for?

Like many societies finding their hitherto unquestioned customs and ethical assumptions impacting squarely with the breathtakingly sophisticated summed morality of a meta-civilisation inestimably older, vaster and by implication wiser than themselves, the Sichultia became highly protective of their developmental foibles, and refused to mandate away what some of them at least claimed to regard as one of their defining social characteristics and a vital and vibrant part of their culture.

Not all Sichultians agreed with this, of course; there had always been opposition to the very idea of Indented Intagliation, as well as to the very notion of a political-economic system configured to allow such options — a few deranged ruffians and degenerate troublemakers even took issue with the primacy of private ownership and the unfettered accumulation of capital itself — but most Sichultians accepted the practice and some were genuinely proud of it.

As far as other species and civilisations were concerned, it was just another one of those little quirks you always encountered when you discovered a new member of the community, a rough edge that would probably get rubbed off like the rest as the Sichultia gradually found and settled into their place at the great galactic banquet table of pan-species revelry.

Lededje could still remember the dawning of the realisation that her markings were not glorious after all, but somehow shameful. She was imprinted as she was, not to distinguish her as someone more important and privileged than others, but to mark her as a chattel, to make it clear to others that she was less than them: an owned, bonded thing, a trophy, an admission of familial defeat and shame. It had been, it still was, the most important, defining and humiliating stage of her life.

She had immediately tried to run away, fleeing the nursery where one of the other children, a little older than she, had finally and categorically informed her about all this, but got no further than the base of one of the dozens of small satellite domes that surrounded the mansion; barely a kilometre from where she’d started.

She howled and screamed at her mother for not telling her the truth about her tattoo. She threw herself into her bed and didn’t emerge for days. Hunkered under the bedclothes, she’d heard her mother weeping in the next room, and been briefly glad of it. Later she hated herself for hating her mother and they wept together, hugging, but nothing would ever be the same again, either between them or between Lededje and the other children, whose deposed queen she now felt she was.

It would be years before she’d be able to acknowledge all that her mother had done to protect her, how even that first deceit, that absurd concocted dream of privilege, had been a way of trying to strengthen her for the vicissitudes she would inevitably encounter in her later life.

According to her mother the reason that she had been forcibly tattooed and Lededje had been born Intagliate — as would be the one or two children she was contractually and honour-bound to produce — was that her late husband, Grautze, Lededje’s father, had been too trusting.

Grautze and Veppers had been best friends since their school days and had been in business together since the beginning of their commercial careers. Both of them came from very powerful, rich and renowned families and both became even more powerful, rich and famous as individuals, making deals and making money. They had made some enemies too, certainly, but that was only to be expected in business. They were rivals, but it was a friendly rivalry, and they had many joint ventures and equal partnerships.

Then there came the prospect of a single great deal more lucrative and important than any they had ever taken part in before; a momentous, reputation-securing, history-making, world-changing deal. They took a solemn pledge that they would work together on this, equal partners. They even became blood brothers to seal the agreement and signify the importance of the deal to both of them; they used a paired set of antique knives that Lededje’s great-grandfather had presented to Veppers’ grandfather, decades earlier, to cut the palms of the hands they then clasped. Nothing had been signed between them, but then the two had always behaved like honourable men to each other, and taken the other’s word as being good enough.

The details of the betrayal and the slow, devastating unwinding of that pledge were such that whole teams of lawyers had struggled to come to terms with them, but the gist was that Lededje’s father had lost everything, and Veppers had gained it all, and more. Her father’s family lost almost everything too, the financial damage rippling out to brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Veppers had made a great show of pretending to be supportive; in the complexity of the unravelling deal, much of the most immediate damage had been at the hands of other business rivals, and Veppers was assiduous in buying up the debts they accumulated from Lededje’s father, but always his support stopped short of preventing the damage in the first place. The final betrayal was the requirement, when all other ways of paying had been exhausted, that Grautze consent to his wife being Marked and his next child — and any children that that child had — being an Indented Intagliate.

Veppers gave every sign of being devastated it had come to this, but said he could see no other way out; there was no other honourable course, and if they had not honour, what did they have? He received considerable sympathy for having to watch his best friend and his family suffer so, but was adamant that despite the personal anguish it caused him it was the right thing to do; the rich could not be, and did not want to be, above the law.

The first part of the sentence, approved by Sichult’s highest court, was duly carried out; Lededje’s mother was taken, put into something resembling a coma, and tattooed. The night of the day they had taken her away, her husband slit his own throat with one of the two knives the original disastrous agreement had been solemnised by.

They found Grautze’s body quite quickly. The medics were able to take a viable sample of his seed from him. Brought together with an egg, taken from his widow while she was still under from the tattooing procedure, the resulting embryo was altered, changed to become that of an Intagliate, and then implanted back into his widow. Many of the team who had overseen the designing and patterning of the embryo felt it was their finest work. The result was Lededje.

The basis for the fabulous scroll work wrapping every square centimetre of her skin was that of the letter V, for Veppers, and the Veprine Corporation he commanded. Other elements included twin, crossed knives and images of the object the fateful deal had been about in the first place; Sichult’s soletta, the giant space-mounted fabrication which shielded the world from some of the light of the sun.

Lededje tried running away a lot as she grew up. She never got very far. Around about the time she started to think of herself as a young woman rather than a girl, when her intaglia was revealing itself in its true, mature, astoundingly intricate and colourful glory, she began to realise just how fabulously rich her master Mr. Veppers was and how far his power and influence reached. She gave up trying to run away.

It wasn’t until some years later, when Veppers started raping her, that she discovered that the richer the alleged perpetrator was, the more all those strictly enforced statutes regarding the rights of the Intagliate became, well, more like aspirations; general guidelines rather than properly enforced laws. That was when she started trying to run away again. The first time, she’d got to the edge of the estate, ninety kilometres from the house, after travelling down one of the great forested trackways that led to the estate perimeter.

The day before Lededje was caught and brought back, her mother, despairing, had thrown herself from one of the towers in the part of the estate near the house Lededje and her friends called the water maze.

Lededje had never confided to her mother that Veppers was raping her; he’d told her after the first time that if she did he’d make sure she never saw her mother again. Simple as that. She thought that her mother had suspected though. That might have been the real reason she took her own life.

Lededje felt she understood why death had seemed like an easier course for her mother. She even thought about doing the same thing herself, but couldn’t bring herself to go through with it. Part of her wanted to deprive Veppers of the most monetarily precious person in his household, but a more important part of her refused to let herself be ground down to the point of suicide by him.

Losing her mother hadn’t been enough, apparently. She’d been physically punished for her attempt to escape, too; a relatively unadorned patch of her flesh at the base of her back had been retro-marked with a beautifully drawn, exquisitely detailed though to her still inestimably crude etching of a black-skinned girl flitting through a forest. Even the applying of it had hurt.

And now, as Sensia slowly let the memories filter back, she knew that the second time she’d escaped had been in the city, in the capital, in Ubruater. She’d got away for longer that time — five days rather than four — though she’d only travelled a couple of kilometres across Ubruater, the adventure ending in the opera house that Veppers himself had funded.

She winced as she remembered the knife entering her chest, sliding between her ribs, plunging into her heart. The taste of his blood, the grisly feel of the tip of his nose as she’d chewed once and swallowed it, the shrieked obscenity and the final slap across the face when she was already as good as dead.

They were somewhere else now.

She’d had Sensia turn her skin from reddish-gold — too much like Veppers’ own flesh tone — to a dark, glossy black. The house and landscape had been altered at her request too, all in an instant.

Now they stood outside a more modest single-storey dwelling of white-painted mud brick whose prospect was of a leafy little oasis in a great duned desert of sable sand spreading as far as the eye could see. Colourful tents stood around pools and little streams, shadowed by tall, red-leafed trees.

“Make there be children,” she’d said, and there they were; a dozen or so, all laughing and splashing in one of the shallow pools, oblivious to the two women watching them from the mud brick house on its slight rise.

Sensia had suggested they sit down before she opened up Lededje’s memories of the last few days and hours of her life. They had sat on a rug on a wooden platform in front of the house while she recalled with mounting horror the events leading up to her death. There had been the usual flier journey from the estate to the capital, full of stomach-churning swoops and zooms as Veppers enjoyed himself, then on arrival she had settled into her room in the town house — another mansion in all but name in the centre of the city — then she’d slipped away from a visit to a couturier, gouging from her left heel the tracer implant she’d discovered was there some months ago. She’d picked up some pre-prepared clothes, makeup and effects and gone on the run within the city streets and alleys, finally finding herself cornered in the opera house.

The way Sensia had let her experience it, it was more like watching it all happen to somebody else, on a stage or in a film; she had been spared the outright immediacy of it all in that first run-through, though she could choose to go back and inspect the detail of it if she wanted. She had chosen to do this. She was doing it again now. She winced once more.

Lededje had stood again, the shock of it over. Sensia stood at her side.

“So I’m dead?” she said, still not fully comprehending.

“Well,” Sensia said, “obviously not so dead you can’t ask that question, but, technically; yes.”

“How did I get here? Was it via this entanglement thing?”

“Yes. There must have been a sort of neural lace inside your head, entangled with the legacy system I inherited from the relevant ship.”

“What relevant ship?”

“Let’s come back to that.”

“And what fucking neural lace inside my head?” she demanded. “I didn’t have one!”

“You must have. The only alternative would have been somebody positioning some sort of neural induction device round your head and reading your mind-state that way, as you slipped away. But that’s very doubtful. Not the sort of tech you have yourselves—”

“We have aliens,” Lededje protested. “Especially in Ubruater — it’s the capital of the planet, the whole system, the whole Enablement. Alien embassies; aliens running around all over the place. They’d have the tech.”

“Indeed they might, but why would they code your brain state and transmit it across three and a half thousand light years to a Culture ship, without documentation? Also, just plopping an induction helmet, no matter how sophisticated, onto a dying person in the last few seconds of their life could never record a mind state as detailed and internally consistent as yours. Even in a prime equiv-tech medical environment with plenty of prep time and a stable subject you’d never capture the fine detail you’ve come equipped with. A full back-up-capable neural lace grows with the brain it’s part of, it beds in over the years, gets very adept at mirroring every detail of the mind it interpenetrates and coexists with. That’s what you pretty much must have had. Plus it had an entanglement facility built into it, obviously.”

She glared at Sensia. “So I’m… complete? A perfect copy?”

“Impossible to be absolutely sure, but I strongly suspect so. There is almost certainly less of a difference between the you that died and the you that you are now than there would be between your selves at one end of a night’s sleep and the other.”

“And that’s thanks to this entanglement thing too?”

“Partly. The copies at either end of the process should be absolutely identical, assuming the non-originating part of the pair collapses at all.”


“Entanglement is great when it works but — more than two per cent of the time — it doesn’t work; in fact it fails utterly. That’s why it’s almost never used — hideously risky. You use it in wartime, when it’s better than nothing, and possibly a few SC agents have been subject to the process, but, otherwise, never.”

“Still, the odds were in my favour.”

“Assuredly. And it’s better than being dead.” Sensia paused. “Though this still doesn’t answer the question regarding how you ended up with a full back-up-capable neural lace in your head complete with an entanglement facility targeted to a long passedon legacy sub-system which all concerned had quite thoroughly forgotten about.” Sensia turned, looked at Lededje. “You’re frowning.”

“I just thought of something.”

She had met him — met it, as it turned out — at a reception on the Third Equatower, in the space station port of one of Sichult’s five equatorial space elevators. A Jhlupian cultural and trade mission ship had recently docked, disgorging various notables of the Jhlupe, a high-level civilisation with which Veppers had commercial links. The carousel space where the reception was held was one of a number of giant sliding tori for ever revolving underneath the rotund bulk of the station’s docks, canted windows providing an ever-changing view of the planet beneath.

The Jhlupe, she recalled thinking, gave the impression that they were all elbows. Or maybe knees; they were awkward-looking twelve-limbed creatures like giant soft-shelled land crabs, their skin or carapace a bright, lustrous green. A trio of eyes on short stalks protruded from their main bodies, which were a little larger than a human who had rolled themselves into a ball. Rather than use their many spindly legs, they floated on what looked like metallic cushions. Their translated voices issued from the same source.

This had happened ten years ago. Lededje had been sixteen at the time, just coming to terms with the fact she was a woman and that her now almost fully matured intagliation would make her an object of fascination wherever she went — indeed that this was the whole of her purpose in life, as far as Veppers and the rest of the world were concerned.

She had just started being brought along to events like this, expected to accompany Veppers as part of his retinue. It was, in its full pomp, a sizeable retinue, too. As well as his assorted bag-carriers and various bodyguards — Jasken being the last line of defence — Veppers was the sort of oligarch who seemed to feel slightly naked without his Media Relations Advisor and his Loyaltician around.

She still wasn’t entirely sure what a Loyaltician actually did, but at least they had some sort of purpose and utility. She, she had come to realise, was no more than an ornament; something to be admired, to be stared at and cooed over, an object of fascination and astonishment, her duty being to exemplify and magnify the magnificence and sheer wealth of Mr. Joiler Veppers, President and Prime Executive Officer of the Veprine Corporation; the richest man in the world, in the whole Enablement, in charge of the most powerful and profitable company that had ever existed.

The man looking at her appeared terribly old. He was either a much-altered Sichultian or a pan-human alien; the human type had proved to be one of the galaxy’s more repetitively common life-forms. Probably an alien; making yourself look as skeletally, creakingly old as that would just be perverse, weird and creepy. Nowadays even poor people could afford the sort of treatment that let you stay young-looking pretty much until you died. It kind of meant you rotted from the inside, she’d heard, but that was a small price to pay for not having to look decrepit until right at the end. And there wouldn’t be any poor people up here anyway; this was an exclusive little party, for all that there were a couple of hundred people present.

There were only ten of the Jhlupe in attendance; the rest were Sichultian business chiefs, politicians, bureaucrats and media people, plus their various servants, aides and hangers-on. She supposed she counted as a hanger-on.

She was generally expected to hang around near Veppers, impressing all with the fabulousness of the human exotica he could afford, but he and his inner negotiating circle had peeled off to talk with two of the giant crab people in a sort of bay window section of the reception room, perimeter guarded by three of the Zei — Veppers’ massive, highly enhanced clone bodyguards. Lededje had come to understand that often the principal part of her worth lay in providing a distraction; a chattel to be wielded when Veppers required, dazzling and beguiling those he wished dazzled and beguiled, often so that he could slip something past them or just get them in a generally agreeable frame of mind. The Jhlupe might be able to appreciate that she looked significantly different to everybody else around her — darker, and extravagantly tattooed — but the Sichultians were so alien to them anyway it made little extra difference, which meant she was not required to be present when Veppers was talking with them on matters of any great seriousness.

She had hardly been abandoned though, being minded by one of the other Zei and in the company of Dr. Sulbazghi.

“That man is looking at you,” Sulbazghi said, nodding towards the slightly stooped, extremely bald human a few metres away. The man looked wrong: too thin and — even stooped — too tall to be normal. His face and head appeared vaguely cadaverous. Even his clothes were strange: too tight, plain and dull to be remotely fashionable.

“Everybody looks at me, Dr. Sulbazghi,” she told him.

Dr. Sulbazghi was a blocky-looking man with dark yellow skin — quite lined, on his face — and scant, thin brown hair, characteristics that marked him as either coming from or having ancestors who’d come from Keratiy, first amongst Sichult’s sub-continents. He could easily have had himself altered to look more handsome, or at least vaguely acceptable, but had chosen not to. Lededje thought this was very strange, even freaky. The Zei, towering nearby — soberly dressed, eyes always moving, flicking his gaze all around the room as though watching some ball game invisible to everybody else — was quite good-looking in comparison, and even he was kind of scarily muscle-blown, looking like he was about to burst out of both his suit and skin.

“Yes, but he’s looking at you differently to everybody else,” the doctor said. He nodded to a waiter, had his glass replaced, took a drink. “And look; now he’s coming over.”

“Ma’am?” the Zei rumbled, deep dark eyes looking down at her from a face at least half a metre above her own. The Zei made her feel like a child.

She sighed, nodded, and the Zei let the funny-looking man approach her. Veppers would not expect her to be stand-offish with anybody at an event as exclusive as this.

“Good day. I believe you are Lededje Y’breq,” the old man said, smiling at her and nodding briefly at Dr. Sulbazghi. His voice was real, not synthesised by a translation device. Even more surprising was that his voice was so deep. Veppers had had his voice surgically improved over the years, making it deeper, more mellifluous and rich in a series of small operations and other treatments, but this man’s voice eclipsed even Veppers’ succulent tones. Bit of a shock in someone so patently an old geezer and looking like he was on his last legs. Maybe age went differently with aliens, she thought.

“Yes, I am,” she said, smiling suitably and carefully pitching her voice into the middle of the Zone of Elegance that her elocution tutor kept wittering on about. “How do you do. And you are?”

“How do you do. My name is Himerance.” He smiled, swivelled from the waist in a slightly unnatural way and looked over to where Veppers was talking to the two crab-like aliens. “I’m with the Jhlupian delegation — a pan-human cultural translator. Making sure nobody commits some terrible faux pas.”

“How interesting,” she said, happy not to be committing one herself by yawning in the geriatric’s face.

He smiled again, looked down to her feet and then back up to her face. Yes, just you give me a good long inspection, you old perv, she thought. She supposed it was partly the dress, of which it had to be said there was not much. She was destined to spend her life in revealing clothes. She had long since decided to be proud of how she looked — she would have been a beauty even without the intagliation, and if she was to bear the mark of her family’s shame then she would do that too with all the dignity she could — however, she was still growing into this new role and sometimes men looked at her in ways she didn’t appreciate. Even Veppers had begun to gaze at her as though he was somehow seeing her for the first time, and in a way that made her uncomfortable.

“I confess,” Himerance said, “I am quite fascinated by the Intagliate. And you are, if I may say so, remarkable even within that exceptional category.”

“How kind,” she said.

“Oh, I am not kind,” Himerance said.

At that point, the Zei watching over them stiffened fractionally and rumbled something that might have been “Excuse me”, before swinging away into the crowd of people with surprising litheness and grace. At the same time Dr. Sulbazghi swayed a little and, frowning, inspected the contents of his glass. His eyes looked a little odd. “Don’t know what they’re putting in this stuff these days. Think I’ll sit down, if you… excuse me.” He sidled off too, heading for some seats.

“There we are,” Himerance said smoothly. He had kept his eyes focused on her while both the Zei and Dr. S had made their excuses and left. She was alone with him now.

The truth dawned. “You just did that?” she asked, glancing first at the broad, retreating back of the Zei and then in the direction Dr. S had disappeared. She was not trying to keep her voice politely modulated any more. She was aware her eyes had widened.

“Well done,” Himerance said with an appreciative smile. “A concocted semi-urgent message on the bodyguard’s comms and a temporary feeling of dizziness afflicting the good doctor. Neither will detain them for long, however it allows me the chance to beg a favour of you.” Himerance smiled again. “I would like to talk to you privately, Ms. Y’breq. May I?”

“Now?” she asked. She glanced about. It would be a short conversation; you were — well, she was — never left alone for more than a minute or so at gatherings like this.

“Later,” Himerance said. “Tonight. In your chamber at Mr. Veppers’ town house in Ubruater City.”

She almost laughed. “Think you’ll get invited?” She knew there was nothing planned that evening beyond a meal out with the whole entourage somewhere and then — for her — music and deportment lessons. Then to bed, after getting to watch half an hour of screen, if she was lucky. She wasn’t allowed out without bodyguards and escorts and the idea that she’d be allowed to entertain a man in her private bedroom, ancient and alien or not, was frankly hilarious.

Himerance smiled his easy smile. “No,” he said. “I can arrange my own access; however I wouldn’t want you to be alarmed, so I thought it best to ask permission first.”

She regained some control. “What is this about, Mr. Himerance?” she asked, voice polite and measured again.

“I have a modest proposition to make. It will cause you no inconvenience or harm. It would take nothing from you that you’d miss.”

She changed tack again, trying to unsettle this weird old guy, dropping the too-polite tone and asking sharply, “And what’s in it for me?”

“Perhaps some satisfaction, once I’ve explained what it is I am looking for. Though some other payment could certainly be arranged.” Still without taking his gaze away from her eyes, he said, “I’m afraid I must hurry you for an answer; one of Mr. Veppers’ bodyguards is making his way towards us rather smartly, having realised we have been left alone.”

She felt excited, slightly scared. Her life was too controlled. “When’s good for you?” she asked.

She’d fallen asleep. She hadn’t meant to and she would never have thought she’d be able to anyway, just too fired up by the vague, illicit thrill of it all. Then when she awoke she knew he was there.

Her room was on the second-top floor of the tall town house, which was better guarded than most military bases. She had a big room with a dressing room and bathroom en-suite; its two large windows looked out over the gently lit parterres and formal sculptings of the garden. By the windows, part illuminated in the spill of cloud-reflected city light the shutters admitted, there was a sitting area with a low table, a couch and two seats.

She levered herself up from her pillows with her elbows.

He was sitting in one of the seats. She saw his head turn.

“Ms. Y’breq,” he said softly. “Hello again.”

She shook her head, put a finger to her lips, pointed round the room.

There was just enough light for her to see him smile. “No,” he said gently. “The various surveillance devices will not trouble us.”

Okay, she thought. So the alarm probably wouldn’t work either. She’d kind of been relying on that as her last line of defence if things got iffy. Well, second-last line of defence; she could always just scream. Though if the guy could interfere with the Zei’s comms, make Dr. S feel suddenly dizzy and somehow get himself into Veppers’ town house without being detected, maybe even screaming wouldn’t be on the agenda if he set his mind against it. She started to get a little frightened again.

A light came slowly on near the seat he sat in, revealing him to be dressed just as he had been at the reception earlier in the day. “Please,” he said, gesturing to the other seat. “Join me.”

She put a robe over her nightgown, turning away from him so that he wouldn’t see her hands shake. She sat by him. He looked different: still the same man, but not quite so old; less skeletal about the face, body no longer stooped.

“Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to talk with you in private,” he said formally.

“That’s okay,” she said, drawing her feet up beneath her and hugging her knees. “So. What is it all about?”

“I would like to take an image of you.”

“An image?” She felt vaguely disappointed. Was that all? Though probably he meant a full-body image, a photograph of her in the nude. So he was just an old perv after all. Funny how things that started out exciting and maybe even romantic-seeming degenerated into the crude mundanity of lust.

“It would be an image of your entire body, not just both inside and out but of its every single cell, indeed its every atom, and taken, in effect, from outside the three dimensions one normally deals with.”

She stared at him. “Like, from hyper-space?” she asked. Lededje had generally paid attention in science lessons.

Himerance smiled broadly. “Precisely.”


He shrugged. “For my own private collection of images which I find pleasing.”


“For whatever it might be worth, Ms. Y’breq, I can assure you that my motivation is absolutely not sexual.”


Himerance sighed. “You are a remarkable work, if I may say so, Ms. Y’breq,” he told her. “I realise that you are a person, and a very intelligent, pleasant and — to those of your own kind, of course — an attractive one. However, I shan’t pretend that my interest in you is anything other than purely due to the intagliation you have suffered.”


“Undergone? I did think about the exact word to employ.”

“No, you were right the first time. I suffered it,” she said. “Not something I got to have any choice about, anyway.”


“What do you do with these images?”

“I contemplate them. They are works of art, to me.”

“Got any other ones you can show me?”

Himerance sat forward. “Would you really like to see some?” He appeared genuinely keen.

“Do we have the time?”

“We do!”

“So show me.”

A bright, 3D image appeared in the air in front of her. It showed… well, she wasn’t sure. It was an insane swirl of lines, black against yellow-orange, bewilderingly complex, levels of implied detail disappearing into enfolded spaces it was not quite possible to see.

“This is just the three-dimensional view one would have of a stellar field-liner entity,” he told her. “Though with the horizontal scale reduced to make it look roughly spherical. Really they look more like this.” The image suddenly stretched, teasing out until the assemblage of dark lines she’d been looking at became a single line, maybe a metre long and less than a millimetre across. A tiny symbol, looking like a sort of microscopic shoe box with the edges chamfered off, was probably meant to indicate scale, though as she had no idea what it was meant to represent it didn’t really help. The vanishingly thin line was shown silhouetted against what looked like a detail of the surface of a star. Then the line plumped up to become an absurdly complicated collection of lines once more.

“It’s hard to give an impression of the effect in 4D with all the internals shown,” Himerance said apologetically. “But it’s something like this.” Whatever he did with the image, it left her feeling glad she was sitting down; the image seemed to peel off into a million different slices, sections flickering blurringly past her like snowflakes in a blizzard. She blinked, looked away, feeling disoriented.

“Are you all right?” Himerance asked, sounding concerned. “It can be a bit intense.”

“I’m fine,” she told him. “What exactly was that?”

“A particularly fine specimen of a stellar field liner; creatures who live within the magnetic lines of force in, mostly, the photospheres of suns.”

“That thing was alive?”

“Yes. And it still is, I expect. They live for a very long time.”

She looked at the old man, his face illuminated by the glow coming from the image of the creature that was mostly black lines and somehow lived on the surfaces of suns. “Can you see it in proper 4D?”

“Yes,” he said, turning to look at her. He sounded proud and coy at once. Face glowing, enthusiasm seemingly pouring out of him, he suddenly looked about six.

“How is that possible?” she asked.

“Because I am not really a man, or any sort of human,” he told her, still smiling. “I am an avatar of a ship. It is the ship you are really addressing, and the ship which is able to take and appreciate images in 4D. The ship’s name, my true name, is the Me, I’m Counting, once fully part of the Culture, now an independent vessel within what is sometimes known as the Ulterior. I am a wanderer; an explorer, if you will, and it is my pleasure, on occasion, to offer my services as a cultural translator — a facilitator of smooth relations between profoundly different species and civilisations — to whoever might feel the need for such assistance. And — as I say — I am also a collector of images of whatever I consider to be the most exquisite beings, wherever my travels take me.”

“Couldn’t you just take one of these images without me knowing?”

“In the practical sense, yes. Nothing would be easier.”

“But you wanted to ask permission first.”

“It would be rude, dishonourable, not to, don’t you think?”

She looked at him for a moment. “I suppose,” she said eventually. “So. Would you be sharing this image with anybody?”

“No. Until now, showing you this one of the field-liner creature, I have never shared one of these images with anybody. I have many more. Would you like to—?”

“No,” she said, smiling and holding up one hand. “That’s all right.” The image disappeared, dimming the room again.

“I give you my word that, in the unlikely event I do decide I want to share your image, I would not do so without your express permission.”

“In each case?”

“In each case. With a similar precondition applying to—”

“And if you do it, if you take the image, will I feel anything?”


“Hmm.” Still hugging her shins, she lowered her face to her robed knees, stuck her tongue out to touch the soft material, then bit at it, taking a tiny fold of it into her mouth.

Himerance watched her for a few moments, then said, “Lededje, may I have your permission to take the image?”

She spat out the fold of material, raised her head. “I asked you before: what’s in it for me?”

“What may I offer?”

“Get me out of here. Take me with you. Help me escape. Rescue me from this life.”

“I can’t do that, Lededje, I’m sorry.” Himerance sounded regretful.

“Why not?”

“There would be consequences.”

She let her head drop again. She stared at the rug at the foot of the shuttered windows. “Because Veppers is the richest man in the world?”

“In the whole Sichultian Enablement. And the most powerful.” Himerance sighed. “There are limits to what I can do anyway. You have your own way of living here, on this world and within the hegemony you call the Enablement; your own rules, mores, customs and laws. It is not regarded as good form to go interfering in the societies of others unless one has a very good reason, and an agreed-on strategic plan. However much we might wish to, we cannot simply indulge our own sentimental urges. I am genuinely sorry, but, sadly, what you ask is not within my gift.”

“So, nothing in it for me,” she said, and knew that she sounded bitter.

“I’m sure I could set up a bank account with a sum in it that might help you—”

“Like Veppers will ever let me have any sort of independent life,” she said, shaking her head.

“Well, perhaps—”

“Oh, just do it,” she said. She hugged her legs tighter, looked at him. “Do I need to stand up or anything?”

“No. Are you sure—?”

“Just do it,” she repeated fiercely.

“I might still be able to suggest some kind of compensatory—”

“Yes, yes. Whatever you think fit. Surprise me.”

Surprise you?”

“You heard.”

“You are sure about this?”

“I’m sure, I’m sure. Have you done it yet?”

* * *

“Ah-ha,” Sensia purred, nodding her head slowly. “That does sound like it.”

“That ship put the neural lace thing in my head?”

“Yes. Well… it would have planted the seed of one; they grow.”

“I didn’t feel anything at the time.”

“Well, you wouldn’t.” Sensia looked out towards the desert. “Yes, the Me, I’m Counting,” she said, and Lededje got the impression Sensia was really talking to herself. “Hooligan-class LOU. Declared as an Eccentric and Ulteriored itself over a millennium ago. Dropped out of view completely a couple of years back. Probably on a retreat.”

Lededje sighed heavily. “My own fault for saying ‘Surprise me’, I guess.” Inside, though, she was elated. The mystery was solved, almost certainly, and it had been a good bargain; she had been saved from death, in a sense at least.

But what is to become of me? she thought. She looked at Sensia, still staring out into the shimmering warmth of distance where dust devils danced and the horizon quivered in a mirage of lake or sea.

What is to become of me? she wondered. Did she depend upon the charity of this virtual woman? Was she subject to some legal agreement between the Culture and the Enablement? Was she now somebody or something else’s possession or plaything? She might as well ask, she supposed.

She immediately found herself preparing to use what she thought of as her little voice: the meek, low, soft, childlike tone she used when she was trying to make her own vulnerability and powerlessness known, when she was trying to play upon somebody’s sympathies, make them feel sorry for her and so less likely to hurt or demean her and perhaps even let her have something she wanted. It was a technique she had used on everyone from her mother to Veppers, mostly with a lot more success than failure. But she hesitated. It had never been a ruse she had been very proud of, and here the rules had changed, everything was different. For her own pride, for the sake of what might be a fresh start, she would ask it straight, without deliberate inflection.

“So,” she said, looking not at Sensia but out at the desert, “what is to become of me, Sensia?”

The older woman looked at her. “Become of you? You mean what happens now, where do you go?”

Still not daring to meet the other woman’s gaze, she nodded. “Yes.”

What a strange, almost absurd situation to be in, she thought. To be in this perfect but… self-confessed simulation, talking to a glorified computer about her fate, her life from this point on. What would happen next? Would she be left free to wander and somehow make a life within this virtual world? Would she be in some sense returned to Sichult, even to Veppers? Could she simply be turned off as just a program, nothing genuinely alive at all? The following few seconds, the next sentence out of Sensia’s unreal, virtually modelled mouth, would like as not turn her life one way or the other: to despair, to triumph, to outright annihilation. It all came down — unless she was already being deeply deceived about where she was and who she was really talking to — to what was said in the next moment.

Sensia blew her cheeks out. “Largely up to you, Lededje. You’re in a nearly unique situation so there’s no particular precedent, but zero documentation or not you’re essentially a fully functioning, viable independent mind-state and incontrovertibly sentient, with all that that implies regarding rights and so on.”

“What does that imply?” Lededje asked. She was already feeling relieved but she wanted to be sure.

Sensia grinned. “Only good things, really. The first thing I imagine you might want to do is to be revented.”

“What does that mean?”

“Technical term for being brought back to life in a physical body back in the Real.”

For all that she had no real heart or mouth, that all this was a simulation, she felt her heart leap, her mouth start to go dry. “That is possible?”

“Possible, advisable, kind of standard in such situations.” Sensia gave a sort of throttled-back laugh and waved out at the desert. As she swept her arm across the view, Lededje caught brief glimpses of what she guessed were other virtual worlds within or alongside this one: great gleaming cities, a mountain range at night criss-crossed with a tangle of tubes and lights, a vast ship or mobile city sailing on a creamy white sea beneath a cerulean sky, a limitless-looking vista of nothing but air full of vast striped trees like green-blue curlicues, and views and structures that she saw but could hardly have described, which she guessed were possible in a virtual reality but impractical in what Sensia blithely called the Real. Then the desert resumed. “You could stay here, of course,” Sensia told Lededje. “In whatever environment or mix of them you find congenial, but I’d expect you might want a real physical body.”

Lededje nodded. Her mouth was still dry. Could it really be this easy? “I think,” she said, “I would.”

“Sensible. There are, believe me, innumerable other things you could be revented into, in theory, but if I were you I’d stick with the form you’re used to, at first at least. Context is everything, and the first context we find ourselves in is that of our own body.” She looked Lededje down and up. “You happy with the way you look now?”

Lededje opened the blue robe she still wore, looked down at herself. She closed the robe again. Its hems fluttered in the hot breeze. “Yes.” She hesitated. “I can’t decide if I want some form of tattoo or not.”

“Easy to add later, though not at the genetic level you’ve been used to. Can’t really sort you out with that. That info didn’t travel.” Sensia shrugged. “I’ll leave you with an image you can manipulate until you’re happy with it, take a spec from that.”

“You’ll grow a body for me?”

“Complete a suspended one.”

“How long will that take?”

“Here, as little or as much time as you like. In the Real, about eight days.” Sensia shrugged again. “My standard stock of mindless bods doesn’t include the Sichultian form — sorry.”

“Is there a body I could be put into now, without waiting?”

Sensia smiled. “Can’t wait, eh?”

Lededje shook her head, felt her skin grow warm. The truth was that if this was some cruel joke, she wanted to know as quickly as possible. If it was all genuine then she didn’t want to wait to have a real body to take her back to Sichult.

“It’ll still take about a day or so,” Sensia said. She nodded at a female human figure suddenly suspended in the air in front of them; naked, eyes closed. It looked vaguely Sichultian. Its skin was a sort of muddy grey. Then it changed to pure black, then to near white, then shifted through a modest spectrum of different colours. At the same time the girth and height of the figure increased and then decreased. The shape of the head and the facial features changed a little too. “That’s the parameters you can play with, given the time available,” Sensia told her.

Lededje was thinking. She recalled Veppers’ own skin tone. “How long might it take to make it look properly Sichultian, and not black, but sort of reddish-gold?”

Sensia’s eyes might have narrowed a fraction. “A few hours more; a full day in total perhaps. You’d look Sichultian, but you wouldn’t really be so all the way through, not inside. A blood test, tissue sample or almost any invasive medical procedure would quickly reveal that.”

“That’s all right. I think that’s what I’d like,” Lededje said. She looked Sensia in the eye. “I have no money to pay for this.” She had heard that the Culture survived without money, but hadn’t believed a word of it.

“That’s as well,” Sensia said reasonably, “I have no charge to levy.”

“You would do this out of kindness, or for my obligation?”

“Let’s call it kindness, but it’s my pleasure.”

“Then, thank you,” Lededje said. She bowed formally. Sensia smiled. “I would also,” Lededje said, “need to work my passage back to Sichult.”

Sensia nodded. “I’m sure that can be arranged. Though the word ‘work’ doesn’t really mean quite the same in the Culture as it does in the Enablement.” Sensia paused. “May I ask what you intend to do when you get back?”

Kill Mr. Joiler Fucking Veppers, of course, Lededje thought grimly. And—… but there were some things, some thoughts which were so secret, so potentially dangerous, she had learned in effect to keep them even from herself.

She smiled, wondered if this friendly-seeming virtual creature could read her thoughts, in here.

“I have business to conclude there,” she said smoothly.

Sensia nodded, expressionless.

They both looked out towards the desert again.


Prin ignored the departing air vehicle. The giant black beetle ignored him in return. Its great wings unfolded to their full extent — a grinning, death’s head pattern was displayed on each — and then blurred into motion. The giant beetle lumbered upwards. The storm of air its wings produced kicked up dust and tiny shards of bone as Prin, still holding the tiny, petrified form of Chay against his massive chest with one of his forelimbs, reached the flat landing area and dashed across it for the door of the blood-powered mill.

He threw open the door, then had to duck and squeeze though the doorway to get inside. He straightened up, roaring, the wind and dust from the departing aircraft’s wings blowing a stormy haze about him and before him, sweeping over the dark, uneven floor-boards to where the group of grinning demons and terrified Pavuleans were standing before a tall glowing doorway of cool blue set into the bone-and-sinew machinery of the mill’s creaking, quietly shrieking interior.

Somebody said, “Three.”

Caught in the double whirlwind produced by the beetle’s wings, the door behind Prin slammed shut, shaking the mill and reducing by half the little light that came from outside. Prin paused, taking stock. Chay remained stiff in his forelimb. He thought he could feel her trembling against his chest, and hear her whimpering. The demons and the Pavuleans presented a static tableau.

A shallow ramp led down from the floor of the mill to the blue haze of the tall doorway, which trembled, light level fluctuating, as though it was made up of mist inside. Prin thought he caught a glimpse of movement beyond it, but it was impossible to be sure. There were six demons before him. They were of the smaller, four-legged kind; no match for him individually but capable of over-whelming him en masse. Two of them were the ones who had come out of the mill to watch the beetle-shaped flier land. The other four, each holding one of the Pavuleans, had come in on the beetle itself. Four Pavuleans left; four must already have gone through the gateway, back to the Real.

“And what is it you might want?” one of the mill demons said to Prin, as the other nodded to a pair of demons from the flier. These two released their hold on the Pavuleans they were clutching. The two male Pavuleans landed on all fours and scuttled soundlessly down the ramp, vanishing into the blue mist of the doorway.

The other mill demon said, “One.”

“No, no, no!” one of the two remaining Pavuleans wailed, struggling in the grasp of the demon who held him.

“Shush now,” the demon holding him said, shaking him. “Might not be you who’s staying.”

“Brother?” the mill demon who’d spoken to Prin took a step towards him.

Prin felt a tiny, sharp barb penetrate the skin at his neck. The contraband code was about to run out. Four pulses warning; that’s what he’d been told. Four pulses and then he’d be back to his earlier self, just another coded Pavulean, as helpless and hopeless as Chay here, held tight and trembling against his chest. Another barb. So that was four, three…

He didn’t even try to roar again; waste of breath. He just charged, leaping forward at the group of demons and Pavuleans. He thudded into the approaching mill demon while surprise was still registering on its face and it was just starting to raise its trunks to fend him off. He half-headed it, half-shouldered it out of the way, sending it crashing to the floor.

It was all happening very slowly. He wondered if this really was the speed that such moments of action seemed to happen at for predators in the Real — one reason they were so good at bringing down their prey, perhaps — or if this was an extra effect introduced just for the demons in Hell, to allow them an even greater advantage over their victims, or just to let them savour the moment all the more fully.

The four demons from the flier were all facing him now. The two holding Pavuleans did not worry him so much, he realised — he was thinking like a predator, like one of these bastards! — because they didn’t want to let go of their charges, at least not yet. By the time they thought the better of this, he knew, it would all be over one way or the other.

One of the remaining demons was faster to react than the other, opening its mouth into a snarl and starting to rise up on its hind legs while it brought its forelegs up towards him.

He was aware of being slightly encumbered by the small, hard weight he was carrying against his great furred chest. Chay. Could he just throw her through the doorway from here? Probably not. He’d have to stop, take aim, lob her. It would take too long and the way the angles worked one of the demons would only need to raise one forelimb to catch her or knock her off course. By the time that happened he’d have lost all his temporary power and be no more strong than she was now; no match at all for even a single demon.

He could use his slight lopsidedness to his advantage, he realised, as he took his next swinging, galloping step. The demon facing him, ready to tackle him, was allowing for how he was moving off-kilter, unconsciously preparing to intercept Prin a couple of metres ahead according to the already set rhythm evident in the way he was moving.

Prin threw Chay from one forelimb to the other and pressed her hard into the other side of his chest. The gesture cost him a small amount of momentum, but gave him the greater advantage of throwing off the reckoning of the demon preparing to bring him down.

Prin opened his jaws as the third barb made itself felt in his neck. One pulse left. The fourth barb would signal his instant return to the small, broken body he’d been trapped within for the last few months.

The demon didn’t even have time to look surprised. Prin crunched his jaws closed on the smaller demon. He felt his fangs penetrate furred skin, flesh, sinew and tendon and then bite into the giving hardness of bone. He was already turning his head, an instinctive reaction giving his jaws time to fully close. The demon was starting to turn too now, pulled round by his attacker’s greater weight. Prin went with the motion, keeping his jaws tight, feeling bone snap and crumple inside his mouth. He pivoted with the demon, using their combined mass to swivel even as he kept on charging forward, bringing the body of the bitten demon swinging round, legs flailing, to connect with the body of the second pouncing demon, knocking it aside in a snarling ball. Prin let his jaws open; the first demon was flung from them and went slithering along the floor, already bleeding, narrowly missing the legs of one of the other two demons still holding the Pavuleans.

He was almost at the start of the slope to the blue glowing door. He made one last bound, launching himself through the air.

As he did so, he knew he had made it, that they would get through the doorway. It floated up towards him as he rose in the air, still propelled by the last great thrust of his hind legs.

One, he thought.

The way the mill demon had said “One,” after the last two Pavuleans had gone through.

And, just as he’d burst into the mill, a voice — the same voice, he realised now — had said “Three.”

Three: then the two little Pavuleans had gone skittering through the blue glowing gate. One.

He’d been counting down.

Of course; the gate could count. The gate, or people operating it at this side — or more likely the other side, in the Real — knew how many to expect, how many they were allowed to let through.

Just one more person would be allowed to make the transition from the Hell to the Real.

He reached the top of his last, pouncing leap. The doorway spread before him, a glowing bank of blue mist filled with shadows. He wondered if the fact that he and Chay were so close together would allow them both to make it through, if the gateway would be somehow fooled by this. Or perhaps the fact she was catatonic, semi-conscious at best, would mean that she could make it through as well as him.

He was starting to fall through the air, the gateway only a bodylength away now. He brought Chay out from the side of his chest, moving her to a more central position, grasping her with both forelimbs as he pushed her in front of him. If there was really only one more person, one more coded consciousness allowed through, let it be her. He would have to take his chances here, accept whatever extra punishment these fiends could devise.

She might be in no state to tell what had befallen them, of course; she might forget or deny all they had experienced. She might not believe it had happened at all. She had denied the existence of the Real while she was here, surrendering all too easily to the grinding actuality of the horror around her; why would she not likewise deny the unbelievable gruesomeness of Hell once she was safely back in the Real, if she was even able to remember it properly?

What if she remained catatonic on the other side? What if she really had gone mad and no return to reality would change that?

Was he to be gallant to the point of stupidity, or hard-headed to the point of selfishness, just wanting to save his own skin?

He tucked himself in, balling up and tumbling, somersaulting through the air as the blue-glowing doorway rushed towards him. He would go through first, holding Chay out behind him.

He would never abandon her. She might abandon him.

At that point the contraband code’s run-time reached its end. He changed back immediately, an instant before the two little Pavulean bodies flew into the blue glowing mist.


The Halo 7 rolled magisterially across the misty plain, its stately progress marked by little lofted tufts and wisps of vapour which seemed to cling longingly to its tubes and spars as though reluctant to let go. The giant Wheel left a temporarily cleared track through the mist behind it like a wake, affording glimpses of the land beneath before the silent grey presence flowed slowly back in.

Veppers floated in the pool, looking out over the misted landscape to where some high, rounded hills rose out of the grey, maybe twenty or more kilometres away. The water around him trembled and pulsed as the pool car’s shock absorbers struggled to iron out the Halo 7’s trundling progress across the mist-swaddled terrain.

The Halo 7 was a Wheel, a vehicle built to navigate the great plains, rolling hills and shallow inland seas of Obrech, Sichult’s principal continent. One hundred and fifty metres in diameter by twenty across, the Halo 7 looked entirely like a giant fairground wheel which had broken free from its supports and gone rolling across the land.

The Veprine Corporation’s Planetary Heavy Industries Division (Sichult) constructed several standard sizes and types of Wheel. Most were mobile hotels, taking the rich on cruises across the continent; the Halo 7, Veppers’ own privately owned vehicle, was the grandest and most impressive of the largest spokeless class, being no greater in diameter than the rest but possessing thirty-three rather than thirty-two gondolas.

