The man known as Sharbat was today to be found in a drug bar and drinking den called the Forgotten Problem. He was leaning heavily on a table, a bowl trailing a stream of oily-looking purple smoke in one hand and a large glass of a startlingly orange drink with a frothy top which seemed to be steaming nearly as much as the bowl in the other. He was accompanied at the table by two slender figures - one male and one female - and a Drone, quite ancient - judging by the suitcase-sized casing - and very experienced, if the scars and blemishes on that casing were to be believed. The other humans also had an eclectic collection of psychotropic preparations within easy reach; the Drone was not ingesting drugs, of course, but seemed to be embracing the humans' mood, judging by the blotchily rosy and yellow-green aura fields that periodically appeared around its central sensor band.
The management of the Forgotten Problem liked to radically change the appearance of their establishment on a regular basis. Today, the interior resembled a saloon bar in some remote and dusty frontier township: bare floorboards, spittoons, wooden chairs and tables - or heavy staved barrels doubling for both of those functions - and a long bar backed by a large mirror, which seemed to be the only polished and dust-free things in the entire place.
The smoke from the drugs curled and roiled above the table. Around it, a dispassionate reporter might be able to observe much camaraderie but not, in fact, a great deal of conversation. In truth, the foursome seemed like a group of very old friends who had long since heard everybody else’s anecdotes, stories, opinions, prejudices, ideas, tall tales, yarns, speculations, gossip and rumours, and preferred to sit together companionably rather than bore their friends with unnecessary repetition.
"It's good to be back here," the big man said, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a belch.
Phoatri-Salmsa Jirl Kalvind Sharbat dam Algravia was a calm, soft-voiced man with olive skin and a swarthy complexion. He was unusually tall and strongly-built, with the kind of well-defined physique which would allow a student of anatomy to pick out every muscle in his body. He tended to move slowly and nearly silently, perhaps to counter the instinctive reaction in others to take a step back when he approached. Currently, has was clad in a tight singlet in khaki and knee-length shorts in a darker but similarly drab shade, and heavy thick-soled ankle boots.
The slender man glanced around, sizing up the wooden beams holding up the ceiling as if planning to leap from his chair and crawl, spider-like, around them. He could probably have managed it without apparent effort, too, even without the benefits of any embedded subsystems. Seddun Nyallsa Yam Finark Noibalt dam T'bert was a slender, even effete-looking man - although that was probably a poor characterisation in the Culture, whatever some of the more assertive Aspirant species might say. He was an acrobat as well as an extremely proficient spelunker, a speleologist who had, almost single-handedly, make the pastime of cave exploring once again fashionable on this particular Orbital.
"It's good to be able to unwind sometimes," he agreed, "Without worrying about what people are going to say."
In the Culture, it was possible to find as many different opinions as could be imagined on any topic one might care to mention; this was of course only to be expected. Especially so, Special Circumstances agents were not uniformly welcomed in all parts of Culture society. Even those citizens who had elected not to join the Peace Faction in the early stages of the Idiran war, or any of the other break-away groups known collectively as the Culture Ulterior, were not wholly sympathetic to those Minds, Drones and humans active in SC, even though - they might be persuaded to admit - the pseudo-military prowess of SC was a vital capability which allowed the tolerant, hedonistic, peace-loving society to continue to exist at all.
"Tell me about it," the woman added, "Some people just don't recognise a philosophical paradox when they see one."
Gailloff-Mersoitsa Yaybool Foklane Valbada dam Leflotha was tall, lithe and athletic, with powerful shoulders which looked like she swam a great deal. She wore a one-piece jump-suit in a neutral shade of grey and heavy boots which seemed to mimic those worn by Sharbat.
Over a period of several decades, all three of the humans had been given a complex and interlocking set of SC enhancements, but currently they were all carefully locked off, deactivated - the equivalent of removing the ammunition, the batteries, the power sources and all of the explosives from what would otherwise be extremely dangerous and potentially deadly walking weapons.
"Huh," the drone said, "Most people would run screaming from a known paradox."
The drone was much older than any of the humans. Roosh Formali-Kai Za-Handraden Xato Roul had been built as a dedicated Special Circumstances drone many centuries ago. Its technology was by now completely outdated, if not quite obsolete and it was now semi-retired. For reasons which were almost certainly some kind of statement, it had prevented its self-repair mechanisms from reaching perfection, preferring to retain on its casing the scars of at least some of its encounters.
All four people around the table had, together and separately, spent rather more time and energy supporting the objectives of the Cuture's Dirty Tricks department than they might feel comfortable admitting. Nevertheless, the four friends remained on what was informally, even jocularly, called the Call-Up List - those SC agents whose services were not, at this precise moment and in this particular volume of space, actually required, but who had indicated a willingness to drop everything and return, even if it was only temporarily, to active service.
The foursome had just lapsed once again into a companionable silence when the drone suddenly leapt into the air, its aura fields flashing a coruscating rainbow of surprise. A fraction of a second later, Valbada's terminal - which might have been mistaken in an earlier era for a sapphire earring - emitted a soft ping, followed by Sharbat's device, a block like a flattened cigarette packet stuffed into a breast pocket. Noibalt stiffened in his seat, adopting the slightly glassy-eyed and slack-jawed expression that people often assumed when communicating by neural lace.
Unsurprisingly, it was Formali-Kai who reacted first.
"So," it said in an excellent imitation of a drawl, "We've been summoned forthwith."
"By a representation," Noibalt added, "Of the Prosthetic Conscience."
The General Contact Unit Prosthetic Conscience was one of a large number of a new class of GCU constructed after the Idiran War: profoundly unmilitarized, although otherwise extremely capable, and always manned by a human crew with never less than fifteen people aboard. This particular vessel had reached prominence when it had been selected - or perhaps invited - to pass the Silent Barrier around Schar's World to inspect the total lack of damage now evident as the result of the Culture-Idiran incursions on that planet. After that, the ship seemed to manage to be in the local volume whenever something profoundly interesting to the Culture were to happen in the greater Galaxy, and gained a faintly dubious reputation of having some slightly shady connections which might just have something to do with SC.
"A GCU who has somehow acquired the clout," Valbada said, sounding faintly impressed, "To send a Thug class ex-ROU to Lhak Orbital specifically to collect us."
Sharbat looked around the table at his companions, having taken a moment to examine his own terminal.
"The Nacaractil," he drawled, frowning, "This is going to be interesting."