The Halo 7’s separate cars held sumptuous bedroom suites, banqueting halls, reception rooms, two separate pool and bath complexes, gyms, flower-filled terraces, kitchens, kitchen gardens, a command and communication pod, power and services units, garages for ground vehicles, hangars for fliers, boat-houses for speedboats, sailboats and minisubs, and quarters for crew and servants. Much more than a mode of transport, the Halo 7 was a mobile mansion.

Rather than being fixed to the Wheel’s rims, the thirty-three cars could alter position, either at Veppers’ whim or according to the dictates of the landscape beneath; negotiating — and especially traversing — a steep slope, where there was no ready-made Wheel road, all the heavier pods could be brought down close to the ground, preventing the device from becoming dangerously top-heavy and so allowing it take on angles of lean that looked both unlikely and alarming. Perched at the top in a gimballed observation gondola during such a manoeuvre, Veppers had been known to take great delight in terrifying guests with that trick. Getting from one pod to another could mean as little as a single step if the cars had been brought up against each other, or a ride in one of several circumferential elevator units that moved round a smaller-diameter ring fixed inside the Wheel’s principal structure.

Veppers gazed out at the distant blue hills, trying to remember if he owned them or not.

“Are we still within the estate?” he asked.

Jasken was standing at the pool-side, keeping politely out of his master’s view. Jasken was scanning the misty landscape, the Enhancing Oculenses covering his eyes zooming in on details, revealing the ground’s mostly chilly heat signature and showing him any radio sources. “I’ll ask,” he said, and muttered something, putting a finger to the comms bud attached to his ear as he listened. “Yes, sir,” he told Veppers. “Captain Bousser informs us we are about thirty kilometres inside the estate’s boundaries.” Jasken used a small keypad on the back of the cast covering his left arm to call up the requisite overlay on the view the Oculenses were presenting. Thirty klicks was about right.

The Halo 7’s commander, Captain Bousser, was female. Jasken suspected she had been hired for her pleasing looks rather than on merit, so, where possible, he checked any assertions she made, waiting, so far unsuccessfully, for a mistake he could use to convince Veppers of her unfitness for the post.

“Hmm,” Veppers said. Now he thought about it, he didn’t really care whether he owned the hills or not. His right hand went to his face without him thinking about it, his fingers very gently tracing the prosthetic covering that had replaced the tip of his nose while the flesh and cartilage re-grew beneath. It was a pretty good fake, especially with a bit of makeup on top, but he was still self-conscious about it. He’d cancelled a few engagements and postponed many more in the days since the debacle in the opera house.

What a mess that had been. They hadn’t been able to keep it completely quiet, of course, especially as he’d had to cancel that evening’s engagement at such short notice. Dr. Sulbazghi had come up with their cover story, which was that Jasken had accidentally sliced the tip of his master’s nose off while they were fencing.

“That’ll have to do,” Veppers agreed as he lay on the treatment couch in the clinic suite deep within the Ubruater town house, less than an hour after the girl had attacked him. He was painfully aware that his voice sounded strange, strangled and nasal. Sulbazghi was bandaging his nose and prepping it with coagulant, antiseptic and a stabilising preparatory gel; a specialist plastic surgeon had been summoned and was on his way. The girl’s body had already been bagged and placed in a mortuary freezer. Dr. Sulbazghi would see to its disposal later.

Veppers was still shaking a little, despite whatever Sulbazghi had given him for the shock. He lay there, thinking, as the doctor fussed about him. He was waiting for Jasken to return; he was on his way back from the opera house having made sure everything had been squared away and everybody had their stories straight.

He shouldn’t have killed the girl. It had been stupid, impetuous. On the rare occasion that sort of thing was necessary, you just never got involved directly; that was what delegation was for, what people like Jasken — and whoever he employed specifically for such tasks — was for. Always keep it deniable, always at a remove, always have a true alibi.

But, he’d been too excited by the chase, by the knowledge that the runaway was still so close, and so trapped within the opera house, practically waiting to be caught. Of course he’d wanted to be part of the hunt, the capture!

Still, he shouldn’t have killed her. It wasn’t just how much she’d been worth, how much wasted effort and money she represented, it was the embarrassment of having lost her. People would notice her continued absence. The cover story after she’d run off from the couturier’s had been that she was ill — the PR people had hinted at some rare ailment that only the intagliated suffered from.

Now they would either have to claim she’d died of it — meaning problems with the Surgeon’s Guild, the insurance people and possibly lawyers for the clinic that had overseen her intagliation in the first place — or go with the even more humiliating though partially true narrative that she’d run away. He’d already entertained the idea that they might claim she’d been kidnapped, or allowed to join a nunnery or whatever, but both would lead to too many complications.

At least he’d got the knives back. They were still tucked into the waistband of his trews. He touched their hilts again, reassuring himself they were still there. Jasken had wanted to dispose of them, the idiot. No need to dispose of the murder weapon when you were going to dispose of the body properly. Stealing the knives; the sheer fucking effrontery of it! In the end she’d been nothing more than an ungrateful little thief. And: biting him! Maybe even trying to bite his throat out and kill him! How dare the little bitch do that? How dare she put him in this situation!

He was glad he’d killed her. And it was a first for him, he realised; directly taking a life was one of the few things he’d never done. When this had all calmed down, when his nose had re-grown and things had gone back to normal, he’d still have that, he supposed.

He remembered that until he’d first taken her against her will, maybe ten years or so ago, he’d never raped anybody before either — there had been no need — so he’d got two firsts from her. If he was being generous, he would reluctantly concede that that was some sort of compensation for all the pain and inconvenience she was putting him through.

Quite a thing, though, doing something like that, actually plunging a knife into somebody and feeling them die. It shook you, no matter how strong you were. He could still see the look in the girl’s eyes as she’d died.

Jasken came in then, removing his Oculenses and nodding to the two Zei guarding the clinic suite’s door.

“You’ll have to be injured too, Jasken,” Veppers told him immediately, glaring at his chief of security as though it really had all been his fault. Which, now he thought about it, was true, as it had ultimately been Jasken’s responsibility to keep an eye on the scribble-child and make sure she didn’t go running off anywhere. “We’re going to say you took my nose off while we were fencing, but we can’t have people thinking you actually bested me. You’ll have to have an eye out.”

Jasken’s face, already pale, went paler. “Ah, but, sir…”

“Or a broken arm; something serious.”

Dr. Sulbazghi nodded. “I think the broken arm.” He looked at Jasken’s forearms, perhaps choosing on Veppers’ behalf.

Jasken glared at Sulbazghi. “Sir, please—” he said to Veppers.

“You could make it a clean break, couldn’t you Sulbazghi?” Veppers asked. “Quick to heal?”

“Easily,” Sulbazghi said, smiling at Jasken.

“Sir,” Jasken said, drawing himself up. “Such an action would compromise my ability to protect you, in the event that our other layers of security were disabled and I was all that stood between you and an assailant.”

“Hmm, I suppose so,” Veppers said. “Still, we need something.” He frowned, thinking. “How would you like a duelling scar? On the cheek, where everybody would see it.”

“It would have to be a very big, very deep scar,” Dr. Sulbazghi said reasonably. “Probably permanent.” He shrugged as Jasken glared at him again. “To be proportionate,” he protested.

“Might I suggest a fake cast, for a couple of weeks?” Jasken said, tapping his left arm. “The broken-arm story would still hold but I would not be truly disabled.” He smiled thinly at the doctor. “I might even conceal additional weaponry within the cast, for any emergency.”

Veppers liked that. “Good idea.” He nodded. “Let’s go with that.”

Now, floating in the pool at the summit of the Halo 7, his fingers feeling tentatively around the strange, warm surface of the prosthetic, Veppers smiled at the memory. Jasken’s compromise had been sensible, but seeing the look on his face when he’d thought they were going to put out one of his eyes or actually break his arm had been one of the few truly bright spots in a dreadful evening.

He gazed out at the mountains again. He’d ordered the gondola containing the pool to be kept at the summit of the great vehicle while he had his early morning swim. He turned round and struck out for the other side of the pool, where one of his Harem Troupe had fallen asleep wrapped in a thick robe and lying on a sun-bed.

Veppers had what he honestly believed was the best-looking ten-girl Harem Troupe in the Enablement. This girl, Pleur, was special even within that august selection: one of his two Impressionist girls, able to take on the appearance and mannerisms of whatever female public figure he had taken a shine to recently. Of course, he’d had his share — much more than his fair share, as he was the first to acknowledge — of super-famous screen stars, singers, dancers, screen presenters, athletes and the very occasional hot politician and so on, but such pursuits could be terribly time-consuming; the truly famous, even when they were available, not committed, expected to be wooed over time, even by the richest man in the Enablement, and it was usually a lot simpler just to have one of the Impressionist girls alter herself — and have herself altered surgically, where the change would take too long otherwise — to look like the relevant beauty. It wasn’t as though he really wanted them for their minds after all, and this way also had the advantage of letting you compensate for any bodily deficiencies in the original.

As he swam, Veppers looked over at Jasken, and nodded towards the sleeping girl, who currently looked identical to — unusually for Veppers — an academic. Pleur had recently taken on the appearance of a severely beautiful doctor of eugenics from Lombe whom Veppers had first glimpsed at a ball in Ubruater City earlier in the year but who had proved annoyingly determined to remain faithful to her husband, even in the face of the sort of blandishments and gifts that were guaranteed to turn almost anybody’s head (husbands included, where it merely meant turning a blind eye). Jasken walked over towards Pleur’s sleeping form as Veppers arrived at the side of the pool, then trod water and mimed what Jasken was to do.

Jasken nodded, went to the back of the sun-bed, gripped its lower frame and, only slightly hindered by the fake cast on his arm, swiftly hoisted the rear of the sun-bed up to head height, tipping the girl into the pool with a splash and a spluttering scream. Veppers was still laughing and fending off Pleur’s flapping blows, while pulling her robe off, when Jasken frowned, put one finger to his ear, then got down on both knees at the pool side and started waving urgently.

What?” Veppers shouted at Jasken, exasperated. A near miss from one of Pleur’s hands skiffed one cheek and splashed water into his eyes. “Not on the nose, you dumb bitch!”

“It’s Sulbazghi,” Jasken told him. “Highest urgency.”

Veppers was much bigger and stronger than Pleur. He gripped her, turned her round and held her tightly while she cursed at both him and Jasken, coughing and spitting water all the while. “What? Something happening in Ubruater?” Veppers asked.

“No, he’s in a flier, on his way here. Four minutes out. Won’t say what, but insists it’s highest urgency. Shall I tell Bousser to summit the landing platform?”

Veppers sighed. “I suppose.” He got Pleur’s robe off at last. She had mostly stopped struggling and coughing. “Go and meet them,” he told Jasken, who nodded once and walked off.

Veppers pushed the naked girl towards the side of the pool. “As for you, young lady,” he said, biting her neck hard enough to produce a yelp, “you’ve been terribly ill-mannered.”

“I have, haven’t I?” Pleur agreed. She knew just what Veppers liked to hear. “I need to be taught a lesson, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes I would. Assume the position.” He shoved the floating weight of the robe out of the way as Pleur braced herself against the edge of the pool with both hands. “Won’t be long!” he called after Jasken’s retreating back.

Still a little breathless, still with the pleasant glow of satiation about him and still dripping from inside his fluffy robe, Veppers sat forward and looked at the thing lying in Dr. Sulbazghi’s broad, pale yellow palm. He, Sulbazghi — still wearing his lab coat, which was an unusual sight — Jasken and Astil, Veppers’ butler, were the only people in the lavishly furnished lounge. Outside, beyond plump brocade bolsters, waggling tassels, gently clinking chandeliers and trembling gold-thread window fringes, the view was of the slowly clearing mists before and behind the Wheel as it continued on its journey through the spreading pastel light of dawn.

“Thank you, Astil,” Veppers said, accepting a cup of chilled infusion from his butler. “That’s all.”

“Sir,” Astil said, bowing and exiting.

Veppers waited until he

Whatever it was, it looked like a small bunch of very fine wires, their colour a sort of dull matt silver with a hint of blue. Scrunch it up, he thought, and you’d have something like a pebble; something so small you could probably swallow it.

Sulbazghi looked tired, frazzled, almost ill. “It was found in the furnace,” he told Veppers, and ran a hand through his thin, unkempt hair.

“What furnace?” he asked. He’d come into this thinking it was going to prove to be one of those matters that seemed terribly important and momentous to those around him but which he could, having cast his eye over it, happily leave for them to worry about and sort out if possible. That was, after all, what he paid them for. Now, just from the feel in the room, he was starting to think there might be a real problem here.

“There shouldn’t have been anything left,” Jasken said. “What temperature—?”

“The furnace in the Veppers Memorial Hospital,” Sulbazghi said, rubbing his face with his hands, not looking Veppers in the eye. “Our little friend, from the other night.”

Great God, the girl, Veppers realised, with a disturbing feeling in his belly. Now what? Was the fractious bitch to pursue him from beyond the grave? “Okay,” he said slowly. “And all very unfortunate, I’m sure we can agree. But what has…?” He waved at the silvery-blue wires still displayed in Sulbazghi’s hand. “What has whatever this is got to do with that?”

“It’s what was left of her body,” Sulbazghi said.

“There shouldn’t have been anything left,” Jasken said. “Not if the furnace was—”

“The fucking furnace was at the right fucking temperature!” Sulbazghi shouted shrilly.

Jasken whipped off his Oculenses, his expression furious. He looked ready to start a fight.

“Gentlemen, please,” Veppers said calmly, before Jasken could reply. He looked at the doctor. “As simply as you can, Sulbazghi, for the non-technically minded; what the hell is this thing?”

“It’s a neural lace,” the doctor said, sounding exhausted.

“A neural lace,” Veppers repeated.

He’d heard of these things. They were the sort of device that highly advanced aliens who’d started out squidgy and biochemical — as squidgy and biochemical as Sichultians, for example — and who had not wanted to upload themselves into nirvana or oblivion or wherever, used when they wanted to interface with machine minds or record their thoughts, or even when they wanted to save their souls, their mind-states.

Veppers looked at Sulbazghi. “Are you saying,” he said slowly, “that the girl had a neural lace in her head?”

That shouldn’t be possible. Neural laces were illegal for Sichultians. Great God, fucking drug glands were illegal for Sichultians.

“Kind of looks like it,” Sulbazghi said.

“And it never showed up?” Veppers asked. He stared at the doctor. “Sulbazghi, you must have scanned that girl a hundred times.”

“They don’t show up using the equipment we’ve got to look with,” Sulbazghi said. He stared down at the thing in his hand, gave a tiny, despairing laugh. “Minor miracle we can see it with the naked eye.”

“Who put it in her?” Veppers asked. “The clinicians?”

Sulbazghi shook his head. “Impossible.”

“Then who?”

“I’ve done a quick bit of investigating since the doctor told me about this,” Jasken said. “We need help here, sir: somebody who properly knows about this sort of thing—”

“Xingre,” Sulbazghi said. “He’ll know, or know better how to find out.”

“Xingre?” Veppers said, frowning. The Jhlupian trader and honorary consul was his principal contact with the alien civilisation the Enablement was closest to. Jasken had a sour look on his face that Veppers recognised; it meant he was having to agree with Sulbazghi. Both men knew this had to be kept as quiet as possible. Why were they suggesting bringing the alien into this?

“He, she or it might know,” Jasken said. “The point is it’ll be able to find out if this thing really is what it looks like.”

“And what the fuck does it look like?” Veppers asked.

Jasken took a deep breath. “Well, like a… a neural lace device, the sort of thing the so-called ‘Culture’ uses.” He grimaced. Veppers saw the man grind his teeth for a moment. “It’s hard to tell; it could be a fake. With our technology—”

“Why would anyone go to this trouble to fake it?” Sulbazghi said angrily. Veppers held up one hand to quiet him.

Jasken glared at the doctor but went on, “It isn’t possible to be sure, which is why we might need Xingre and the sort of analysis and diagnostic equipment he has access to, but it looks like this thing is one of their devices. A Culture device.”

Veppers looked at them both in turn.

“It’s a Culture device?” he asked. He held out his hand and let Sulbazghi tip the thing into his palm. The closer he looked, the more tiny, still finer filaments he could see, branching and re-branching off the main, already very thin wires. It felt amazingly soft. It weighed next to nothing.

“Looks very likely,” the doctor agreed.

Veppers bounced the thing up and down in his hand a couple of times; a handful of hair would have weighed more. “Okay,” he said. “But what does this mean? I mean, she wasn’t a Culture citizen or anything, was she?”

“No,” Sulbazghi said.

“And… she didn’t seem to be able to interface with any equipment…?” Veppers looked from the doctor to Jasken, who was now standing with his Oculenses dangling, the arm in the cast folded across his chest, his other arm resting on it, hand stroking the skin around his mouth repeatedly. He was still frowning.

“No,” Sulbazghi said again. “She might not even have known the thing was in there.”

“What?” Veppers said. “But how?”

“These things grow inside you,” Jasken said. “If it really is one then it’ll have started as a seed and grown all around and into her brain. Fully developed these things link with just about every brain cell, every synapse.”

“Why didn’t she have a head the size of a basket fruit?” Veppers asked. He grinned but neither man responded. That was very unusual. And not a good sign.

“These things add less than half a per cent to the bulk of the brain,” Jasken said. He nodded at the thing lying in Veppers’ palm. “Even what you see there is mostly hollow; in the brain it’d be filled with fluid or bits of the brain itself. The tiniest filaments are so thin they’re invisible to the naked eye and they’ll probably have been burned off in the furnace anyway.”

Veppers stared at the strange, insignificant-looking device. “But what was it in her brain to do?” he asked both men. “What was it for? Given that we’ve established it didn’t seem to give her any super powers or anything.”

“These things are used to record a person’s mind-state,” Jasken said.

“Their soul, for want of a better word,” Sulbazghi said.

“It’s so Culture people can be reincarnated if they die unexpectedly,” Jasken said.

“I know,” Veppers said patiently. “I’ve looked into the technology myself. Don’t think I’m not jealous.” He tried another smile. Still no response. This must be serious.

“Well,” Jasken said, “it’s not impossible that such information — her mind-state — was transmitted somewhere else at the point of death. It’s what these things are for, after all.”

“Transmitted?” Veppers said. “Where?”

“Not far—” Jasken began.

“I can’t see how.” Sulbazghi shook his head, glancing at Jasken. “I’ve done my own research. It takes time, and a full clinical setup. It’s a person’s entire personality we’re talking about here, their every memory; you don’t squirt that out in a beat or two like a fucking text message.”

“We are dealing with what the aliens call Level Eight technology,” Jasken said contemptuously. “You don’t know what it might be capable of. We’re like pre-wheel primitives looking at a screen and saying it can’t work because nobody can re-draw a cave-painting that quickly.”

“There are still limits,” Sulbazghi insisted.

“Doubtless,” Jasken said. “But we have no idea what they are.”

Sulbazghi drew breath to speak but Veppers just talked over the start of whatever he had been about to say. “Well, in any event; bad news, perhaps, gentlemen.” He reached out, let Sulbazghi take the device back. The doctor bagged it, put it in a pocket of his lab coat, sealed it.

“So…” Veppers said. “If this stored her mind-state, I suppose it would know…”

“Everything up to the moment of her death,” Sulbazghi said.

Veppers nodded. “Jasken,” he said, “ask Yarbethile what our relations are with the Culture, would you?”

“Sir,” Jasken said, turning away for a moment while he contacted Veppers’ Private Secretary, doubtless already at his desk in the Halo 7’s executive office pod. Jasken listened, muttered something, turned back. “Mr. Yarbethile characterises our relations with the Culture as ‘Nebulous’,” Jasken said drily. He shrugged. “I’m not sure if he’s trying to be funny or not.”

“Well,” Veppers said. “We don’t really have much to do with them, with the Culture, do we?” Veppers looked at the other two men. “Not really.”

Jasken shook his head. Sulbazghi clenched his jaw and looked away to one side.

All three experienced a momentarily disquieting lurch as the Halo 7, which had been quietly and suitably re-configuring itself for the last couple of minutes, left the land precisely as scheduled and crunched down a long, broad beach in two giant troughs of pebbles to meet the misty, torpid waters of the Oligyne Inland Sea, turning itself into a giant paddle wheel as it ploughed on through the banks of mist, its pace only slightly reduced.

“We need to look into this, obviously,” Veppers said. “Jasken, use any resources required. Keep me informed, daily.” Jasken nodded. Veppers stood up, nodded to Sulbazghi. “Thank you, doctor. I trust you’ll stay for breakfast. If there’s nothing more for now, though, I think I’ll go and get dressed. Excuse me.”

He walked towards the link leading to his bedroom, currently joined with the lounge gondola. As sometimes happened, Veppers found that the giant Wheel’s faint bobbing motion as it rolled through waters was giving him a feeling of nausea.

He felt sure it would pass.


The planet outside was very big and blue and white and bright. It was revolving, like planets usually did, but you couldn’t really see that on normal-time sight. It only seemed to move because the place where he was was moving. The place where he was was separate from the planet and it was moving. It was above the planet and it was moving. The place where he was was called an Abandoned Space Factory and he was here to wait for the enemy to come and when they came he would fight them. That was what he did; he fought. He had been built to fight. What he was, the thing that he was inside; that had been built to fight.

The thing he was in was a thing, an “it”, but he was not an “it”; he was a he. He was a man. Or he had been, at least. He was still who he was but he was also inside the thing, the machine that was designed and built to fight and perhaps get destroyed. But not him. He wouldn’t be destroyed. He was still who he was. He was somewhere else as well, and that was where he would wake up, if this thing he was in was destroyed. That was how it worked.

“Vatueil? Captain Vatueil?”

They were talking to him again.

We’re losing, he thought, reviewing the latest schematics. You hardly needed the schematics; just step back far enough from the whole thing, replay what had happened since the war had broken out and you could see it writing itself out in front of you.

They’d had some early disasters, then successes, then they’d been beaten back consistently, then they’d consolidated and subsequently seemed to achieve the upper hand across almost every front, making steady progress everywhere… then found that the fronts were not true fronts, the fronts — or at least the places where his side was strongest and was prevailing — were like stubborn tatters of a balloon that it turned out had already burst some time ago; there just hadn’t been time to hear the Bang. They were making forward progress the way the torn strips of the exploded balloon made forward progress: flailing hopelessly, uselessly outwards like soft shrapnel.

He sat — or floated or whatever you wanted to call it — in the Primary Strategic Situation Overview Space as it was rather grandly called, surrounded by the other members of the Grand War Council. The council was mostly composed of people who were his comrades, friends, colleagues and respected rivals. There was only the barest minimum of contrarians, awkwardistas and outright defeatists, and even they argued their points well and arguably contributed to the working consensus. Human, alien, whatever, he knew all of them about as well as was possible by now, and yet still he felt quite alone.

He looked round them.

There was no perfect Real analogy for the situation he and the rest were currently in: it was as though they all hovered around some modest spherical space maybe a handful of metres across. From the outside the sphere’s surface appeared solid and opaque, but you could stick your head through it from the outside if you had the right clearance and a sufficient degree of military seniority.

You stuck your head through and there you were; one bodiless head sticking through protruding into this dimly lit spherical space with lots of other bodiless heads — only a minority of them in any sense human.

Usually a spherical display hovered in the centre of the space. Right now the display was showing some detail of the general battle space; an antique faux-Real volume in which small rocket ships armed with nuclear missiles, particle beam guns and CREWs went skating around a few billion asteroids spread in a ring round a sun, blasting and zapping each other. He had seen such battle environments many times before. Versions of him had invested the simmed humans fighting in these, or invested the machines.

Most of his colleagues seemed to be discussing some pseudo-strategic detail of this particular environment that had long since ceased to interest him. He left them to it, retreating to his own musings and internalised visualisation.

We’re losing, he thought again. There is a war in heaven and we are losing it.

The war was amongst the Heavens, between the Afterlives, if you wanted to be pedantic about it. And it was over the Hells.

“Vatueil? Captain Vatueil?”

That was his name, but he wasn’t going to say anything back to them because he’d been told not to. He’d been ordered not to, and orders meant you had to do what you were told.

“Can you hear me?”

Yes, he could, but he still wouldn’t say anything.

“Vatueil! Report! That’s a direct order!”

That made him feel strange. If that was an order then he had to obey it. But then he had been ordered not to do anything that somebody else told him, not for now, not until A Superior got here who had the right codes. So that meant that what he had just heard wasn’t really an order at all. It was confusing.

He wanted just not to listen to what they said. He could do that, he could shut off comms, but he needed to listen so he could track where they were. The confusion made a sort of hurt in him.

He made the thing that he was in check its weapons again, counting rounds, measuring battery status, listening to the energy cells’ steady, reassuring hum and doing a systems-readiness check. That was better. Doing these things made him feel better. Doing these things made him feel good.

“He can’t hear you.” That was a different voice, saying that.

“The techs say he probably can. And he can probably hear you too, so watch what you say.”

“Can’t we private channel?” (The different voice.)

“No. We have to assume he can access them all too, so unless you want to bump helmets or use two cups and a string or something, watch what you say.”

“Sheesh.” (The different voice.)

He did not know what “Sheesh” meant.

“Listen, Vatueil, this is Major Q’naywa. You know me. Come on now, Vatueil, you remember me.”

He didn’t remember any Major Q’naywa. He didn’t remember very much, he guessed. There was a lot of stuff he felt ought to be there, somewhere, but which wasn’t. It gave him a feeling of emptiness. Like a magazine that should have been full of rounds because it was at the start of a deployment and it was supposed to be full, but which wasn’t.

“Vatueil. Listen, son; you’ve got a problem. Your download didn’t complete. You’re in the unit but not all of you is in there, can you understand that? Come on, son, talk to me.”

Part of him wanted to talk to the voice of Major Q’naywa, but he wasn’t going to. Major Q’naywa did not qualify as A Superior because his signal did not come with the codes that would tell him he really was talking to A Superior.

“Some sort of sign, son. Come on. Anything.”

He didn’t know what the codes were that would tell him he really was talking to A Superior, which seemed like an odd thing, but he was guessing that when he heard them he would know.

“Vatueil, we know you transferred but we know it didn’t work properly. That’s why you’re firing on your own side, on us. You need to stop doing that. Do you understand?”

He didn’t really understand. He sort of understood what they were saying because he knew each of the words and how they went together, but it didn’t make sense. He had to ignore it anyway because the people speaking the words did not have the right codes to be Superiors.

He checked his weapons again.

He sat/floated back, maintaining just enough embodiment to ensure long-term sanity, ignoring the shared display and instead watching the whole war blossom, expand and develop inside his mind, seeing it happen in fast-forward, time after time, his attention zooming in on different aspects of its progression with each iteration. It looked just like the sims, of course. Except at any given point after it had all started to go wrong the sims had always developed differently, better, more optimistically.

Wars simmed in the Real did the same thing, naturally, but ultimately they were played out in the Real, in messy physical reality, and so didn’t seem to carry the same irony that this war did, because it — the real war, the conflict that actually mattered here, the war that would have continual and in a sense everlasting consequences — was itself a sim, but a sim that was itself easily as complicated and messy as anything in the Real. Still a sim, though, like the ones they’d used and were still using to plan the war.

Just a bigger one. A bigger one that all concerned had agreed to treat as settling matters. Hence as real as these things ever got.

That was the war they were losing, and that meant that if they were serious about what they had been trying to do — and were still trying to do — then they were going to have to think about cheating. And if cheating didn’t work, then — despite all the accords and laws and customs and regulations, despite all the agreements and solemn treaties — there was always the truly last resort: the Real.

The ultimate cheating… How the hell did we get into this? he asked himself, though of course he already knew the answer. He knew all the answers. Everybody did. Everybody knew everything and everybody knew all the answers. It was just that the enemy seemed to know better ones.

Nobody knew who had first developed the ability to transcribe a naturally evolved creature’s mind-state. Various species asserted that they or their ancestors had been the ones responsible, but few of the claims were credible and none convincing. It was a technology that had been around in some form for billions of years and it was continually being re-invented somewhere out amongst the ever-churning stew of matter, energy, information and life that was the greater galaxy.

And continually being forgotten, too, of course; lost when ingénue civs were in the wrong place at the wrong time and copped a nearby gamma ray buster or a sudden visit from advanced unfriendlies. Other hopefuls accidentally — or by demented design — blew themselves up or poisoned themselves or their birthplace, or contrived some other usually highly avoidable catastrophe for themselves.

No matter; whether you made it up all by yourself or got the makings from somebody else, once it was possible to copy a creature’s mind-state you could, as a rule, if you had the relevant background and the motivation, start to make at least part of your religion real.

“Vatueil, we’re running out of time here, son. We need to come in there. You need to stand down, do you understand? You need to off-line your… let me just see here… your Aggressive Response, Target Acquisition and Weapon Deployment modules. Do you think you can do that? We don’t want to have to come in there and… we don’t want to have to come in there and treat you like an enemy.”

“Sir.” (A different different voice. It was going to be easier to number them.) “Couldn’t be dead, could it?” (Different voice 2.)

“Yeah. Maybe Xagao got it.” (Different voice 3.)

“With his itsy carbine? With one from the half-clip he got off before it blew his fucking arm and both legs off? Have you seen the specs on this thing?” (Different voice 1.)

“It isn’t dead. He isn’t dead. He’s there and he’s listening to everything we’re saying.”

“Sir?” (Different voice 4.)


“Xagao’s dead, sir.” (Different voice 4.)

“Shit. Okay. Vatueil, listen; we’ve got one man dead out here. You understand that? You killed him, Vatueil. You dropped our TT and now you’ve killed one of us.” (TT stood for Troop Transport.) “Now, nobody’s going to punish you for this, we know it wasn’t your fault, but you have to stand down now before somebody else gets hurt. We don’t want to have to come in there and disable you ourselves.”

“What? Are you fucking crazy? We’re seven suits against a fucking monster robot space tank piece of shit! We won’t have a hope in—” (Different voice 1.)

“Will you shut the fuck up? I’m not telling you again. One more word and you’re on a fucking charge. In fact, you are on a fucking charge. That thing can hear you, you fucking moron, and you just gave it our whole fucking status. If we do pile in, you’re now officially leading the fucking charge, genius.”

“Fuck.” (Different voice 1 = Genius.)

“Shut up. Vatueil?”

Seven. There were seven of them. That was useful to know.

Almost every developing species had a creation myth buried somewhere in its past, even if by the time they’d become space-faring it was no more than a quaint and dusty irrelevance (though, granted, some were downright embarrassing). Talking utter drivel about thunderclouds having sex with the sun, lonely old sadists inventing something to amuse themselves with, a big fish spawning the stars, planets, moons and your own ever-so-special People — or whatever other nonsense had wandered into the most likely feverish mind of the enthusiast who had come up with the idea in the first place — at least showed you were interested in trying provide an explanation for the world around you, and so was generally held to be a promising first step towards coming up with the belief system that provably worked and genuinely did produce miracles: reason, science and technology.

The majority of species, too, could scrape together some sort of metaphysical framework, a form of earlier speculation — semi-deranged or otherwise — regarding the way things worked at a fundamental level which could later be held up as a philosophy, life-rule system or genuine religion, especially if one used the excuse that it was really only a metaphor, no matter how literally true it had declared itself to be originally.

The harder the haul up the developmental ladder a species had suffered — rising from the usual primordial slime of just-dawned sentience with only (for example) the wheel to their name, to the dizzy heights and endless cheery sunshine of easy space flight, limitless energy, amusingly co-operative AIs, anti-ageing, anti-gravity, the end of disease and other cool tech — the more likely it was that that species would have entertained the idea of an immortal soul at some important point in its history and still be carrying the legacy of it now they had escaped the muck and had hit civilisational cruise phase.

Most species capable of forming an opinion on the subject had a pretty high opinion of themselves, and most individuals in such species tended to think it was a matter of some considerable importance whether they personally survived or not. Faced with the inevitable struggles and iniquities attendant upon a primitive life, it could be argued that it was an either very gloomy, unimaginative, breathtakingly stoic or just plain dim species that didn’t come up with the idea that what could feel like an appallingly short, brutal and terrifying life was somehow not all there was to existence, and that a better one awaited them, personally and collectively — allowing for certain eligibility requirements — after death.

So the idea of a soul — usually though not always immortal in its posited nature — was a relatively common piece of the doctrinal baggage accompanying a people just making their debut on the great galactic stage. Even if your civilisation had somehow grown up without the concept, it was kind of forced upon you once you had the means of recording the precise, dynamic state of someone’s mind and either placing it directly into the brain of another body, or storing it as some sort of scale-reduced — but still full — abstract inside an artificial substrate.

“Vatueil? Captain Vatueil! I’m ordering you to reply! Vatueil; report status immediately!”

He was listening but not paying attention. He kept checking his weapons and systems each time the voice that called itself Major Q’naywa said something that made him feel bad or confused.

“Okay, we’re running out of time here and I sure as fuck am running out of patience.”

What also made him feel good was looking out through the big curved entrance to the place where he was. The place where he was, where the thing that he was in was, measured 123.3 × 61.6 × 20.5 metres and was open to vacuum through the big curved entrance which formed one of the short walls. It was cluttered with machinery and pieces of equipment that he did not recognise but which he had quickly decided were No Threat, just useful for cover if he needed it.

“We’re going to have to go in and do this the hard way.”

“Oh fuck.” (Different voice 5.)

“Beautiful. Perfect day for it.” (Different voice 6.)

“We’re going to fucking die.” (Genius.)

“Sir, can’t we wait for—?” (Different voice 2.)

“We’re not going to fucking die. We haven’t the time to wait for any other fucker. Control yourselves, all of you. We do this ourselves. Remember all that training? This is what it was for.”

“Wasn’t that much training, sir.” (Genius.)

“I’m not even in the right sort of unit. I’m supposed to be in something called an N-C-M-E. I don’t even know what that means, frankly.” (Different voice 4.)

“Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.” (Different voice 5.)

“Maneen? Shut up, son. All of you, shut up.”

“Sir.” (Different voice 5 = Maneen.)

“Gulton, that thing of yours delete this motherfucker?”

“Assuredly, sir. Thought you’d never ask, sir.” (Different voice 6 = Gulton.)

The Unknowns — Treat As Enemy he could hear talking were all on the outside of the Abandoned Space Factory. The first one who had come in through the big curved entrance to the place where he was must have been Xagao, the one who was now dead.

“Okay. We need a plan here. All of you; un-deploy back towards me until we’re LOS and we can use laser to talk without this piece of shit listening in.” (LOS meant Line Of Sight.)

Xagao had silhouetted himself against the bit of the big bright blue and white planet visible beyond the curved entrance. Vatueil had targeted the silhouetted figure within a millisecond of the initial Visual Field Anomalous Movement impulse but he hadn’t Readied To Fire until the figure, moving slowly, had swept his weapon in his direction. Then he had sent an Identification Friend/Foe burst towards the figure and simultaneously flicked it with a laser ranging pulse.

The figure had fired straight at him; small-calibre kinetic rounds. Approximately nine bullets had clanged into the Unidentified High-Solidity Object — Use As Cover he was hunkered down behind, two had hit his own Upper Weapon Nacelle 2 without significant damage and four or five flew overhead to hit the bulkhead behind him, producing more clangs he heard through his feet.

He had fired back a six-burst from his right upper Light Laser Rifle Unit, registering a direct hit on the weapon he had been targeted by and two more on the lower body of the figure, which mostly flipped backwards into cover, though one part of it, identifiable as a human armoured suit leg, had gone spinning away by itself, spraying fluid, somersaulting rapidly as it headed out towards the bright blue and white planet visible through the big curved entrance.

“Xagao get a TLF on the fucker?” (Different voice 3. TLF meant Target Location Fix.)

“Yeah. Post it when we get LOS.” (Different voice 2.)

He had felt good. Firing and hitting and removing a Threat made him feel good, and something about the spinning leg unit — the way it sailed away, its trajectory curving gradually as it went, before it eventually disappeared — made him feel good too.

“Hey, it ping Xagao fore it tanked him? Anybody know?” (Genius.)

“Hold on. Yup.” (Different voice 2.)

“Shut up and get back here. If I can hear you, so can it.”

“Sir.” (Different voice 2.)

“That’s good though. The pinging. We can use that.” (Genius.)

“IFFed him too.” (Different voice 2.)

“Really? Chirpy.” (Genius.)

He reviewed the brief engagement with Xagao and made two In-Deployment Tactical Environment Operating Behaviour Modification (Immediate Instigation) Memoranda: de-select automatic IFF challenge, de-select initial Laser Ranging Pulse.

Especially once a species or civilisation started swapping ideas and tips with its galactic peers, it became fairly easy to do this mind copying and pasting stuff. As a result, an individual — always one favoured in some way, either revered or just well-off (once the tech was safely past the developmental stage) might serially or even concurrently inhabit several or indeed many different bodies.

Some civs tried to use the technology purely as a back-up, going for full biological immortality with the soul-saving stuff just there in case something went badly wrong and you had to be transferred into a spare body. However, that tended to lead to shortterm trouble if they kept on breeding as they’d been used to, or to more subtle long-term problems if they kept their population growth so curtailed their society basically became stagnant.

There was always the ever-tempting, profoundly illusory ideal — which every intelligent species seemed to think that only it had ever been clever enough to invent — of unlimited growth for ever, but any attempt to implement such a regime very rapidly ran into the awkward fact that the surrounding material in the galaxy and presumably the universe was already inhabited, used, claimed, protected, treasured or even by general agreement owned. The long-established result of this was the irritatingly strict rules the galactic community’s major players and Elders had come up with regarding the reasonable allotments of matter and living space a new species might expect (it boiled down to You Can’t Have Other People’s, but it always felt grossly unfair at the time). The seemingly wizard wheeze of turning the rest of the universe into teeny little copies of yourself was by no means a non-starter — ignorant people and vainglorious machines started doing it all the time — but it was invariably a quickly-brought-to-a-conclusioner.

Normally, especially given how much amazingly rich experience could be crammed into VRs in general and Afterlives in particular, people went with more modest and neighbourly growth plans in the Real and an extensive though still ultimately limited expansion program in the Virtual.

Because, particularly for those just developing the relevant soul-saving tech, that life in virtual environments beckoned seductively. Deeply immersive and impressive VR was an effectively inevitable adjunct to mind-state transcription technology even if, bizarrely, it hadn’t come into existence before. Each led to and complemented the other.

Only a few species didn’t bother with the soul-transference side at all, some because thanks to their heritage and development they already had something as good or which they judged made it irrelevant, some for specifically religious or philosophical reasons, and some — most — because they were more interested in going for full immortality in the Real and regarded mind-state transcription as a distraction, or even an admission of defeat.

Of course, in any society using this soul-transcription gizmology there was usually a die-hard strand of true believers who insisted that the only afterlife worth bothering about still happened somewhere else, in the true heaven or hell that had always been believed in before all this fangling technology came along, but that was a tough position to hold when at the back of your mind was the niggling doubt that you really might not be saved when the time came, while at the back of everybody else’s mind was a little device that was guaranteed to do precisely that.

The result was that many, many civilisations in the greater galaxy had their own Afterlives: virtual realities maintained in computational or other substrates to which their dead could go and — in some sense at least — live on.

“I can see you now, sir.” (Maneen.)

“Well, space biscuits for you, marine. Switch to LOS.”

“Sir. Sorry. I mean—” (Maneen.)

There was silence for a while. Vatueil watched the big section of bright blue and white planet he could see beyond the curved entrance. The Unknowns — Treat As Enemy were keeping quiet.

The bit of the planet he could see was changing very slowly all the time. He went back and replayed how it had changed since he’d taken up position here. He subtracted the motion component of the place where he was. The place where he was was revolving too but it was revolving slowly and steadily and that made it easy to subtract.

Now he could see that the planet was slowly revolving. Also, the white streaks and whorls which over-lay the blue were changing too, even more slowly. Some of the streaks were widening and some were narrowing and the whorls were spinning about their axes and also shifting across the face of the planet, even allowing for its revolving.

He watched the replay of all this movement many times. It made him feel good. It was different from the way checking his weapons made him feel good. It was like the way watching Xagao’s leg going tumbling off towards the planet had made him feel good. Especially the way its trajectory had curved. It was beautiful.

Beautiful. He thought about this word and decided that it was the right word.

Some Afterlives simply offered everlasting fun for the post-dead: infinite holiday resorts featuring boundless sex, adventure, sport, games, study, exploration, shopping, hunting or whatever other activities especially tickled that particular species’ fancy. Others were as much for the benefit of those still living as the dead themselves, providing societies that had inherited or recently come up with the idea of consulting the ancestors with a practical way of doing just that.

A few were of a more contemplative and philosophic nature than those fixated on general hilarity. Some — and the majority of the more long-established Afterlives — featured a sort of gradual fading-away rather than genuine post-death VR immortality, with the personality of the deceased individual slowly — usually over many generations of time in the Real — dissolving into the general mass of information and civilisational ethos held within the virtual environment.

In some the dead lived much more quickly than those in the Real, in others they lived at the same rate and in others far more slowly. Some even incorporated ways to bring favoured dead individuals back to life again.

And many still featured death; a second, final, absolute death, even within the virtual, because — as it turned out — it was quite a rare species that naturally generated individuals capable of being able, or wanting, to live indefinitely, and those who had lived for a really long time in Afterlives were prone to becoming profoundly, gravely bored, or going catatonically — or screaming — mad. Civs new to the game often went into a sort of shock when the first desperate pleas for true, real death started to emerge from their expensively created, painstakingly maintained, assiduously protected and carefully backed-up Afterlives.

The trick was to treat such entreaties as perfectly natural.

And to let the dead have their way.

He wanted to stay and watch the view of the planet beyond the curved entrance for much longer so that he could see how the whorls and streaks continued to change. Then he could replay the recording again and again. Seeing even more of the planet would be good too. It would be better. Seeing all of the planet would be better still. It would be best.

He realised that he was starting to feel uncomfortable. He wasn’t sure what the cause was at first, then understood that it was because he had stayed too long in the one place after a Recent Combat Event.

He thought about what to do. Nothing had changed or moved recently. It should be safe to move.

He tried asking his Outboard Remote Sensing/Engagement Units what they could sense, but he still didn’t have any of these units. He was supposed to have these things, whatever they were, but he didn’t. It was like another empty magazine that was supposed to be full.

So: Proceed Otherwise. He rose silently on his three articulated legs, senses sweeping all around as his Upper Sensory Dome rose into the space beneath the ceiling (clearance overhead duly reduced from 18.3 to 14.2 metres) and gave him an increased field of view. He kept both Main Weapon Nacelles targeted at the curved entrance. All six Secondary Weapon Pods deployed to cover the rest of the area about him, without him needing to tell them to. He rotated the Upper Weapon Collar to point Nacelle 2 directly behind him, where he judged the least risk was, as it had expended some energy and taken some damage, however nominal.

Still nothing threatening to be sensed. He stepped over the Unidentified High-Solidity Object and moved right and forward, towards the side of the curved entrance that showed the bright blue and white planet. He was moving quietly, at less than optimum speed, so that when his feet connected with the deck they produced minimal vibration. A tipped section of the floor near a long ragged tear in the thick deck material meant that he had to use his weapon pods to balance himself.

Some of the Unidentified Medium-Solidity Objects in the space about him resolved into space- and atmosphere-capable craft. This meant that the place where he was was a hangar. Most of the craft looked chaotically asymmetric, damaged, non-viable.

He could see another Unidentified High-Solidity Object nearer the curved entrance. He moved towards it. The view of the planet became more extensive and made him feel good. Beautiful. It was still beautiful.

Suddenly something moved against the bright white and blue of the planet.

Nobody knew, either, what bright little soul had first hit on the idea of linking up two Afterlives, but given that emerging civilisations were generally quite keen to establish permanent, high-capacity, high-quality and preferably free links with the dataspheres and informational environments of those around them — especially those around them with better tech than they possessed — it had always been going to happen, by accident if not by design. It even benefited the dead of both civilisations, opening up additional new vistas of exciting post-death experience, the better for the deceased to resist the regrettable attraction of a second, properly terminal event.

Linking up all amenable and compatible Afterlives had become something of a craze; almost before the relevant academics could come up with a decent provisional analysis of the phenomenon’s true cultural meaning and implications, practically every corner of the civilised galaxy was linked to every other part by Afterlife connections, as well as by all the other more usual ties of diplomacy, tourism, trade, general nosiness and so on.

So, for many millions of years there had been a network of Afterlives throughout the galaxy, semi-independent from the Real and constantly changing just as the galactic community in the Real changed, with civilisations appearing, developing, steady-stating or disappearing, either changing beyond recognition, relapsing in some way or going for semi-Godhood, sidestepping the material life altogether by opting for the careless indifference that was Subliming.

Mostly, nobody mentioned the Hells.

The moving thing was tiny. Too small to be a person in a suit or even an Outboard Remote Sensing/Engagement Unit, either his or anybody else’s. It was moving at 38.93 metres per second and so was far too slow to be considered kinetic ordinance. It was approximately 3cm by 11cm, round in section, conical aspect to the leading quarter, spinning. He deemed it to be a 32mm mortar shell. He had a lot of high-reliability information on such ordnance. Maximum capability a five kiloton micro-nuke; many variants. It was going to fly directly above where he had been positioned and impact on the bulkhead which had been behind him.

Now his high-telescopic vision apparatus had acquired it, he could see tiny sensory pits on the thing, blurring round as it rotated (4.2 rps). It flew past him five metres away and started to glitter, giving off range- and Combat Space Topography-sensing laser pulses. None hit him. This was because it had gone past before it activated.

He was still moving, taking one more quiet step as the projectile sailed through the dark space of the hangar. He judged that the ingress of the round meant that an attack might be about to start and that his best choice had become to hunker down here, still five steps away from the Unidentified High-Solidity Object he’d been heading for, opting instead for the partial cover of the nearest Unidentified Medium-Solidity Object, an additional advantage accruing from the fact that a sub-routine assured him his scale and overall shape in hunkered mode would make him look similar to the now Identified Medium-Solidity Object concerned, which was a small, intact but deactivated High-Atmospheric/Low Orbit Planetary Surface Bombardment Unit.

An additional advantage accruing definitely sounded like a good thing. It was almost like an order from inside himself. He’d choose that option. He started hunkering down.

An expert sub-system suggested that should the mortar round detonate where he had been, further additional advantage might be accrued. That sounded good too.

The mortar round was travelling so slowly there was plenty of time to work out exactly where he had been, to target his left upper Light Laser Rifle Unit on the spinning projectile and set himself up for minimal blast-front damage from the direction the round was heading, should it prove to be a micro-nuke.

When it was directly above where he’d been he landed four direct low-power hits on its rear; zero misses or out-splash, which made him feel very good. He whipped the rifle unit back into the armoured nacelle. The mortar round detonated.


The Hells existed because some faiths insisted on them, and some societies too, even without the excuse of over-indulged religiosity.

Whether as a result of perhaps too faithful a transcription — from scriptural assertion to provable actuality — or simply an abiding secular need to continue persecuting those thought worthy of punishment even after they were dead, a number of civilisations — some otherwise quite respectable — had built up impressively ghastly Hells over the eons. These were only rarely linked with other Afterlives, hellish or otherwise, and even then only under strict superveillance, and usually only with the aim of heightening the anguish of the sufferers by subjecting them to torments their own people somehow hadn’t thought of, or the same old ones but inflicted by extra-gruesome alien demons rather than the more familiar home-grown variety.

Very gradually though, perhaps just due to the exact nature of the chance mix the contemporary crop of In-play civilisations represented, a sort of network of Hells — still only partial, and remaining strictly controlled in their interactions — did emerge, and news of their existence and the conditions within them became more widely known.

This led to trouble, in time. Many species and civilisations objected profoundly to the very idea of Hells, no matter whose they were. A lot objected profoundly to the very idea of torture in any event, and the practice of setting up Virtual Environments — traditionally such dazzlingly fabulous realms of unmitigated pleasure — devoted to inflicting pain and suffering on sentient creatures seemed not just wrong but perverse, sadistic, genuinely evil and shamefully, disgracefully cruel. Uncivilised, in fact, and that was not a word such societies bandied about without having thought carefully about its deployment.

The Culture took a particularly dim view of torture, either in the Real or in a Virtuality, and was quite prepared to damage its short- and even — at least seemingly — long-term interests to stop it happening. Such a devoutly censorious, non-pragmatic approach confused people used to dealing with the Culture, but it was a characteristic that had been there since the civilisation’s inception so there was little point in treating it as just a temporary moral fad and waiting for it to pass. As a result, over the millennia, the Culture’s atypically inflexible attitude probably had shifted the whole meta-civilisational moral debate on such matters slightly but significantly to the liberal, altruistic end of the ethical spectrum, that definitive identification of torture with barbarism being perhaps its most obvious mimetic achievement.

There was a predictable mix of responses. A few of the civs hosting Hells simply had a think, took the point and closed them down; generally these were species who had never shown any great enthusiasm for the concept in the first place, their number including some who had only adopted the idea at all because they’d got the erroneous impression it was what all up-and-coming societies did and they hadn’t wanted to appear backward.

Some civilisations just ignored the fuss and said it had nothing to do with anybody else. Others, generally those constitutionally unable to look past any opportunity to go spasming into full High Dudgeon mode, reacted with hysterical bluster, complaining loudly of bullying, ethical imperialism, grossly unwarranted cultural interference and persecution bordering on outright hostility. Some of those, having made their point — and after a decent interval — still proved persuadable that Hells were un acceptable. But not all.

The Hells remained, as did the discord they engendered.

Even so, now and again a civ was effectively bribed out of continuing to host Hells, usually with tech that was a bit beyond it in the normal course of development, though that was a tricky precedent to set in case it encouraged others to try the same trick just to get their hands on the relevant toys, so it remained a strategy that had to be used sparingly.

A few of the more militantly Altruistic civs tried to hack into the Hells belonging to those they saw as their more barbaric peers, to free or destroy the tormented souls within, but that carried its own dangers, and a couple of small wars had resulted.

Eventually, though, a war was agreed upon as the best way to settle the whole dispute. The vast majority of protagonists on both sides agreed they would fight within a controlled Virtuality overseen by impartial arbiters and the winner would accept the result; if the pro-Hell side won there would be no more sanctions or sanctimoniousness from the anti-Hell faction and if the anti-Hellists triumphed then the Hells of the participating adversaries would be shut down.

Both sides thought they would win, the anti-Hell side because they were generally more advanced — an advantage that would be partially reflected in the simmed war — and the pro-Hell side because they were convinced they were the less decadent, more intrinsically warlike side. They also had a couple of hidden assets in the shape of civs who nobody knew had been hosting Hells but who had been persuaded to come on board and who just about (it was decided, after a lengthy legal case) qualified due to the way the relevant agreement had been worded.

Naturally, also, both sides were convinced they had right on their side, not that either was remotely naive enough to think that that had any possible bearing on the outcome whatsoever.

Battle was joined. It duly raged to and fro across the vast virtual conflict spaces within the scrupulously and multiply policed substrates allotted to it, overseen by a people called the Ishlorsinami, a species long notorious for their absolute incorruptibility, spartan lifestyles, near complete lack of humour and a sense of fairness that struck most other normal civs as positively pathological.

But now the war was nearing its end, and, to Vatueil, it looked like his side was going to lose.

It was a micro-nuke, but low-yield. Disposable sensor units deployed on his armoured Main Weapon Nacelles — his upper sensory dome was retracted beneath its armour clamshell — watched what happened. Three sub-munitions had deployed an instant before the main warhead had exploded, fanning downwards towards the floor where he’d been hunkered earlier. It was hard to be sure but he thought that he — the thing he was in — would have survived, had he still been there.

The floor beneath him thudded.

There was much damage where he had been; the bulkhead behind was holed, the ceiling above perforated, bulging upwards, now dipping back down, glowing white and yellow hot as heated supporting elements gave in to the apparent gravity the Abandoned Space Factory’s rotation provided. The Unidentified High-Solidity Object he’d been hiding behind earlier had been partially vaporised/destroyed and shifted across the floor of the hangar until it had impacted with the section of tipped, already-damaged floor.

“Still there!” (Different voice 4.)

“Hit it, Gulton.”

A bright yellow-white line lanced down from where the ceiling had been, smashing into the hangar deck where Vatueil had been positioned earlier and creating an exploding white ball of plasma. This blew outward in a boiling cloud behind a wave-front of condensing particles of molten metals; metre-scale yellow-glowing fragments of the floor went tumbling everywhere at various speeds, mostly high. He saw one piece somersaulting towards him, bouncing once off the floor and once off the ceiling. He did not have enough time to move. Perhaps if he had not been hunkered down he might have been able to avoid it.

The piece of wreckage impacted hard on the armoured body of the thing he was inside. It impacted badly, too. Not a flat side or even an edge hit first but a jagged point. It smacked into his top, off centre so that it half-spun him and sent the piece of wreckage spinning into the shoulder section of his left Main Weapon Pod.

Everything shook. Damage control screen-spreads filled his field of vision. There was a further impact from above. It was relatively slow, implicitly high inertia, crushing.

Fuck you, motherfucker! Fuck you fuck you fuck you!” (Genius.)

“Sir, ordnance discharged, sir.” (Gulton.)

“Fuck me, I think my anal plug just exited my fucking suit.” (Different voice 2.)

“Oh, that’s spatted. That is one spatted shitfuck of an Armoured Combat Unit.” (Different voice 3.)

“Got to have done it. Got to have fucking done it. Take fucking that, you miserable three-legged space tank motherfucker.” (Genius.)

“Last one in’s an officer. No offence, sir.” (Different voice 2.)

“Steady. Just hold. Those things are tough.”

He was injured. The machine he was in was now sub-optimal. It was called an Armoured Combat Unit.

The protective clamshell had taken a serious kinetic hit and was refusing to open, disabling the upper sensory dome. His left Main Weapon Nacelle had been torn off by the same piece of wreckage. Four Secondary Weapon Pods were non-operational and the upper secondary weapon collar had jammed. Something had damaged his Main Power Distribution Unit, too. He didn’t know how that had happened but it had. Now he couldn’t move his legs properly. Some secondary power left in his Number One leg. That was all. Difficult to estimate how much power or leverage was available.

Some piece of heavy equipment from the ceiling above, the source of the earlier high-inertia impact, appeared to be pinning him to the deck. Additionally, the condensing metals from the plasma event seemed to have spot-welded some parts of himself to some other parts of himself and some parts of himself to the hangar floor.

He rotated another set of disposable sensors into place on the right shoulder. This would be all he had to work with for now.

He would have to stay where he was. He could still turn, though there was a grinding sensation when he did and he could not turn smoothly, which contra-indicated tracking-firing.

He couldn’t see much. The lower sensory dome was obstructed by the squat cage of his immobile legs.

“Okay. Trooper Drueser. You have the honour, I believe.”

“Sir.” (Genius = Drueser.)

The figure came in through the curved entrance, bouncing on all fours and keeping very low to the hangar deck, a medium kinetic rifle tripodded on its back, barrel sweeping back and forth.

Vatueil let it go well past him, almost to the tipped, torn part of the hangar floor, then quietly lobbed a superblack snowflake grenade just behind it. The magnetic launcher produced no exhaust, the superblack coating kept the projectile stealthed and it was too dark for the trooper to have much chance of seeing the round curving towards him through the vacuum.

He launched a second round aimed to fall right on top of the suited figure if it stopped about… Now.

The first grenade hit the deck two metres behind the trooper, then detonated with a flash and a floor-thud. The figure had stopped and spun round. The trooper was caught inside the hail of millimetre- and centimetre-scale fragments.

There was a shriek. (Drueser.)

The back-mounted gun fired twice at where the first grenade had detonated. Then the second grenade landed. It was supposed to fall right on top of the figure but landed half a metre to its left side and half a metre in front it because of his own sensor-compromised aiming and the fact that the trooper had been blown backwards by the fragment shower from the first grenade.

The second grenade had been set to detonate on contact. The detonation caused the figure’s head to kick back. It also tore off and then disintegrated Drueser’s helmet visor, causing an obvious pressure-loss event. The figure collapsed to the floor without further movement or transmitted sound.


“Fuck.” (Different voice 2.)


“Sir, I think he triggered something. A suckertrap. That thing’s still dead. Must be.” (Different voice 4.)

“Sir? The real bad guys are due to get here awful soon now. We need to be in there even if it’s just to hide.” (Gulton.)

“Aware of that, Gulton. You want to be next?”

“Sir, me and Koviuk thought we might favour the skirmish space below with our twin presences, sir.” (Gulton.)

“BMG, Gulton.” (He didn’t know what BMG meant.)

The two figures dropped through the hole in the ceiling. Their dark suits were made briefly bright by the orange glow still coming from the slagged materials of what had been the hangar ceiling and the floor of the deck above.

Vatueil could have hit both of them but he had heard what they had said and he thought that what it meant was that they thought he was dead. If that was true then it was better to let them think that and to bring them all into the same Immediate Tactical Environment as he was in, the better to attack and destroy them.

Trapeze, came the call. It was not a surprise. Vatueil had been thinking of making it himself.

He left a shell presence of himself in the Primary Strategic Situation Overview Space and navigated to the Trapeze space, scattering pass-codes and decoys like petals.

There were five of them. They sat on what looked like trapezes hanging in utter darkness; the wires vanished upwards into the black and there was no sign or implication of any floor below or wall to any side. It was meant to symbolise the isolation of the secret space or something. He had no idea what they’d have chosen had one of their number had a high-gravity heritage and been congenitally terrified of any drop more than a few millimetres. They’d all taken up different appearances to be here but he knew who the other four were and trusted them completely, just as he hoped they trusted him.

He had shown up as a furred quadruped with big eyes and three powerful fingers at the end of each of his four limbs. They all tended to present as the sort of multi-limbed creature which had evolved in gravity, in trees. He knew how strange this must feel to the two water worlders he knew were present, but it was the sort of thing you got used to in VR. They took on colours to distinguish themselves; he was red, as usual.

He looked round at all of them “We’re losing,” he announced.

“You always say that,” said yellow.

“I didn’t when we weren’t,” he replied. “When I realised we were, I started saying so.”

“Depressing,” yellow said, looking away.

“Losing often is,” green said.

“It is starting to look kind of non-get-out-able,” purple agreed with a sigh. Purple held onto the supporting side-wires and started rocking back and forth, making its trapeze oscillate slowly.

“So, next level?” said green. Their exchanges had become terse over the last few meetings; they’d talked exhaustively about the situation, and the choices it left them with. It was just a question of waiting for the voting balance to change, or for some of their number to become so frustrated with the process and the whole Trapeze set-up, that they formed another even more exclusive sub-committee and took matters into their own hands. They had all pledged not to do this, but you never entirely knew.

They all looked at blue. Blue was the waverer. Blue had been voting No to going to what they usually called “the next level” until now, but had made no secret of being the one of the three nay-sayers who was most likely to change his, her or its mind, as circumstances altered.

Blue scratched itself about the groin with one long-fingered hand, then sniffed at its fingers; they had each made their own choices about how closely their tree-dwelling images stuck to the sort of behaviour the real thing got up to, back in the jungle. Blue sighed.

As soon as he saw just how blue sighed, Vatueil knew they had won.

Blue looked regretfully at yellow and purple. “I’m sorry,” it told them. “Truly I am.”

Purple shook its head, started picking at its fur, looking for who knew what.

Yellow let out an exasperated whoop and did a backward circle dismount, falling silently into the darkness beneath, becoming a yellow scrap which quickly disappeared entirely. Its abandoned trapeze swung in a wild, jerking dance.

Green reached out and steadied it with one hand and looked down into the abyss. “Not bothering with a formal vote, then,” it said quietly.

“For what it’s worth,” purple said disconsolately, “I agree too.” It looked round them, while each was still watching for the reactions of the others. “But I do so not… in protest, but mainly in a spirit of solidarity, and out of despair. I think we’ll come to regret this decision.” It looked down again.

“None of us does this lightly,” green said.

“So,” he said. “We go to the next level.”

“Yes,” blue said. “We cheat.”

“We hack, we infiltrate, we sabotage,” green said. “Those are war skills too.”

“Let’s not make excuses for ourselves,” purple muttered. “We’re still breaking an oath.”

“We’d all rather have achieved victory with our honour fully intact,” green said sternly, “but our options now are either an honourable defeat or the sacrifice of our honour for at least a chance of victory. However achieved, the outcome justifies the sacrifice.”

“If it works.”

“There are no guarantees in war,” green said.

“Oh, there are,” blue said quietly, looking away into the darkness. “It’s just that they guarantee death, destruction, suffering, heartache and remorse.”

They were all silent for a moment, alone with their own thoughts.

Then green rattled the wires of its trapeze. “Enough. We must plan. To the details.”

They hadn’t seen him. Two were where the plasma event had taken place, one was at the body of the trooper Drueser, one was somewhere he couldn’t see and the other two knelt just ten metres away, almost in front of him, twelve metres in from the curved entrance.

“Bit of the fucker over here. One of his arm-weapon pods.” (Different voice 2.) The two kneeling in front of him looked round, almost at him. That was helpful, telling him where trooper Different voice 2 might currently be.

“Fuck all over here. Sir.” (Gulton.)

One of the two kneeling figures had continued to look in his direction after the other had turned away again. He appeared to be looking straight at him.

“Is that another bit under that—?” It was the one who had said he was Major Q’naywa. His gun had started to level, pointing straight at him.

He fired both his available laser rifles at the two kneeling men, achieving multiple hits with high out-splash but minimal reflectivity and several observed-piercing hits, though the Major Q’naywa figure was partially shielding the one behind, who was probably Different voice 4. He followed up with a couple of Anti-Armoured Personnel/Light Armoured Vehicle minimissiles.

At the same time he swung his remaining Main Weapon Nacelle round to target the part of the hangar where he’d been earlier and where Gulton and Koviuk were now. He used the railgun, set to Scatter. Tiny hyper-kinetic rounds made a disintegrating haze out of the tipped section of floor, the bulkheads and ceiling.

As the Main Weapon Nacelle had deployed, it had roughly tracked across the location of the trooper kneeling by the body of trooper Drueser, so he’d loosed a trio of General Purpose High Explosive/Fragmentation Subscale Missiles towards them. Then he lobbed five more Subscales towards the centre of the railgun’s targeting area, cutting their engines off almost as soon as they exited the Weapon Nacelle so that they fell into the part of the target area he couldn’t see.

From the start, he had been pumping round after round of snowflake, heatseeker, emission-homing and movement-primed grenades overhead, guessing at where Different voice 2 might be, behind him in the hangar. Some of the grenades ricocheted off the ceiling but that did not really matter.

The trooper Major Q’naywa and the figure behind him disappeared in the twin explosions of the minimissiles. Unidentifiable gurgling screams might have been Gulton and Koviuk. They cut off quickly as the railgun rounds continued to eat away at the bulkheads, floor and ceiling. The Subscales erupted in the centre of the hangar, creating a billowing cloud of gasses and debris. The two troopers, one of them Drueser, who was already dead, vanished in the fireballs.

The lobbed Subscales landed in a spread in what was left of the hangar’s rear corner, filling it with a brief haze of plasma, gas and shrapnel.

He stopped firing, railgun magazine depleted by 60 per cent.

Debris trajectoried, impacted, ricocheted, fell back, tumbled, slid, became still. The gasses dissipated, mostly through the wide, curved entrance that framed the view of the big bright blue and white planet outside.

No transmissions.

The only traces of the troopers he could see were ambiguous in nature and quite small.

After nearly nine minutes he used what power he had in his single operational leg, trying to lift himself free from whatever was pinning him. The attempt failed and he knew he was trapped. He thought there was a high likelihood he had not killed the trooper who’d been somewhere in the hangar behind him, but his attempt to rise, which had caused some movement of the wreckage around and over him, attracted no further hostile attention.

He sat there and waited, wishing he could see the beautiful planet better.

Others arrived half an hour later. They were different troopers with different suits and weapons.

They didn’t have the correct IFF codes either so he fought them too. By the time he was blown out of the hangar entrance in a cloud of plasma he was completely blind, almost without any senses. Only his internal heat sensors and a feeling that he was experiencing a faint but gradually increasing force from one particular direction, once he allowed for the fact he was tumbling, told him he was falling into the atmosphere of the beautiful bright white and blue planet.

The heat increased rapidly and started to leak into his Power and Processing Core through piercing-damage channels sustained in the engagement just passed. His Processor Suite would shut down or melt in eighteen, no eleven, no nine seconds: eight, seven, no, three: two, one…

His last thought was that it would have been nice to have seen the beautiful—

He returned to the simulation within a simulation that was the Primary Strategic Situation Overview Space. In Trapeze they had discussed the initial details of plans that might end the war, one way or the other. Here they were still reviewing and re-reviewing the same old territory they had been fretting over when he’d left.

“One of your old stamping grounds, isn’t it, Vatueil?” one of the others in the High Command said as they watched the irrelevancy of the war amongst these tumbling rocks and lumps of ice replay itself. Rocket exhausts plumed in the darkness amongst the billions of orbiting fragments; munitions blazed, forces swept back and forth.

“Is it?” he said. Then he recognised it.

He had been many things in this war. He had died within the simulations many times, some failing of character or application on his part occasionally contributing to his end, more usually the mistakes of those above him in the command structure — or just the need for sacrifice — providing all of the cause. How many lifetimes had he spent waging war? He had lost count, long ago.

Of course here, in the kingdom of the dead, engaged in a seemingly never-ending fight over the fate of the souls of the departed, further deaths were no barrier to continuance. After each death in service the soldier’s achievements were reviewed by panels of his peers and other expert minds. Had he been brave, cool under fire, resourceful? According to the answers, lessons were learned. Soldiers, reincarnated to fight again, rose, fell or maintained their position in the ranks depending on how well they were judged to have done, and military practice itself changed gradually in response to the same adjudication.

Gradually at first, Vatueil had worked his way up through the hierarchy. Even where his contribution ended in death, failure and defeat he was found to have done the best he could have done with what resources and advantages he’d started with, and, most especially, to have shown imagination in his decisions.

His very first incarnation in the war effort had given every indication of being a disaster; not even knowing that he was in a simulation, having no idea what he was really fighting for, he had been a military tunneller who had turned traitor, been tortured and then died. Still, he had thought to walk through the poison gas rather than try to outrun it, which had counted in his favour, and the fact that such a previously stalwart and dependable soul had chosen to take his chances with the enemy rather than immediately try to get back to his own side had counted more against those in charge of that aspect of the battle space than it had against him, and helped convince those then running the war at a higher level that much of it was being waged too harshly and with too great an emphasis on secrecy.

And yes, here — in this open maze of broken moons, drifting rocks, abandoned facilities and empty factories, many generations of combatants ago — he had been part of the struggle.

Again, even though he had ended up fighting — all too successfully — against his own people, that had not been his fault. He had not even been his complete self in that instance, some all-too-believable glitch within the re-created scenario meaning that his download into the combat unit had been only partial, leaving it crippled inside, not knowing who was friend and who was foe. Still, even reduced, his essence had fought well, displayed imagination and shown some glimmerings of trying to develop. That had been worth another promotion.

Yet here was that same place, still disputed. Not all the subsequent battles throughout and amongst the somersaulting cascade of rocky debris and the orbiting industrial wasteland of deserted infrastructure wheeling round the system’s planets had produced a decisive victory for either side.

He looked at it, remembering, wondering what other troopers like his old self still laboured, fought and died there.

“We need a decision,” the group leader for this watch said. “Pursue, hold, abandon?” Her disembodied head looked round all the others at once, fixing her gaze on each simultaneously, because in the sim, of course, you could do this.

He voted abandon, though he was not convinced. Abandon was the decision, by just the one vote. He felt a sort of despairing elation, and wondered if that contradictory mix was also something only possible in a sim. It had been so long since he’d been properly alive, he was no longer sure.

It didn’t matter; they would abandon the battle for the simulated asteroids and the simulated orbiting facilities in this particular simulated system in this particular simulated version of this particular simulated era in this particular simulated galaxy.

He felt that he should feel bad about this, but did not.

What was one more betrayal amongst so many?


To build on such a scale would have been spectacular enough, she thought. That this thing was not unique, that it was not that special, that it was one of a “class” was moderately astounding. That it was some way from being one of the largest class was completely astounding. That it could move — bewilderingly, unreally quickly in a realm hidden at right angles to everything she had ever known or experienced — was beyond belief.

She sat with her legs dangling over the edge of a thousand-metre cliff and watched the various craft at play. Fliers of too many shapes and types to be sure they were not each unique — the smallest carrying only one man, woman or child — buzzed and fussed above, below, before and on each side. Larger craft floated with a stately grace, their appearance varied, motley and near chaotic with masts, pennants, exposed decks and bulbously glittering excrescences but their general structure approaching a sort of bloated uniformity the greater in size they were; they drifted on the unhurried breezes the vast craft’s internal meteorology created. True ships, spacecraft, generally more sober in form if not in decoration, moved with still greater deliberation, often accompanied by small squat-looking tug-craft that looked hewn from solid.

The canyon in front of her was fifteen kilometres long, its laser-straight edges softened by the multi-coloured mass of climbing, hanging and floating foliage draped spilling like gaudy ice-falls from the tops of the two great strakes on either side.

The sheer walls were diced with a breathtaking complexity of variously sized, mostly brightly lit apertures from or into a few of which, on occasion, the various air and spacecraft issued or disappeared, the whole staggering, intricate network of docks and hangars graphed onto each colossal escarpment representing a mere detail on the surface of this truly gigantic vessel.

The floor of the great canyon was near table-flat grassland, strung all about with meandering streams making their way to a hazy plain, kilometres ahead. Above, beyond filmy layers of pale cloud, a single bright, yellow-white line provided light and warmth, looping day-slow across the sky in place of a sun. It disappeared into the misty distance of the view in front of her. It was almost noon by the ship’s own time and so the sunline stood near directly overhead.

At her back, behind a low wall, in the parkland that covered the vessel’s topmost surface, people passed, tumbling waters could be heard and tall, distant trees stood on gentle rolling hills. Dotted amongst the trees, long vertical bands of pale, almost transparent vegetation rose into the air, each soaring to two or three times the height of the tallest trees and surmounted by a dark ovoid the size of the crowns of the trees beneath. Dozens of these strange shapes swayed to and fro in the breeze, oscillating together like some vast seaweed forest.

Lededje and Sensia were sitting on the natural-looking cliff edge of dark red rock, their backs to the low wall of undressed stone. Looking straight down, Lededje could just about make out the filaments of a sort of gauzy net five or six metres down that would catch you if you fell. It didn’t really look up to the job, she thought, but she’d been prepared to trust Sensia when she’d suggested sitting here.

Ten metres to her right, a stream launched out into the air from a spur of rock. Its separating, whitening spray fell only fifty metres or so before it was unceremoniously gathered up by half of a giant inverted cone of what looked like glass and funnelled into a transparent pipe that plunged straight down towards the valley floor. It was almost a relief to see that, like so many other seemingly exotic, extraordinary and fabulous things, at least part of the GSV’s functional glamour ended up expressing itself as plumbing.

This was the Culture General Systems Vehicle Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amongst Folly, the ship whose avatoid Sensia she had addressed when she’d first woken up within its near infinite substrate of thinking material.

Another version of Sensia — small, thin, spry, bronze-skinned and barely clothed — sat by her side. This personification of the ship was properly called an avatar. She had brought Lededje here to give her an idea of the size of the ship that she represented, that she in some sense was. Shortly they would board one of the small aircraft gliding, buzzing and blattering about them, presumably so that any tiny remaining fragment of Lededje that was not dumb-founded beyond imagining at the mind-boggling scale of the ship she was on — a labyrinth within, a jungled three-dimensional maze without — could join all the other parts of her that already most profoundly were.

Lededje dragged her gaze away from the sight and stared down at her own hand and arm.

So, well, here she was, “revented” as they called it, her soul, the very essence of her being, rehoused — as of only an hour or so ago — in a new body. And a fresh new body, she was relieved to know, not one that had belonged to anybody else (she had originally imagined that such bodies were the result of people guilty of terrible crimes being punished by having their personalities removed from the brains such bodies housed, leaving them free to host another’s mind).

She inspected the tiny, almost transparent hairs on her forearm and the pores on the golden-brown skin beneath. This was a human-basic body, roughly though very convincingly amended to look like that of a Sichultian. Looking closely at individual hairs and pores, she suspected that her eyesight was better than it had been originally. There was a level of detail visible that made her head swim. She supposed that it was always possible she had been lied to and she was still within a Virtual Reality, where such zooming-in was almost easier to do than it was to limit.

She flicked her gaze out again, to the kilometres of dazzling view in front of her. Of course, even this might exist within a simulated environment. Modelling such a vast ship within even the most detailed image of reality must be easier than actually building one, and certainly any people capable of constructing such a vessel could command the relatively trivial computational resources necessary to create an utterly convincing simulation of what she could see and hear and feel and smell before her now.

It could always all be unreal — how could you ever tell otherwise? You took it on trust, in part because what would be the point of doing anything else? When the fake behaved exactly like the real, why treat it as anything different? You gave it the benefit of the doubt, until something proved otherwise.

Waking in this real body had been similar to waking up within the fake body imagined in the great ship’s substrate. She had experienced a slow, pleasant coming-to, the warm fuzziness of what had felt like deep, satisfying sleep changing slowly to the clarity and sharpness of a wakefulness informed by the knowledge that something had profoundly changed.

Embodied, she’d thought. Embodiment was all, Sensia had told her, ironically while they were talking in the Virtual. An intelligence completely dissociated from the physical, or at least an impression of it, was a strange, curiously limited and almost perverse thing, and the precise form that your physicality took had a profound, in some ways defining influence on your personality.

She had opened her eyes and found herself in a bed of what looked like snowflakes, felt like feathers and behaved like particularly obedient and well-disposed insects. White as snow but nearly as warm as her skin, the material had seemed unconstrained by any enveloping cover, and yet the apparently free-floating individual elements had refused to get in her eyes, up her nose or to leave the confines of the bed and the few centimetres around both it and her pyjama-clad body.

Beyond the bed had been a modest, sparsely furnished room three or four metres to a side with one window-wall looking out onto a brightly lit balcony where she could see Sensia sitting in one of two chairs. The avatar had gazed out at the view for a few more moments before turning to her and smiling.

“Welcome to the land of the living!” she’d said, waving one hand. “Get dressed; we’ll have some lunch and then we’ll go exploring.”

So now here they sat, with Lededje trying to take in what she was seeing.

She looked back at her arm again. She had chosen pale purple blouson pants, cuffed tight at the ankle, and a filmy but opaque long-sleeved top of the same colour, sleeves rolled back to the elbows. She looked pretty good, all-in-all, she thought. The average Culture human, from what she could gather having seen a few hundred of them now in passing — and disregarding the outlandish outliers, as it were — was hardly taller than a well-fed Sichultian, but ill-proportioned: legs too short, back too long, and emaciated-looking; bellies and behinds uncomfortably flat, shoulders and upper back looking almost broken. She supposed to them she looked hump-backed, pot-bellied and big-bottomed, but no matter; to her she looked exactly, almost perfectly right. And a beauty, which was what she had always been and had always been destined to be, with or without the cell-level markings that had invested her body, down to the bone and beyond.

She had no more false modesty, she realised, than Sensia, than the ship itself.

Lededje looked up from her arm. “I think I’d like some form of tat,” she told Sensia.

“Tattooing?” the avatar said. “Easily done. Though we can definitely do better than just permanently marking your skin, unless that’s what you specifically want.”

“What, for example?”

“Take a look.” Sensia waved one arm and in front of them, and, hanging over the thousand-metre drop, a series of images appeared of Culture humans displaying tattoos even more fabulous than her own had been, at least at skin level. Here were tattoos that genuinely shone rather than just glowed a little, or could reflect; tattoos that moved, that lased, that could loop out to create real or hologramatic structures beyond the surface of the skin itself, tattoos that were not just works of art but ongoing performances. “Have a think,” Sensia said.

Lededje nodded. “Thank you. I shall.” She looked out at the view again. Behind them, on the path on the far side of the low wall, a small group of people passed. They were talking the Culture’s own language, Marain, which Lededje too could now speak and understand, though not without a certain deliberation; Sichultian Formal was still what came naturally to her and was what she and Sensia were speaking now. “You know that I need to get back to Sichult,” she said.

“Business to conclude,” Sensia said, nodding.

“When would I be able to leave?”

“How about tomorrow?”

She looked at the avatar’s brazen skin. It looked false, as though she was made of metal, not genuine flesh and bone. Lededje supposed that was the idea. Her own skin was not so different in tone — from a distance she and Sensia might have looked quite similar in colour — but from close up hers would appear natural, both to a Sichultian and even, she was sure, this motley assortment of strange-looking people.

“That would be possible?”

“Well, you could make a start. You’re some distance away. It’ll take a while.”

“How long?”

Sensia shrugged. “Depends on a lot of things. Many tens of days, I’d guess. Less than a hundred though, I’d hope.” She made a gesture with her hands Lededje guessed was meant to signal regret or apology. “Can’t take you myself; way off my course schedule. In fact, at the moment, we’re heading sort of tangentially away from the Enablement space.”

“Oh.” Lededje hadn’t realised this. “Then the sooner I get started the better.”

“I’ll put the word out to the ships, see who’s interested,” Sensia said. “However. There is a condition.”

“A condition?” She wondered if there was, after all, some form of payment expected.

“Let me be honest with you, Lededje,” Sensia said, with a quick smile.

“Please,” she said.

“We — I — strongly suspect that you may be returning to Sichult with murder in your heart.”

Lededje said nothing for as long as it took for her to realise that the longer she left it to respond, the more like agreement that silence seemed. “Why do you think that?” she asked, trying to imitate Sensia’s level, friendly, matter-of-fact tone.

“Oh, come now, Lededje,” the avatar chided. “I’ve done a little research. The man murdered you.” She waved one hand casually. “Perhaps not in cold blood, but certainly when you were completely helpless. This is a man who has had complete control over you since before you were born, who forced your family into servitude and had you marked for ever as a chattel, engraved like a high-denomination bank-note made out specifically to him. You were his slave; you tried to run, he hunted you like an animal, caught you and, when you resisted, he killed you. Now you are free of him, and free of the marks that identified you as his but with a free pass back to where he — probably imagining that you are entirely dead — still is, quite unsuspecting.” Sensia turned to Lededje at this point, swivelling not just her head but her shoulders and upper body, so that the younger woman could not pretend not to have noticed. Lededje turned too, less gracefully, as Sensia — still smiling — lowered and slowed her voice ever so slightly and said, “My child, you would not be human, pan-human, Sichultian or anything else if you didn’t positively ache for revenge.”

Lededje heard all this, but did not immediately react. There is more, she wanted to say. There is more; it is not just about revenge… but she couldn’t say that. She looked away, kept staring at the view. “What would the condition be, then?” she asked.

Sensia shrugged. “We have these things called slap-drones.”

“Oh yes?” She had vaguely heard of drones; they were the Culture’s equivalent of robots, though they looked more like items of luggage than anything else. Some of the tinier things floating in the great hazy view in front of them were probably drones. She already didn’t like the idea of a variety with the word “slap” in its title.

“They’re things that stop people doing something they probably ought not to do,” Sensia told her. “They… just accompany you.” She shrugged. “Sort of an escort. If it thinks you’re about to do something objectionable, like hit somebody or try to kill them or something, it’ll stop you.”

“Stop… how?”

Sensia laughed. “Well, just shout at you at first, probably. But if you persist, it’ll physically get in the way; deflect a blow or push aside a gun barrel or whatever. Ultimately, though, they’re entirely entitled to zap you; drop you unconscious if need be. No pain or damage, of course, but—”

“Who decides on this? What court?” Lededje asked. She felt suddenly hot, and was acutely aware that on her new, paler skin, a flush might show as a visible blush.

“The court of me, Lededje,” Sensia said quietly, with a small smile Lededje glanced at then looked away from.

“Really? On whose authority?”

She could hear the smile in the avatar’s voice. “On the authority of me being part of the Culture and my judgement on such matters being accepted by other parts, specifically other Minds, of the Culture. Immediately, because I can. Ultimately—”

“So, even in the Culture, might is right,” Lededje said bitterly. She started rolling her sleeves down, feeling suddenly chilled.

“Intellectual might, I suppose,” Sensia said gently. “As I was about to say, though, ultimately my right to impose a slap-drone on you comes down to the principle that it is what any set of morally responsible conscious entities, machine or human, would choose to do were they in possession of the same set of facts as I am. However, part of my moral responsibility to you is to point out that you are free to publicise your case. There are specialist news services who’d certainly be interested and — you being relatively exotic and from somewhere we have few dealings with — even the general news services might be interested too. Then there are specialist legal, procedural, jurisdictional, behavioural, diplomatic…” She shrugged again. “And probably even philosophical interest groups who’d love to hear about something like this. You’d definitely find somebody who’d argue your case.”

“And who’d I be appealing to? You?”

“The court of informed public opinion,” Sensia said. “This is the Culture, kid. That’s the court of last resort. If I was convinced I’d made a mistake, or even if I thought I was right but everybody else appeared to think otherwise, I guess I’d reluctantly have to abandon the slap-drone thing. Being a ship Mind I’d take more notice of what other ship Minds thought, then other Minds in general, then AIs, humans, drones and others, though of course as this would be a dispute ultimately about a human’s rights I’d have to give more than usual weight to the human vote. It sounds a little complicated but there are all sorts of well-known precedents and much-used, highly respected processes involved.”

Sensia dipped forward and looked round at Lededje, trying to get her to look at her, though Lededje refused. “Look, Lededje, I don’t mean to make it sound off-putting at all; the whole process would seem incredibly quick and informal to somebody with your background and understanding of the way courts and legal systems work and you wouldn’t have to stay aboard me to see it through; you could start back for home and see how things turn out while you’re en route. I say it would seem informal, but it’d be extremely thorough, and, frankly, much less likely to produce an unjust result than a similar case going through the courts you have back home. If you’d like to do this, please feel free. At any time. It’s your right. Personally I don’t think you’d have a hope in hell of getting off the slap-drone thing, but one never entirely knows with such matters and continually having seemingly obvious judgements challenged is pretty much how the system works.”

Lededje thought about this. “How… secret has me being brought back to life been until now?”

“Right now, it’s just between you and me, given that I can’t find the Me, I’m Counting, the ship that we’re assuming put the neural lace into your head in the first place.”

Only after she’d done it did Lededje realise she’d put one hand to the back of her head as soon as Sensia had mentioned a lace. Her fingertips moved through the soft, short fair hair covering her scalp, tracing the contours of her own skull.

She’d been offered another neural lace, before she’d been woken up in this new body. She’d said no, and was still unsure why she’d made that choice. Anyway, one could be… installed later, even if the process required time to come to fully functioning fruition. That was what had happened with the last one, after all.

“What might have happened to the ship?” she asked. She had a sudden recollection of Himerance, sitting in the seat in her bedroom, dimly lit, talking quietly to her, ten years earlier.

“Happened to it?” Sensia sounded surprised. “Oh, it’ll be off on a retreat, probably. Or wandering aimlessly, tramping the galaxy, or doggedly pursuing some weird obsession all of its own; either way all it needs is to stop telling people where it is and it disappears off the screens. Ships do that, especially old ships.” She snorted. “Especially old ships that saw active service in the Idiran war. They’re very prone to going Eccentric.”

“So ships don’t get slap-droned?” She tried to sound sarcastic.

“Oh, but they do, if they’re especially strange, or of a certain… capital substance; a major ship.” Sensia leaned in close and said, “Ship like me went Eccentric once, or seemed to. Can you imagine?” she said, pretending horror as she nodded out at the view. “Something this size? Went totally off the rails in a crisis and shook off the ship detailed to be its slap-drone.”

“And how did that end?”

Sensia shrugged. “Not too badly. Could have been a bit better, could have been an awful lot worse.”

Lededje thought a little more. “Then I think I’ll just have to accept your judgement.” She turned and smiled smoothly at the avatar. “I don’t accept that it’s necessary, but I’ll… acquiesce.” Sensia wore an expression of regret, and a small frown. “Though you should know,” Lededje said, fighting to keep her voice under control, “that there is no possibility of the man who killed me being brought to justice for what he did to me, let alone suffering any punishment for it. He is a very charming, very powerful but completely evil man. He is utterly selfish and self-centred, and due to his position he can and does get away with anything — anything at all. He deserves to die. It would absolutely be the correct moral thing to do to kill Joiler Veppers, my personal grievance against him set entirely aside. If I am going back to my home with murder in my heart, as you put it, then you are making exactly the wrong moral choice in deciding to protect him.”

“I understand how you feel, Lededje,” the avatar said.

“I doubt it.”

“Well, I certainly understand the force of what you’re saying; please accept that at least. It’s just not my place to pass judgement at such a remove on somebody I have no conceivable moral jurisdiction over.”

“The Culture never interferes in other societies?” Lededje said, trying to sound scornful. It was one of the few things she could recall having heard about the Culture back in Sichult: its people were hopelessly effeminate, or unnaturally aggressive females (the story changed according to exactly which aspect of the Culture’s alleged demeanour the Sichultian press and establishment wanted to portray as shocking, depraved or despicable), it didn’t use money and it was ruled by its giant robot ships that interfered in other civilisations. Despite herself, she could feel tears welling up behind her eyes.

“Good grief, yes, we’re interfering all the time,” the avatar admitted. “But it’s all carefully thought out, long-term managed and there’s always got to be some strategic goal that’ll benefit the people being interfered with.” Sensia looked away for a moment. “Well, usually. That’s not to say things don’t go awry on occasion.” She looked back at Lededje. “But that’s all the more reason to take care. Especially when this is a person of such importance, with such a degree of fame, notoriety or whatever, and with control over so much of your civilisation’s productive—”

“So his position, his money protects him even here?” Lededje protested, trying hard not to cry now.

“I’m sorry,” Sensia said. “That’s the reality of the situation. We don’t make your rules. As an alien being he has as much right as anybody else has not to have me collude in any plot against his life; as a focus of power within your society, anything that happens to him matters more than it does to almost anybody else. It would be irresponsible not to take that into account even if I did share your desire to kill him.”

“What chance would I have anyway,” Lededje said, sniffing and looking away. “I’m no assassin. I could happily kill him but I’ve no particular skill in such matters. My only advantage is I know something of his estates and houses and the people who surround him.” She raised her hand, studied its back and front. “And I don’t look like I used to look, so I might have a chance of getting close to him.”

“I imagine he’s well protected,” Sensia said. She paused for a moment. “Yes, I see that he is. Your news services seem most taken with these cloned people, the Zei.”

Lededje thought to say something to the effect that Jasken was the real bodyguard, Veppers’ true last line of defence, but then thought the better of it. Best not be seen to be thinking in such terms. She sniffed some more, wiping her nose on her hand.

“You don’t have to go back, Lededje,” Sensia said gently. “You could stay here, make a new life in the Culture.”

Lededje used the heels of her hands to dry round her eyes. “You know, for almost as long as I can remember that was the one thing I wanted?” she said. She glanced at Sensia, who looked puzzled. “All those years, all those times I tried to run away, the one thing nobody ever asked me was where I might be running to.” She smiled a small, thin smile at the avatar, who looked surprised now. “If they had asked,” Lededje told her, “I might even have told them: I was running away to the Culture, because I’d heard they’d escaped the tyranny of money and individual power, and that all people were equal here, men and women alike, with no riches or poverty to put one person above or beneath another.”

“But now you’re here?” Sensia offered, sounding sad.

“But now I’m here I find Joiler Veppers is still deferred to because he is a rich and powerful man.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “And I find I need to return because that is my home, like it or not, and I must make my peace with it somehow.” She looked sharply at Sensia. “Then I might come back. Would I be allowed to come back?”

“You’d be allowed.”

Lededje nodded once and looked away.

They were both silent for a few moments. Then Sensia said, “Slap-drones can be quite useful companions, anyway; willing and obedient servants — bodyguards, too — so long as you don’t try to kill or injure somebody. I’ll choose you a good one.”

“I’m sure we’ll get on just fine,” Lededje said.

She wondered how easy it would be to lose a slap-drone. Or to kill it, too.

Yime Nsokyi stood in the main room of her apartment, her stance upright, her booted feet together, her head slightly back, her hands clasped behind her back. She was dressed formally in long dark grey boots, grey trousers, a light blouse and a plain grey jacket with a stiff, high collar. She had a pen terminal in the breast pocket of the jacket and a back-up terminal in the shape of an earbud attached to the lobe of her left ear. Her hair was very neatly combed.

“Ms. Nsokyi, hello.”

“Good day.”

“You look very… poised. Wouldn’t you rather sit?”

“I prefer to stand.”

“Okay.” The avatar of the GCU Bodhisattva, OAQS had appeared, Displaced apparently, in front of her a moment earlier, its coming heralded half an hour before by the call she’d received. She had had time to dress and compose herself. The avatar took the form of an old-looking drone, nearly a metre long, half that across and a quarter-metre in height. It floated at eye level. “I shall take it we may dispense with any pleasantries,” it said.

“That would be my choice,” Yime agreed.

“I see. In that case, are you ready to…?”

Yime flexed her knees, picked up a small soft bag at her feet and stood again. “Fully,” she said.

“Okay then.”

The avatar and the human female disappeared inside two silver ellipsoids which had hardly appeared before they shrank to two points and vanished, not quite fast enough to create two tiny claps of thunder, but sufficiently quickly to cause a draught that ruffled the leaves of nearby plants.

Prin awoke from the long and terrible real nightmare of his time in Hell and found Chay, his true love, gazing over at him as he lay, blinking, on the clinic bed. He was on his side, looking at her; she was on her other side on a bed a metre away, facing him. Her eyes blinked slowly.

It had taken a while for him to register where he was, who this person looking over at him was, even who he himself was. At first all he knew was that he was somewhere vaguely medical, that he felt something very sweet and special for the female lying opposite, and that he had done something important and terrifying.

Hell. He had been in Hell. They had been in Hell; he and Chay. They had gone in there to prove that it was real, not a myth, and that it was a vile, perverted version of an afterlife, a place of unredeemed cruelty, impossible to defend in any civilised society.

They had sought to witness this and then to bring the evidence back and do what they could to make it public; get it disseminated as widely as possible, defying the state, the government, the political-commercial establishment and all the various vested interests which wanted their Hell — all the hells — to continue.

Now, here they were, back in the Real, the two of them.

He couldn’t quite speak yet. He was lying on this bed, in what certainly looked like the clinic they had left from, with Chay on the bed opposite his. They had transferred their personalities into electronic or photonic form or whatever it was — he had never been interested in the technical details — and they had set out together for Hell.

He could hear faint beeping noises, and see various pieces of medical equipment and communications gear stationed around their two beds.

“Prin! You’re back!” a voice said. He recognised the voice, or at least knew that he ought to know who the speaker was. A male came into view.

He did recognise him. Irkun. He was called Irkun and he was the medic-cum-comms-wizard who had been overseeing the transfer of their personalities, their beings, from their own bodies, through the communications network to wherever the state-run link to Hell was, and then on to the Hell itself. And back, of course. That was the point; they had to come back, and so they’d been sent with lengths of code attached that would let them come back. In the Hell these had been disguised as necklaces of barbed wire. They gave the wearer one brief spell to impersonate one of the more powerful and privileged demons within the Hell, and one chance to get back out of the virtual world back to the Real.

He remembered the blue glowing gate and the mill and the valley side with the X-shaped devices bearing the rotting corpses.

Blue glowing gate, and his desperate leap, holding her…

Tumbling in the air, somersaulting so that he went through first, her in his limbs immediately afterwards, if possible.

“You made it!” Irkun said, clapping both trunks together. He was dressed like a medic; white waistcoat, tail bunned and pinned, hooves in little white bootees. “You’re back! You made it! And Chay, is she…?”

Irkun turned to look at Chay. She was still staring straight ahead. Prin had thought she was gazing at him, but of course, she wasn’t. She blinked slowly, again, exactly as she had a little earlier.

“… right behind you?” Irkun asked, voice trailing away a little as he looked at the medical units and comms gear gathered around her bed. He pulled out a tablet remote and started tapping at it, trunk-fingers dancing over the icons, letters and numbers. “Is she…?” he said, falling silent. He stopped tapping at the remote and looked, stricken, at Prin.

Irkun, Chay, the bed she was lying on and the whole small clinic room — on a houseboat in a lagoon off a shallow sea — all started to waver and dissolve as tears began to fill Prin’s eyes.

There were three others besides Prin and Irkun. They had kept the core team as small as they possibly could to avoid the pro-Hell people finding out.

They lay on couches on a deck looking out over the lagoon towards the distant dunes and the sea. Birds flew across the reflection of a livid sunset, dark shapes against the long rips and tearings of the cloud-streaked sky. There were no other boats or houseboats visible. The one they were on looked innocent enough, though it concealed some very hi-tech gear and a buried optic cable linking them to a satellite array in the nearest small town, kilometres distant. Prin had been awake for about half a day now. They needed to decide what to do next, especially about Chay.

“If we leave her under we can re-integrate her fine, whenever she comes back,” Biath said. He was their mind-state expert.

“Even with a broken mind?” Prin asked.

“Certainly,” Biath said, as though this was some sort of accomplishment.

“So we take a perfectly healthy sleeping mind and plonk a broken one into it and it’s the broken one that wins, that emerges?” Yolerre said. She was their main programmer, the whiz that had come up with the barbed-wire code to let them escape from the Hell.

Biath shrugged. “The newer writes over the older,” he told her. “That’s just normal.”

“But if we wake her—?” Prin began.

“If we wake her she’ll be just as she was before the two of you went under,” Sulte said. He was their mission controller, their main ex-government source and another comms expert. “But the longer she’s awake and living any sort of normal life, the harder it gets to re-integrate her two personalities: the unconscious one here that doesn’t include her experiences in the Hell and the virtually conscious one — wherever it is — that does.” He looked at Biath, who nodded to this.

“Which, given that the latter will probably leave her out of her mind,” Irkun said, “may be for the best.”

“She could be treated,” Irkun said. “There are techniques.”

“These techniques ever been tried on somebody carrying all the nightmares of Hell in their head?” Yolerre asked.

Irkun just shook his head and made a sucking noise.

“How long before any re-integration becomes impossible?” Prin asked.

“At worst, problematic within hours,” Biath said. “Few days probably. Week at the most. Over-write would be brutal, could leave her… catatonic at best. Only humane course would be trying to prise the Hell memories in piecemeal.” He shook his head. “Very likely her continuance personality would just reject the memories completely. Nightmares would need watching.”

“You really don’t think she’s likely to pop out soon?” Irkun asked Prin. Irkun had his tablet remote propped up in front of him, monitoring Chay’s condition in the clinic room just a few metres away.

Prin shook his head. “I don’t think there’s any chance,” he said. “She’d forgotten what the emergency code was, what it was for, how you operated it; like I keep saying, she even denied that there was any Real. And those bastard demons would have been on her in seconds after I barged through. If she didn’t follow me in a few heartbeats, she isn’t following me for… months.” He started crying again. The others saw, huddled closer, made soothing noises, and those closest reached out to touch him with their trunks.

He looked round them all. “I think we have to wake her,” he told them.

“What happens if we do get her back?” Yolerre asked.

“She can be given some sort of existence in a virtual world,” Sulte said. “Fact is it’ll be easier to treat her there, yes?” he said glancing at Biath, who nodded.

“Do we need to take a vote?” Irkun asked.

“I think it’s Prin’s call,” Sulte said. The others nodded, made noises of assent.

“You’ll have her back, Prin,” Yolerre said, reaching out to stroke him gently with one trunk.

Prin looked away. “No, I won’t,” he said.

When they did wake her, the following morning, he had already left.

He didn’t want to see her. He didn’t want to abandon the one he loved and who was still in Hell by accepting the love of the one who had never been there, no matter how whole, perfect and un-traumatised she might be.

No doubt this Chay, this one who had never seen Hell, would feel injured by his actions, and not understand how he could be so cruel to her, but then he had seen what real hurt and real cruelty was, and the person that he was now could never pretend that what had happened to the two of them in Hell had somehow not taken place, and changed who he was for ever.

The room where Lededje had woken, to see Sensia sitting outside on the balcony, was hers for as long as she stayed on the ship. After their tour in a small, very quiet aircraft — the GSV was appropriately mind-boggling from every external angle and internal corridor — Sensia had dropped Lededje off nearby, where one of the kilometres-long internal corridors abutted one of the little stepped valleys of accommodation units, given her a long, silvery and elaborate ring — a thing called a terminal that let her talk to the ship — then left her to find her own way back to the room and otherwise sort herself out. Sensia said she’d be a call away, happy to be a guide, companion or whatever. In the meantime, she imagined Lededje might want to rest, or just have some time to herself.

The ring fitted itself to Lededje’s longest finger and gave spoken directions back to her room. One wall of the room acted as a screen and allowed apparently unrestricted access to the ship’s equivalent of the Sichultian datasphere. She sat, started asking questions.

“Welcome aboard,” said the avatar drone of the Bodhisattva. “May I take your bag?”

Yime nodded. Instead of the avatar taking it from her, the bag simply disappeared from her hand, leaving the skin on her fingers with a tingling feeling. She wobbled on her feet and almost staggered as the bag’s weight was suddenly removed from that side of her body, leaving her unbalanced. “You’ll find it in your cabin,” the avatar said.

“Thank you.” Yime looked down. She was standing on nothing. It felt like a very hard nothing, but — just looking — there didn’t seem to be anything beneath her feet except stars arranged in familiar-looking wispy sprays and whorls. Stars to the sides, too. Above her, a vast dark presence; a ceiling of polished black reflecting the stars shining beneath her feet. Looking straight up, she saw a ghost-pale version of herself, looking straight back down.

Beneath, she recognised the patterns of the stars as those visible from her home Orbital of Dinyol-hei. Though given that she had just left her apartment in the later afternoon, these were not the stars she’d have expected to see if they’d simply moved straight down from her apartment to the part of the Orbital beneath where she lived. The ship was obviously some distance further away. She felt pleased with herself to have worked this out so quickly.

“Do you need time to freshen up, adjust, orientate yourself or otherwise—?” the drone began.

“No,” Yime said. She stood as she had before, though with feet spread a little. “May we begin?”

“Yes. Your full attention, please,” the Bodhisattva said.

Your full attention. Yime felt mildly insulted. Still, this was Quietus. It was known for its air of formal austerity and a degree of implicit asceticism. If you didn’t like the discipline involved in most things Quietudinal you shouldn’t have signed up in the first place.

There was a spiteful rumour, seemingly incapable of being entirely laid to rest, that the more recently manifested specialist divisions of the Culture’s Contact section were only there to provide substitute employment niches for those desperate but unable to make the cut and get into Special Circumstances itself.

Contact was the part of the Culture that handled more or less every aspect of the Culture’s interactions with everything and everybody that wasn’t the Culture, from the investigation of unexplored star systems to relations with the entire panoply of other civilisations at every developmental level, from those still unable to scrape together the plan for a world government or a functioning space elevator to the elegantly otiose but nevertheless potentially deeply powerful Elders and the still more detached-from-reality Sublimed, where any vestige or trace of such exotic entities remained.

Special Circumstances was, in effect, the Contact section’s espionage wing.

There had always been specialist sub-divisions within the organisational behemoth that was Contact. Special Circumstances was only the most obvious and, uniquely, it had been formally separate almost since its inception; largely because it sometimes did the sort of things the people who were proud to be part of Contact would have been horrified to have been remotely associated with.

As time had passed though, especially over the last half-thousand years or so, Contact itself had seen fit to introduce various reorganisations and rationalisations which had resulted in the creation of three other specialist divisions, of which the Quietudinal Service was one.

The Quietudinal Service — Quietus, as it was usually called — dealt with the dead. The dead outnumbered the living in the greater galaxy by some distance, if you added up all those individuals existing in the various Afterlives the many different civilisations had created over the millennia. Happily — mercifully — the dead generally tended to keep themselves to themselves and caused relatively little trouble compared to those for whom the Real was still the place to exist within and try to exploit. However, the sheer scale of their numbers ensured that important issues involving the deceased still arose now and again; the dead Quietus dealt with might be technically departed, but they were, sometimes, far from quiet.

A lot of the time such matters were effectively about legality, even about definitions; in a lot of societies the principal difference between a live virtual person — possibly just passing through, as it were, between bodies, back in the Real — and a dead virtual person was that the latter had no right to property or any other kind of ownership outside of their own simulated realm. Perhaps not unnaturally, there were those amongst the dead who found such a distinction unfair. This sort of thing could lead to trouble, but Quietus was skilled in dealing with the results.

Relatively small in terms of ships and personnel, Quietus could nevertheless call on whole catalogued suites of dead but preserved experts and expert systems — not all of which were even pan-human in origin — to help them deal with such matters, bringing them back from their fun-filled retirement or out of suspended animation, where they had left instructions that they were ready to be revived if they could be of use when circumstances required.

Slanged as “Probate” by some of those in SC, Quietus had links with Special Circumstances, but regarded itself as a more specialised service than its much older and larger sibling utility. Most of the humans within Quietus regarded any links with SC as deplorable in essence and only very occasionally necessary, if ever. Some just plain looked down on Special Circumstances. Theirs, they felt, was a higher, more refined calling and their demeanour, behaviour, appearance and even dress reflected this.

Quietus ships added the letters OAQS — for On Active Quietudinal Service — to their names while they were so employed, and usually took on a monochrome outer guise, either pure shining white in appearance or glossily black. They even moved quietly, adjusting the configuration of their engine fields to produce the minimum amount of disturbance both on the sub-universal energy grid and the 3D skein of real space. Normal Culture ships either went for maximum efficiency or the always popular let’s-see-what-we-can-squeeze-out-of-these-babies approach.

Similarly, the human and other biological operatives of Quietus were expected to be sober, serious people while they were on duty, and to dress appropriately.

It was to this division of Contact that Yime belonged.

Your full attention, indeed. Oh well. Rather than reply, Yime just nodded.

Suddenly she was surrounded waist deep in stars. The drone, the far-distant stars beneath her feet and their reflections had all disappeared. “This is the Ruprine Cluster, in Arm One-one Near-tip,” the ship’s voice said all around her.

Arm One-one Near-tip was a little under three hundred light years distant from the region of space where the Orbital Dinyol-hei lay circling around the sun Etchilbieth. In galactic terms, this was practically next door.

“These stars,” the ship said as a few dozen of the suns shown turned from their natural colours to green, “represent the extent of a small civilisation called the Sichultian Enablement, a Level Four/Five society originating here.” One of the green stars blazed brightly, then reduced in brilliance. “The Quyn system; home of the planet Sichult where the pan-human Sichultians evolved.” A pair of pan-humans were shown, standing just outside the ball of stars surrounding Yime. Curious physical proportions, Yime thought. Two sexes; each a little odd-looking to her eyes, just as she would have been to theirs, she supposed. Their skin colours changed as she looked at them, from dark to pale then back to dark, with yellow, red and olive tones exhibited en route. The two naked beings were replaced by one clothed one. He appeared tall, powerfully built and had long white hair.

“This is a man called Joiler Veppers,” the ship told her. “He is the richest individual in the entire civilisation, and by some margin. He is also the most powerful individual in the entire civilisation — though unofficially, through his wealth and connections rather than due to formal political position.”

The image of the stellar cluster with its artificially green stars and the tall, white-haired man both vanished to be replaced by the earlier image of the stars constituting the Sichultian Enablement, with the Quyn system’s sun still shown as the brightest.

“Ms. Nsokyi,” the ship said, “are you aware of the current, long-running confliction over the future of the Afterlives known as Hells?”

“Yes,” Yime said.

Confliction was the technically correct term for a formal conflict within a virtual reality — i.e. one where the outcome mattered beyond the confines of the virtual battle environment itself — but mostly people just called this one the War in Heaven. It had been running now for nearly three decades and had yet to produce a result. She’d heard reports recently that it was finally coming close to a conclusion, but then there had been similar reports almost every hundred days since it had started so she had taken no more notice than anybody else. Most people had long since lost interest.

“Good,” the ship said. “Mr. Veppers controls the largest part of the Enablement’s productive capacity and — through one of his interests in particular — has access to this.” A star near the outer limit of the Enablement’s volume blazed too, attracting attention. The view zoomed in vertiginously until it showed a single-ringed gas giant planet. Between its broad, dun-coloured polar regions, the planet displayed seven horizontal bands coloured various shades of yellow, red and brown.

“This,” the ship said, as the entirety of the single equatorial ring surrounding the planet flashed green once, “is the artificial planetary nebula of the Tsungarial Disk, around the planet Razhir, in the Tsung system. The Disk comprises over three hundred million separate habitats and — mostly — manufacturies, usually called fabricaria. The Disk was abandoned two million years ago by the then Subliming Meyeurne and has been a Galactic Protectorate since shortly after their disappearance. The Protectorate status was agreed to be necessary due to a chaotic, dangerously uncontrolled war both over and enabled by the very considerable ship-and-weapon-system-manufacturing capacity left behind, at least irresponsibly, possibly mischievously and arguably maliciously by the Meyeurne. The civilisations involved were the Hreptazyle and the Yelve.”

The ship didn’t bother to display any images of the Meyeurne, Hreptazyle or Yelve. Certainly Yime had never heard of any of them, which meant they were either long gone or just irrelevant.

“Shortly following the Idiran War,” the Bodhisattva said, “the Culture became the latest in a long line of trusted Level Eights to be given Protectorate custody of the Disk. However, as part of what were in effect war reparations after the Chel debacle, six hundred years ago, we ceded overarching control of the Disk to the Nauptre Reliquaria and their junior partners the GFCF.”

Yime most certainly had heard of the Nauptre Reliquaria and the GFCF. Like the Culture, the Reliquaria was a Level Eight civilisation; technologically the societies were equals. Originally a species of giant, furred, gliding marsupials, for the last couple of millennia they had expressed themselves almost exclusively as their machines: GSV-sized constructor ships, smaller though still substantial space vessels, lesser independent space-faring units and a multifarious variety of metre-scale individuals roughly equivalent to drones, though with no standard model; each design was unique or close to it. Their presence then extended down through the centimetre and millimetre scales to collectivised nanobots.

The furry marsupials still existed, but they’d retreated to their home planets and habitats to lives of cheerfully selfish indolence, leaving their machines to represent them in the galactic community. Generally reckoned to be well on the slippery (if confusingly, by convention, upward) slope to Subliming, the Reliquaria’s relations with the Culture were formal — perhaps even frosty — rather than friendly, largely due to the Nauptrians’ robust attitude to punishment in their artificial Afterlife.

Basically, they were very much for it.

Unlike the Culture, which — despite being firmly of a mind with the anti-Hell side of the confliction — had thought it politic to take no active part in the virtual war, the Nauptrians had made themselves an enthusiastic part of the pro-Hell war effort.

The Geseptian-Fardesile Cultural Federacy was a Level Seven civilisation. Pan-human, smaller and more delicate than the average but generally reckoned to be quite beautiful, with large heads and large eyes, they had a strange relationship with the Culture, professing to love it — they had even chosen their name partly in honour of the Culture — but often seeming to want to criticise it and even work against it, as though they so much wanted to be of help they needed the Culture reduced to a level of neediness that would make such aid something it would genuinely be grateful for.

The mention of Chel was randomly appropriate, Yime thought. Before that particular stain on the Culture’s reputation people had seemed reticent to talk about the whole issue of Afterlives. After it, for a while at least, they’d appeared to talk of little else.

“The components of the Tsungarial Disk have mostly been mothballed for all this time,” the ship continued, “left as a kind of monument or mausoleum. Over the last few decades, however, as the Sichultia have expanded their sphere of influence out to and around it, they have been granted limited, low-level control over the Disk and allowed, in the shape of Veppers’ Veprine Corporation, to use a handful of the orbital manufacturies to construct trading and exploratory ships, all of this supervised by the Nauptre Reliquaria and the GFCF.

“Veppers and the Sichultia have long sought greater operational control over the Disk and its manufacturing capacity to aid their commercial, military and civilisational expansion. They are now on the verge of achieving their goal due to the changing attitudes, not to say connivance, of the GFCF and the Reliquaria. This is because the GFCF covets at least some of that capacity as well — their medium-term aim is to step up a civilisational level, and control of the reactivated Disk’s productive capacity would go some way to securing it — while the Nauptre Reliquaria are pro-Hell, in the short term wanting the pro/anti-Hell confliction ended — and with what they see as the right result — as well as, in the long term, and assuming they do not Sublime in the meantime, by their own admission planning to combine all Afterlives with their own and others Sublimed. That nobody else thinks this is even possible does not seem to trouble them and is anyway beside the point.”

“Why does the Reliquaria being pro-Hell have anything to do with control of the Disk?” Yime asked.

“Because the Disk’s productive or possibly computational capacity may come into play in an outbreak from the confliction into the Real.”

“An outbreak?” Yime felt genuinely shocked. Conflictions — virtual wars — were there specifically to stop people warring in the Real.

“The pro/anti-Hell confliction may be about to end,” the ship said, “in victory for the pro-Hell side.”

That was a blow for the Culture, Yime thought. Even though it had seemingly stood aside from the war, there had never been any doubt which side it believed in.

It was all just bad timing, in a way. At the point when the war began, the Culture had been in one of its cyclic eras of trying not to be seen to be throwing its weight around. Too many others of the In-Play Level Eights had objected to the Culture being involved with the War in Heaven for it to be able to do so without looking arrogant, even belligerent.

The assumption had somehow always been that the pro-Hell forces were going to be fighting a losing battle anyway and their defeat was probably inevitable no matter who did or didn’t join in. Seemingly, the more the In-Play and the Elders thought about it, the more obvious it became that the whole idea of Afterlives dedicated to extended torture was indeed barbaric, unnecessary and outdated, and the course of the confliction over the continued existence of the Hells was expected to follow this slow but decisive shift in opinion. At the time, the prospect of the Culture getting involved seemed likely to most people to make the conflict less fair, its outcome effectively fixed before it even began.

For a virtual war to work, people had to accept the outcome; the losing side in particular had to abide by the result rather than cry foul, revoke the solemn pledges they had made in the War Conduct Agreement drawn up before the conflict began, and continue as things had been before. The consensus had been that the Culture taking part would give the pro-Hell side the excuse to do just that, if and when they lost.

“The anti-Hell side,” the ship continued, “was the first to attempt to hack the other’s conflict-direction processing substrates. The opposing side retaliated. The anti-Hell side has additionally attempted direct hacking attacks on some of the Hells themselves, seeking either to release the inmates or to destroy the virtual environments completely.

“The various hacking attacks by both sides have almost all failed, those that succeeded did little damage and the vast majority of those by both sides were detected by those targeted, leading to multiple judging and arbitration disputes, all of which are currently being kept sub judice; successfully so far though probably not for much longer. Extensive legal and diplomatic disputes are anticipated and almost certainly being prepared for.

“There are certain so-far unsubstantiated reports that some of the secret substrates within which several major Hells are running are located not where one might expect to find them — essentially, within the volumes of influence of their parent civilisations — but instead within the Tsungarial Disk or elsewhere within the Sichultian Enablement. The worry is that an outbreak of the confliction into the Real may involve the Tsungarial Disk, especially the until-now dormant majority of the fabricaria and the hidden substrates that may also lie there. If this is truly the case then the potential for a substantial war in the Real would seem high.

“Thus the Sichultian Enablement suddenly and unexpectedly finds itself in a position of power well beyond that which its developmental level would lead one to expect. It is poised to contribute significantly, possibly decisively, to a situation of extreme importance, the outcome of which might lead directly to a significant conflict in the Real involving several high-level Players. Given that Mr. Veppers is so powerful within the Sichultian Enablement, what he thinks and does therefore becomes of profound importance.”

Yime thought about this. “Why would we — why would Quietus be involved?”

“There is a complication,” the ship told her.

“I thought there might be.”

“In fact, there are two.”

“That I did not anticipate,” Yime admitted.

“The first concerns this person.” A figure appeared.

“Hmm,” Yime said, after a moment. The figure was of a pan-human: a Sichultian, Yime would have guessed from the rather odd bodily proportions. This one was female, bald or shaven-headed and dressed in a short sleeveless tunic which displayed extensive and intricate multi-coloured abstract markings on her night-black skin. She was smiling. Looking closely, Yime could see further markings on the female’s teeth and the whites of her eyes. The two naked figures she’d been shown earlier hadn’t had anything like that. Those, though, had been generalised, textbook figures. The person shown here, like the image of Veppers, was an individual. “Sichultian?” she asked.


“The markings aren’t natural.”


“Are they… real?”

“They were real and permanent. They continued within her body. She was an Intagliate, one of a subset of humans within the Sichultian Enablement who are tattooed throughout their physical being. The practice began as an art form though later also became a form of punishment, especially for matters regarding private civil debt.”

Yime nodded. What a bizarre thing to do, she thought.

“Her name is Lededje Y’breq,” the ship told her.

She was an Intagliate,” but “Her name is…” Yime noticed. Ship Minds didn’t make mistakes like that. She suspected she already knew where this was going.

“Ms. Y’breq died between five and ten days ago in Ubruater, the capital city of the Sichultian Enablement’s originating planet, Sichult,” the ship told her. “She may have been murdered. If so then the murderer may have been Joiler Veppers, or somebody controlled by him, somebody in his employ. The Sichultia do not possess, or, as far as we know, have even limited access to mindstate transcription or ‘soulkeeper’ technology, however there is an unconfirmed report that Ms. Y’breq’s personality was somehow retrieved from her when she died and that she was revented aboard the GSV Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly.”

“Oh. It was nearby?”

“It was nowhere near nearby; it was over three thousand light years distant from the nearest part of the Sichultian Enablement at the time, and no ships or other entities representing or associated with the vessel were closer than approximately nine hundred years away at the time either. Nor had the ship or any of its known associates ever had any recorded dealings with the Sichultian Enablement.”

“How mysterious.”

“There is a possible link, however, between these seemingly unrelated components.”


“We’ll come to that shortly. The salient point to be made here is that it is believed that Ms. Y’breq may be on her way back to the Sichultian Enablement, revented within a quite different body — probably still Sichultian in form, though, for all we know, male — and bearing the intention of doing some violence, likely fatal, to Mr. Veppers, in revenge for her earlier murder.”

“So what am I supposed to do? Stop her? Help her?”

“As things stand, simply finding her and keeping in touch would be sufficient achievement. You would then await further orders.”

“So she’s our excuse,” Yime suggested.

“I beg your pardon, Ms. Nsokyi?”

“This girl, being revented. She’s our excuse for getting involved in all this.”

“Her revention is one reason to get involved. I’m not sure that characterising it as an ‘excuse’ is entirely helpful.” The ship’s voice sounded frosty. “Also, this entire confliction is specifically about the fate of the dead. It is entirely within the remit of Quietus.”

“But isn’t this more of an SC thing?” Yime suggested. “In fact, hasn’t this got Special Circumstances written all over it?”

She waited for a reply, but one did not appear to be immediately forthcoming. She went on. “This does sound like it involves tangling with equiv-tech galactic Players with the intention of stopping a proper ships-and-everything full-scale shooting war. I’m not sure how much more hardcore SC than that a situation can get.”

“That’s an interesting observation.”

“Is SC involved in this?”

“Not that we know of.”

“Who would ‘we’ be within this context?”

“Let me re-phrase that last reply: Not that I know of.”

This was mildly illuminating. Quietus had a deliberately flat organisational structure; in theory perfectly so at ship level, all the Minds concerned having equal knowledge and an equal say. In practice there was a degree of legislative/executive, strategic/tactical distinction, some Minds and ships doing the planning while others subsequently undertook the execution.

“Shouldn’t we tell SC?” she asked.

“I’m sure that is being considered. My immediate task is to brief and transport you. Yours, Ms. Nsokyi, is to attend to this briefing and, assuming you are agreeable, take part in this mission.”

“I see.” Yime nodded. That was her told. “What’s the other complication?”

The projection of the brown, red and yellow gas giant with its artificial ring system returned, replacing the image of the Sichultian female.

“Approximately two hundred and eight thousand years ago a proportion of the dormant fabricaria in the Tsungarial Disk suffered a smatter infection in the shape of the remains of a hegemonising swarm outbreak which took refuge there. The hegswarm was duly dealt with in the usual manner and annihilated by the cooperative of civilisations then responsible for overseeing that volume of space. The smatter infection was assumed to have been expunged from the Disk components at the same time. However, isolated recurrences of it have taken place over random intervals ever since. Due to its earlier success in dealing rapidly and effectively with these sporadic flare-ups, a small, specialist Culture presence was allowed to remain even after the Culture lost the mandate for the Disk’s protection.”

Yime nodded. “Ah. Pest Control.”

“The specialist Culture contingent in the Tsungarial Disk is indeed part of the Restoria section.”

Restoria was the part of Contact charged with taking care of hegemonising swarm outbreaks, when — by accident or design — a set of self-replicating entities ran out of control somewhere and started trying to turn the totality of the galaxy’s matter into nothing but copies of themselves. It was a problem as old as life in the galaxy and arguably hegswarms were just that; another legitimate — if rather over-enthusiastic — galactic life-form type.

Even the most urbanely sophisticated, scrupulously empathic and excruciatingly polite civilisation, it had been suggested, was just a hegswarm with a sense of proportion. Equally, then, those same sophisticated civilisations could be seen as the galaxy’s way of retaining a sort of balance between raw and refined, between wilderness and complexity, as well as ensuring that there was both always room for new intelligent life to evolve and that there was something wild, unexplored and interesting for it to gaze upon when it did. The Restoria section was the Culture’s current specialist contribution to this age-old struggle. As often known as Pest Control as by its official title, it was made up of experts in the management, amelioration and — if necessary — obliteration of hegswarms.

Quietus and Restoria worked together closely on occasion and both felt that they did so with mutual respect and on equal terms.

Restoria’s approach to its task and hence general demeanour was less punctilious than Quietus’, but then the ships, systems and humans in Pest Control generally spent their working lives rushing from hegswarm eruption to hegswarm eruption rather than communing with the honoured dead, so a buccaneering rather than considered and respectful bearing was only to be expected.

“The Restoria mission at the Tsungarial Disk has been kept informed regarding the potential for the fabricaria to come into play should the confliction spill over into the Real and has requested any help that might be available so long as it draws no extra external attention to the mission or the Disk. We are happy to provide and are lucky to have had assets, including but not limited to myself, and you, close by, given that the situation may become one of extreme urgency very quickly. Whether Restoria has also made such a request to Special Circumstances is not known to us.

“It is worth noting that the smatter infestation within the Disk has been in abatement for the last few decades and will, it is hoped, not enter into the equation.”

Smatter was the name given to the bitty remains of a hegswarm after it had been stamped out as any coherent threat. Usually it didn’t last significantly longer than the outbreak itself and just got mopped up. If some bits did persist then, while you could never afford to ignore the stuff, you didn’t really need to fear it. On the other hand, some of it getting into a mothballed system of a few hundred million ancient mothballed manufacturies did sound like awfully bad luck, Yime thought. Actually, it sounded like the kind of thing that woke Restoria people up at night, sweating and screaming.

The image of the gas giant planet and its glittering, artificial disk rotated slowly and silently in front of Yime.

“What was the possible link between the ‘components’ you mentioned earlier?” she asked.

“It is a potential link between the GSV Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly and the Sichultian Enablement in the shape of this vessel.”

The ringed gas giant disappeared to be replaced by the slim but chunky image of a Hooligan-class Limited Offensive Unit. It looked like a long, quite substantial bolt with various smoothed-off washers, nuts and longer collars screwed onto it.

“This is the Me, I’m Counting, an ex-LOU now of the Culture Ulterior,” the ship told her. “It was constructed by the Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly shortly before the Idiran war and is thought to remain in sporadic contact with it. It is a self-declared Peripatetic Eccentric: a wanderer, a tramp vessel. It was last heard of with any formal degree of certitude some eight years ago when it declared it might go into a retreat. It is thought to have been present in the Sichultian Enablement two years earlier and so may constitute the mentioned link between it and the Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly. There are indications that it accumulates images of strange and exotic creatures or devices and it may have chosen to collect such an image of Lededje Y’breq.”

“That would be a very comprehensive image.”

“It would.”

“And one which would be ten years younger than the female when she died. She wouldn’t know she’d been murdered, if she was.”

“She might simply have been told.”

Yime nodded. “I suppose she might.”

“We think we know, to a degree,” the ship said, a note of caution in its voice, “where the Me, I’m Counting is.”

“Do we?”

“It may well be with the GSV Total Internal Reflection.”

“And where is it?”

“That is not known. It is one of the Forgotten.”

“The what?”



A what?”

“A hymen.”

There were things to do, Lededje had decided, and she might only have one night on the GSV to get them done. Getting laid was not the most important item on her list, but it didn’t feel like the least important either.

The attractive young man looked puzzled. “How would I know?”

At least she thought that was what he’d just said. The music was very loud. There were these zones scattered throughout the space that were called sound fields where the music magically dropped away to nothing. She saw the vague blue glow in the air that betrayed the presence of one a couple of metres away and — rather daringly, she felt — putting her hand on the attractive young man’s puffy sleeve, part encouraged and part dragged him in that direction.

Maybe it was her, she thought; she was talking Marain, the Culture’s own language, and while it felt bizarrely natural to just launch out and express herself in it, every time she stopped to think about what she was doing she sort of tripped over herself and stuttered to a stop. Sometimes specific word-choice had her stumbling too; there seemed to be an awful lot of not-quite synonyms in Marain.

The very loud, insistently beaty music — it was called Chug, apparently, though she had yet to establish whether this was the title of the composition, the name of the performer/s or the musical form itself — faded almost to nothing. The attractive young man still looked puzzled.

“You look puzzled,” she told him. “Can’t you just look the word up in your neural lace?”

“I don’t have a lace,” he said, running his hand over one side of his face and through some of his long, dark, curly hair. “Right now I don’t even have a terminal on me; I’m out to play.” He looked up to where the cone of the noise-reducing sound field seemed to be emanating, from the ceiling of the space, unseen in the darkness above. “Ship, what’s a hayman?”

“A hymen,” she corrected.

“A hymen is a thin membrane partially obstructing the vagina of a mammal, especially a human,” the ship said from the long silver ring on her finger. “It is found in approximately twenty-eight per cent of the pan-human meta-species and its presence is often taken as signifying the individual concerned has yet to be subject to penetrative sex. However—”

“Thanks,” the attractive young man curled his fingers round the ring on her finger, muffling the ship’s voice and causing it to stop.

Lededje smiled as he took his fingers away. It had been quite an intimate act, she felt. Promising. She lowered her head to her hand a little. “Do I have a hymen?” she asked quietly.

“No,” the ring said. “Please hold me up to one of your ears.”

“Excuse me,” Lededje said to the attractive young man. He shrugged, drank his drink, looked away.

“Lededje, Sensia here,” the ring said. “The body blank I used didn’t come with defined genitalia at all; it was told to become female at the same time as the basic Sichultian characteristics were programmed in. The default setting is no hymen. Why? Do you want one?”

She brought the ring round to her mouth. “No!” she whispered. She frowned, watching the attractive young man smile and nod to somebody nearby.

He didn’t look Sichultian, of course, but he looked… different; a bit the way she looked different. When she had come up with her general plan of action, hours earlier, sitting in front of the wall screen in her room after Sensia had left her, she had asked about and quickly found various scheduled social gatherings of those amongst the ship’s not-quite quarter of a billion population who did not look like the average Culture human. In a ship with that many people aboard there were always going to be plenty of individuals who didn’t conform to the Culture norm.

The way to think of the ship’s living space, she’d decided, was as a single giant city, fifty kilometres long by twenty across and a uniform kilometre in height. With a perfect, free and rapid public transport system composed of what she thought of as small, luxurious, one-carriage ultra-fast underground trains crossed with elevator cars. She was used to the idea of cities attracting the eccentric and the strange, the people who would be ostracised or even attacked in the countryside or smaller towns and villages if they behaved as they really wanted to behave but who could become themselves, amongst others of whatever kind they were, when they came to the city. She’d known she would find some people somewhere who would find her attractive.

There was still the matter of finding what she was coming to think of as The Alternative Ship, though, and that did take priority. This place — Divinity In Extremis — was some sort of combination of semi-regular social event, performance space and drug bar.

It had a reputation. When she’d started asking the screen about it Sensia had butted in, the avatar’s voice suddenly coming out of the screen in place of the more neutral ship voice she’d just been getting used to, advising her that Divinity In Extremis wasn’t the sort of place somebody new to the Culture necessarily wanted to get involved with. Lededje had bit back her annoyance, thanked Sensia for her advice and politely asked her not to interrupt again.

So: Divinity In Extremis. Ship avatars were known to come here.

“You’re interrupting again,” she whispered into the ring. She smiled at the attractive young man as he frowned into his now empty glass.

“I could have pretended I was just the ship,” Sensia’s voice replied reasonably, sounding annoyingly unannoyed. “I assumed you wanted more detail on the physical process that led to your current incarnation. Sorry, dear girl. If you’re worried about whether your body was somehow sexually interfered with while in the grow tank, I can assure you it wasn’t.”

The attractive young man reached out to a passing tray as it floated past, depositing his empty glass and scooping up a fuming drug bowl. He brought it up to his face and inhaled deeply.

“Never mind,” Lededje said. “Sensia?”


“Please go away now.”

“Duly gone. One tip though: don’t you think it’s time you asked him his name?”


“Talk to you later.”

Lededje looked up, still smiling. The attractive young man went to hand her the drug bowl. She was about to take it with her right hand but he pulled it away again, gesturing to her left hand. She took the bowl with her left hand instead and raised it tentatively towards her face.

The attractive young man took her right hand and curled his fingers round the ring again. While she was still sucking in the fragrant grey smoke from the bowl, he pulled the terminal ring off her finger and threw it high over his shoulder.

“That was mine!” she protested. She looked in the direction the ring had gone but it must have landed ten metres away over the mass of people in the place and there was no sign of anybody catching it and bringing it back. “Why did you do that?”

He shrugged. “I felt like it.”

“Do you do everything you feel like doing?”

He shrugged again. “Pretty much.”

“How am I supposed to speak to the ship now?”

He looked even more puzzled. He inhaled from the drug bowl. She hadn’t realised he’d taken it back. “Shout?” he suggested. “Talk to the air? Ask somebody else?” He shook his head, looked at her critically. “You’re really not from around here, are you?”

She thought about this. “Yes,” she said. She wasn’t sure she approved of somebody who just assumed it was all right to manhandle her, remove something that wasn’t his and just throw it away like it was something worthless.

His name was Admile. She told him her name was Led because she thought Lededje was too much of a mouthful.

“I am looking for a ship’s avatar,” she told him.

“Oh,” he said. “I thought you were, you know, cruising.”


“For sex.”

“Possibly that too,” she said. “Well, definitely, though…” She had been going to say definitely but possibly not with him, but then thought that might be too blunt.

“You want to have sex with a ship’s avatar?”

“Not necessarily. The two quests are separate.”

“Hmm,” Admile said. “Follow me.”

She frowned, then followed him. The place was busy, packed with people of a variety of body shapes, though mostly pan-human. Outside the sound fields it was very noisy with Chug, which she was starting to suspect was the type of music rather than anything more specific. Knots of people got in their way and they pushed through. Clouds of fragrant fumes created smoke-screens across the space; she nearly lost Admile twice. They passed one cleared circle where two naked men, hobbled by short ropes tied round their ankles, were bare-knuckle fighting, then another where a man and a woman, both wearing only masks, were fighting with long, curved swords.

They came to a sort of deep, sunken, wide alcove where, amongst a plethora of cushions, bolsters and other padded-looking bits of furniture, a startling variety of people, perhaps twenty in all, were indulging in enthusiastic sex. A semicircle of people were gathered around the perimeter, laughing, clapping, shouting comments and offering advice. One couple amongst those looking on were just getting undressed, apparently about to start taking part.

Lededje was not especially shocked; she had witnessed and been obliged to take part in orgies back on Sichult; Veppers had gone through a stage of enjoying them. She had not appreciated the experience, though she supposed that might have been more to do with the lack of choice involved than the surfeit of numbers. She hoped Admile wasn’t about to suggest that they, or even just she, ought to join in the group sex. She felt that a rather more romantic setting might be more appropriate for this body’s first sexual experience.

“There he is,” Admile said. Probably; it was noisy again.

She followed him to the far side of the semicircle of voyeurs, where a fat little man stood surrounded by mostly young people. He was dressed in what looked like a shiny, highly patterned dressing gown. His hair was thin and lank and his face was jowly and covered in sweat. He was, she realised when she thought about it, the fattest person she had seen since she’d been here, by some margin.

The fat little man was repeatedly spinning a coin in the air and catching it. Each time the coin landed on his pudgy palm its top surface flashed red. “It’s skill,” he kept saying as the people around him shouted and called out. “It’s skill, that’s all. Look. I’ll make it green this time.” This time when the coin landed it flashed green instead of red. “See? Skill. Muscle control, concentration: skill. That’s all.” He looked up. “Admile. Tell these people this is just skill, won’t you?”

“Anything riding on this?” Admile asked. “Any bets been taken?”

“Nothing!” the little fat man said, tossing the coin again. Red.

“Okay,” Admile said. “It’s just skill,” he told the people.

“See?” the little fat man said. Red.

“That doesn’t make it fair though,” Admile added.

“Oh, you’re no use,” the little fat man tutted. Red again.

“Led, this is Jolicci. He’s an avatar. You’re an avatar, aren’t you, Jolicci?”

“I’m an avatar.” Red. “Of the good ship Armchair Traveller.” Red. “A more than averagely peripatetic GCU of the…” Red. “Mountain class…” Red. “An avatar who I swear is using nothing…” Red. “But muscular skill to make this coin come up red.” Red. “Every…” Red. “… single…” Red. “… time!” Green. “Oh, fuck!”

There was jeering. He bowed — sarcastically, Lededje thought, if such a thing was possible. He tossed the coin one last time, watched it flip in the air and then held open the breast pocket of his extravagantly decorated dressing gown. The coin dropped into the pocket. He extracted a kerchief from it and mopped his face as some of the people who’d been watching started to drift away.

“Led,” he said, nodding to her. “Pleased to meet you.” He looked at her, toe to top. She had dressed very conservatively at first, then changed her mind and opted for a short sleeveless dress, deciding to revel in the freedom to do so without displaying her legally approved, Veppers-designed tattoo. Jolicci shook his head. “You don’t look like anything I have stored up here,” he said, tapping his head. “Excuse me while I consult my better half. Oh, you’re Sichultian, is that right?”

“Yes,” she said.

“She wants to have sex with a ship’s avatar,” Admile told him.

Jolicci looked surprised. “Really?” he asked.

“No,” she told him. “I am looking for a disreputable ship.”

“Disreputable?” Jolicci looked even more surprised.

“I think so.”

“You think so?”

Perhaps, she thought — avatar or not — he was just one of those people who thought it the height of wit to constantly ask questions when they weren’t called for. “Would you know of one?” she asked.

“Many. Why do you want a disreputable ship?”

“Because I think the Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly means to send me away on one that will be too well behaved.”

Jolicci scrunched up one eye, as though this answer had hit him with the force of a spit.

She had been flicking through various documents and presentations she had discovered through her room’s screen, looking at what the Culture knew about and thought of the Enablement, when the ship had called back. “Lededje, I’ve found you a ship,” the vessel’s neutral voice had told her straight out of the screen.

“Oh, thank you.”

The image of what she supposed must be a Culture spaceship had appeared on the screen, pasted over what she’d been looking at. It resembled a rather featureless skyscraper lying on its side. “It’s called The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory.”

Is it?”

“Don’t worry about the name. The point is, it’s heading in your direction and it’s agreed to take you. It’s setting off late tomorrow afternoon.”

“It will take me to Sichult?”

“Most of the way. It’ll drop you at a place called Bohme, a transfer station and dock complex just outside the Enablement itself. I’ll arrange local transport from there while you’re en route.”

“Won’t I need money to pay for that?”

“Leave that to me. Would you like to talk to the ship? Arrange when to board?”


She’d talked to The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory. It had sounded cheery but boring. She’d thanked it, thanked the GSV again and then had sat frowning at the screen once control of it was returned to her.

She’d started looking for document sites about Culture spaceships. They appeared to be almost without number; there were millions of ships, each seemed to have what was in effect its own public log book and its own fan club — often more than one — and there were innumerable documents/presentations on particular types and classes of ships or those which had been constructed by specific manufacturies or other ships. It was bewildering. She could understand why Culture people just asked their local AI or Mind for whatever information they wanted; trying to work your way down through all the detail yourself was daunting.

Perhaps she should just ask. That seemed to be the way you did things in the Culture. On Sichult you had to think about what subjects and people it was safe to ask certain things about, but not here, apparently. On the other hand, doing it yourself felt more secure.

She was already fairly au fait with how you did all this; it wasn’t vastly different from the way the Enablement arranged access to the data it was prepared to share with the general public, plus she’d had practice while she’d still been in the ship’s Virtual Environment, before she’d be revented into this body.

Here in the Real, using the screen, she knew how to monitor the level of machine intelligence she was talking to. A side bar at the edge of the screen changed according to whether she was talking to, or just using, a completely dumb program, a smart but witless set of algorithms, one of three different levels of AI, an intelligent outside entity or was linked directly to the main personality of the GSV itself. The bar had ascended to its maximum when Sensia had broken in earlier with her warning about Divinity In Extremis.

She’d asked the level-one AI to bring up sites which rated ships and soon found one run by a small collective of ship fans which gave both the Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly and the Me, I’m Counting what she thought sounded like fair assessments. She asked about The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory. Boring, obedient. Well behaved. Possibly with ambitions of being chosen for more exotic service, though if it thought it was ever going to get into SC it was deceiving itself. She wasn’t sure what SC was — maybe she’d come back to that.

She’d called up a list of ships currently on the GSV. She’d shaken her head. There were nearly ten thousand named vessels aboard right now, including two of a smaller class of GSV, themselves containing other ships. The exact number changed as she watched it, the final digit flickering up and down, presumably as vessels arrived and departed in real time. Four GSVs under construction. Less than 50 per cent Bay Occupancy Rate.

She was still assuming that she was under some form of surveillance and had noticed that the more complicated was the question you asked, the further up the smartness-bar you went towards the ship’s own personality. She wanted to avoid that, so rather than just ask, Which are the bad-boy ships? she found short cuts that let her sort the ships currently aboard according to the dubiousness of their reputations.

A handful of the ships aboard had worked for or been plausibly associated with something called Special Circumstances. They didn’t publish their ship’s logs or course schedules, she’d noticed. SC, again. Whatever Special Circumstances was, it seemed to be closely linked with the kind of qualities she was looking for.

She’d looked up Special Circumstances. Military intelligence, espionage, deep interference, dirty tricks. This, she’d thought, sounded promising. It seemed to have almost as many people interested in it — a lot of them profoundly critical — as all the ships did put together. She’d looked a little closer at some of the anti-SC sites. Profoundly critical; say that kind of thing about similar organisations within the Enablement and you’d be on a sharp end of a visit from them and quite probably never heard of again.

None of the handful of ships she’d wanted to talk to had been immediately available. She’d found out how to leave messages with them, and had done so.

“Over there, to your left. Further left. Straight on for about five metres,” said a neutral voice rapidly coming closer to where she stood with Admile and the fat little avatar. “That’s her, talking to the rotund gentleman.”

Lededje turned and saw a cross-looking lady walking smartly towards her, holding something small and silver in her fingers. She marched up to Lededje. “This thing,” she said, brandishing the ring in Lededje’s face, “will not shut up. Even in a sound field.”

“That’s her,” the ring said primly.

Admile waved some drug fumes out of the way and peered at the ring before turning to Lededje. “Want me to throw it away again? Further?”

“No, thank you,” Lededje said, taking the ring from the woman. “Thank—” she began, but the woman was already walking away. Lededje held the ring in her hand.

“Hello again,” the ship’s neutral voice said.


“I was thinking of going body surfing,” Jolicci announced. “Anybody want to go body surfing?”

Admile shook his head.

“Good,” Lededje said, slipping the ring onto one of his fingers. “Perhaps I’ll see you later.”

Body surfing meant taking off most of your clothes and throwing yourself down a great curved slope of upward-charging water, either on your back, front, behind or, if you were especially skilled, feet. This all happened in a great half-dark hall full of whoops and happy screams, overlooked by bars and party spaces. Some people did it naked, others donned swimwear. Jolicci, fitted with what looked like a pair of eye-wateringly tight trunks, was spectacularly bad at it. He found it hard to exercise any control even when he was flat on his back with all four limbs extended.

Lededje discovered she was quite good as long as she didn’t try to stand up. She was coasting on her behind in a tidy spray of water, holding on to Jolicci’s left ankle with her right hand to stop him spinning out of control and keep them within talking distance of each other.

“So you want to go somewhere you won’t reveal for reasons you want to keep secret but you don’t want to take the ship the GSV’s suggested.”

“That’s broadly it,” she agreed. “Also, I would like to talk to the ships aboard here which have or had links to Special Circumstances.”

“Really?” Jolicci wobbled, spraying his face with water. “Are you sure?” He wiped his face with one hand, oscillating to and fro until he placed the hand back on the watery slide. “I mean, really sure?”

“Yes,” she told him. “You’re not the avatar of one of them, are you?” He’d said he was the avatar of the Armchair Traveller; that hadn’t been a name she’d recognised, but for all she knew these ships changed their names, or had several different names they used as it suited them.

“No,” he said. “Humble General Contact Unit, me, going about standard Contact business, honest. Nothing to do with SC.” He squinted at her (she thought — it might just have been the water).

“You sure you want to talk to SC?”


They pirouetted slowly, caught by a localised rush of uphill-headed water. Jolicci looked thoughtful. He nodded to the side. “It seems I have no skill in this. Enough. Let’s try another sort of surfing.”

“What is this?” Lededje asked. They were standing in a short, broad, carpeted corridor one wall of which was punctuated by five sets of plain double doors. Jolicci, back in his colourful dressing gown, had pulled the central set of double doors apart with some effort and was stopping them from sliding back by wedging the left one with his slipper-shod foot. Lededje was looking through the opened doors into a dark, echoing space laced with vertical cables and cross-beamed with girders. She heard rumbling noises, sensed movement, felt a draught on her face. The air smelled oily, half familiar.

She and the fat little avatar had been whisked here by the usual slick process of traveltube with only minute-long walks at either end. What she was looking at here felt somehow much older, much cruder.

“Re-creation of a tall building elevator shaft,” he told her. “Don’t you have these?”

“We have skyscrapers,” she said, holding on to the right-hand door as she leant in. “And elevators.” There was the rather grimy-looking top of an elevator car reassuringly close beneath, only a metre or so down. Looking up she saw the shafts and cables climbing into the darkness. “I’ve just never seen inside a lift shaft before. Except in a screen, I suppose. Then there’s always just the one, you know, shaft.”

“Uh-huh,” Jolicci said. “Jump on; I’ll let go the doors. Careful, though; no safety net.”

She jumped onto the roof of the car beneath. Jolicci followed her, making the roof’s surface quiver. The doors above hissed closed and the car started to ascend immediately. She held on to one of the cables — it was greasy with dark, gritty oil — and looked over the edge. The great dark shaft held space for ten elevators, five on each side. The car accelerated smartly, the slipstream tugging at her hair and making Jolicci’s dressing gown flap as they whizzed upwards. She looked down, leaning a little further out as they shot past sets of closed double doors, almost too fast to count. The bottom of the shaft was lost in the darkness.

She was grabbed from behind by one shoulder.

She heard herself yelp as she thudded into Jolicci’s surprisingly solid body. An instant later a dark shape plunged past her in a storm of disturbed air. She had narrowly missed getting decapitated by a rapidly descending car. Jolicci released his hold on her. “Like I said; no safety net. This is a dangerously faithful physical re-creation. No sensors on the cars to stop them hitting or crushing you, no AG down the bottom if you fall. Nobody to see you fall, let alone stop you. You backed-up?”

She found she was shaking a little. “You mean my, my self? My personality?” He just looked at her. She suspected it was just as well it was so gloomy it was hard to tell precisely what his expression was. “I’m only a day out of a… a thing, a jar, a body tank.” She swallowed. “But no.”

The car was slowing, drawing to a stop. Jolicci looked upwards from the far side of the car. “Right. Here comes the fun bit.” He glanced at her. “You ready?”

“What for?” she asked.

“Get over here. Jump when I say. Don’t hesitate. You’ll need to let go of that cable first.”

She let go of the cable, stepped to stand beside him at the other side of the elevator roof. Looking up, tentatively, she saw the bottom of another dark car descending quickly towards them. She heard some sudden, distant whoops and then laughter from further down in the great depth of shadows; the sounds echoed and re-echoed. Their car was still slowing. “Okay, steady, steady…” Jolicci said as their car and the one above approached each other.

“Should I hold your hand?” she asked.

“Do not hold my hand,” he said. “Okay, okay, steady…”

Their car had come almost to a stop; the one coming towards them from above whooshed past.

“Jump!” Jolicci shouted as the car’s roofs were almost level.

He jumped. She jumped too a moment later, but found that she’d jumped as though to land where the other car’s roof had been when she’d leapt, not where it was going to be as she dropped after it. She landed awkwardly and would have fallen against the car’s cables if Jolicci hadn’t caught her. Lededje heard herself gasp.

She held on to the little fat avatar for a moment as they steadied on the roof of the car. The one they’d jumped from was stopped several storeys above and getting further away all the time as their car descended. It too was starting to slow now.

“Wow!” she said, letting go of Jolicci. Her fingers had left dark, greasy marks on his dressing gown lapels. “That was… exciting!” She frowned at him. “Do you do this a lot?”

“Never before,” he told her. “Heard of it.”

That shook her a little. She had rather assumed she was in safe or at least experienced hands. The car drew to a stop. Beneath, she could feel and hear its doors open; a bar of light shone from that edge of the roof, showing Jolicci’s face. He was looking at her oddly, she thought. She felt a strange little frisson of fear.

“This Special Circumstances thing,” he said.

“Yes?” she said as he took a step closer to her. She stepped backward, tripped on a piece of the roof’s cross-bracing and staggered. He grabbed her again, pulling her to the rear edge of the roof.

Deep below, she could see the car whose rear faced their car’s rear rising quickly towards them. The two sets of five cars per side were separated by nearly two metres; three or four times the separation of the cars on each side of the shaft.

Jolicci nodded down, indicating the approaching car. “Think we can make that jump when it comes?” he said into her ear. She could feel his warm breath on her skin. “No safety nets, remember. Not even any surveillance inside here.” He pulled her a little closer to the edge, brought his mouth closer to her ear. “What do you think? Think we can do it?”

“No,” she told him. “And I think you should let go of me.”

Before she could do anything to stop him he gripped her hard by one elbow and pushed her out over the drop, only her feet still in contact with the car’s roof. “Still want me to let go?”

“No!” she shouted, grabbing his arm with her free hand. “Don’t be stupid! Of course not!”

He pulled her in towards him, though still not out of danger. “If you had a terminal it would hear you scream if you happened to fall,” he told her. He made a show of looking down. He shrugged. “Might be just enough time for the ship to realise what was happening and get a drone to you before you hit the bottom.”

“Stop doing this, please,” she said. “You’re frightening me.”

He pulled her close to him, his breath in her face now. “Everybody thinks SC is so glamorous, so… sexy!” He shook her, rubbed his groin against her leg. “Thrilling fun, all danger and excitement, but not too much danger. Is that what you think? Heard the rumours, absorbed the propaganda? Read the right assessments, listened to the relevant experts, self-proclaimed, have we?”

“I’m just trying to find out—”

“You feel frightened?” he asked her.

“I just said—”

He shook his head. “This isn’t dangerous.” he shook her again. “I’m not dangerous. I’m a nice roly-poly GCU avatar; I wouldn’t drop somebody down an antique lift shaft to let them splatter on the concrete. I’m one of the good guys. But you still feel frightened, don’t you? You do feel frightened, don’t you? I hope you feel frightened.”

“I already told you,” she said coldly, trying to keep any expression from her face or voice as she stared into his eyes.

He smiled, pulled her inwards as he stepped back. He let go of her and held on to the cables as the car started downwards again. “As I say, I’m one of the good guys, Ms. Y’breq.”

She gripped another of the cables, hard. “I never told you my full name.”

“Well spotted. Seriously though, I really am one of the good guys. I’m the sort of ship who’d always do everything to save somebody, not kill them, not let them die. SC — its ships, its people — might be on the side of the angels, but that doesn’t mean they always behave like the good guys. In fact, as you’re falling down the metaphorical lift shaft, I can virtually guarantee it will feel like they’re the bad guys, no matter how ethically sound the carefully worked out moral algebra was that led to them chucking you into it in the first place.”

“You have made your point, sir,” she told him frostily. “Perhaps we might abandon this pastime now.”

He looked at her for a few moments longer. Then he shook his head, looked away.

“Well, so you’re tough,” he said. “But you’re still a fool.” He let out a deep breath. The elevator car was pulling to a stop. “I’ll take you to an SC ship.” He smiled without any humour. “If and when it all goes horribly wrong, feel free to blame me, if you still can. It’ll make no difference.”

“The Forgotten,” the Bodhisattva told Yime Nsokyi. “Also known as Oubliettionaries.”

There were times, Yime might occasionally be forced to admit, when a neural lace would indeed be useful. If she had one she could be quizzing it now, asking it for mentions, references, definitions. What the hell was an Oubliettionary? Of course, the ship would know she was making such inquiries — she was on the ship now, not the Orbital, so any lace or terminal business would be conducted through the Bodhisattva’s Mind or its sub-systems — but at least with a lace you could have the relevant knowledge just dumped into your head rather than have to listen to it one word at a time.

“I see,” Yime said. She folded her arms. “I’m listening.”

“They’re ships of a certain… predisposition, shall we say, normally a GSV, usually with a few other ships and a small number of active drones aboard and often containing no humans at all,” the Bodhisattva told her. “They resign from the day-to-day informational commerce of the Culture, stop registering their position, take themselves off into the middle of nowhere and then they just sit there, doing nothing. Except listen, indefinitely.”


“They listen to one or more — probably all, I’d imagine — of the handful of widely scattered broadcast stations which send out a continual update on the general state of matters in the greater galactic community in general and the Culture in particular.”

“News stations.”

“For want of a better word.”


“It’s a wasteful and inefficient way to communicate, but the advantage of a broadcast in this context is precisely that it goes everywhere and nobody can tell who might be listening.”

“How many of these ‘Forgotten’ are there?”

“Good question. To most people they appear simply as ships that have gone into an especially uncommunicative retreat, an impression the ships concerned do nothing to contradict, of course. At any time anything up to one per cent of the Culture ship fleet might be on a retreat, and perhaps point three or point four per cent of those have been silent since quitting what one might call the main sequence of normal ship behaviour. I hesitate to call it discipline. It’s not a much-studied field, so even the quality of the relatively few guesstimates is hard to evaluate. There might be as few as eight or twelve of these ships, or possibly as many as three or four hundred.”

“And what’s the point of all this?”

“They’re back-up,” the Bodhisattva said. “If, through some bizarre and frankly unfeasibly widespread and complete calamity, the Culture somehow ceased to be, then any one of these ships could re-seed the galaxy — or a different one, perhaps — with something that would be recognisably the Culture. This does beg the question what would be the point if it had been so comprehensively expunged in the first place, but I suppose you could argue some lesson might have been learned that might make version two more resilient somehow.”

“I thought the entire Contact fleet was supposed to represent our ‘back-up’,” Yime said. In its relationships with other civilisations, especially with those that were encountering it for the first time, much tended to be made of the fact — or at least the assertion — that each and every GSV represented the Culture in its entirety, that each one held all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated and could build any object or device that the Culture was capable of making, while the sheer scale of a General Systems Vehicle meant they each contained so many humans and drones they were more or less guaranteed to hold a reasonably representative sample of both even without trying to.

The Culture was deliberately and self-consciously very widely distributed throughout the galaxy, with no centre, no nexus, no home planet. Its distribution might make it easy to attack, but it also made it hard to eradicate altogether, at least in theory. Having hundreds of thousands of vessels individually quite capable of rebuilding the entire Culture from scratch was generally held to be safeguard enough against civilisational oblivion, or so Yime had been led to believe. Obviously others thought differently.

“The Contact fleet is what one might call a second line of defence,” the ship told her.

“What’s the first?”

“All the Orbitals.” the ship said reasonably. “And other habs; Rocks and planets included.”

“And these Forgotten are the last ditch.”

“Probably. So one might imagine. As far as I know.”

That, in ship-speak, Yime thought, probably meant No. Though she knew better than to try to coax a less ambiguous answer out of a Mind.

“So they just sit there. Wherever ‘there’ might be.”

“Oort clouds, interstellar space, within or even beyond the outer halo of the greater galaxy itself; who knows? However, yes, that is the general idea.”

“And indefinitely.”

“Indefinitely until now, at least,” the Bodhisattva said.

“Waiting for a catastrophe that’ll probably never happen but which if it did would indicate either the existence of a force so powerful it could probably discover these ships regardless and snuff them out too, or an existential flaw in the Culture so deep it would certainly be present in these ‘Forgotten’ as well, especially given their… representativeness.”

“Put like that, the entire strategy does sound a little forlorn,” the ship said, sounding almost apologetic. “But there we are. Because you never know, I suppose. I think a part of the whole idea is that it provides a degree of comfort for those who might otherwise worry about such matters.”

“But most people don’t know about these ships in the first place,” Yime pointed out. “How can you be comforted by something you don’t know about?”

“Ah,” the Bodhisattva said. “That’s the beauty of it: only people who do worry are likely to seek out such knowledge, and so are suitably reassured. They also tend to appreciate the need not to make the knowledge too well known, and indeed take additional pleasure in helping to keep it from becoming so. Everybody else just gets happily on with their lives, never fretting in the first place.”

Yime shook her head, frustrated. “They can’t be completely secret,” she protested. “They must be mentioned somewhere.”

The Culture was notoriously bad at keeping secrets, especially big ones. It was one of the very few areas where most of the Culture’s civilisational peers and even many much less advanced societies thoroughly eclipsed it, though, being the Culture, this was regarded as being the legitimate source of a certain perverse pride. That didn’t stop it — the “it” in such contexts usually meaning Contact, or (even more likely) SC — from trying to keep secrets, every now and again, but it never worked for very long.

Though sometimes, of course, not very long was still long enough.

“Well, naturally,” the Bodhisattva said. “Let’s just say the information is there, but little notice is taken. And by the very nature of the whole… program — if one can even dignify it with a name implying such a degree of organisation — confirmation is almost impossible to find.”

“So this isn’t what you might call official?” Yime asked.

The ship made a sighing noise. “There is no Contact department or committee that I know of which devotes itself to such matters.”

Yime pursed her lips. She knew when a ship was basically saying, Let’s leave it at that, shall we?

Well, one more thing to have to take account of.

“So,” she said, “the Me, I’m Counting may be aboard the GSV Total Internal Reflection, which is on retreat and is probably one of these Forgotten.”


“And the Me, I’m Counting holds an image of Ms. Y’breq.”

“Probably the image of Ms. Y’breq,” the Bodhisattva said. “We have intelligence, from another individual the ship took an image of subsequently, that it was happy to guarantee any image it took remained unique, for its own collection only, never to be shared or even backed up. It would appear that it has stuck to this.”

“So you think… what? That Y’breq will attempt to recover her image, even though it’s ten years old?”

“It has been judged to be a distinct possibility.”

“And Quietus knows where the Me, I’m Counting and the Total Internal Reflection are?”

“We believe we have a rough idea. More to the point, we have occasional contact with a representative of the Total Internal Reflection.”

“We do, do we?”

“The Total Internal Reflection is relatively unusual amongst the Forgotten — we think — in that it plays host to a small population of humans and drones who seek a more than usually severe form of seclusion than the average retreat offers. Such commitments are usually quite long term in nature — decades, on average — however, there is a continual if fluctuating churn in both populations, so people need to be ferried to and from the GSV. There are three semi-regular rendezvous points and a fairly reliable rendezvous programme. The next scheduled meeting is in eighteen days at a location in the Semsarine Wisp. Ms. Y’breq should be able to get there in time, and so should you and I, Ms. Nsokyi.”

“Does she know about this rendezvous?”

“We believe so.”

“Is she heading in that direction?”

“Again, we believe so.”

“Hmm.” Yime frowned.

“That is the generality of the situation, Ms. Nsokyi. A more comprehensive briefing awaits, obviously.”


“May I take it that you are agreeable to taking part in this mission?”

“Yes,” Yime said. “Are we under way yet?”

The image of the old Hooligan-class warship vanished to be replaced with the sight of stars again, some of them reflected in the polished-looking black body of the ship hanging above and others gleaming through the hardness beneath her feet that looked like nothing at all. The stars were moving, now.

“Yes, we are,” the Bodhisattva said.

Lededje was introduced to the avatar of the Special Circumstances ship Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints in a war bar where the only lighting apart from the screens and holos came from broad curtains of amphoteric lead falling down the walls from slots in the dark ceiling.

The continual sputtering yellow-orange blaze of the reaction gave the light in the place an unsteady, flickering quality a lot like firelight and made the space feel stickily warm. A strange, bitter smell hung in the air.

“Lead, the element, very finely ground, just dropped through the air,” Jolicci had muttered to her as they’d entered the place and she’d remarked upon the strange sight.

Just getting in hadn’t been that easy, either. The venue was housed in a stubby, worn-looking Interstellar-class ship housed in one of the GSV’s Smallbays and the ship itself made it very clear — as they stood in the darkly echoing depths of the Bay — that this was essentially a private club, one that the GSV had no immediate jurisdiction over and a place that was certainly not under any obligation to admit anybody who any one of its patrons took exception to.

“My name is Jolicci, avatar of the Armchair Traveller,” Jolicci told the single small drone floating by the ship’s closed lower hatchway. “I think you know who I’ve come to see. Please let him know.”

“I’m doing so,” the boxy little drone said.

The ship was called the Hidden Income. It was maybe a hundred metres in length. Looking round, squinting into the gloomily cavernous depths of the Bay, Lededje reckoned the Smallbay could have squeezed in at least another three ships the same size without them touching fins or engine pods or whatever all the various bits were. Small was obviously a relative term when it came to ships and the vast hangars required to accommodate them.

Lededje looked at the little drone, hanging in front of them at head height. Well, this was a new experience, she thought. Whenever she’d been taken somewhere by Veppers — the most expensive new restaurant, the most exclusive new club, bar or venue — he and his entourage had always been ushered straight in, whether he’d had a reservation made or not, even to the ones which he didn’t own. How odd to have to come to the reputedly obsessively egalitarian Culture finally to experience the phenomenon of hanging around outside a club waiting to see if she’d be allowed in.

The hatchway dropped without warning, immediately behind the little drone. It fell so fast she expected a clang when it met the finely ridged floor of the Bay, but it seemed to cushion its descent at the last moment and landed silently.

The drone said nothing but it floated out of their way.

“Thank you,” Jolicci said as they stepped on.

Jolicci held her arm as the hatch rose smoothly up towards a small, barely lit hangar volume inside the Hidden Income. “Demeisen is a little odd,” he told her. “Even by ship avatar standards. Just be honest with him. Or her. Or it.”

“You’re not sure?”

“We haven’t met for a while. The Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints changes avatars fairly frequently.”

“What is this place anyway?”

Jolicci looked awkward. “War porn club, I think.”

Lededje would have asked more but they were met by another small drone and escorted into the place.

“Demeisen, may I present Ms. Lededje Y’breq,” Jolicci said to the man sitting at the table near the middle of the room.

The place looked like a sort of strange restaurant with substantial round tables scattered about, each featuring at their centre a trio or more of screens or a tankless holo display. A variety of people, mostly human, sat or lounged around the tables. In front of most of them, drug bowls, drinks glasses, chill pipes and small trays of food lay arranged, scattered or abandoned. The screens and holos all showed scenes of warfare. At first Lededje assumed they were screen; just movies; but after a few moments, and a few grisly sequences, she decided they might be real.

Most of the people in the room weren’t looking at the screens and holos; they were looking at her and Jolicci. The man Jolicci had addressed was at a table with several other young men, all of them with that air that implied they were, within their own subset of pan-human physiognomy, quite strikingly handsome.

Demeisen stood. He looked cadaverous, hollow-cheeked. Dark eyes with no whites, two ridges instead of eyebrows, a flat nose and mid-dark skin, scarred in places. He was only medium tall but his height was emphasised by his thinness. If his physiology was the same as a Sichultian’s then the slight bagginess about his face implied the weight loss had been recent and rapid. His clothes were dark, perhaps black: skinny trews and a tight-fitting shirt or jacket, partially closed at the neck by a thumb-sized, blood-red glittering jewel on a loosened choker.

Lededje saw him look at her right hand and so put it out to him. His hand clasped her hand, fingers with too many joints closing around like a bony cage. His touch felt very warm, almost feverish, though perfectly dry, like paper. She saw him wince and noticed that two of his fingers were crudely splinted together with a small piece of wood or plastic and what looked like a piece of knotted rag. Somehow the wince didn’t travel all the way to his face, which regarded her without obvious expression.

“Good evening,” Lededje said.

“Ms. Y’breq.” His voice sounded dry and cold. He nodded at Jolicci then indicated the seats on either side of him. “Wheloube, Emmis. If you would.”

The two young men seemed about to protest, but then did not. They rose together with a sort of brisk contempt and walked proudly away. She and Jolicci took their places. The other handsome young men stared at them. Demeisen waved one hand; the table’s holo display, which had been depicting a gruesomely realistic skirmish between some horsemen and a larger force of archers and other foot-soldiers, faded to blank.

“A rare privilege,” Demeisen murmured to Jolicci. “How goes the business of General Contacting?”

“Generally well. How’s life as a security guard?”

Demeisen smiled. “Night watching is unfailingly illuminating.”

There was a small gold tube in front of him which Lededje had assumed was the mouthpiece of an under-table chill or water pipe — there were several other mouthpieces lying or cradled on the table — but which proved to be a stick with a glowing end, unattached to anything else. Demeisen put it to his lips and sucked hard. The golden tube crackled, shortened and left a fiery glowing tip beneath a lofting of silky grey smoke.

Demeisen saw her looking and offered the stick to her. “A drug. From Sudalle. Called narthaque. The effect is similar to winnow, though harsher, less pleasant. The hangover can be severe.”

“‘Winnow’?” Lededje asked. She got the impression she’d been expected to know what this was.

Demeisen looked both surprised and unimpressed.

“Ms. Y’breq does not possess drug glands,” Jolicci explained.

“Really?” Demeisen said. He frowned at her. “Are you suffering some form of punishment, Ms. Y’breq? Or are you of that demented persuasion that believes enlightenment is to be found in the shadows?”

“Neither,” Lededje told him. “I am more of a barely legal alien.” She had hoped this might be amusing, but if it was, nobody round the table seemed to find it so. Maybe her understanding of Marain wasn’t as flawless as she’d been assuming.

Demeisen looked at Jolicci. “I’m told the young lady looks for passage.”

“She does,” Jolicci said.

Demeisen gestured with both hands, sending loops of smoke into the air from the hand holding the golden stick. “Well, Jolicci, for once you have the better of me. What on earth gives you the idea that I have turned into a taxi? Do tell. Can’t wait to hear.”

Jolicci just smiled. “There is a little more to the matter, I believe. Ms. Y’breq,” he said to her. “Over to you.”

She looked at Demeisen. “I need to get home, sir.”

Demeisen glanced at Jolicci. “Very taxi-sounding so far.” He turned back to her. “Go on, Ms. Y’breq. I cannot wait for this to achieve escape velocity from the mundanity well.”

“I intend to kill a man.”

“That’s a little more uncommon. Again though, one imagines a taxi would suffice, unless the gentleman concerned can only be dispatched using a warship. A state-of-the-art Culture warship, at that, if I may make so immodest. For some reason the word ‘overkill’ leaps to mind.” He smiled icily at her. “You may not be doing quite as well here as you thought you might at this point.”

“I’ve been told that I’ll be slap-droned.”

“So you were stupid enough to let slip that you intend to kill this man.” He frowned. “Oh dear. Might I suggest that this does not bode terribly well should your murderous plans include more than the absolute minimum of guile, subterfuge or, dare I say it, intelligence? My — trust me — highly limited empathic capacities remain resolutely un-engaged.” He turned to Jolicci again. “Have you quite finished humiliating yourself here, Jolicci, or do you really require me to—?”

“The man I intend to kill is the richest man in the world, the richest and most powerful man in my whole civilisation,” Lededje said. Even she could hear the edge of desperation creeping into her voice.

Demeisen looked at her, one eye-crease raised. “Which civilisation?”

“The Enablement,” she told him.

“The Sichultian Enablement,” Jolicci said.

Demeisen snorted. “Again,” he told Lededje, “not saying as much as you might think.”

“He killed me,” she told him, doing all she could to keep her voice under control. “Murdered me with his own hands. We have no soul-keeping technology but I was saved because a Culture ship called the Me, I’m Counting put a neural lace in my head ten years ago. I was revented here only today.”

Demeisen sighed. “All very melodramatic. Your feud may inspire a not terribly good screen presentation at some point in the future, hopefully distant. I look forward to missing it.” He smiled thinly again. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind excusing yourselves?” He nodded to the two young men who’d vacated their seats for Lededje and Jolicci earlier. They were standing nearby now, looking on, quietly triumphant.

Jolicci sighed. “I’m sorry I wasted your time,” he said as he rose.

“Still, I hope to make you sorrier,” Demeisen said with an insincere smile.

“I was talking to Ms. Y’breq.”

“And I was not,” Demeisen said, standing as Lededje did. He turned to her, put the gold smoking stick to his pale lips and pulled hard. He looked at her and said, “Best of luck finding a ride,” as he exhaled.

He smiled more broadly and ground the yellow-red glowing tip of the stick into the open palm of his other hand. There was a distinct sizzling noise. Again, his body seemed to flinch, though his face remained serene.

“What, this?” he said, looking down at the ash-dark burn on his skin as Lededje stared at it, openly aghast. “Don’t worry; I don’t feel a thing.” He laughed. “The idiot inside here does though.” He tapped the side of his head, smiled again. “Poor fool won some sort of competition to replace a ship’s avatar for a hundred days or a year or something similar. No control over either body or ship whatsoever, obviously, but the full experience in other respects — sensations, for example. I’m told he practically came in his pants when he learned an up-to-date warship had volunteered to accept his offer of body host.” The smile became broader, more of a grin. “Obviously not the most zealous student of ship psychology, then. So,” Demeisen said, holding up his hand with the splinted finger and studying it, “I torment the poor fool.” He put his other hand to the one with the splinted fingers, waggled them. His body shuddered as he did so. Lededje found herself wincing with vicarious pain. “See? Powerless to stop me,” Demeisen said cheerily. “He suffers his pain and learns his lesson while I… well, I gain some small amusement.”

He looked at Jolicci and Lededje. “Jolicci,” he said with obviously feigned concern, “you look offended.” He nodded, creased his eyes. “It’s a good look, trust me. Sour opprobrium: suits you.”

Jolicci said nothing.

Wheloube and Emmis resumed their seats. Standing there, Demeisen put out both hands and stroked the hair of one and the shaved head of the other, then cradled the finely chiselled chin of the one with the shaved head using his unsplinted hand. “And fascinatingly, the fellow” — he used his splinted fingers to tap the side of his head again, hard — “is quite defiantly heterosexual, with a fear of bodily violation that borders on outright homophobia.”

He looked round the table of young men, winking at one of them, then gazed radiantly at Jolicci and Lededje.

Lededje stamped across the floor of the dimly lit Smallbay. “There must be other SC ships,” she said furiously.

“None that will talk to you,” Jolicci said, hurrying after her.

“And the only one that would seemed solely to want to shock and demean me.”

Jolicci shrugged. “The Abominator class of General Offensive Unit, to which our friend belongs, is not known for its mildness or sociability. Probably specced when the Culture was going through one of its periods of feeling that nobody was taking it seriously because it was somehow too nice. Even amongst those, though, that particular ship is known as something of an outlier. Most SC ships conceal their claws and keep the psychopathy switched to Full Off except when it’s judged to be absolutely necessary.”

In the traveltube, deflated but calmer, Lededje said, “Well, thank you for trying.”

“You are welcome. Was all that you said in there true?”

“Every word.” She looked at him. “I trust you’ll treat what you heard just now as in confidence.”

“Well, that is something you might have thought to say before-hand, but, all right, I promise what you said will go no further.” The fat little avatar looked thoughtful. “I realise it might not feel like it, but you may have just had a narrow escape, Ms. Y’breq.”

She looked coldly at him. “Then that makes two this evening, doesn’t it?”

Jolicci appeared unconcerned. If anything he looked amused. “As I said, I was never going to let you fall. What I did was a stunt. What you just saw in there was real.”

“The ship would really be allowed to treat a human like that?”

“If it was done voluntarily, if the bargain was struck with eyes open, as it were, yes.” Jolicci made an expansive gesture with both hands. “It’s what can happen if you put yourself in harm’s way by treating with SC.” The fat little avatar appeared to think for a moment. “Perhaps a rather extreme example, admittedly.”

Lededje took a deep breath, let it out. “I have no terminal. May I use you as one?”

“Feel free. Who would you like to contact?”

“The GSV. To tell it I’ll take its suggested ship tomorrow.”

“No need. It’ll be assuming so anyway. Anybody else?”

“Admile?” she said, her voice small.

There was a pause, then Jolicci shook his head regretfully. “I’m afraid he is otherwise engaged.”

Lededje sighed. She looked at Jolicci. “I desire a meaningless sexual encounter with a male, preferably one as good-looking as one of those young men round Demeisen’s table.”

Jolicci smiled, then sighed. “Well, the night is yet middle-aged.”

Yime Nsokyi lay awake in the darkness of her small cabin, waiting for sleep. She would give it another few minutes and then gland softnow to bring it on not-entirely-naturally. She possessed the same suite of drug glands as most Culture humans, the default set that you tended to be born with, but she preferred not to use them unless genuinely necessary, and almost never for pleasure, only to accomplish something of practical value.

She might have got rid of them completely, she supposed, just told them all to wither away and be absorbed into her body, but she had chosen not to. She knew of some within Quietus who had gone through with this, in some spirit of denial and asceticism that she thought was taking matters too far. Also, it was arguably more disciplined still to possess the glands but not to use them than it was to remove them and their temptations altogether.

But then the same might be said of her choice to become neuter. She put one hand down between her legs, to feel the tiny slotted bud — like a third, bizarrely placed nipple — which was all that was left of her genitals. When she had been younger, when her drug glands had still been maturing, that too had been a way of bringing on sleep: masturbate and then drift off in the rosy afterglow.

She rubbed the tiny bud absently, remembering. There was no hint of pleasure in touching herself there any more; she might as well have caressed a knuckle or an ear lobe. In fact there was more sensuality to be found in her ear lobes. The nipples of her reduced, near-flat breasts were similarly unresponsive.

Oh well, she thought, clasping her hands over her chest; it had been her choice. A way of making real to herself her dedication to Quietus. Nun-like, she supposed. On that reckoning, there were a lot of nuns and monks within Quietus. And, of course, the decision was entirely reversible. She wondered about changing back, becoming properly female again. She still thought of herself as female, always had.

Or she might become male; she was exactly poised between the two standard genders. She touched the little bud at her groin again. Just as much like a tiny penis as a relocated nipple, she supposed.

She clasped her hands over her chest once more, then sighed, turned on her side.

“Ms. Nsokyi?” the ship’s voice said quietly.


“My apologies. I sensed you were still some way from sleep.”

“You sensed correctly. What?”

“I have been asked by a number of my colleagues whether your earlier comment regarding informing Special Circumstances about the matter in hand represented what one might call a formal suggestion or request.”

She waited a moment before replying. “No,” she said. “It did not.”

“I see. Thank you. That’s all. Good night. Sleep well.”

“Good night.”

Yime wondered whether she ship would even have bothered to ask had she not had the history she did with SC.

She had been drawn to Quietus even when she’d been a little girl. A serious, reserved, slightly withdrawn little girl who had been interested in dead things found in the woods and keeping insects in terraria. A serious, reserved, slightly withdrawn little girl who knew that she was easily capable of joining Special Circumstances if she wanted to, but who had only ever wanted to be part of the Quietudinal Service.

Even then she had known that Quietus — like Restoria and the third of Contact’s relatively recently specialist services, Numina, which dealt with the Sublimed — was seen by many people and machines as being second best to Special Circumstances.

SC was the pinnacle, the service that attracted the absolutely best and brightest of the Culture; in a society that held few positions of individual power, SC represented the ultimate goal for those both blessed and cursed with the sort of vaunting, hungry ambition to succeed in the Real that could not be bought off by the convincing but ultimately artificial attractions of VR. If you genuinely wanted to prove yourself, there was no question that SC was where you wanted to be.

Even then, still a child, she had known she was special, known that she was capable of doing pretty much whatever it was possible to do within the Culture. SC would have seemed like the obvious target for her aims and aspirations. But she hadn’t wanted to be in SC; she wanted to be in Quietus, the service everybody seemed to feel was a second best. It was unfair.

She had made her decision then, way back, before her drug glands were developed enough to use with any skill or finesse, before she was sexually mature at all.

She studied, trained, learned, grew a neural lace, applied to join Contact, was accepted, applied herself, both diligently and imaginatively within Contact, and all the while waited for the invitation to join SC.

The invitation duly came, and she declined it, so joining an exclusive club many orders of magnitude smaller than that of the elite of the elite that was SC itself.

She applied immediately to Quietus instead, having made her point, and was accepted with alacrity. She began to curtail her use of her drug glands and started the slow changes in her body that would turn her from female to neuter. She also abandoned her use of the neural lace, beginning an even longer process that saw the biomechanical tracery of the device gradually shrink and wither and disappear, the minerals and metals that had composed the bulk of it being slowly reabsorbed into her body. The last few particles of exotic matter it had contained exited in her urine via the tiny sexless bud between her legs, a year later.

She was free of SC, committed to Quietus.

Only it could never be that simple. There was no sudden yes-or-no point when it came to joining SC. You were sounded out first, your intentions were questioned and your motivations and seriousness were weighed in the balance, at first through apparently innocuous, informal conversations — often with people you would have no idea were in any way associated with SC — then only later in rather more formalised settings and contexts where SC’s interest was made clear.

So, in a sense, she had had to lie — or at least constructively deceive — to get what she wanted, which was the formal invitation to join which she could then turn down but use in the future as proof that Quietus had been no second choice, no consolation prize, but rather something she had valued beyond the merits of SC right from the start.

She had finessed it as best she could at the time, giving answers that seemed straight and unambiguous when they were given and which only later, in the light of that obviously planned refusal, revealed a degree of dissemblance. Still, she had been guilty of a lack of openness if nothing else, and of simple dishonesty if you were judging severely.

SC considered itself above bearing grudges, but was patently disappointed. You did not come to the stage of being asked to join it without establishing quite strong relationships with people who had become mentors and friends while in Contact; relationships which normally would be expected to go on developing once you were in SC itself, and it was to those individuals, and even a couple of ship Minds, that she felt she owed apologies.

She duly said sorry and the apologies were duly accepted, but those had been her darkest hours, the moments in her life the memories of which still kept her awake when she wanted to sleep, or woke her up in the middle of the night, and she could never quite shake the feeling that this was the single least-resolved issue in her life, the loose end whose niggling presence would trouble her to the end of her days.

And, even though she had foreseen it, it had still come as something of a disappointment to her that her behaviour meant she existed within Quietus under a faint but undeniable cloud of suspicion. If she would turn down SC to prove a point, might she not repudiate Quietus too? How could you ever fully trust somebody like that?

And, was it not possible that she had never really resigned from SC at all? Might Yime Nsokyi not still be a Special Circumstances agent, but a secret one, planted within Quietus, either for reasons too arcane and mysterious to divine until some point of crisis arrived, or just as a sort of insurance for some set of circumstances still unenvisaged… or even with no clear motive at all beyond establishing that SC could do such a thing simply because it chose to, to prove it could?

She had miscalculated there. She had thought the whole bluff with SC would only prove how utterly dedicated to Quietus she was, and her subsequent flawless behaviour and exemplary service would serve to reinforce the point. It hadn’t worked out like that. She was of more value to Quietus as a symbol — subtly but effectively publicised — of its equality of worth with SC than she was as a functioning and fully trusted Quietus operative.

So she spent a lot of time frustrated; unused, twiddling her thumbs and kicking her heels (when she might have been kicking other people’s ass with SC, as at least one of her friends had pointed out). She had taken part in a few missions for Quietus and had been reassured that she had done well — indeed, near perfectly. Still, she was less used than she might have been, less used than inferior talents who had joined at the same time, less used than her skills and abilities would have implied she ought to be; offered occasional scraps, never anything of real substance.

Until now.

Now at last she felt she was being asked to behave like a true Quietus operative, on a mission of genuine importance, even if it might only be because where she lived happened to be quite close to the place where a Quietus agent was suddenly required.

Well, arguably she’d had bad luck in the way Quietus had chosen to react to her attempt to prove how much she valued it. Maybe that bad luck was just being balanced now. Luck came into it. Even SC recognised a place for chance, and being in the right place at the right time was, if not a gift, certainly a blessing.

Contact even had a phrase for it: Utility is seven-eighths Proximity.

Yime sighed, turned over, and fell asleep.


Auer. Lovely to see you. Radiant as ever. And Fuleow; this gorgeous creature still putting up with you?”

“So far, Veppers. Got your eye on her yourself, have you?”

“Never taken it off, you know that, Fuleow.” Veppers clapped the other man’s stout shoulder and winked at his slender wife.

“Oh, your poor nose!” Auer said, pushing back locks of soot-black hair to display glittering earrings.

“Poor? Nonsense; never richer.” Veppers flicked one finger against the new cover over his nose, which was still slowly growing back underneath. “This is pure gold!” He smiled, turned away. “Sapultride! Good to see you; glad you could make it.”

“What’s it look like, under there?” Sapultride asked, nodding at Veppers’ nose. He pulled down his sunglasses, revealing small green eyes above his own thin, expensively sculpted nose. “I was studying medicine before I was lassoed back into the family firm,” he said. “I could take a look. Wouldn’t be shocked.”

“My dear Sapultride, it looks great under this. Face facts; I look better mutilated than most men do at their very best, whole and hearty after a long day in the grooming salon.”

“Jasken,” Sapultride’s wife Jeussere said to the man standing behind Veppers, one arm in a cast and a sling, “did you really do this to our dear, lovely Veppers?”

“I regret to say so, ma’am,” Jasken said, bowing gently to the slim, exquisitely dressed and manicured woman. He pushed his slung arm out a little. “Mr. Veppers more than had his revenge though. What a blow he—!”

“His revenge?” Jeussere said, a tiny frown spoiling her otherwise quite perfect face. “The story I heard was that he struck first.”

“He did, ma’am,” Jasken said, aware that Veppers was watching him. “It was only his shock at having hit me so sharply, and his natural urge to stop, putting up his sword and inquiring to make sure that he had not injured me too severely, that allowed me the opportunity to deliver my own blow, the one that — more by luck than skill — so assaulted Mr. Veppers’ nose.”

Jeussere smiled conspiratorially. “You are too modest, Jasken.”

“Not so, ma’am.”

“What, you weren’t wearing masks?” Sapultride asked.

Veppers snorted. “Masks are for weaklings, aren’t they, Jasken?”

“Perhaps, sir. Or for those of us who have such a lack of looks that we can’t afford to lose even a little of them. Unlike your good self.”

Veppers smiled.

“My, Veppers,” Jeussere said slyly, “do you have all your servants flatter you so?”

“Absolutely not. I work to prevent it,” Veppers told her. “But the truth will out.”

Jeussere laughed delicately. “You’re lucky he didn’t run you through, Jasken,” she told him, her eyes wide. She slipped her arm through her husband’s. “Sappy here beat Joiler at some sport at school and he near throttled him, didn’t he, dear?”

“Ha! He tried,” Sapultride said, running a finger round his collar.

“Nonsense,” Veppers said, turning to somebody else. “Raunt! You ancient withered old rogue! That committee still hasn’t jailed you yet? Who’ve you had to bribe?”

“Nobody that you haven’t already got to, Veppers.”

“And Hilfe; still an accessory?”

“More of a bauble, Joiler.” The woman, much younger than her husband, though still in expensively well-preserved middle-age, coolly regarded his nose. “Well now, dear me. Think you’ll still be able to sniff out trouble?”

“Better than ever,” he told her.

“I’m sure. Anyway, good to see you back in the land of the sociable.” She held one hand out to be kissed. “Can’t have you hiding away; what shall we all do for fun?”

“You tell him. He spends too much time away on business trips,” Jeussere contributed, leaning in.

“My only aim is to keep your good selves entertained,” Veppers told the two women. “Ah, Peschl, we’ll have a word later, yes?”

“Certainly, Joiler.”

Jasken put one finger to an ear bud. “The boats are ready, sir.”

“They are? Good.” He looked round the other people in the slim barge. He clapped his hands, stopping most of the other conversations in the open vessel. “Let’s enjoy the fun, shall we?”

He raised his hands above his head, clapped them again, loudly. “Listen!” he hollered, attracting the attention of people in the other two barges behind. “Your attention please! Place your bets, choose your favourites! Our game begins!”

There was some cheering. He took his place in the seat — raised just a little higher than the rest — in the bows of the slim craft.

Astil, Veppers’ butler, saw to his master’s needs while other servants moved down the central aisles of the barges, dispensing drinks. Above the seated VIPs, sun canopies rippled in the breeze. In the distance, over tree-dotted pastureland, the serried neatness of the kitchen orchards and the formal gardens of the estate, the turrets and ornamental battlements of the mansion house of Espersium were visible.

Some birds flew up from the network of small lakes, ponds and channels beneath.

The great torus-shaped mansion of Espersium sat near the centre of the estate of the same name. Espersium was easily the largest private estate in the world. Had it been a country its land area would have ranked it as the fifty-fourth largest out of the sixty-five states that still had some administrative significance in the unified world that was Sichult.

It was the centre of, and central to, the Veppers family fortune in more than merely symbolic ways. The original source of the family’s vast wealth had been computer and screen games, followed by increasingly immersive and convincing Virtual Reality experiences, sims, games, proactive fictions and multiply-shared adventures, as well as further games of every sort and every level of intricacy, from those given away as free samples on smart-paper food wrappers, through those playable on devices as small as watches or jewellery, all the way to those which demanded either total bodily immersion in semi-liquid processor goo or the more simple — but even more radical — soft-to-hard-wiring of biological brain to computational substrate.

The house had long been ringed with comms domes, kept just out of sight of the house itself but linking it — and the buried masses of computer substrate it sat on — via satellites and system-edge relay-stations to further distant processor cores and servers all over the hundreds of planets that made up Enablement space and even beyond, to similar — if as a rule not quite so developed — civilisations that, with surprisingly little translation and alteration, found the games of the Veprine Corporation just as enjoyable and fascinating as Sichultians themselves had.

Still zealously guarding their original code, many of those games effectively reported back, eventually — via all those intervening arrays, servers, processors and substrates — to the still potent seat of power that was Espersium. From the estate house itself whole worlds and systems could be rewarded or punished according to how assiduously the local law-enforcement agencies applied anti-piracy legislation, billions of users could be granted access to the latest upgrades, tweaks and bonus levels, and lucrative personal on-line and in-game behaviour, preference and predilection data could be either used by the Veprine Corporation itself or sold on to other interested parties, either of a governmental or commercial nature.

Word had it that this sort of micro-managed operationality was no longer quite so centrally controlled, and the house had ceased to be the place that all versions of all games came to to get their latest updates — certainly there were fewer obvious satellite domes and programming geeks about the place than in the old days — but it was still much more than just a fancy country house.

The birds disturbed from the network of waterways beneath the barges wheeled in the sky, calling plaintively.

The little convoy of barges moved along a network of aqueducts poised above the watery landscape below. A couple of dozen skinny stone towers anchored the supporting stonework of delicate arches and flying buttresses which held the airborne canals aloft. At each of the towers the viaducts broadened out into circular basins collaring the slim spires and allowing the barges — individually, or joined as a tiny fleet — to change direction onto other channels. Half a dozen thicker towers held lifts within them and had quaysides where people could embark and disembark from the barges. The viaducts were only a couple of metres wide, with thin stone walls and no walkways alongside, so that one could look almost straight down.

Twenty metres beneath, in the channels, pools and lakes below, a dozen miniature battleships were just setting out from their individual start positions.

Each warship was the length of a large single-person canoe and had been designed to resemble a capital ship from the age when armour plate and large-calibre guns had ruled the seas of Sichult. Each ship contained a man, who powered his vessel by pedalling — turning a single propeller at the stern — steered it with a tiller attached to a bracket round his waist, and used his hands to aim and fire the three or four gun turrets his ship carried, each equipped with two or three guns.

Where the bridge would have been on the superstructure of the full-size vessels there was a series of slits, very like those in an ancient armoured helmet from the days of swords, lances and arrows. These provided the only way for the man inside the vessel to see out. Gun aiming was accomplished by nothing more sophisticated than dead reckoning and skill, the crewman of the miniature warship traversing the turrets and elevating their guns by way of a set of wheels and levers contained within his cramped compartment. Each ship also came equipped with a set of miniature torpedoes and a system of lights — the searchlights of the original ships — that let the vessels communicate with each other, to form temporary alliances and swap information.

Pennants flew from their masts, identifying who commanded them. The crewmen were far more highly trained than mere jockeys, Veppers contended. He had piloted the ships himself quite often, from when he had first come up with the idea, and still held the occasional amateurs-only battle for himself and similarly rich and competitive friends, but the truth was there was a great deal of skill involved; more than it was worth acquiring for a mere pastime.

These days the amateur versions of the ships were fitted with engines, which made life a little easier, but it was still taxing enough just manoeuvring the damned things without running aground or crashing into the banks of the channels, never mind the surprisingly difficult task of aiming the guns accurately. The amateur versions had better armour and less powerful weapons than the ships they were watching now.

Two ships caught a brief glimpse of each other from either end of a long channel connecting pools close to their start positions; disappearing from view again, they each elevated and fired their guns towards where they thought the other would shortly be, more in hope than with any expectation of a hit. Both sets of shells landed scattered amongst the low grassy hills of islands, in miniature reed beds and in the channels, raising skinny spouts of water. Neither part of either salvo landed closer than a ship length from its intended target.

“Something of a waste,” Veppers muttered, watching through a pair of field glasses.

“Are the bullets terribly expensive?” Jeussere asked.

Veppers smiled. “No, I mean, they only have so many.”

“Do they load the guns themselves?” Fuleow asked.

“No, automatic,” Veppers said.

The ships’ main weapons were almost more like grenade launchers than true guns; certainly they had nothing like the range they should have had, had that too been scaled proportionately. The little shells they fired fizzed and left a trail of smoke as they curved out across the waters, but they were explosive and could do real damage, piercing the armour of a ship and starting a fire within, or — hitting near the waterline — holing them so that they started to sink, or disabling turrets or the rudder or prop if they hit the right place.

A handful of pilots had been killed over the years, either struck by lucky shots that squeezed through the viewing slits, or drowning when their vessel turned over and the damage they had sustained had made it impossible to work the escape hatches, or choking or burned to death. Usually you could put out a fire by scuttling your ship — the channels, pools and most of the single large lake were generally little more than half a metre deep, so the command citadel, where the pilot’s head was, would still be just above water even when the ship was sitting on the bottom — but valves jammed, or men were knocked unconscious, and accidents happened. There were rescue teams of helpers and divers standing by, but they were not infallible. Twice, ships had blown up completely, the contents of their magazines detonating all at once. Most spectacular, though on one occasion fragments of wreckage had flown far enough to threaten the spectators, which had been worrying.

The pilots — all part of Veppers’ general staff, with other, part-time duties — were well paid, especially if they won their battles, and the risk of real injury and even death made the sport more interesting for the spectators.

Today’s match was a team game: two ships to a side, the winning team being whoever was first to sink four of their opponents. The first thing the six sets of ships had to do was find each other; each ship started individually from one of the dozen floating boat-houses scattered round the perimeter of the watery complex at any of several dozen randomly chosen locations.

The miniature naval battle itself — ship against ship or fleet against fleet, guns flashing and roaring, smoke drifting, shots landing, pieces getting blown off the ships, fountains of water bursting into the air when a torpedo hit — was only part of the delight of watching, Veppers found. Much of the enjoyment came from having this god-like overview of the whole battle arena and being able to see what the men in the ships couldn’t see.

Most of the islands and the channel banks were too high to see over when you were sitting in one of the miniature battleships; however, from the network of aqueducts above, pretty much every part of the watery maze could be seen. It could be almost unbearably exciting to see ships converging on the same pool from different directions, or to watch a damaged vessel, limping home and nearly there, being caught by another ship lying in wait for it.

“You should have smoke, you know, Veppers,” Fuleow told him as they all watched the ships cruise down the channels leading away from their starting points. They went at different speeds, some favouring high speed to get to some tactically important pool or junction before anybody else, some favouring a more stealthy approach; where the geography allowed, you could learn a lot by causing few waves yourself but watching for signs of the wakes of others as you passed side channels. “You know; from their funnels. That would make it look more realistic, don’t you think?”

“Smoke,” Veppers said, raising the pair of binoculars to his eyes. “Yes. Sometimes we have smoke, and they can put down smoke-screens.” He lowered the glasses, smiled at Fuleow, who had not been to one of these displays before. “Makes it hard to see from up here though, that’s the trouble.”

Fuleow nodded. “Ah, of course.”

“Don’t you think you ought to have pretty little bridges linking all the islands?” Auer asked.

Veppers looked at her. “Pretty little bridges?”

“Between the islands,” she said. “Little arched bridges; you know, bowed. It would look so much prettier.”

“Little too unrealistic,” Veppers informed her, smiling insincerely. “Also, they’d get in the way of the shells; too many ricochets. There are wading routes between the islands for when the staff need to access them; sort of submerged paths.”

“Ah, I see. Just a thought.”

Veppers went back to watching his own two ships. They had been started far enough apart for it all to look convincingly random, though a quiet word had been had to let the two pilots know where the other was starting out from, so they were beginning with a slight advantage over the other five teams. Their pennants were silver and blue, the Veppers’ family colours.

One of his ships chanced upon one of the Red team, powering down a channel forming the stem of a T-junction just as the other vessel was crossing ahead, allowing it to loose a salvo from its A and B turrets. Veppers always favoured ships with two forward-facing turrets and one rear-facing; it seemed more attacking, more adventurous. It also meant that a broadside consisted of nine shells rather than eight.

It was the first proper engagement of the afternoon. Cheers rang out as the targeted ship rocked to one side under the fusillade; bits of superstructure spun off the vessel as it lost its signalling lights. Two dark holes appeared near the waterline at mid-ships. Veppers ordered a round of celebratory cocktails for all. Arriving at the next tower, with its encircling girdle of water and choice of three different viaducts to take, the three barges split up and went their separate ways.

Veppers was in control of the first barge, steering it with pedals at his feet and ignoring the pleas of his passengers to watch the ships they’d placed bets on so that he could watch the progress of his own vessels.

There was a roar and some lady-like screams from some distance away as another two ships met side-on just beneath, but even closer than in the first engagement; one rammed the other, forcing it sideways onto a sandbank through the attacking vessel’s momentum and trapping it there, firing point-blank into its super-structure; shells whizzed away, ricocheting.

The grounded vessel brought all four twin-gun turrets to bear and let off a broadside that blasted into the other ship’s command citadel, where the torso, shoulders and head of the opposing pilot would be. Veppers, watching through his binoculars, made a whistling noise.

“That looks like it could well hurt!” Raunt said.

“The poor man’s just inside there!” Auer said.

“They sit in an armoured tub,” Veppers told her. “And they wear flak vests. Yes, Jasken?” he said as the other man leaned in towards him, Enhancing Oculenses glittering in the sunlight.

“The house, sir,” Jasken said quietly, nodding.

Veppers frowned, wondering what he was talking about. He looked towards the distant mansion and saw a small dark arrow-head shape lowering itself towards the central courtyard. He brought the binoculars up in time to see the familiar alien craft disappearing behind the stonework. He put the field glasses down.

“Fuck,” he said. “Chooses his moments.”

“Shall I ask him to wait?” Jasken said, his mouth very close to Veppers’ ear.

“No. I want the news, good or bad. Call Sulbazghi, get him to come too.” He looked behind. They were a lot closer to the tower to their rear than the one ahead. They’d disembark there. He put the barge into full astern. “Sorry ladies, gentlemen,” he shouted, over questions and protests. “Duty calls. I must go, but I shall return. To collect my winnings, I imagine. Sapultride, you’re captain.”

“Splendid! Do I get a special hat?”

“So, have we decided exactly what it is?” Veppers asked. He, Jasken, Dr. Sulbazghi and Xingre, the Jhlupian, were in the shielded, windowless drawing room in the sub-basement of the Espersium mansion which Veppers used for especially secret meetings or delicate negotiations.

Somewhat to Veppers’ surprise, it was Xingre, the usually reticent Jhlupian, who spoke, the translation filtering from the silvery cushion the alien sat upon, voice pitched to the scratchy, tinkly tones it favoured. “I believe it to be consistent with an inter-membranial full-spectrum cranial-event/state germinatory processor matrix with singular condensate-collapse indefinite-distance signalling ability, Level Eight (Player) in manufacture, bilateral carboniform pan-human sub-design.”

Veppers stared at the twelve-limbed creature. Its three stalk eyes stared back. One dipped down, let itself be cleaned and wetted by its mouth parts, then flipped jauntily upright again. The alien had returned with the thing that had been in the girl’s head, the thing that might or might not be a neural lace. Xingre had had its own techs analyse the device using Jhlupian technology.

If Veppers was being honest with himself he would have to admit that over the handful of days that the device had been with the Jhlupians he had quite happily let thoughts of the thing and its implications slip from his mind. Jasken had been unable to establish any more useful facts about it beyond what they already knew and on the couple of occasions they had talked about it they had largely convinced themselves that it must be a fake, or just something else, maybe alien, maybe not, that had somehow found its way into the furnace.

The alien extended one bright green limb towards Sulbazghi, giving him the device back inside a little transparent cylinder. The doctor looked at Veppers, who nodded. Sulbazghi poured the shimmering, blue-grey thing into his palm.

“My dear Xingre,” Veppers said after a moment, with a tolerant smile. “I think I understood every single word you said there, but, sadly, only as single words. Put together like that they made no sense at all. What are you talking about?” He looked at Jasken, who was frowning mightily.

“I told you,” the alien said. “Probably it is what remains of an inter-membranial full-spectrum cranial-event/state germinatory—”

“Yes, yes,” Veppers said. “As I say, I heard the words.”

“Let me translate,” said Sulbazghi. “It’s a Culture neural lace.”

“You’re sure, this time?” Jasken asked, looking from the doctor to the alien.

“Certainly Level Eight (Player) in manufacture,” Xingre said.

“But who put it in her?” Veppers asked. “Definitely not the clinicians?”

Sulbazghi shook his head. “Definitely not.”

“Agreed,” the Jhlupian said. “Not.”

“Then who? What? Who could have?”

“Nobody else that we know of,” Sulbazghi said.

“Level Eight (Player) manufacture is absolutely certain,” Xingre said. “Level Eight (Player) so-called ‘Culture’ manufacture likely to ratio of one hundred and forty-three out of one hundred and forty-four in total.”

“Almost certainly, in other words,” the doctor said. “I suspected it was from the start. It’s Culture.”

“Only to ratio of one hundred and forty-three out of one hundred and forty-four chances,” Xingre pointed out again. “Additionally, device implantation might have occurred at any time from immediately subsequent to birth event to within last two local years approximately but not closer to present. Probably. Also; only remains of. Very most fine cilia-like twiggings likely burned off in furnace.”

“But the kicker,” Sulbazghi said, “is in the one-time signalling capacity.”

Xingre bounced once on its silvery cushion, the Jhlupian equivalent of a nod. “Singular condensate-collapse bi-event indefinite-distance signalling ability,” it said. “Used.”

“Signalling?” Veppers said. He wasn’t sure if he was simply being slow here or if a deep part of him just didn’t want to know what might be the truth. He already had the feeling he usually got before people delivered particularly bad news. “It didn’t signal her…?” He heard his own voice trail off as he looked again at the tiny, nearly weightless thing that lay in his palm.

“Mind-state,” Jasken said. “It might have signalled her mindstate, her soul, to somewhere else. Somewhere in the Culture.”

“Malfunction rate of said process betrays ratio of equal to or higher than four out of one hundred and forty-four in total,” Xingre said.

“And that really is possible?” Veppers asked, looking at all three of them in turn. “I mean, total, full… transferring of a real person’s consciousness? This isn’t just a cosy myth or alien propaganda.”

Jasken and Sulbazghi looked at the alien, which sat floating silently for a short while, then — suddenly fixing them with the gaze from one eye each — seemed to realise it was the one they all expected to answer. “Yes,” it blurted. “Positively. A full affirmation.”

“And bringing them back to life; they can do that too?” Veppers asked.

Xingre was quicker this time. After a moment, when nobody else answered, it said, “Yes. Also most possible, availability of appropriate and compatible processing and physique substrate shell being assumed.”

Veppers sat for a moment. “I see,” he said. He put the neural lace down on the glass top of a nearby table, letting it drop from a half-metre up to see what noise it made.

It seemed to fall slightly too slowly, and landed silently.

“Bad luck, Veppers!” Sapultride told him when he got back to the naval battle. “Both your ships got sunk!”


Lededje Y’breq,” the avatar Sensia said, “may I introduce Chanchen Kallier-Falpise Barchen-dra dren-Skoyne.”

“Kallier-Falpise for short,” the drone itself said, dipping in the air in what she guessed was the equivalent of a bow or nod. “Though I’ll happily answer to Kall, or even just KP.”

The machine floated in the air in front of her. It was about big enough to sit comfortably on two outspread hands; a cream-casinged, mostly smooth device that looked like something you’d find on the work surface of an intimidatingly well-equipped kitchen and wonder what its function was. It was surrounded by a vague, misty halo that appeared to be various mixtures of yellow, green and blue according to the angle. This would be its aura field — the drone equivalent of facial expression and body language, there to convey emotions.

She nodded. “Pleased to meet you,” she told it. “So you’re my slap-drone.”

Kallier-Falpise rocked back in the air as though hit. “Please. That’s a little pejorative, if I may say so, Ms. Y’breq. I’ll be accompanying you principally for your own convenience and protection.”

“I’m—” she began, then was interrupted by the young man standing at her side.

“My lovely Led,” he said, “I’m sorry I can’t wave you farewell properly, but I must go. Let me…” He took her hand, kissed it, then, after a shake of his head and a wide smile, he held her head in both hands and kissed her face in a variety of places.

He was called Shokas, and while he had proved an attentive and sensitive lover, he had been impossible to shake off come the morning. He’d said he had other things he had to do that day but had insisted on accompanying her here, despite protests.

“Mmm,” she said, noncommittally, as he kissed her. She prised his hands from her face. “A pleasure, Shokas,” she told him. “I don’t suppose we shall ever meet again.”

“Shh!” he said, placing a finger to her lips and his other hand on his chest as he half closed his eyes and shook his head. “However, I must go,” he said, backing off but keeping hold of her hand until the last moment. “You wonderful girl.” He looked round the others, winked. “Wonderful girl,” he told them, then sighed deeply, turned and walked quickly for the traveltube doors.

Well, that was one less. She hadn’t expected so many people. Jolicci was there too, standing smiling at her.

She was in a Mediumbay of the GSV, on a wide gantry fifty metres up a side wall from the deck, the view in front of her filled by the pink-hulled bulk of the Fast Picket The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory; near three hundred relatively slim metres of ancient warship now turned to more peaceful duties, such as ferrying people about the galaxy when they were heading for points not covered by the Culture’s more routine transportation arrangements.

The ship was supposed to be fifteen hundred years old but appeared brand spanking new and — to her — still looked like a round, windowless skyscraper laid on its side. Its rear three-fifths was a single great cylinder, its pale pinkness chevroned with brown. This was its engine, seemingly. Another substantial section held various mostly sensory systems and the roughly conical section at the front would have held weapons when it had been a Psychopath-class Rapid Offensive Unit. The crew section, a thick band on the central spindle squeezed in between the engine and the systems section, looked small for the thirty or so people who would once have formed its crew, but generous for one. It had produced a single solid-looking plug of doorway twenty metres long, which had moved smoothly out towards them then dropped gently down to the gantry’s floor level to provide a sort of gang-plank affording access to the vessel. The ship’s own avatar was another drone, a little bigger, boxy and more thrown-together-looking than Kallier-Falpise.

“Shall we?” she said to it.

“Certainly.” The drone floated to one side and picked up the two small cases of clothes, assorted toiletries and so on which Sensia had given her.

“Farewell, Lededje,” Sensia said.

Lededje smiled at her, thanked her, accepted a hug, then bade a slightly more formal goodbye to Jolicci. She turned towards the ship.

“Just in time. Let me be the last to wish you bon voyage,” a voice said behind her.

She turned to find Demeisen strolling from the traveltube entrance, smiling thinly. He looked a little less haggard and dishevelled than when Lededje had seen him the evening before. The red jewel at his neck glittered under the lights.

Sensia glared at him. “I thought you left earlier.”

“I did leave earlier, my gracious hostess. I am currently some eighty years or so distant on an acutely divergent course, and travelling only slightly more rapidly than your good self, though still just about within real-time control range, at least for something as intrinsically slow-reacting as a human host. All of which I would hope you’re well aware of.”

“You’re abandoning your puppet here then?” Jolicci said.

“I am,” Demeisen agreed. “I thought now would be as appropriate an occasion as any other to return the fucker to the wild.”

“I have heard some disturbing reports regarding your treatment of this human you’re using, ship,” Sensia said. Lededje looked at the GSV’s avatar. For a small, frail-looking lady with frizzy blonde hair she seemed suddenly invested with a steeliness Lededje found herself glad was not directed at her.

Demeisen turned to Sensia. “All above board, dear thing. I have the relevant releases signed by his own fair hand. In blood, admittedly, but signed. What was I to use — engine oil?” He looked puzzled and turned to Jolicci. “Do we even have engine oil? I don’t think we do, do we?”

“Enough,” Jolicci said.

“Say goodbye and release your hold now before I do it for you,” Sensia said levelly.

“That would be impolite,” Demeisen said, pretending shock.

“I’ll suffer the injury to my reputation,” the GSV’s avatar said coolly.

The cadaverous humanoid rolled his eyes before turning to Lededje and smiling broadly. “My every best wish for your journey, Ms. Y’breq,” he said. “I hope I did not alarm you unduly with my little display last night. I get into character sometimes, find it hard to know when I’m causing distress. My apologies, if any are required. If not, then please accept them in any event, on account, to be banked against any future transgressions. So. Perhaps we shall meet again. Until then, farewell.”

He bowed deeply. When he came upright he looked quite changed; his face was set differently and his body language had altered subtly too. He blinked, looked around, then stared blankly at Lededje and then at the others. “Is that it?” he said. He stared at the ship in front of him. “Where is this? Is that the ship there?”

“Demeisen?” Jolicci said, moving closer to the man, who was looking down at himself and feeling his neck under his chin.

“I’ve lost weight…” he muttered. Then he looked at Jolicci. “What?” He looked at Sensia and Lededje. “Has it happened yet? Have I been the avatar?”

Sensia smiled reassuringly and took him by the arm. “Yes, sir, I believe you have.” She began to lead him towards the traveltube and made a begging-your-leave gesture to Jolicci and Lededje before turning away.

“But I can’t remember anything…”

“Really? Oh dear. However, that may be a blessing.”

“But I wanted memories! Something to remember!”

“Well…” Lededje heard Sensia say, before the doors of the traveltube capsule closed.

Lededje nodded to an unsmiling Jolicci and walked along the level, granite-solid gangplank towards the ship, followed by the ship’s drone and the creamy presence of her slap-drone.

The Fast Picket The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory slipped away from the GSV Sense Amid Madness, Wit Amidst Folly, slung out in a great elongated nest of fields that decelerated it to speeds the Fast Picket’s engines could cope with. To Lededje, who was used to fighter planes being faster than passenger jets and powerboats overtaking liners, this seemed wrong somehow.

“Scale,” the boxy-looking ship-drone told her as she stood — and it and Kallier-Falpise floated — in the main lounge, watching a wall screen showing the silvery dot that was the GSV disappearing into the distance. The dot, and the swirl of stars shown beyond it, started to track across the screen as the The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory began its long turn to head for Arm One-one Near-tip and the Ruprine Cluster. “With ship engines, there are advantages that come with scale.”

“Bigger is better,” confirmed Kallier-Falpise. The silvery dot and the whole great sweep of stars moved faster and faster across the screen, apparent motion accelerating as the Fast Picket wheeled about, heading three-quarters of the way back in the direction the GSV had come from.

“Let me show you to your cabin,” the ship’s drone said.

They set course for Sichult. The journey was due to take about ninety days.

Lededje’s cabin, taking up the space of four of the originals, was spacious and beautiful, if somewhat minimalist compared to what she was used to back home. Veppers didn’t believe in minimalism; he thought it smacked of a lack of imagination or money, or both. The bathroom was similar in size to the cabin and had a transparent spherical bath for which she suspected she was going to need instructions.

Kallier-Falpise followed her and the ship’s drone around, floating a metre or so to her side, just visible at the corner of her eye as she inspected the cabin. She turned and faced it once the ship’s own drone had left.

“I think I’ll get some more sleep,” she told the slap-drone.

“Allow me,” the cream-coloured machine said, and the bed — another of the scoop-plus-intelligent-snowflake-feathers design she was becoming used to — fluffed up, like a curiously localised snowstorm in one corner of the cabin. They were called billow beds, apparently.

“Thank you,” she said. “You don’t need to stay.”

“Are you sure?” the little machine asked. “I mean, obviously while we’re aboard ship, that’s fine, but once we arrive anywhere else I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t remain where I might be of most immediate protective use, especially while you’re asleep. It might be best for us both to get used to that arrangement, don’t you think?”

“No,” she said. “I prefer my privacy.”

“I see.” The machine bobbed in the air, its aura field going grey-blue. “Well, as I say, while we’re aboard ship… Excuse me.”

The door shushed closed behind it.

“‘Ahem’, is the accepted interrupter, I believe. So: ah-fucking-hem.”

She opened her eyes to find herself looking sideways at a man sitting cross-legged on the floor about two metres away, near the centre of the cabin. He was dressed in the same dark clothes Demeisen had worn, and — as she blinked, trying to confirm to herself that she was really seeing what she appeared to be seeing — she realised that he looked like a healthier, filled-out version of the gaunt figure who’d bade her farewell only a few hours earlier.

She sat up, aware of the bed feathers swirling neatly about her, tidying themselves out of the way. She was glad she had worn pyjamas, less glad now that she had got rid of the slap-drone.

Demeisen raised one long finger. “Wait a mo; you might need this.”

The word SIMULATION glowed in red letters — in Marian, this time — at the lower limit of her field of vision.

“What the hell is going on?” she said. She pulled her knees up to her chin. For a dizzying instant she was back in her bedroom in the town house in Ubruater, a decade earlier.

“I’m not really here,” Demeisen said, winking at her. “You haven’t seen me, right?” He laughed, spread his arms, looked about the cabin. “Do you have any idea how highly fucking irregular this is?” He put his elbows on his knees, rested his chin on his tented fingers. Too long, too multiply jointed, they looked like a cage. “This poor old stager thinks it’s still some sort of hot-shot fucking warship with a few of its systems removed and most of the others improved. No more chance of somebody having a private chat with a passenger than… I don’t know; it hitting a space reef or something.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked. She looked around the cabin. The word SIMULATION followed her gaze like a subtitle.

Demeisen’s face sort of scrunched up. “Not that there’s any such thing. Running aground on an asteroid maybe; whatever. Anyway,” he said, “Hello again. Bet you didn’t expect to see me again so soon.”

“Or ever.”

“Well quite. Also bet you’re wondering why I’m here.”

She waggled a finger towards her lower face as she looked at him. “Can you get rid of…”

He snapped his fingers. It was an unsettlingly sharp, loud sound. She almost jumped.

“There,” he said. The word SIMULATION vanished.

“Thank you. Why are you here, if only apparently?”

“To make you an offer.”

“What? To be your next abused avatar?”

He grimaced again. “Oh, that was all just to upset Jolicci. You saw the guy I was… inhabiting; I released him in front of you. He was fine. I’d even fixed his fingers and everything. Didn’t you notice, this morning?”

She hadn’t.

“And anyway he did agree to everything. Not that I really abused him in the first place. Did he say anything? When I released him; did he? I didn’t bother to send any surveillance back-up and I haven’t asked the SAMWAF, so I honestly don’t know what happened after I pulled out. Did he? Make any allegations?”

“He couldn’t remember anything at all. He wasn’t even sure he’d been an avatar; he thought maybe it was about to happen.”

Demeisen waved his arms. “Well, there you are!”

“There you are what? That proves nothing.”

“Yes it does; if I’d really been sneaky I’d have left the dumb fuck with a batch of implanted false memories full of whatever Contact-wank fantasies he’d been imagining before he took the gig in the first place.” He waved one hand in a blur of too-long fingers. “Anyway, we’re getting off the point here. You need to hear my offer.”

She raised one brow. “Do I?”

He smiled. It was the first time he’d smiled, she thought, when it actually looked like he meant it. “Fine attempt at dismissive insouciance,” he told her. “But yes, you do.”

“All right. What is it?”

“Come with me. Not right now necessarily, but come with me.”


“To Sichult. Back to your home.”

“I’m already going there.”

“Yes, but very slowly, and with a slap-drone in tow. Plus, they’re going to try to distract you.”

“How are they going to distract me?”

“By telling you they’ve found the ship with your full body image, the Me, I’m Counting. Which they sort of have, so it’s not a lie, but they’re hoping you’ll want to detour to get your old body back or have the tattoo stuff copied onto your present body or some such nonsense. Which will mean a serious delay, especially travelling in this antique.”

“Perhaps I’ll want to do that anyway,” she said. She felt a pang of something like loss and hope together. Wouldn’t it be good to see her old, true self? Even if she wouldn’t want to regain her Mark — maybe ever, but certainly not until she’d returned and got as close to Veppers as she could and done her damnedest to kill him.

“Makes no difference,” Demeisen said, scything one hand through the air. “I’ll fucking take you there if you insist on going; still be quicker. Point is: stay on this thing and you’ll get home in not less than ninety days, and with a slap-drone dogging your every step.”


He rocked forward on his crossed legs, looked suddenly serious and said, “Whereas come with me and I’ll get you there in twenty-nine days with no fun-spoiling chaperone to hobble you.”

“No slap-drone?”


“And no mistreatment? Of me, I mean, the way you mistreated that poor man? Including mistreatment I forget about?”

He frowned. “You still on about that? Of course no mistreatment. I swear.”

She thought. After a moment she said, “Would you help me kill Veppers?”

He put his head back and laughed, loudly. The simulation did a convincing job of making his laughter echo round the generously proportioned cabin. “Ah, if only,” he said, shaking his head. “You can cause your own major assassinatory incident, sweetheart, without making it a diplomatic one involving the Culture.”

“You can’t offer me any help at all?”

“I’m offering to get you there, quicker, and without the fucking slap-drone.”

“But no help in doing what I want to do when I get there.”

He slapped himself on the forehead. “Fuck me! What more do you want?”

She shrugged. “Help with killing him.”

He put one long-fingered hand over his eyes for a moment. “Well,” he said on an inward breath, taking his hand away and looking at her, “that is the only catch. Much as I’d like to offer you one of my own drones, or a knife missile or some magic force-field buttons for your cardigan or an enchanted gusset or what-ever the fuck, for protection if nothing else… I can’t, because in the unlikely event you do waste this fucker, or try to but fail — a much more plausible scenario, if we’re being honest here — and they find any Culture tech on you, suddenly we look like the bad guys, and — hilarious though that would be in so many ways, obviously — even I draw the line at that sort of shit. Unless I’m requested to by a properly constituted committee of my strategically informed intellectual superiors, naturally. That would be entirely different.”

“So why offer to help me at all?”

He grinned. “For my own amusement. To see what you get up to, to annoy the SAMWAF and Jolicci and all the other constipated smug-meisters of Contact and also because I’m heading in that direction anyway.” He lifted both eyebrow creases. “Don’t ask why.”

“And how do you know all this?”

“You told me quite a lot of it last night, babe. The rest…” He spread his arms again. “I’m just well connected. I know Minds that know stuff. Specifically, exactly this sort of stuff.”

“You’re part of Special Circumstances.”

He waggled one hand. “Technically no ships or Minds really are, not in an organised, hierarchic, signed-up-for-the-duration kind of way; all that any of us can ever do is just help out as best we can, making whatever small contribution we are able to as specific, time-limited opportunities present themselves. But yes.” He sighed, somewhere between patiently and in exasperation. “Look, I don’t have for ever; even this bumpkin of a taxi will twig to me being here eventually, so I’m going to go. You have a think. The offer stands for the next eight hours; local midnight. After that I really need to dash on ahead. But just you wait; they’ll spring this meet-up with the Me, I’m Counting or something representing it.” He sat back, nodding. “Semsarine Wisp. That’s the name to look out for: the Semsarine Wisp.” He flapped one long hand at her. “You can go back to sleep now.”

She woke with a start, sat up. The cabin lights reacted to her movement, turning slowly up from near total darkness to a pervasive gentle glow. The noise of the ship made a distant shushing noise all about her.

She lay back down in her little organised storm of well-behaved snowflakes.

After a few moments the lights faded away too.



“Where would this rendezvous take place?” she asked Kallier-Falpise. They were in a part of the ship’s lounge shaped like a giant bay window. She sat at a table, eating a meal that was part breakfast, part early supper. A breeze blew about her, bringing smells of the ocean. She had rolled the cuffs of her pyjamas up to feel the soft warm wind on her calves and forearms. The concave wall around her impersonated the view of a blue-green cloudless sky, a ruffled green ocean and snow-white breakers crashing onto the pale blue sand of a wide, deserted beach framed by gently swaying trees. Even the floor beneath her bare feet was taking part in the illusion, ridging and roughening to become a convincing impression of polished but uneven wooden boards, just like you’d find at a beach-side villa or resort somewhere nice and hot and far away. She’d almost finished the plate of completely unidentifiable but perfectly delicious fresh fruits. She’d been ravenous.

“There’s a place in a part of the sky called the Semsarine Wisp,” the little drone told her, as though she really didn’t need to bother her pretty little head about such boring details. “That’s where the rendezvous is expected to take place.”

“Mm-hmm.” She drank some water, sloshed it round her teeth.

The drone, floating over the table near her right hand, was silent for a moment, as though thinking. “You’ve… you’ve heard of it?”

She swallowed the water, dabbed at her mouth with a fluid-soft napkin. She gazed out at the fake view of the beach and sea, then looked at the little cream-coloured drone and smiled. “Would you ask the ship to contact the General Offensive Unit Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints, please?”

“What? Why?”

“Go on; say it’s irregular.”

“Irregular is the very least of what it is. It’s rude, it is suspicious.” The boxy ship’s drone swivelled in mid-air, turning away from the grinning figure of Demeisen to point itself at Lededje. “Ms. Y’breq,” it said frostily. “I cannot emphasise strongly enough that I think this would be a profoundly unwise move; frankly, even a stupid and dangerous one. I’m sorry to be so blunt.” It glanced at Demeisen. “I thought you had seen something of how this person, this ship is liable to treat innocent human beings. I cannot believe that you are even contemplating such a hazardous and foolhardy choice.”

“Hmm,” Lededje said, nodding at this. “You know, I think I’ll leave these bags behind.” She frowned down at the two small cases Sensia had given her. They sat at her feet in the ship’s main lounge. Demeisen stood at her side; the two drones floated in front of them. She turned at Demeisen. “You can provide me—?”

“Of course.”

“Ms. Y’breq,” Kallier-Falpise said, sounding like it was trying to remain calm. “Obviously, I shall be coming with you…”

“Obviously,” the ship’s drone agreed, traversing to point at Demeisen.

There was only the faintest of pauses. “Eh? Oh. Yes, obviously,” Demeisen said, nodding strenuously.

“Ah. You agree then?” Kallier-Falpise said, flicking to look straight at Demeisen. “I accompany Ms. Y’breq?”

“I would have it no other way,” Demeisen said solemnly.

“Just so.” The little drone’s aura field glowed an agreeable pink. It turned smoothly back to Lededje. “As we all agree, then, I shall be coming with you, still charged, of course, with protecting you—”

“Mostly from yourself,” Demeisen said with a quick grin. He bowed his head and held up one hand as the little cream-coloured drone’s field flashed a bright grey. “Sorry,” he said.

“However,” Kallier-Falpise continued, “I too am very much of the opinion that this is, nevertheless, a foolish, dangerous and unnecessary move. Please, I beg you; reconsider.”

Lededje smiled at it. She looked at the ship’s drone. “Thank you for all your help,” she told it. She turned to Demeisen again. “Ready when you are.”

“I’ll prepare a shuttle,” the ship-drone said.

Demeisen flapped one hand. “We’ll Displace.”

“Has Ms. Y’breq been informed—?”

“There is a chance Displacements can be bad for you,” Demeisen said with a sigh. “Yes. I’ve read her her last rights.”

Kallier-Falpise’s fields went frosty grey again. “You did not think to ask me if I consent to being Displaced when a far more intrinsically safe method of transferring us between ships exists to hand.”

Demeisen rolled his eyes. “Fine, you take the shuttle, you rough, tough little protection-and-intervention drone; I’ll Displace the squidgy bag of guts, gas and fluids that is the painfully vulnerable but patently unafraid human being.”

“Frankly I wouldn’t trust you to wait for me,” the little drone said. “I shall Displace along with Ms. Y’breq. Within the same containment field, if you please.”

“Fuck me,” Demeisen breathed. “Hoity and toity. Fine! We’ll do it your way.” He pointed at the ship’s drone. “Tell you what, grandpa; why don’t you do the fucking Displace? You move them both over to me.”

“I was going to suggest that anyway,” the ship-drone said coldly.

“Right,” Demeisen said, sounding exasperated. “Can we get going? Now? Your venerableness here might be going flat out but I’m barely strolling. Getting antsy here.”

“Excuse me,” the little cream-coloured drone said as it floated closer to Lededje and up-ended itself to press gently in against her stomach. She wore another set of the trews and top she had grown fond of since waking in this body. “You are sure you don’t want to take your luggage?”

“Quite sure,” she said.

“Both ready?” the ship-drone asked.

“Entirely so.”


“After you,” the ship-drone said to Demeisen.

“See you over there,” he said to Lededje, then a silver ovoid enclosed him. It winked to nothing.

An instant later Lededje briefly found herself staring at a distorted version of her own face.

The ship’s drone tipped back to look up at the ceiling, which was where the protection-and-intervention drone Kallier-Falpise had floated the instant the Displacement containment field around it and Lededje Y’breq had flicked out of existence. Kallier-Falpise, listing badly, bumped randomly along the ceiling a few times, for all the world like an escaped party balloon, partly deflated. Its aura field displayed the colours of oil floating on water.

“Shao, shum-shan-shinaw, sholowalowa, shuw, shuwha…” it mumbled.

The boxy-looking ship-drone used its own light effector unit to administer the equivalent of a slap. Kallier-Falpise trembled against the ceiling fixtures, then dropped, side-slipping. It flashed a strident yellow-orange for an instant, then it seemed to shake itself. It straightened, floating down to the same level as the shipdrone, its aura field glowing white with anger.


~If it’s any comfort, the ship-drone sent — I don’t even know how it did that. It’s not as though it let you land and then spat you straight back. Fucking thing jumped my Displace mid-throw. I wasn’t even aware we could do that. That’s downright worrying.

~Did you put anything on the girl?

~On and in. Best bits and pieces I was given. I’m just waiting to—

There was a flicker of silver directly over the ship-drone, followed by a tiny clapping noise as the incoming Displacement field collapsed. A bitty rain of tiny components, seemingly little more than dust, some hair-thin threads and a few grains of sand, floated down through the air to be caught and held by a maniple field the drone extended above itself.

~Ah, it sent — here they are now. It made a show of bouncing the maniple field up and down, weighing. — Yup, they’re all there, to the last picogram.

~Meatfucker, the other drone repeated.

~Trying comms; zero avail. The ship’s drone rose a quarter-metre in the air then sank slowly down. — Guess that’s that then.

The two machines watched through the ship’s main sensor array as it showed the sixteen-hundred-metre length of the other warship sweeping its multiple deep-space high-speed engine fields about it with a completely unnecessary flourish. For the merest instant the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints presented in real space as a black, perfectly reflecting ovoid, then with a flicker it was gone, so quickly even the Fast Picket’s finely tuned sensors struggled to track it.


This deep in the ice you would need serious amounts of cooling. Otherwise you’d boil. At least you would if you were any normal sort of human, or indeed if you were any kind of conventional being with the sort of biochemistry that could not cope with temperatures much outside a narrow band between freezing and boiling. Keep cool inside the ice or you’d boil alive. The alternative would be to submit to the pressure, which would crush you to oblivion even quicker than the temperature would cook you to death.

It was all relative, of course. Below freezing or above boiling of what, and where? Water was the reference medium he was used to, as part of the pan-human meta-species, and liquid water at standard temperature and pressure, he supposed, but then: whose standard temperature and pressure?

Down here, inside a water planet, under a hundred kilometres of warm ocean, the sheer pressure of the water column above turned the water first to slush and then to ice. It was high-pressure ice, not low-temperature ice, but it was still ice, and the further down towards the planet’s centre you went the harder and hotter the ice got, heated by the same pressure that had forced the water from its liquid to its solid state.

Even so, there were imperfections and contaminants in the ice: flaws, boundaries — sometimes narrowing down to only a single molecule wide — between volumes of the solid where it was possible for other liquids to slip amidst the vast compressive masses of the surrounding ice.

And, if you had evolved here, or had been carefully designed to exist here, it was even possible for creatures to exist within the ice. Tendril-slim, transparently tenuous, more like highly spread-out membranes than anything resembling an animal, they were able to make their way up and down and along the flaws and seams and fissures in the ice, seeking food in the shape of those minerals and other contaminants the ice held, or, in the case of the predators of the deep ice, attacking those grazing creatures themselves.

He — what he now was — had not evolved here. What he was now was a simulation of a creature, an organism designed to be at home in the pressure ice of a water world. But only a simulation. He was not what he appeared to be.

He was beginning to wonder if he ever had been.

The ice inside the water planet did not really exist; neither did the water planet itself, nor the star it orbited nor the galaxy beyond nor anything of what appeared to be real no matter how far out you might think you were looking. Nor how far in you looked, either. Peer into anything closely enough and you would find only the same graininess that the Real exhibited; the smallest units of measurement were the same in both realms, whether it was of time or extent or mass.

For some people, of course, this meant the Real itself was not really real, not in the sense of being genuinely the last un-simulated bedrock of actuality. According to this view everybody was already in a pre-existing simulation but simply unaware of it, and the faithful, accurate virtual worlds they were so proud of creating were just simulations within a simulation.

That way though, arguably, madness lay. Or a kind of lassitude through acceptance that could be exploited. There were few better ways of knocking the fight out of people than by convincing them that life was a joke, a contrivance under somebody else’s ultimate control, and nothing of what they thought or did really mattered.

The trick, he supposed, was never to lose sight of the theoretical possibility while not for a moment taking the idea remotely seriously.

Musing upon such thoughts, he slipped with the others down a one-kilometre-high, many-kilometres-long flaw in the ice. In human terms it was probably like being a caver, a pot-holer, he imagined. Though that must do the experience little justice.

They were, he supposed, like separate strands of sluggish oil seeping between the ice sheets on what he still thought of as a conventional world, a rocky planet with ice at the poles and mountain peaks.

He commanded a small but potent force a crack team of thirty, all highly trained and armed with poisons, chemical micro-explosives and packages of solvent. Most — perhaps all — of the marines and machines whose representations he’d inhabited over the subjective-time decades the great war had lasted to date would have regarded this as laughably inadequate weaponry, but it would be perfectly deadly down here, where not one of those marines or war machines would last for more than a fraction of a second. They were over-officered — he was here as a major, though in any other theatre he’d be a general — but that just reflected the importance of the mission.

He could feel the presence of each of the others, chemical gradients and electrochemical signals passing within and between each of them keeping him in literal touch with every one of the thirty marines under his command. Here was Corporal Byozuel on the right, slipping and sliding down a particularly wide channel, briefly beating the rest of them for penetration; here was Captain Meavaje way out on the left and spin-forward, guiding his squad’s four solvent-carrying specialists through a tricky sequence of fissures like a three-dimensional maze. First Byozuel, then the marines between them in sequence, reported a strong quake. Vatueil felt it himself an instant later.

The ice seemed to creak and whine, the space which most of Vatueil himself was in tightened, shrinking by half a millimetre. Another part of him was in a cavity a little higher further up; this widened a fraction, trying to pull him upwards. He had to grip tighter, push harder, to continue his slow progress downwards, towards the core.

…All right, sir…? came the question from Lieutenant Lyske, who was next but one along the line.

…Fine, lieutenant… he sent back.

Vatueil had sensed them all stopping, freezing in position as the quake’s compression wave had passed around and through them. Freezing like that slowed them down a fraction and it did no real good unless you were in a wide fissure about to enter a narrower one, but it was just what happened, what you did; human nature, or animal nature, or sentient nature, however you wanted to characterise it; you stopped and waited, hoping and dreading, hoping not to be about to die and dreading the feel of the ice around you shifting, and dreading too the biochemical scream that might come pulsing through the single living net they had made of themselves as somebody else was so compressed by fissures closing around them that they were squeezed to single, separated molecules, crushed to mush, chemicalised out of existence.

However, the quake had gone, leaving them all intact and alive. They resumed their progress, insinuating themselves deeper and deeper into the water world’s ice. He sent electrochemical signals out to let everybody know that they were all okay. Still, they could not afford to relax just because that little instance of random danger had gone; they were approaching the level where they might expect to find defences and guards.

He wondered how you could characterise where they were now. It was not part of the main war sim. It was not another simulation running within that one either. It was something separate, something elsewhere; similar, but held apart from the other sims.

Byozuel’s sudden signal came flashing through the net of the unit, passing from marine to marine: …Something, sir…

Vatueil commanded a full stop; they all came to a halt as quickly as possible without causing any further disturbance.

He waited a moment then sent …What do we have, corporal?

…Movement ahead, sir…

Vatueil held, waited. They all did. Byozuel was no fool — none of them were, they’d all been carefully picked. He’d be in touch when there was something to report. In the meantime, best to let him listen, sniff ahead, watch for any scintillations in the glassy darkness of the ice all around them.

Not that they’d seen much since the submarine had offloaded them in the silt slush at the bottom of the ocean, hours earlier. There had been absolutely nothing to see there; no sunlight was visible below a quarter of a klick down from the ocean surface, never mind a hundred klicks.

Once they’d entered the ice, a few cosmic rays had produced distant flashes, and a shallow ice-quake when they’d been less than a kilometre into the hard ice had produced some piezoelectric activity including a few dim glimmers, but their eyes, such as they were, represented their least useful sense.

…Ha!… The exclamation came along with a chemically transmitted wave of elation and relief, pulsing through the company of marines as though through a single body. …Sorry, sir… Byozuel sent. …Didn’t want to risk communicating anything there. Enemy combatant engaged and neutralised, sir…

…Well done, Byozuel. Its identity?

…Here, sir… A complex set of chemical idents and gradients transmitted itself through the web of the unit to Vatueil. A guard. A single, highly aware but barely sentient unit secreted in a fissure within the ice ahead and sensed by Byozuel before it could sense him. So they had to hope, anyway. Studying the analysis of the paralysed, dying creature, Vatueil could see no sign that it had communicated anything before it had been speared by Byozuel and filled with poison.

Vatueil communicated the necessary details to the rest of the platoon. …Let’s assume there will be more ahead… he told them. …Byozuel… he sent. …how’s the way ahead look from where you are?

…Good, sir. Good as we’ve seen. Not getting anything un toward, listening or smelling.

…Okay, we’re going to shift formation… Vatueil sent. …Rest of squad one and squad two, follow behind Byozuel. Three and four, regroup with same internal spacing and keep probing as we descend. We’ve got one enemy profile so watch for that but be aware there will be other types. We’re tightening up here, concentrating. Stay as wary as you like.

He felt the formation change around him, the two squads slowly shifting to concentrate and gather above Byozuel, the other two pulling in from the other side.

The ice-quake came without warning. The screams came from both sides, seemingly at the same time as the tortured shriek of the shifting ice and the hazy scintillations produced by ice contaminants’ piezoelectricity. The ice closed around Vatueil, squeezing him, producing a feeling of utter helplessness and terror just for a moment. He ignored it, let it all pass through him, prepared to die if it came to it but not prepared to show his fear. He was squeezed out of where he was, forced downwards by the sheer closing force of the ice above into a broader fissure beneath. He felt others moving out of control as well, felt three lose contact, tendrils between them broken, snapped, teased apart.

They all stopped again, those that were not writhing. Moments later, even they ceased to move, either dead or after self-administering relaxants, or being darted with them by their comrades.

Could it have been an explosion, enemy action? Had they set something off when Byozuel had neutralised the guard? The after-shocks moaned and rattled through the vastness above and around them. The quake felt too big, too comprehensive, to have come from a single-point detonation.

…Report, Vatueil sent, a moment later.

They had lost five of their total including Captain Meavaje. Some injuries: loss of senses in two, partial loss of locomotion in another two.

They regrouped again. He confirmed Lyske as his new second-in-command. They left the injured and one able-bodied marine to guard their retreat.

…Bastard blow, sir… Byozuel sent from his down-forward position, fifteen metres further down. …But it’s opened a fine-looking cleft down here. A positive highway it is, sir.

…Treat it as suspicious, Byozuel… he told the marine. …Anything obvious might be mined or sucker-trapped.

…Yes, sir. But this only just opened, to the side of the one where our friend was. Looks pristine. And deep.

…Feel confident to explore, Byozuel?

…Feel confident, sir.

…Okay, I think we’re all where we should be again. Go ahead, Byozuel, but still; take it easy.

The new fracture led almost straight down. Byozuel dropped hesitantly at first, then more quickly, with greater confidence. The rest formed up behind Byozuel, following him downwards.

The other two squads were making little progress. Vatueil decided to make the most of the advantage. He ordered them into the new fissure too.

The next guard came stumbling out of a side-crevice, a breach from the earlier fissure they’d been taking before. The guard lanced into Byozuel, instantly disabling him, but was in turn pierced by a pump-dart from one of the weapon-support specialists immediately behind Byozuel; the enemy struggled, died, started to dissolve. Byozuel adhered to one wall of the crevasse, sticking there, immobile, poisons spreading through his extended body. Another specialist flowed over him; investigating, diagnosing, trying to see where he might be cauterised, what parts might be amputated to save him. The specialist pulled away, cutting connections with Byozuel before communicating with Vatueil.

…Looks like I’ll be covering retreat too, sir… Byozuel sent.

…Looks like it, Byozuel…

…That one might have got a warning off… one of the specialists sent.

…I can see something down here, sir… sent the one who’d continued past where Byozuel had been hit. …Deep down. Looks… looks like a comprehensive light source, sir.

Establishing a better link through two more descending marines, Vatueil could more or less see what the deepest marine was seeing.

Caution to the wind time, he thought to himself.

…Stay here, Byozuel.

…Not much choice, sir.

…We’ll be back for you, Byozuel. Everybody else: we’re here. This is it. Form up for maximum attack by squad.

They gathered, shifted, configured. He felt the familiar pride, close to love, for those to whom he’d become close as they calmly and efficiently prepared to put themselves at great risk for a cause they believed in and for the collective good of their comrades. Almost sooner than he’d have liked, they were ready.

They floated, four small squads of marines, ready to receive one last electrochemical command before they split into their separate squads and could communicate only by vibration or light.

…On my command… he told them. …Go go go…

They powered down the fissure towards the unreal light of the core.

“Of course these things do not exist as you describe them. Not in the sense that they are suffered by these so-called virtual people in these alleged virtual realities. They exist only in the sense that they are imagined, talked about, warned of. Ultimately we believe that these things do exist, but we believe that they exist in the greater reality — beyond our limited understanding, and yours — that is the true Afterlife, the one that awaits all who faithfully believe, regardless of whether they have these ‘soulkeeper’ devices or not. We are content to leave such reward and punishment to God. We would not presume to take on the work of God. That is for God alone. It would be blasphemy so to presume. Frankly, you insult us by making the claims about us that you do.”

This had been a remarkably short speech by Representative Errun’s standards. As he finished, sweeping his senatorial robes about him and sitting down, Representative Filhyn had to scramble to her feet again.

“Well,” she said, “I’m sure we didn’t mean to insult you, honourable colleague.”

Errun only half-rose from his seat to say, “Insult, like many such feelings, is experienced in the soul of the person addressed; it is not something that can be granted or withheld by the person doing the addressing.”

There was murmured assent to this expression, as there had been to the one before. Representative Errun resumed his seat, accepting shoulder-pats, nods and muttered well-dones from his retinue of advisors and aides.

“As I say,” the young Representative from the Outlying Habitats said, “we did not mean to take offence.” Filhyn realised what she had said and blurted, “I mean give offence.” She stared at the Senate Speaker at the raised end of the debating chamber. “Ah, apologies,” she said to the ancient and worthy senator sitting there, surrounded by his scribbling, keyboard-tapping staff. She felt herself flush, saw the amused expression on the face of Representative Errun, and with a gesture indicating to the Speaker that she was giving way, sat down. She could hear a leaves-in-the-wind noise spreading through the public and press galleries.

Representative Filhyn went to put her trunks over her face, then remembered that the cameras would probably still be on her and so didn’t. Instead, as the Speaker brought up some doubtless lengthy and utterly irrelevant point of order, she made sure her mike was off, dipped her head to Kemracht, her aide, and said, “I might as well be wearing a necklace saying Bite Here. Put me out of my misery, Kemracht.”

“I’m hoping to, ma’am,” the young male said, nodding to a departing messenger. He put his mouth near her ear. “We have a guest for the afternoon session.”

Something about the way he said it made her rock back in her seat. She stared at him. He smiled back, using both his trunks to half-hide the expression, modestly.

“Do you mean…?” she said.

“A visitor come back from the other side.”

She smiled at him. He looked down. She gazed away to see Representative Errun looking suspiciously at her from the other side of the debating chamber. She wanted to smile broadly at him, but thought the better of it. Best to give no hint. She made her smile look like a brave but hopeless one, then quickly looked away again, as though covering her inability to keep up the pretence of good humour any longer. She put both her trunks up to her eyes, as though wiping away tears.

My, I’ll make a politician of myself yet, she thought.

They lost a whole squad to a sudden electric jolt that ran through the ice like a depth charge, leaving the marines who’d borne the brunt of it dissolving in their wakes as those unaffected continued to power their way downwards.

Another attack came from the side where the original fissure had been. Two guards, and coordinated, but this time they were ready, darting them both and leaving them jerking and dying in their slipstream as the light from below took on a greenish tinge.

The light brightened smoothly as they got closer, then it changed, became slightly duller, speckled, and with something about it that implied movement. A whole force of guards was moving up towards them, their shadows flickering against the green light from below. Vatueil tried to count, then to roughly estimate. A dozen? Twenty? More? It was too difficult and it made no difference. They were not going to pull out now.

He wished that his real self — the self that would continue back in the main war sim, the self that still held all his memories of the decades of war — would be able to remember all this. But that self would never know.

In the war sim you learned from all your mistakes, including the ones that killed you. Death itself was part of the learning process. Everything, including dying, happened within a meticulously overseen simulation where the backed-up self was allowed to know everything that had happened to each of its earlier iterations. So you learned, became continually more experienced — even wise.

This was a simulation, a virtual world, but it was not part of the war sim and there would be no going back for him or any of the other marines. They might succeed or fail, but both results would lead to their deaths. His real, continuing self, back in the war sim, would learn nothing from this mission.

If he was lucky, that self might hear that this self had succeeded on this mission — if he and the others succeeded.

They closed quickly with the core’s guards. The guards were wriggling up to meet them almost as fast as they were plunging downwards. Some darts from their opponents whizzed up past them, one deflecting off the shield of the marine next to Vatueil. His squad was in the lead; they were the vanguard, the very tip of the spear. He watched the dark shapes of the guards flit quickly closer. Very quickly; faster now than his force was falling and powering down towards them.

They would have time for one barrage, Vatueil realised, then this was rapidly going to turn into what in the old days they’d have called hand-to-hand. …Steady… he sent. Then: …Open fire!

Impact lances, poison darts, dissolver rods and tasing bolts rained down onto their opponents.

Representative Filhyn had taken her lunch on one of the broad grassy terraces on the wide roof of the main senate building. The terrace looked out over the rolling grasslands that wound around the Central Leadership Complex like a mother’s trunk round a new-born. Beyond the green river of the grasslands, the great shallow-sided ziggurats rose, vast outcrops of administration, commerce and habitation, their sides festooned with vegetation, their terraces and levels dotted with trees. The great plains beyond the city were lost in the bulking presences of the pyramids and the haze of the warm day.

Errun came alone, as his obviously hastily scribbled message had said he would. She wondered how much he had found out, and through whom. She met him at a deserted wallow near the transparent wall which ran round the terrace. She had left her robes and other personal effects with her aides, so sat, modestly attired, in the cool mud, nodding to the old male when he arrived, grunted a greeting and lowered his old, rotund body into the mud alongside.

“I am trying to imagine to what I owe this unexpected honour, senator,” she told him.

“Perhaps you are,” the portly old male said, relaxing luxuriantly in the mud. He kept his back to the view from the wallow. There was a three-metre safety gap between the transparent wall round the whole terrace and the edge — that was pretty much the minimum that a Pavulean could cope with once they were higher than one storey up — but the old senator was known to be particularly prone to vertigo. She was surprised he’d agreed to meet on such a high level in the first place. He turned in the mud to look at her. “On the other trunk, perhaps you’re not.”

He left a space she was seemingly meant to fill, but she didn’t. Half a year ago, she would have, and might have given away more than she’d have wanted to. She declined to congratulate herself just yet. Representative Errun had many more tricks than just leaving people the space to talk themselves into trouble.

“Either way,” he said, slapping some mud over his back with one trunk, “I think we should clear some things up.”

“I am all for clearing things up,” she told him.

“Um-hum,” he said, throwing more mud over himself. There was a surprising neatness, almost a delicacy to how he did this that Filhyn found quite endearing. “We are,” the old male began, then paused. “We are a fallen species, Representative.” He stopped, looked her in the eye. “May I call you Filhyn?” He raised one muddied trunk, let it fall with a small muddy splash. “As we are in such informal circumstances?”

“I suppose so,” she said. “Why not?”

“Well then. We are a fallen species, Filhyn. We have never been entirely sure what really came before us, but we have always imagined something more heroic, more bold, more like a predator. We are told this is the price of having become civilised.” Errun snorted at this. “Anyway, we are who we are, and although we are not perfect, we have done the best we could, and done quite well. And we can be proud that we have not yet surrendered to the AIs we have brought into being, or abandoned all the attributes and mechanisms that made us great, and civilised, in the first place.”

By this, Errun probably meant the primacy of natural Pavulean decision-making rather than letting their AIs have anything other than an advisory role, and commerce: money, the accumulation of capital. And — of course — Collective Wisdom, the Pavulean philosophy/religion/way of life which still bore within it traces of male supremacism and Haremism. These were exactly the things which Filhyn personally thought were now holding their whole civilisation back, but she wasn’t about to start arguing with an ancient and revered conservative like Errun. Some problems were generational; you just had to wait for the relevant elders to die off and be replaced with more progressive types. With luck.

“You people from the Outlyings see matters differently, we realise,” Errun told her. “But still, the soul of our people — our species, our civilisation — lies here, on these plains, this planet, on the terraformed New Homes and the habitats that spin around our home star.” Errun raised his gaze to the sun, currently lighting up some layers of creamy cloud to the south.

“Under this sun,” Filhyn said. She was also not going to bring up the absurdity of her being the only Representative for the whole diasporic mass of the Greater Pavulean Herd. In theory they were all part of the Fifteen Herds and there was no need for all the tens of billions of Pavuleans who now lived around other stars to have extra representation, but this was of course complete nonsense, just a way for the centre here on Pavul to keep control of its distributed empire.

“Under this sun,” the old male agreed. “Do you possess a soul-keeper device?” he asked her suddenly.

“Yes,” she told him.

“For an Outlying religion, I dare say.”

She wasn’t sure she would even call it a religion. “I’ll stay amongst my far-flung friends when I die,” she said. “My soul-keeper is keyed to our local Afterlife.”

The old male sighed, shook his head. He seemed to be about to say something — perhaps he was going to chastise her, she thought — but then he didn’t. He slapped some more mud about himself.

“We need threat to keep us honest, Filhyn,” he told her. He sounded regretful, but intent. “I wouldn’t go as far as those who wish we hadn’t rid ourselves of predators, but we need something to keep us on our toes, to bring us up to the moral mark, don’t you see?”

“I see that you believe that deeply, Representative,” she said diplomatically.

“Um-hum. You will see the track I am heading along here. I won’t dissemble. We need the threat of punishment in the after-life to keep us from behaving like mere beasts in this existence.” He waved one trunk. “I have no idea if there really is a God, Filhyn, any more than you do, any more than the Grand High Priest does.” He snorted. Filhyn was genuinely shocked to hear him say this, even if she’d long assumed just that. “Perhaps God resides in the places where the Sublimed live, in these hidden dimensions, so conveniently folded up and hard to get at,” the old male said. “I suppose it is almost the last place He might. As I say, I don’t know. But I know most certainly that there is evil in us, and I know and accept that the technologies that have given us the means to express that evil — allowing us to exterminate our natural predators — have led in turn to the technologies that now let us save our souls, that let us save ourselves and that let us continue to administer rewards and punishments beyond the grave. Or at least… the threat of punishment.” He looked at her.

She slowly smeared her own back with mud. “Are you going to tell me that it is only the threat?”

He rolled a little closer to her, rotating in the grey-brown mud. “Of course it is just the threat,” he told her quietly, conspiratorially, with a hint of humour. He rolled back again. “All that matters is that people are frightened into behaving properly while they are alive. What happens after they are dead is really no concern of the living. Nor should it ever be.” He chuckled. “That last bit’s just my personal belief, but it’s also the truth of the matter as it stands. We scare them with these threats of correction and unpleasantness but once they’re scared there’s no need actually to impose the punishments. There are entire teams of creatives: artists, scenarioists, writers, explicators, designers, psychologists, sound sculptors and… well, God knows who and what else… Anyway, their entire working lives are spent creating a completely unrealistic environment and a completely false expectation for completely good and moral reasons.”

“So the Hells only exist as a threat, to keep people in line while they’re still alive.”

“Well, ours certainly does. And that’s all it does. Can’t speak for the Afterlives of aliens. But I’ll tell you this: a lot of the current fuss about them is founded on a basic misunderstanding. What’s annoying is that people who don’t want them to exist can’t accept that they actually don’t exist. Meanwhile they’re wrecking the whole point of pretending that they do. If people just shut up and stopped complaining about things that don’t happen in the first place then there wouldn’t be any problem. Life would go on, people would behave themselves and nobody would really get hurt.” The old male shook himself, seemingly disgusted. “I mean, what do they want? To make the Hells real so that people can be suitably frightened of them?”

“So where are all the people who ought to be in other Afterlives, in Heavens? Because they are not there.”

Errun snorted. “In limbo.” He slapped at something on his flank, inspected what he found there. An imaginary insect, Filhyn suspected. “Stored, but not functioning, not in any sense living.” He seemed to hesitate, then rolled closer to her again. “May I speak in confidence, Filhyn?”

“I assumed all that’s being said here is in confidence, Representative.”

“Of course, of course, but I mean in particular confidence; something that you would not even share with your closest aides or a partner. Something strictly between you and me.”

“Yes,” she said. “Very well. Go ahead,”

He rolled closer still. “Some of those who disappear, who it might appear go into this so-called Hell,” he said quietly, “are simply deleted.” He looked at her, quite serious. She looked back. “They are not even held in limbo,” he told her. “They simply cease to be; their soulkeeper thing is wiped clean and the information, their soul, is not transferred anywhere. That’s the truth, Filhyn. It’s not something that’s supposed to happen, but it does. Now,” he said, tapping her on one front knee, “you most emphatically did not hear that from me, do you understand?”

“Of course,” she said.

“Good. That really is something we don’t want people knowing. Don’t you see?” he asked her. “All that matters is that people believe they are still living in some sense, and suffering. But, frankly, why waste the computer space on the bastards? Excuse my language.”

Filhyn smiled. “Is it not always better to tell the truth though, Representative?”

Errun looked at her, shook his head. “The truth? No matter what? For good or ill? Are you mad? I do hope you’re having a joke with me here, young lady.” He held his nostrils with the finger stubs of one trunk and submerged himself completely in the mud, resurfacing moments later and snorting powerfully before wiping the mud from his eyes. “Don’t pretend you are so naive, Filhyn. The truth is not always useful, not always good. It’s like putting your faith in water. Yes, we need the rain, but too much can sweep you away in a flood and drown you. Like all great natural, elemental forces, the truth needs to be channelled, managed, controlled and intelligently, morally allocated.” He glared at her. “You are having a joke with me, aren’t you?”

I might as well be, she thought. She wondered if she would finally be a real politician when she agreed with what Errun was saying.

“Otherwise we are both wasting our time here, Representative.”

One of us certainly is, she thought. She looked up, saw Kemracht signalling her from some distance away. “Not at all, Representative,” she told the old male as she rose on all fours. “This has been most instructive. However, if you’ll excuse me, I must go. Will you shower with me?”

The old male looked at her for some moments. “Thank you, no. I’ll stay here a little longer.” He kept looking at her. “Don’t rock the barge, Filhyn,” he told her. “And don’t believe everything that everybody tells you. That’s no way to the truth; just confusion and muddle.”

“I assure you I don’t,” she told him. She performed a modestly shallow curtsy with her front legs. “I’ll see you for the afternoon session, Representative.”

He was one of the only two survivors of his squad, and their total force now numbered six. The rest had fallen to the up-swarming mass of guards. His marines had the better weaponry and were easily a match for the opposition, one against one, but there had been many more of the guards than there had seemed at first, and even when he and his men had poured through their entangling mass of bodies and weaponry they had encountered nets of barbs, nets of poisons and nets of convulsing electricity. Piercing, cutting those took more time, and, held up there, enfolded in the sickly green light flooding up from below, they’d been attacked from above by the remnants of the guards they had forced their way through. More marines had fallen, or dissolved, or jerked and spasmed, spiralling upwards.

But then they were through, just six of them. They fell against the green glowing surface, expanded, released their packaged solvents and seemed to become part of the transparent wall itself.

Then they were through, and falling. The conceit of the ice above was gone. Now they were in some vast spherical space, like the inside of a multi-layered moon. Above were quickly closing holes like bruises in a layer of dark cloud. The conceit of their own forms had changed too. No longer tissue-thin membranes, they were dark, solid shapes; serrated spearheads plunging down, accelerating hard. They fell through vacuum towards a landscape of something between a single surface-covering city and a gigantic industrial plant, all lights and grids and swirling patterns of luminescence, flares, drifting smokes and steams, rivers and fountains and whirlpools of light.

It is like a dream, Vatueil thought. A dream of flying, falling…

He snapped himself out of it, looked about, taking stock, evaluating. Five more besides himself. In theory only one was needed. In practice, or at least in the best sims they’d been able to run for this, a force of twelve gave an eighty per cent chance of success. Fifty-fifty came with a force of nine. With six of them to make the final assault, the odds were slim. The simulations experts hadn’t even wanted to talk about a force of less than eight making the last push.

Still, not impossible. And what was glory but something that reduced the more there were of you to share it?

The vast, coruscating landscape below was probably the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his long and varied existence. It was heartbreaking that they had come here to destroy it utterly.

Special Witness Sessions were rare events in the chamber, even if this was the low season when most of the Representatives were on holiday or just on other business. Filhyn had had to pull pretty much all the strings she could, call in all the favours she thought she might be owed, to arrange the session, not just at such short notice, but at all.

Their witness needed no real coaching, which was just as well as there had been little time to arrange any.

“Prin,” she’d told him, just before the session started, while they’d been waiting in the antechamber and Errun and his people had been trying to get the special session cancelled or postponed, “will you be able to do this?”

She knew how intimidating it could be to stand in the chamber, all eyes upon you, trying to make your point, knowing that hundreds were looking at you there and then, tens of millions were watching throughout the system in real time and possibly billions might hear your words and see your actions and expressions later — potentially tens, even hundreds of billions if what you said turned out to be of any great importance or at least of interest to the news channels.

“I can do it,” he’d told her. His eyes looked too old, she thought, though that might just be her fancy, given that she now knew a little of what he’d been through.

“Deep breaths,” she’d advised him. “Concentrate on one person when you speak. Ignore others and forget about the cameras.” He’d nodded.

She hoped he’d be able to keep himself together. The chamber had an odd buzz about it, with a few more straggler Reps suddenly present who hadn’t been able to drag themselves away from whatever City business had been detaining them in the morning. Some of the journalist seats and camera positions in the press galleries were occupied now that hadn’t been before. Usually the afternoon sessions were quieter than the morning ones. The rumour mills had obviously been working. Even less than a third full, the chamber could be an intimidating place.

Ultimately, they were herd animals, for all their civilising, and to be singled out in the herd had been almost inevitably lethal for most of the millions of years of their species’ existence. Other species, non-herd species, must have it easier, she supposed. Their own predator species would have found it easier, for sure, had they won the struggle to be the planet’s dominant species. But then they were not the ones present. For all their ferocity they had lost the struggle, been quietly out-bred, sidelined, driven to extinction or into the twilight existence of nature reserves and breeding zoos.

In the end she need not have worried.

She was able to sit back and listen — crying, quite a lot, quite openly and freely and without even trying to hide it — and watch the effect that Prin’s sober, unhurried testimony had on the others in the chamber. The bare details were unbearable enough — she discovered later that most of the networks censored some of the more sickening parts — but the truly crushing, the most undeniably effective moments came when Prin was subject to the most ferocious cross-examination by the Traditionalist party in general and by Representative Errun in particular.

Did he really expect to be taken seriously with this mass of lies?

They were not lies. He wished that they were. He did not necessarily expect to be taken seriously because he knew how monstrous and cruel it all sounded, and how much many different interests did not want the truth to be known. He knew that they would do all that they could to discredit both him personally and what he was telling people.

How could he even tell this was not some bizarre nightmare, some possibly drug-induced hallucination?

It was a matter of fact that he had been away for real-time weeks, his body held within a fully licensed medical facility, exactly like the kind that many Representatives had used for various treatments over the years. He had never heard of a nightmare that went on for so long. Had the Representative?

So, he did not deny it might have been drug-induced?

He did deny it. He did not take drugs. He never had, not even now, when his physician said he ought to, to try to stop the nightmares he had, reliving what he had been through. Would a blood test convince the Representative?

So now he suddenly admitted that he did have nightmares after all!

As he’d just said, only due to the Hell he had just lived through.

Representative Errun would not let go. He had been a trial lawyer, then a judge, and famous for his questioning, his brutal tenacity. She watched him become more and more determined to rattle Prin, to trip him up and bring him down, to reveal him as a liar or a fantasist or a fanatic, and she listened to him lose. With every extra detail Errun dragged out of Prin he made the totality of the revelations’ impact all the greater.

Yes, everybody was nude in Hell. Yes, people in Hell might try to have sex, but that was punishable. In Hell only rape was permitted. Just as in Hell only war formed the basis for any social structure. Yes, people died in Hell. You could die a million times, suffer its agonies on a million separate occasions, and every time you would be brought back for further punishment, more torture. The demons were people who had been sadists in the Real; to them, Hell was more like their own heaven.

No, there were not that many sadists in the Real, but there could be as many as the functioning of Hell required because this was all virtual, remember, and individuals could be copied. One sadist, one person who gloried in the pain of others, would be all you needed; you’d just create a million copies.

Yes, he was aware of the claims that the tours of Hell that people were forced to undergo, sometimes as part of a court’s judgement, were of a Hell that didn’t exist, or that only existed in a very limited sense while the miscreants were being shown round, and that anybody who failed to return from such grisly junkets had merely been put into limbo. But that was a lie.

Filhyn saw somebody hand Errun a note. A shiver of apprehension ran through her.

She thought she saw Errun’s eyes glint with something like exaltation, with cruelty, with victory anticipated. The old male’s tone and demeanour changed as he became more statesmanlike and solemn, like somebody delivering a final judgement, a coup-de-grâce, more in regret than anger.

Was it not true, he said, that he, Prin, had gone into this dream or nightmare, this supposed Hell, with his wife? So where was she? Why was she not at his side now to back up his wild claims?

Filhyn thought she might faint. Wife? He’d taken his wife with him? Had he been mad? Why hadn’t he said anything — even just to her? A despair settled over her.

Prin was answering.

First of all, the female concerned was his love and his mate, but not formally his wife. He had left her behind, right at the very end, when there had been a chance for only one of them to get out and he had had to do the hardest thing he had ever had to do in his life and leave her in there to suffer while he escaped to tell the truth of what was happening there, what was still happening there to—

And why had he left her out of this tale, this — it was now conclusively revealed — confection of lies, half-truths and outright fantasy?

Because he had been afraid to mention her participation in the mission into Hell.

Afraid? Him? A man who claimed to have been through Hell and come back? Afraid?

“Yes, afraid,” Prin said, his voice ringing out in the hushed chamber, “I am afraid that before I can take my testimony to where it really needs to be heard, before a Jury of the Galactic Council, somebody old and trustworthy and of impeccable, indisputable honour — somebody like yourself, sir — will come to me and quietly tell me that I can have my beloved back, out of Hell, if only I’ll say no more about what she and I experienced there, and indeed even retract what I’ve already said.” Prin looked, blinking, round the other members of the party opposite, then at the press and public galleries, as though suddenly seeing them for the first time. Then he looked back at Representative Errun. “Because I am afraid that I will accept that offer, sir, because I can’t bear the thought of her continuing to suffer in that place a moment longer, and I will abandon all the others there just to get my beloved back, and so will hate myself for ever for my weakness and selfishness.” He let out a deeply held breath. “That’s why I kept her—”

Errun seemed finally to wake up to the veiled accusation Prin had just levelled at him. He erupted with indignation, swiftly followed by his followers and shortly by the rest of the Traditionalist party. In moments, the chamber was as noisy as Filhyn had ever heard it, even when it was packed.

Prin might have permitted himself a smile then, Filhyn thought, if this had been no more than a debate in a debating chamber. He did not, could not, she realised, because he was perfectly serious and completely terrified of exactly what he had just revealed.

He turned to look at her. She smiled as best she could through her tears, mouthed “Well done,” at him and nodded for him to sit down.

He nodded to the Speaker, then sat.

Not that the worthy senator in the Speaker’s chair was actually in it, or taking any notice; he was on his feet roaring and waving both trunks, trying to restore order. Filhyn recognised the chamber letting off steam after having been forced to listen to something they hadn’t wanted to hear coming from somebody who was not one of their own. Not to mention somebody who had just reminded them that there were higher and greater talking shops than this one.

“That’s put the pride amidst the herd,” Kemracht muttered from behind her. Meanwhile the Speaker was rising furiously on his hind legs and clapping his front feet together. That wild breach of protocol hadn’t happened for years.

The news services carried everything — ah, the joys of a slow news day during the slack season. They showed the Speaker trampling etiquette and rearing to his feet like a disputing skivvy, they showed Errun turning shades of rage that Filhyn had not thought him capable of; and most of all they showed Prin: calm, flawless but sincere. And his words, those ghastly, searing, near-unimaginable details!

And herself. With her, mostly the news teams focused on her crying.

Her tears — not her oratory, sincerity, political skill or her principles — had made her properly famous.


Veppers’ aircraft hurtled across his estate at only a little over tree-top height. Veppers himself sat at the rear, shooting at things.

Leading from the grounds immediately around the torus-shaped mansion house of Espersium were seven trackways of trees; lines of dense woodland only forty or fifty metres wide but so long that they stretched — unbroken save for where they crossed major rivers — all the way to the estate’s perimeter; a distance of almost ninety kilometres in the case of the longest and most used trackway, which was the one leading towards Ubruater, the capital city of the capital planet of the whole Sichultian Enablement.

The trackways were there, famously, for one reason only: to provide sport for Veppers. Simply jumping into a flier and being bounced across to the capital on a parabolic trajectory had always seemed like something of a waste to him, for all that it was the fastest and most efficient way of getting to Ubruater. When he had the time — and he could generally make the time — he would take the slower, low-level route, having his pilots take one of his aircraft tearing over the tops of the trees, only ten metres or so above the tallest branches.

The idea was to use the flier as a beater, utilising its screaming engines and battering slipstream to disturb the wildlife in general and, in particular, to bring birds panicking up out of the foliage below. Veppers’ aircraft were all shaped like giant arrowheads with a broad flat rear containing a recessed, wind-shielded balcony where anything up to ten people could sit, firing laser rifles out through the ultraclear glass into the bustling riot of sucked-up leaves and small twigs at the startled, squawking birds.

Veppers sat with Jasken, Lehktevi — another of his Harem-girls — and Crederre, the daughter of Sapultride and his first wife, who had stayed on at the estate after her father and the girl’s step-mother, Jeussere, had left after the weekend party that had included a couple of miniature sea battles. Veppers had taken particular care to make sure that his ships did not lose the second sea battle, the day after Xingre’s unsettling visit; the bets involved in the ship battles were always small, but that was not the point. For Veppers, winning was the point.

They were on the longest trackway, the one which led to Ubruater. The aircraft’s engines roared distantly as it followed the trackway trees into a slight hollow then powered upwards again. Veppers’ stomach lurched as they bottomed out and then zoomed again. A particularly large and fine spevaline rose wheeling out of the blizzard of dark leaves and somersaulting twigs behind, still sporting its mating season plumage. Veppers cradled the tripodded laser rifle, let the opticals grab the image of the bird and identify it as the largest moving entity in the viewfinder. The gun’s servos whined, lining it up, shaking it with what felt like a series of tiny spasms to allow for the aircraft’s movements. Veppers fired the instant the aiming grid flashed. A single shot passed straight through the great bird in a small explosion of feathers. The spevaline crumpled about itself like a man wrapping a cloak about him. It fell tumbling back into the forest.

“Oh, good shot, sir!” Lehktevi said, having to raise her voice only a little to make herself heard over the howling of the engines. The balcony was shielded from the slipstream by the bowed surface of ultraclear glass. The glass could be retracted to allow other weapons besides the laser rifles to be used against the birds and other animals, but that made the balcony a quite furiously noisy place to be, at any reasonable speed; you needed ear defenders, and the swirling slipstream caused total havoc to any hairstyle worth the name.

“Thank you,” Veppers said, smiling briefly at the achingly beautiful Lehktevi. He looked at the girl on his other side. “Crederre,” he said, nodding at the laser on its tripod in front of her. “Won’t you try a shot?”

The girl shook her head. “No, Joiler, I can’t. I feel sorry for the birds. I can’t shoot them.”

Crederre was young; still becoming a woman, really. Entirely legal, though. She was not bad-looking, though her wan, pale, blonde look was quite eclipsed by the dark magnificence of Lehktevi.

He’d watched the girl swim in the underground pool at the house just that morning.

The main indoor pool under the house took up some of the space where the rows and banks of computer servers had once stood, when the house had been even more the centre of the Veppers family power than it was now, and games and programs throughout the ever-expanding Sichultian Enablement had been controlled from there.

That amount of raw, bulky computational power was no longer necessary — you could build processing substrate into walls, hulls, carpets, chassis, ceiling tiles, monocoques; almost anything nowadays — so all that space under the mansion had come free, to be filled with storage, underground garages full of exotic machinery and a giant pool ornately decorated with waterfalls, giant naturally grown crystals the size of trees, perfume pools, bubble bays and water slides. Crederre’s slim, pale body had moved over the night black of the jet tiles on the pool’s floor, sinuous and quick.

He’d watched her, and known that she’d known he was watching her. Well, he watched all women he found attractive like that, and he’d thought no more about it.

Still, the girl might be a prize worth pursuing. He was aware that he hadn’t bedded — or even attempted to bed — anyone new since the unpleasantness which had resulted in that little scribbled-on slut biting the tip of his nose off. Too self-conscious, he supposed. He stroked the golden shield covering his nose.

He laughed gently. “Well, I feel sorry for the woodland creatures too, but then if it wasn’t for this sport then these trees wouldn’t be here in the first place. And there are an awful lot of trees and an awful lot of spevalines and other birds, and only me who really shoots them. Most people are like you: too squeamish. So they’re ahead on the deal, really,”

The girl shrugged. “If you say so.” She smiled at him. Quite a pleasant, winning smile, he thought. He wondered again why she’d chosen — and been allowed — to stay behind with him. She was of an age, of course; technically independent, an adult, but all the same. It amused him when his friends, acquaintances and business partners tried to pair him off with their daughters — or even wives. Perhaps that was the idea here. He doubted anyone still thought they could marry their females off to him, but even just a liaison, an affair, might be useful to somebody with ambitions.

Veppers looked round at Jasken, standing braced behind him, Oculenses on, holding on to a handle set into the bulkhead behind, his other arm still in its cast and supported by the sling. “Jasken, why don’t you come and show us how it’s done while I talk to Miss Crederre here.”


“Lehktevi,” Veppers said, “why don’t you go and see how our pilot’s doing?”

“Certainly, sir.” Lehktevi swung out of her seat, long legs flashing beneath a short skirt, massed dark hair tumbling as she pivoted to disappear though the doorway leading to the aircraft’s main cabin.

Jasken sat in her seat. He pushed the Oculenses up his head, switched on the laser rifle in front of him and cradled it, one-armed. He got a shot off almost immediately, nailing a young blackbird in a detonation of indigo feathers. It fell back to the coppery foliage rushing past beneath.

“Aren’t you worried your mistress will distract the pilot?” Crederre asked Veppers. “This thing does fly awfully low, and she is, well, distracting.”

“Wouldn’t matter if she did,” Veppers said, nudging a button to bring his seat and Crederre’s closer together. Motors whined; the girl’s brows rose a little as she watched the gap between their seats shrink to nothing, padded armrests touching. “It’s all done automatically,” he explained. “Pilot’s redundant, almost irrelevant. Most critical operation they perform is punching in the destination coordinates. There are five separate terrain-following systems making sure we stay just above the scenery, without becoming part of it.”

“Five? My,” she said quietly, sounding conspiratorial and dipping her head towards him, her long straight blonde hair nearly touching the soft material of his shirt. Was she trying to flirt with him, or being sarcastic? He found it hard to tell the difference with young women sometimes, despite all his experience. “Why so many?” she asked.

“Why not?” he countered. “Always best to have lots of redundancy with something so critical. Doesn’t really cost, either; I own the company that makes them — makes the whole aircraft,” he said, glancing about them. Jasken blasted another blackbird, then another. “Actually, the pilots are there more for legal reasons than anything else.” He shrugged. “I blame the unions. Bane of my life. Though,” he said, tapping the girl on her bare forearm — she wore a knee-length, short-sleeved, soft-looking dress which appeared plain but expensive at the same time — “I should point out that Lehktevi isn’t a mistress.”

“More of a whore?”

Veppers smiled tolerantly. “She’s staff; a servant. It’s just that her duties are principally sexual in nature.” He looked thoughtfully at the door she’d gone through. “Dare say there’s a union for her profession too.” He looked back at Crederre, who appeared not to be following all this. “I don’t really hold with unions, not amongst the staff,” he explained. “Divided loyalties. Does mean I have to pay more for her services though.”

“How terrible for you,” she said.

He heard her stepmother, Jeussere, in the remark. She’d been one of his lovers, once. Too long ago for Crederre to be his, though.

“I know, isn’t it?” he said. He’d decided: it might be quite amusing to bed the girl. A sort of continuance. Jeussere might even have been intending it. She’d been a young woman of slightly odd and exotic sexual tastes in her time — who knew? “I have this frighteningly tiresome hearing this afternoon,” he said as Jasken fired again, downing something large and copper-coloured, “but I’m free this evening. Let me buy you dinner. Is there anywhere you’ve always wanted to go?”

“That’s very kind. I’ll let you choose. Just you and me?”

“Yes,” he said, smiling at her again. “Private room, I’d suggest. I’ll get my fill of crowds at the hearing this afternoon.”

“A court hearing?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Why, have you done something terrible?”

“Oh, I’ve done many terrible things,” he confided, leaning over close to her. “Though probably not what I’m being accused of today. Well, possibly not. It’s hard to say.”

“Don’t you know?”

He grinned. “Honestly, I don’t.” He tapped his temple. “I am the most frightfully old man really, you know.”

“One hundred and seventy-eight, is that true?”

“One hundred and seventy-eight-ish,” he agreed. He held out his arms, looked down at his fit, taut, muscular frame. “And yet I look, well; you tell me. What would you say?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, looking down modestly. “Thirty?”

So she was trying to flatter him. “Between that and forty, is the look I go for.” He smiled broadly. “Though I have the appetites of a man of twenty.” He shrugged as she looked down again, a smile on her lips. “So I’m told. As I say, it’s been so long since I was twenty I honestly can’t recall.” He sighed deeply. “Just as I can’t recall any of the details of the appallingly ancient case they’re going to bore me with this afternoon. I mean really can’t. I’m not lying when they ask me what I remember and I say I can’t remember anything. I’m just not able to; those memories all had to be excised decades ago to leave me room for new memories.”


“Had to be done; the medics insisted. Not my fault those memories are the ones the court would like to know about. I’d love to cooperate even more fully, tell them all they want to know, but I just can’t.”

“That does seem terribly convenient,” she said.

He nodded. “That is a word I have heard used in this context. Convenient.” He shook his head. “People can be so cynical.”

“I know. Shocking, isn’t it?” Crederre said, and again Veppers heard her stepmother’s phraseology.

“Shocking indeed. So, you’ll come for dinner?”

“Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure what my parents would say.”

He smiled tolerantly. “It’s dinner, dear girl, not a sex club.”

“Do you frequent those too?”

“Never. You’ve seen my Harem, haven’t you?”

“I have. You are so shameless, you know.”

“Thank you. I do my best.”

“I’m surprised you have any energy left even to think about other women, normal women.”

“Ah, but there’s the challenge, you see,” he told her. “For simple sex, just fulfilling a need, the Harem girls are perfect, quite wonderful. Uncomplicated. But to make a chap feel… treasured, wanted for his own sake, he has to feel that he can still make somebody want to have sex with him… just because she wants to, not because it’s her job.”

“Hmm. Yes.”

“So, how about you?”

“How about me what?”

“Do you frequent sex clubs?”

“Never either. Not yet.”

“Not yet?”

She shrugged. “Well, you never know, do you?”

“No,” he agreed, sitting back, smiling thoughtfully. “You never do.”

Jasken brought down a spevaline a little smaller than the one Veppers had killed earlier, but closer still to the rushing aircraft. Then the trees stopped abruptly and the view dropped away to a broad river, waters sparkling, wavy gravel banks unwinding beneath. Jasken clicked the laser rifle off and swung it to its stowed position. “Estate border, sir,” he said. He brought the Oculenses back down over his eyes. Veppers motioned towards the balcony door. “Excuse me,” Jasken said.

The aircraft started to gain height and speed, heading for more conventional air corridors now that it had left the Espersium estate and was in the shared airspace leading to the vast conurbation of Greater Ubruater.

Crederre watched Jasken close the door behind him. She turned back to Veppers. “You don’t have to buy me dinner first if you just want to fuck me.”

He shook his head. “Good heavens, you youngsters are so forward.”

She looked down at the seat Veppers was in, judging. She wriggled her skirt up. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath. “But we’re only ten minutes from landing,” he said, watching her.

She pushed both laser rifles out of the way then hoisted herself out of her seat and brought one long leg curving over so that she straddled him. “Better get to it, then.”

He frowned as he watched her pulling at the laces securing his trousers’ crotch. “It wasn’t your mother put you up to this, was it?” he asked.

“Nope,” she said.

He laughed, put his hands under her skirt to her naked hips. “You young girls, I do declare!”


Here was a gulf of space, an infinite valley, stuffed full to choking with scenes of torment spread out to the furthest reach of sight, filled with the low moans and the chorused anguished of the torn and tormented and infested with a miasmic stench of shit and burned, corrupted flesh. Here was a pressure on the eyes of fractal detail — torment within torment within torment within torment, endlessly — just waiting, stacked, lined up, marking time until it could be dwelt upon, comprehended, made part of the self; guarantors of perpetual nightmare.

Here was a seemingly infinite realm of torture presided over by slavering, wild-eyed devils, a never-ending world of unbearable pain, humiliation beyond imagining and utter, unending hatred.

…She had decided there was a perverse beauty about it, an almost celebratory fecundity about the depths of creativity which must have been plumbed to produce such imaginative cruelty. The very bestiality, the absolute depravity of it raised it to the level of great art; there was a transcendent quality to its horror, its complete commitment to agony and degradation.

And there was even a humour to it, too, she’d decided. It was the humour of children, of adolescence — determined to appal the adults or to take something to such an extreme you shocked even your peers — it was the humour of wringing every last conceivable shred of double-meaning or fanciful connection out of every even remotely misconstruable subject, every mention of anything that could be seen as having anything whatsoever to do with sexuality, bodily waste or any other function of simple, matter-of-fact creaturality or biochemicalness, but it was still humour, of a sort.

When Prin went through and she did not, when the blue glowing doorway she had been only very peripherally aware of rejected her and bounced her back into the groaning confines of the mill, she had lain on the sweated boards of the ramp, watching the blue glowing mist evaporate and the surface of the doorway turn to what looked like grey metal. She could hear the predator-demons howling and cursing and arguing. They were further up, on the level where Prin — in the form of an even larger demon — had brushed them aside moments earlier, before launching himself — and her — at the glowing doorway. She got the impression that they hadn’t yet noticed her lying there.

She lay still. They would find her, and probably very soon, she knew that, but for these precious few moments she was alone, undisturbed, yet to come to the attention of these most dedicated persecutors.

Prin was gone.

He had tried to take them both through to whatever was on the other side of the blue glowing doorway, but only he had got through. She had been left behind. Or he had left her behind. She wondered whether to feel sorry for him or not. Probably not. If he was right and there really was some other, pre-existing, non-tormenting life to be found beyond the doorway, then she hoped that he had found it. If he had gone into oblivion, then that was something to celebrate too, for oblivion, if it existed as a real, achievable possibility, meant an end to suffering.

As likely, though, she thought, was that he had simply gone to another part of here, another and possibly worse, more terrible quarter of reality, of what he had chosen to call Hell. Perhaps she had been the lucky one, getting to stay behind. There would be more torment, more pain and abasement in store for her, she knew that, but perhaps what now awaited Prin was even worse. She didn’t like to think about what would happen to her, now, but thinking about what might be happening or about to happen to Prin was even worse. She did not let herself shy away from it; she made herself think about it. If you thought about it, if you embraced it, then the revelation you might in time be faced with — of what had happened to him, what had been done to him — would lose some of its power and its ability to shock.

She wondered if she would ever see him again. She wondered if she would want to, given what they might do to him. He had disobeyed the rules of this place, the rules they lived by; he had gone against the very law of Hell, and his punishment would be extreme.

So might hers, of course.

She heard one of the demons say something. She didn’t understand exactly what had been said but it had sounded like an exclamation, like an expression of surprise. She knew then that she had been seen. She heard and felt crashing, iron-shod paws clattering down the ramp towards her. They stamped up to right beside her head.

She was hauled upright by both her trunks. She tried to keep her hand-pads over her face but she was shaken, and her body’s own weight tore their grip free. She caught a glimpse of a demon’s wide, furred face, its two great eyes staring at her, then she shut her eyes tightly.

The demon shouted in her face. “Didn’t get through? That’s bad!” His breath smelled of rotting meat. He marched up the slope, dragging her behind him. He was roaring to the others. Look what he’d found!

They took turns raping her while they discussed what to do to really make her suffer. In Hell, the seed of demons burned like acid and generally brought with it parasites, worms, gangrene and tumours, as well as the possibility of the conception of something that would eat its way out when the time came to be born. That conception could equally well take place in a male; a womb was not required and the demons were not fussy.

She found the pain astounding, the humiliation and degradation absolute.

She started to sing to them. She sang without words, just making sounds in a language that she herself didn’t understand and had not known she possessed. The half-dozen demons reacted with fury, taking an iron bar to her mouth, smashing her teeth. She kept on singing, even through the froth of blood and broken teeth inside her mouth, the sounds bubbling up and out, sounding more and more like wheezing, unstoppable laughter. One of them tied something round her neck so that she started to suffocate. She felt the life going from her, and wondered what new torments would await her when she was brought back to life again, to continue suffering.

The mad, ghastly thrusting that was tearing her apart suddenly stopped. The thing round her neck was torn away and she gulped air, then spat and retched as the blood coughed itself up, then was able to roll over onto her side and take a sequence of further deep, painful gasps, letting the blood and the bits of her teeth fall from her mouth onto the stained, uneven surface of the floor. There was more snarling and shouting and some thumping, like bodies being thrown about or being forced to the floor. She could see the boards better than before because the door to the outside was open and a giant beetle was visible.

She looked up and, standing over her, saw a demon like the one Prin had become: massive and powerful, six limbed, fur striped yellow and purple, accoutred with jagged armour. Another one, striped yellow and black, not quite so fantastically armoured, stood behind, its powerful forelimbs holding a struggling minor demon, one of those who’d been raping her. The other minor demons had been scattered around the floor of the mill and lay moaning and slowly picking themselves up.

The giant predator demon lowered its face to hers as she wheezed and spat the last of the blood from her mouth. Between her legs, it felt as though she had been split apart. Inside, it was as though they had filled her with boiling water.

“Unclever, little one,” the giant demon told her. “Now we go to a place where soon you will beg to come back here and let these scamps resume their play with you.” It straightened. “You bring her,” it said to the yellow and black demon, which threw the minor demon it held across the floor and into the rotating machinery of the mill. It howled as it was crushed; the machinery creaked to a stop. The demon lay like a limp rag leaking blood within the cogs and gears of bone.

The yellow and black demon picked her up as easily as Prin had done and took her to the giant beetle waiting outside.

Inside the flier, she was thrown into a giant open pod with a glistening red interior and brown-black lips like some enormous animal; the lips closed around her neck as her body was sucked further into the centre of the closing pod. She felt dozens of barbs connect with her skin, then penetrate her flesh. She waited for the next symphony of pain to consume her.

Instead; everything went numb. A feeling of something like relief flooded her. Even her mouth stopped hurting. No pain. For the first time in months she was free of pain.

She was facing forward, just behind the craft’s control deck, where the giant beetle’s hollow eyes looked out over the valley. She heard the ramp behind thud closed. The two giant demons squeezed themselves into seats, one looking out through each of the beetle’s segmented eyes.

“Sorry about all that,” the yellow and purple one said to her, glancing over its shoulder as the other demon worked the craft’s controls and the whirring sound of giant beating wings filled the beetle’s interior. The demon’s voice was quieter now, conversational, though it still carried above the sounds of the wings.

“Has to look and sound good for the minions; you know.”

The other demon pulled on some sort of headset. “Portal we agreed, first choice,” it said. “Flight time as simmed.”

“Sounds good to me,” the first demon said. “Last one through’s unfavoured.” The demon wearing the headset pulled at the controls. The beetle lurched upward, reared back as it rose, then tipped forward. It settled level but still felt as though it was pointing upwards as it accelerated away across the riven, smoke-streamered landscape beneath, rising almost to the greasy-looking brown overcast.

The first demon looked over its shoulder at her again. “Could only get one of you out, yes?”

She blinked at it. No pain. No pain. To be flying, trapped in this thing, but to be feeling no pain. It made her want to cry. The demon looking at her made a shape with its great, tooth-filled mouth that was probably meant to be a smile. “It’s all right to talk,” it told her. “You are allowed to reply. The cruelty has already stopped, the madness ceased to be. We’re going to get you out of here. We’re your rescuers.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said. Her voice sounded strange to her, without teeth. Her tongue had been bitten and although not causing her any pain it was swollen, and that was making her voice different too. She didn’t know if she had bitten her own tongue or if one of the demons in the mill had.

The senior demon shrugged. “Suit yourself.” It turned away.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“What?” It turned back to look at her again.

“I’m sorry I don’t believe you.” She shook her head slowly. “But I don’t. Can’t. Sorry.”

The demon looked at her for a moment. “They really have chewed you up bad, haven’t they?”

She didn’t say anything for a while. The demon continued to look at her. “Who are you?” she asked eventually.

“I’m called Klomestrum,” it told her. It nodded at the demon flying the beetle. “Ruriel.”

The other demon waved one forelimb but did not look round.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Place we can all get the fuck out of here. Another portal.”

“A portal to where?”

“The Real. You know; the place where there isn’t all this pain and suffering and torture and shit?”


“Yeah, really.”

“And where will we be then? Where in this ‘Real’?”

“Does it really matter? Not here, that’s the point.”

The two demons glanced at each other and laughed.

“Yes,” she insisted, “but where?”

“Wait and see. We’re not there yet. Best not to give anything away, eh?”

She blinked at him.

He sighed. “Look, if I tell you where we’re going to come out and they’ve somehow managed to listen in on this then they might be able to stop us, see?”

The first demon half-turned his head to her. “Where did you think you were going back to just there, back at the mill?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “Another part of here,” she said. “There is no ‘Real’. It’s just a myth to make things seem even worse here.”

“You really think that?” the demon said, looking aghast at her.

“It’s all that makes sense,” she said. “It’s all there is. This is all there is. How could there be a Real where people would allow something so terrible as this to exist? This place must be all that there is. What people call the Real is a myth, an unreachable heaven only there to make existence all the worse by comparison.”

“There could still be a Real,” the demon protested, “but one where the people—”

“Leave it,” the other demon said.

Somehow, without her noticing it happening, the demon piloting the giant beetle had turned into one of the smaller demons, a dark little squirmy thing with a long glistening body. It looked like something that had just been born, or excreted.

“Fuck,” the other demon said. It had turned into something much smaller too; a sort of featherless bird with pale, raw, tattered skin and a beak whose top part had been broken half off. “You really think your friend just went to another part of Hell?”

“Where else is there to go?” she asked.

“Fuck,” the demon said again. It seemed to stiffen. So did the other demon.

“Oh, fuck, we’re not even getting to—”

There was no transition. One instant she was numb and without pain in the pod inside the giant flying beetle, the next she was pinned, flayed, in agony, her flesh opened out and spread out all around her, on a slope in front of some sort of ultimate Demon. She was shrieking.

“Shush,” something said, and the force of it tumbled across her like a gigantic wave, pressing her into the noisome earth beneath her where things crawled and squirmed and invaded her flesh. Now she could not scream. Her throat had been sealed, her mouth had been sewn shut. She breathed through a ragged hole in what was left of her neck, chest muscles working to expand and compress her lungs but leaving her unable to make any sound. She writhed, moved side to side, tried to jerk herself loose from whatever held her. The motions produced only more pain but she persisted.

A noise like a sigh rolled across her, scarcely less batteringly heavy than the sound of “Shush” a moment earlier.

The pain ebbed, retreated, left her quivering. It did not go away entirely but it left her room to think, to feel other things besides the agony.

She could see properly now. The pain before had been so bad she had not been able to understand what she was looking at.

Before her, across a dark valley full of smoke and half-hidden red and orange flames, on a dully glowing throne the size of a great building, sat a demon at least a hundred metres tall.

The demon had four limbs but looked alien, bipedal; its upper limbs were arms rather than legs. Its skin was made from living pelts and hides and flesh, its body from an obscene amalgam of sweating metal, stretched gristle, pitted ceramic gears, reconstituted, pulverised bone and inflamed, smouldering sinew, tattered flesh and leaking, boiling blood. The vast throne glowed dully because it was red hot, producing a greasy slow upwelling of smoke from the fleshes and pelts that cloaked the demon, filling the air with a continual sizzling, spitting noise.

The thing had a lantern head, like an enormous version of a four-paned, inward-sloping gas light from ancient history. There was a sort of face shown within the lantern itself, an alien face made of a dirty, smoking flame; it peered out through glass made dark and filthy by the soot and livid fumes within. At each of the four external corners of the lantern, a giant candle of tallow stood, each containing a hundred shrieking nervous systems intact and in burning agony within. She looked at it, knew it, knew all this, and could see herself through its eyes, or whatever infernal senses or organs it used to see.

She was a skinned skeleton-plus-musculature figure, a tiny distant doll of a thing, her flesh pulled away from her and pegged, pinned to the ground around her.

“I hoped to make you hope,” the vast voice said, the syllables rolling over her like thunder. Her ears hurt with the force of it and kept on ringing afterwards. “But you are beyond hope. That is vexing.”

Suddenly she could talk again, the stitches that had sealed her mouth gone in a blink, the ragged tear in her neck sealed, her throat no longer crushed closed, her breath coming and going normally.

“Hope?” she gasped. “There is no hope!”

“There is always hope,” the vast voice declaimed. She could feel the force of it in her lungs, feel its words shaking the very ground beneath her. “And there must be hope. To abandon hope is to escape part of the punishment. One must hope in order for hope to be destroyed. One must trust in order to feel the anguish of betrayal. One must yearn, or one cannot feel the pain of rejection, and one must love in order to feel the agony of witnessing the loved one suffer excruciation.” The vast being sat back, producing wreathes of smoke like the currents of dark continental rivers, candles spearing flame like huge trees burning.

“But above all one must hope,” the voice said, each word, each syllable smacking into her body, resounding inside her head. “There must be hope or otherwise how can it be satisfyingly dashed? The certainty of hopelessness might become a comfort; the uncertainty, the not-knowing, that is what helps to bring on true despair. The tormented cannot be allowed to abandon themselves to their fate. That is insufficient.”

“I am abandoned, I am nothing but abandoned; abandonment is all there is,” she screamed back. “Make your myths but I’ll not believe in them.”

The demon rose up, fire and fumes and smoke beating and wallowing in his wake. The ground beneath her shook to his foot-steps, jarring the few teeth left in her head. He stood over her, towering above like an insane statue of something unbalanced, unnatural, two-legged. He stooped, causing a great roaring as the flames around him tore brightening through the air. A finger longer than her whole body scooped something from the ground near her head. Dripping wax from one tower-sized fleshy candle splashed spattering onto her torn-open skin, stinking of rotten, burned flesh, causing her to howl with fresh pain until it cooled, part solidified.

“You did not even notice this, did you?” the great voice bellowed, rolling over her. He held the tiny-looking necklace of barbed wire which she had worn for as long as she could remember. He rubbed it between his body-thick fingers, and for an instant took on the magnified but gritty, pixelated appearance of one of the great powerful demons Prin had impersonated and the two in the flying beetle machine had at first seemed to be. The image flickered off. He threw the lengths of wire away. “Disappointing.” The word cracked and rolled over her, seemed to press her into the earth with its vast, despondent force.

He held his cock and sprayed her with fluid salts at the same time as the pain came flooding back. The gushing waters pummelled her and their fire-bright stinging made her shriek once more.

The pain was turned right down again, just long enough for her to hear him say, “You should have had religion, child, that in it you might have found the hope that could then be crushed.”

He raised one massive iron foot the size of a truck high above her then brought it down fast and hard from twenty metres up, killing her.


What is that?”

“That is a present,” the ship told her. She looked at the thing lying in Demeisen’s palm. Then she looked up at his eyes.

The avatar’s face had filled out a little more over the last few days. His body had altered a fraction too, making him look more like a Sichultian. This was a process that was intended to continue until he looked as native as she did when they arrived in Enablement space fifteen days from now. His eyes looked crinklier, she thought; friendlier. She knew that technically he was an it, not a he, but she still thought of him as male. All she had to remember, of course — she told herself — was that whether a he, a she, an it or anything else, Demeisen was the ship. The avatar was not anything truly independent or genuinely human.

She frowned. “It looks a bit like a—”

“Neural lace,” Demeisen said, nodding. “Only it isn’t.”

“What, then?”

“It’s a tattoo.”

“A tattoo?”

He shrugged. “Kind of.”

They were in the twelve-person module the ship had brought aboard from the GSV especially for her. It was housed within one of the Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints’ many cramped spaces that were something between magazines, munition-stores and hangars. The ship had no other dedicated human habitable space inside it at all; even this module was a concession. It had not impressed her when she’d first seen it and been told this was all there was.

“This is it?” she’d said after she’d joined Demeisen on board and realised that, somehow, the little slap-drone had been left behind. She’d said a sincere thank you for that but then there had been a moment of awkwardness after the avatar had welcomed her aboard and she’d stood there waiting to be shown to her cabin from the rather minimal and utilitarian cabin space she’d materialised in.

“This is it?” she’d repeated, turning, looking round. She was standing in a space about four metres by three. In one direction lay a blank grey wall; opposite it there was a raised platform a little narrower than — and one step up from — the space she stood in; the platform held three long, deep padded chairs facing a double sloped wall, the upper part of which appeared to be a screen, though it was also blank at the moment. To either side there were what might be double doors, though they too were a uniform grey.

Demeisen had looked genuinely hurt. “I had to leave behind an Offensive Slaved Broad-Spectrum Munitions Platform, Self Powered to fit this in,” he’d told her.

“You don’t have any space inside your… inside the ship at all?”

“I’m a warship, not a taxi. I keep telling you.”

“I thought even warships could carry a few people!”

“Pa! Old tech. Not me.”

“You’re one and a half kilometres long! There must be room somewhere!”

“Please; one point six kilometres long, and that’s naked hull in full compression. In standard operational deployment mode I’m two point eight klicks; three point two with all fields on but pulled corset tight. In serious gloves-off, claws out, teeth bared, just-point-me-at-the-bad-guys engagement-ready mode I’m… well it varies; it’s what we call threat-mix dependent. But many kilo metres. Riled-up I’m really more like a sort of mini fleet.”

Lededje, who had stopped listening at the first use of the word “point”, had wailed, “I can touch the ceiling!” She’d reached up to do just that, without even standing on tiptoe.

Demeisen had sighed in exasperation. “I’m an Abominator-class picket ship. This is the best I can do. Sorry. Would you rather I slung you back aboard The Usual But Etymologically Unsatisfactory?”

“Picket? But it was a picket ship and it had lots of space!”

“Ah. No it wasn’t. That’s the clever bit.”


“People have spent the best part of one and a half millennia getting used to the idea of the Culture having all these ex-warships, most of them largely demilitarised, called Fast Pickets or Very Fast Pickets, and they are basically just express taxis, then along comes this new class called the Abominator, they call it a picket ship and nobody takes any notice. Even when Abominators almost never taxi anybody anywhere.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“‘Picket’ in my case means I hang around waiting for trouble, not that I hang around waiting for hitch-hikers. There are two thousand Abominator-class ships, we’re scattered evenly throughout the galaxy and all we do is sit and wait for stuff to happen. I’m part of the Culture’s quick reaction force; we used to keep all the serious up-fucking ships in a few mostly very-far-away ports but that didn’t always work out when things blew up suddenly. Remember I said ‘Don’t ask why’ earlier?”

“Yes. You said not to ask you why you were heading in the direction of Sichult anyway.”

“Well, Lededje — and appreciate that, to continue the dubious maritime analogy, I’m negotiating a tricky course between the minefield of personal honesty on one side and the rocky coast of operational security on the other — that’s as good a hint as I can afford to give you. Now, I’m serious; do you want to be put back aboard the The Usual But bla bla bla?”

She’d scowled at him. “I suppose not.” She’d looked around. “This thing does have a toilet?”

Nine seats blossomed from the floor and rear wall, then they collapsed back as though made from a membrane that had suddenly been punctured and collapsed, to be followed by a very generously sized bed, then by a sort of white glazed balloon which parted neatly to reveal what was probably a combined bath and walk-in shower. Then that too was swallowed back up into the floor and wall. “That do?” Demeisen had asked.

The fifteen days since had been spent in the same tiny space, though the entirety of the cabin’s interior surfaces could function as a single astoundingly convincing screen, so it could look like she was standing on a snowy mountain top, the middle of a table flat desert, a wave-washed beach or anywhere else she or the module could think of.

She had been thinking ahead and had decided what she might require when she got to Sichult. She was intending to get to Veppers through his lust; she reckoned the degree of physical beauty she had been granted, thanks to Sensia and her human-growing vats, would be sufficiently beguiling to entice Veppers, if she got close enough to be seen by him in the right social situation. A second way to get to him might be through her own knowledge of how his household, the town house in Ubruater and the mansion at Espersium all worked.

She’d had the ship make her clothes and jewellery and various other personal possessions, ready for when she arrived at Sichult. She’d tried to get it to make her some weapons, but it wouldn’t play. It had even hesitated over one of her necklaces, given that it was long enough to be used to strangle somebody. It had conceded on that one. It had had no detectable qualms whatsoever about providing her with a diamond-film currency card allegedly loaded with enough credit to ensure that if she changed her mind about murdering Veppers she could buy her own Ubruater town house, her own country estate and just live like a princess for the rest of her life. Maybe that was the idea.

She exercised, she studied — mostly she studied all that the Culture knew of Veppers, Sichult and the Enablement, which was a lot more than even Veppers himself knew, she’d be prepared to bet — and she talked to the always-available Demeisen, who would materialise whenever she wanted to talk. Not that it was really materialising, literally, apparently, though she felt her eyes start to glaze over once the technical explanation kicked in.

She’d undergone a guided virtual tour of the ship, albeit reluctantly. She’d only agreed because Demeisen had seemed so boyishly enthusiastic about it. The tour had taken a while, though probably not as long as it had felt at the time. All she remembered was that the ship could split into different bits, like a sort of one ship fleet or something, though it was most powerful as a single unit. Sixteen bits. Or maybe it was twenty-four. She’d made the appropriate Ooh, Ah, No, really? noises at the time, which was what actually mattered. She had lots of experience at that sort of thing.

She had, tentatively, entertained the idea of taking Demeisen as a lover. The more Sichultian he got, and the longer she was cooped up in here, fabulous fake scenery or not, the more attractive he looked and the itchier that subject got. She guessed, first, it would be pretty meaningless to the ship, second that she’d be indulged (it would say yes), third that it would be done with some style and sensitivity and — it occurred to her one day — fourth, it might just… just… make her safer, and her plan to kill Veppers more likely to succeed.

The Minds, the hyper AIs that commanded, that basically were the Culture’s capital ships, were unarguably sentient, and they had emotions, even if their feelings were always under the control of their intellects, never the other way round. The ship had already hinted that there might be trouble where it was taking her — the sort of trouble where its fearsome martial abilities might come into play — so was there not just a chance that having sex with its avatar might make it feel even the tiniest bit of extra commitment towards her?

How much would it mean to the ship if she and its avatar did fuck? Nothing whatsoever? Or would it be like a human stroking a domestic pet; indulgent, companionable, mildly pleasant… though with no possible component that might lead to feelings of ownership, commitment or jealousy?

It was calculation rather than emotion; she’d be whoring herself. But then Veppers had long ago removed any choice she might have had regarding who she fucked. She’d had to whore herself for him (and against him — not that that had worked). The only time she’d ever had sex simply because she’d wanted to had been on that single night aboard the GSV, with Shokas.

Anyway, she had not broached the subject. And besides, for all she knew, the ship would revert to type, the way it had been while it had been aboard the GSV, before it had had its sudden and still slightly suspicious change of mind. Then it had seemed to enjoy hurting people; so it might do so again, and take pleasure in having its avatar reject her.

Now he — it — was offering her a present: a tattoo, allegedly. She was sat in one of the three flight-deck seats; she’d been watching news reports out of Sichult on the module’s screen when Demeisen had popped into existence behind her. She leant forward. The thing lay in his palm; a looped, tangled assortment of thin grey-blue filaments looking a lot how she knew a fully grown neural lace looked.

“What makes you think I might want a tattoo?”

“You said you missed having one.”

“I did?”

“Eleven days ago. Then again yesterday. The first time, you said that sometimes you felt too naked when you woke up. You also mentioned that since you were revented you’d had dreams of walking down a city street thinking you were fully clothed but everybody looking at you weirdly and then you looking down at yourself and realising you were naked.”

“Apparently normal people have that dream.”

“I know.”

“Did I also say I was glad to be rid of the tattoo?”

“No. Maybe you just think you say that to people.”

She frowned, looked at the thing in his palm again. Now it looked like thin strands of oily mercury. “Anyway, that does not look like a tattoo,” she told him.

“Not like this. Watch.”

The assemblage of loops and lines started to move slowly, stirring itself. It began to flow out across Demeisen’s palm as though forming a sort of chain-mail glove. He turned his hand over for a moment to show it wrapping itself round his fingers, then turned it back as the lines moved like tiny waves up his wrist and arm, disappearing under his shirt. He rolled the sleeve back to show the filaments coursing along his upper arm, thinning fractionally and spreading out.

He undid his shirt a little to show the silver-blue lines tracking smoothly across his upper chest — it was smooth, hairless, like a child’s — then put his head back as the tattoo rose up his neck and over his face and then right round his head, a few tiny thin lines decorating his ears while others swept fabulously, precisely over his face, moving to within millimetres of his nostrils, mouth and eyes but stopping there. He raised his other hand to show the lines flowing down there too, then held both hands and forearms up to show that they were identically, symmetrically decorated in millimetrically spaced curls and swirls, curves and parabolas.

“I’m getting it to display just the upper-body section,” he explained. “It does the torso, legs and feet too; same spacing.” He admired his hands. “Or you can go for a more angular look…”

The mobile tattoo shifted everywhere, the curves becoming straight lines, the tight curls becoming right angles, zigzags. “Colour’s commandable too,” Demeisen muttered. The tattoo changed to soot black. Then to perfectly reflective silver, as though the whole tattoo was made of mercury teased impossibly fine. “Or sort of random.” Within seconds the tattoo had become a dark, random scribble across what she could see of his body. “Motifs, obviously,” Demeisen added. The tattoo became a series of nested, concentric silver circles on his skin, the largest a hand’s-breadth in diameter across his upper chest.

She reached out and took one of his hands, peering at the circles on the back of his hand. Looking extremely closely — she still thought her eyesight was significantly better than any normal Sichultian’s had ever been; more zoomable, for a start — she could just make out tiny silver lines running from one circle to another. Hair fine, she thought. No; down fine.

She gazed at all the silvery circles, spread across his skin like too-symmetrical ripples in a pond someone had thrown a few dozen pebbles into. The circles spread, merged, became a criss-cross pattern of thick lines that looked braided, and much finer lines which wove in between the braids. Changing from silver to gold, they made it look as though he was wrapped in a glittering wire cage.

“Of course, I’m able to alter it by just thinking,” he told her. “You’d need to control it through an interface; maybe have some sort of control section always manifest in the pattern, if you wanted to make it change appearance. One wrist with a sort of stylised key- or glyph-board on it would work, or even just coded fingertip sequences anywhere. Though a terminal would work too. Something to decide later.”

She was barely listening, still staring. “It’s astonishing,” she breathed.

“Like it? It’s yours,” he told her.

She kept hold of his hand. She looked up at him. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”

He laughed. “Of course not.”

“Are there any catches?”

“Catches?” He looked confused for a moment. “Oh,” he said, “you mean any downside?”

“Anything I might wish I’d known, looking back on this moment from some point in the future?”

She worried that she might have insulted him, insulted the ship somehow, by being so cautious, even suspicious. But Demeisen just pursed his lips and looked thoughtful. “None I can think of.” He shrugged. “Anyway, it’s yours if you want it.” The tattoo was already moving, all over him, changing from silver circles to wavy dark grey lines and sliding back the way it had come, up from one hand, down from his head, face and neck, away from his chest and back down the other arm until it rested coiled, grey-blue and immobile back in his palm again.

She still held that hand. “All right,” she said softly. “I’ll take it.”

“Keep your hand there,” he told her.

The tattoo moved up his palm, along two of his fingers and then onto her fingers, hand, wrist and forearm. She could only just feel it as it slid slowly along her tawny skin, faintly disturbing the fine, downy hairs on her arms. For some reason she had assumed it would be cool, but it was skin temperature.

“Any particular pattern you’d like it to assume?” Demeisen asked.

“That first one you had,” she said, watching it settle over her fingers on the hand it started on. She flexed her fingers. There was no resistance, no feeling of tightness, even where the lines seemed printed over her knuckles. The pattern he’d had first, the one with the whorls and swirls, expressed itself over her arms. She pulled her sleeve up to see. “I can change it later?” she asked, glancing at him.

“Yes,” he said. He made a hand-shaking gesture. “You can let go now,” he said. She smiled at him, let go of his hand.

The tattoo went smoothly onto her upper chest; she could feel it go quite quickly across her back between her shoulder blades, heading for her other arm. It wrapped round her chest and torso and spread up over her neck and face and head. She stood up as it covered her belly and flowed down over her behind. She stepped down to where Demeisen stood. “Can I—?” she asked, and immediately Demeisen was holding a mirror, showing her her own face. She raised her other hand to watch it move down from her wrist to her fingers. It slid easily under the silvery ring which was her terminal. She looked back at her reflection.

“Mirror,” Demeisen said. He twirled the mirror’s handle, presenting her with the other side. “Or invertor; a screen, in other words.”

She gave a small laugh, shook her head as she watched the dark patterns settle over her face like tiny trajectories, like tracks in a bubble chamber, like the slightest, finest spiral-vines in a miniature forest. She touched her fingers to her cheek. It was as though it wasn’t there. Her fingertips felt as sensitive as they ever had and her cheek felt just as it always did. “Make it go silver,” she whispered.

“Your wish, ma’am,” he said.

It went silver. She regarded her face. Silver would never look as good as when her skin had been black. “Black, please,” she said.

It went perfectly black. She felt it complete its spread over her torso and back. It settled and joined between her legs, close by vagina and anus but not covering. It moved down her legs, spiralling towards her ankles and feet.

She pulled the material of her blouse out, looked down. “Is there any strength to it?” she asked. “Could it act as support, as a brassiere?”

“There is a little tensile strength to it, naturally,” Demeisen said quietly. She felt and — blouse neck still pulled open — watched as the tattoo pushed her breasts gently upwards. Now there was a slight tightness around her rib cage, just under her breasts. She let the material go, grinned at him. “Not that I’m vain,” she told him with a suddenly shy smile. “Or really need one. You can let it go back the way it was.”

She felt the tightness around her chest relax and disappear. For a moment she was aware of the weight of her breasts, then they just went back to feeling normal again.

Demeisen smiled. “Also, it can go skin coloured.”

She felt it squeeze between the soles of her feet and the thin slippers she wore. At the same time, the tattoo disappeared. She peered at her image in the invertor again. There was no sign of it whatsoever. She put her fingers to her face once more. Still nothing to be felt. “Bring it back?” she asked, missing it already.

It faded slowly up, from her precise skin tone to soot black again, like an ancient photograph.

“What’s it made of?” she asked.

“Mased-state transfixor atoms, woven long-chain molecular exotics, multi-phased condensates, nanoscale efines, advanced picogels… other stuff.” He shrugged. “You weren’t expecting anything simple like ‘plastic’ or ‘memory mercury’, were you?”

She smiled. “Did you make it yourself?”

“Certainly did. From pre-existing patterns, but tweaked.” The tattoo had settled everywhere upon her skin. It had stopped moving. She closed her eyes for a moment, flexed her fingers, rotated both arms in an exaggerated windmilling motion. She could feel nothing. As far as her skin was concerned, the tat might as well not be there.

“Thank you,” she said when she opened her eyes. “Can it come off as quickly?”

“Slightly quicker.”

She put one hand to the skin just under her eye. “But could it, say, stop somebody trying to poke me in the eye with a sharp stick?”

A tiny grid of dark lines leapt up in front of her right eye, near where her fingers were. She felt that all right; not exactly sore, but there had been real pressure on the skin all around her eye.

She grinned. “Any other orifices or bodily parts it protects?” she asked.

“It can probably dice your poo as it emerges,” Demeisen said, matter-of-factly. “And act as a chastity belt if you want. You’ll need to practise controlling it with your terminal; there’ll be something of a learning process for the more complicated stuff.”

“Anything else it can do?”

A pained expression crossed his face. “That’s about it. I wouldn’t go jumping off any tall buildings expecting it to save you, because it won’t. You’ll still end up squished.”

She stepped back, looked at her arms and hands, then came forward and hugged him.

“Thank you, Demeisen,” she said into his ear. “Thank you, ship.”

“My pleasure entirely,” the avatar said. He — it — returned the hug with — she’d have been prepared to bet — exactly the same amount of pressure she was putting into it. “I am very glad you like it.”

She loved it. She hugged the avatar a little longer, and was patted on the back. She gave it just one extra beat to see if there would be any more to it than that, but there wasn’t.

Any normal man, she thought… But that, of course, was precisely what he was not. She patted his upper arms and let go.


The Semsarine Wisp was an etiolated meander of young stars strewn amidst great gauzy veils of shadowing, shielding interstellar gas. It protruded from the main galactic mass like a single fuzzily curled hair from a tousled head. The General Contact Unit Bodhisattva OAQS brought Yime Nsokyi to the rendezvous point within the Wisp sixteen days after picking her up from her home Orbital. The rendezvous point itself was an Unfallen Bulbitian.

The Bulbitians had been the losers in a great war long ago. The things that people now called Bulbitians — Fallen or otherwise — had been the species’ primary habitats: substantial space structures which looked like two great, dark, heavily decorated cakes joined base to base. They averaged about twenty-five kilometres measured either across their diameter or from pinnacle to pinnacle, so were relatively small by habitat standards, though of respectable size compared to the spacecraft of most other civilisations. The Bulbitians themselves had been a pan-hopper species; small, monopedal and quite long-lived by the time they got involved in the great war that destroyed them. As far as was known, no verified biological trace of them still existed.

All that remained were their space structures, and almost all of them were no longer in space; they were the Fallen Bulbitians, the ships/habitats that had been deliberately and carefully lowered through the atmosphere of the nearest suitable solid-surface planet by the Hakandra — the winners of that particular war — to serve as monuments to their victory. Brought down to a planetary surface, the great structures were crushed by their own weight and crumpled into vast, city-sized, mountain-range-high ruins.

The Hakandra had not troubled to remove anything save the most advanced weapon systems from the structures before they’d run them aground on the planetary rocks they’d chosen, which meant that — the Bulbitian species themselves having been avid creators and collectors of all sorts of technologies, gifts and gadgets — the Fallen Bulbitian structures had proved quite fabulous — if highly dangerous — techno-treasure troves for any developing species lucky enough to be present when one was deposited in their midst (and also lucky enough not to have had any important cities of their own flattened by the structure’s sudden arrival — the Hakandra had not been as conscientious as they might have been when deciding exactly where to leave their triumphant droppings).

The AIs that had controlled the structures had either never been fully deactivated by the indifferent Hakandra or had somehow contrived to regain some sort of activity following their partial destruction, because the notorious thing about Fallen — and Unfallen — Bulbitians was that they remained in some sense alive, their computational and processing substrates proving resistant to anything save the utter annihilation of the entire structure they inhabited. They were also, in every case, somewhere beyond eccentric in nature and arguably mad, as well as seemingly still possessed of powers that hinted at links to one or more of the Elder civilisations or even to the realm of the Sublimed, despite there having been no hint that the species itself had even partially gone in that direction.

By the time these links or powers were fully recognised the Hakandra at least — regarded as a stylish but off-hand, semi-detached species even by those who were their friends — had become even more unconcerned regarding the whole issue, having hit the Sublime button themselves and so cashed in their civilisational chips in the realm of the Real where matter still mattered.

Fewer than one quarter of one per cent of the Bulbitians were Unfallen — in other words still left in space — and they displayed no more inherent rationality than their fallen kin. Their AIs too had seemingly been deactivated, they too had swept clear of any remaining biological vestige of the species that had created them, they too had been looted over the centieons — though in their case by those who already at least possessed space travel — and they too had seemingly come back on-line, centuries or millennia after they had been assumed to be as dead as their progenitor species.

All the Unfallen Bulbitians were in out-of-the-way galactic locations, far distant from the kind of rocky, atmosphered planets the Hakandra had chosen to lower the vast majority of the structures onto, and the suspicion had always been that they simply couldn’t be bothered going to the effort in every case.

The Unfallen Bulbitian within the Semsarine Wisp lay in the trailing Lagrangian point of a gas giant protostar, itself a part of a brown-dwarf binary system, leaving the giant double-cake of the Bulbitian bathed in the long-frequency radiations of the whole, still hazily dusty system and its artificially maintained skies punctuated by the blue-white glares of the Wisp’s younger stars, where their light was able to struggle through the great slow-swirling clouds and nebulas of dust still in the process of building new suns.

This particular Bulbitian had been colonised by several different species over the milleons, the current nominal occupiers being nobody in particular. Some long time ago the structure had had a stabilised singularity placed at its hollowed-out centre, a black hole which provided about a third of what pan-humans chose to deem one standard gravity. This was very close to the limit that an Unfallen Bulbitian could take without the whole structure collapsing in on itself. It didn’t help that the structure had originally been spun to provide the semblance of gravity, but no longer did so, meaning that — due to the absence of spin and the presence of the singularity — up had become down, and down up.

People had tried to do this sort of thing to Bulbitians before and paid, usually very messily, with their lives; the structures themselves seemed to object to being messed around with, and either activated defence systems nobody had known were there in the first place or had been somehow able to call on somebody else’s highly effective resources.

This one had allowed the contained singularity to be placed at its core but — given that in every other respect it was just as eccentric, wilful and occasionally murderously unpredictable as any other Bulbitian — nobody had ever dared to try and remove the black hole, even though it did arguably make the structure as unstable physically as it had always been behaviourally.

Nobody knew who had last been in charge of the place, or what had happened to them. This was, obviously, worrying, though no more worrying than any random phenomenon associated with any other Bulbitian.

Whoever it had been, they had obviously liked it hot, hazy and wet.

The Bodhisattva entered the six-thousand-kilometre-wide bubble of cloudy air surrounding the Bulbitian very slowly, like a thick needle somehow persuading the balloon it was penetrating not to pop, out of sheer politeness.

Yime watched the ship’s careful, gentle progress via a screen in her quarters as she packed a bag, in case she had to quit the Bodhisattva on little notice. Finally, the dripping rear end of the ship’s outermost horizon field parted company with the glisteningly adhesive internal surface of the Bulbitian’s atmospheric bubble. The view started to tilt as the ship rotated to position itself compatibly with the structure’s own gentle gravity field.

“Safely inside?” Yime asked, snapping her bag shut.

“… Inside,” the ship replied.

There were no confirmed reports of Culture ships suffering injury or destruction at the behest of a Bulbitian, but the space craft of other civilisations on the same technological level — and arguably of no less moral worth — had very occasionally been bizarrely crippled or had outright disappeared, at least allegedly, and so even Culture vessels — not normally known for their caution in such matters — tended to think twice before breezing up to your average Bulbitian with a cheery Hail fellow-entity!

The Bodhisattva moved on through a hothouse atmosphere of slow-swirling weather systems, giant grey-brown blister-clouds and long sweeping swathes of darkly torrential rain.

“Yime Nsokyi, I presume,” the elderly lady said. “Welcome to the Unfallen Bulbitian, Semsarine Wisp.”

“Thank you. And you…?”

“Fal Dvelner,” the woman said. “Here, have an umbrella.”

“Allow me,” said the ship’s drone, taking the offered device before Yime could accept it. They were still under the ship itself, so sheltered from the rain for the moment. It was so dark the main light came from the big drone’s aura field, which was formal blue mixed with green good humour.

The Bodhisattva had backed carefully up to the structure’s only in-use landing entrance, hovering a few metres above the puddled surface of the landing pier itself, which was made of ancient, pitted metals the colour of mud. From the part of the ship nearest to the wide, bowed entryway into the Bulbitian to the entrance itself was only twenty metres, but the deluge was so heavy it would soak anybody crossing the rain-hazed surface of the pier.

“I was expecting somebody else,” Yime said as they walked splashing along under the jet-black under-surface of the ship. In the low gravity, she found herself imitating the floaty, bouncing gait of the older woman. The rain-drops were huge, slow-falling, slightly oblate spheres. Splashes from below, she noted, could soak you quite thoroughly in low gravity. Her ankle boots and trousers were already quite wet. Ms. Dvelner wore glossy thigh boots and a slick-looking shift, both of which were doubtless much more practical in the conditions. Yime carried her own bag. The air felt warm, and as humid as having a soaking, blood-temperature cloth applied to the face. The atmosphere seemed to press in and down, as though the floating bulk of the million-tonne ship directly above was somehow truly bearing down on her, for all that in reality it was supported within a dimension not even visible, and weighed, right now, within the frame of reference accessible to her, precisely nothing.

“Ah, yes; Mr. Nopri,” Fal Dvelner said, nodding. “He’ll be being unavoidably detained, I dare say.” Dvelner looked to be in about the last quarter of her life; spry, but delicately thin and white haired with a face that contained distinct lines. “He’s your Quietus rep here. I’m with the Numina mission.”

Numina was the part of the Culture’s Contact section that concerned itself with the Sublimed, or at least tried to. It was sometimes known as the Department Of What The Fuck?

“Why might Mr. Nopri be unavoidably detained?” Yime asked, raising her voice over the noise of the downpour. They were coming close to where the great snub nose of the ship rose like an obsidian cliff through the rain-filled air above. The ship had extended a field to shelter them from the rain; a dry corridor three metres wide extended all the way across the pier to the brightly lit entrance.

“Funny old places, Bulbitians,” Dvelner said quietly, arching one brow. She shook her umbrella out and opened it, nodded to the ship-drone, which was a soap-bar smooth, old-fashioned design nearly a metre long. The drone made a noise that might been “Hmm,” and flicked the umbrella open over Yime as they walked out from beneath the nose of the Bodhisattva.

The ship rocked; the whole three-hundred-metre length of it wobbled visibly in the air as the corridor it had made for them through the rain just disappeared, letting the rain thunder down around them. The downpour was so heavy Yime saw Dvelner’s arm sink appreciably as the weight of water hit the umbrella she was carrying. Given that they were bouncing along in only a third of standard G, this implied a lot of water, or a very weak old lady, Yime supposed.

“Here,” Yime said, taking the umbrella protecting her from the drone’s maniple field. She inclined her head towards Dvelner and the drone moved smoothly through the torrent, gently taking the handle of the umbrella from the older woman.

“Thank you,” Dvelner said.

“Did I just see you move?” Yime asked the ship’s drone.

“You did.”

“So what was all that about?”

“Anywhere else, I’d treat that as an attack,” the ship said through the drone, casually. “You don’t interfere with a GCU’s fields, even if all they’re doing is keeping the rain off somebody.”

Beside her, Ms. Dvelner snorted. Yime glanced at her, then said to the drone, “It can do that?”

“It can try to,” the drone said, its voice pitched to affable reasonableness, “with the implicit threat that if I didn’t let it it would get upset and try harder, which, as I say, anywhere else I’d take as tantamount to a challenge. However. My own field enclosures were never put under threat, I am a Quietus ship after all, and this is a particularly sensitive and special Bulbitian, so I chose to let it have its way. This is its turf, after all, and I am the guest-cum-intruder.”

“Most ships stay outside the bubble,” Dvelner said, also raising her voice over the rain as they neared the entrance way and the sounds of the cataracts of water falling off the towering facade above increased in volume. The yellow lights inside shone through the thick, trembling bubbles of the rain as though through a rippled, transparent curtain.

“So I understand,” the ship said. “As I say, though; I am a Quietus ship. However, if the Bulbitian would rather I stayed beyond its atmospheric sphere, I will be happy to oblige.” The drone made a show of turning to Yime. “I’ll leave a shuttle.”

With a last crash of drumming rain straining the bowing material of the umbrellas, they walked into the wide entrance to be met by a tall young man dressed quite similarly to Yime, though much less smartly. He was struggling and failing to open another umbrella. He was swearing quietly, then looked up, saw them, stopped swearing, smiled instead and threw the umbrella aside.

“Ms. Dvelner, thank you,” he said, nodding to the older woman, who was frowning suspiciously at him. “Ms. Nsokyi,” he said, taking her hand in his; “welcome.”

“Mr. Nopri?” Yime said.

He sucked air through his teeth. “Well, yes and no.” He looked pained.

Yime looked at Dvelner, who had closed her eyes and might have been shaking her head. Yime looked back at Nopri. “What would constitute the grounds for the ‘no’ part?”

“Technically the person you were expecting — the me you were expecting — is dead.”