A short story set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

"Zadrana?"

"Uh-huh?"

"Are you awake?"

Zadrana Malias stretched luxuriously, the warm fluid of the bed's cover flowing sensuously over her lower limbs.

"Sort of? What's up, Hub?"

"There's a, ah, problem I'd like you to take a look at."

"An 'ah, problem', you say? Better tell me about it. Give me a minute."

Her lover from the previous night lay at her side, sleeping the sleep of the utterly exhausted. She tended to have that effect on her partners. It was time to leave quietly. She smiled and eased herself carefully out of the bed, the oil droplets obediently gliding off her skin and reforming themselves into a covering for the recumbent form. She picked up a light robe she had discarded and pulled it on.

"You do know I'm supposed to be retired?" she muttered as she tracked down her sandals, which had somehow ended up on opposite sides of the chamber.

Hub's voice - slightly deadened by the soundfield - spoke again in her ears.

"I'm also aware that you are still fitted with an eclectic selection of enhancements really only useful in a Special Circumstances context, and which you've steadfastly refused to have removed."

Malias snorted, mainly to herself.

Special Circumstances was the Culture’s espionage and dirty tricks division. It had built up an - entirely justified - reputation over the millennia for deviousness, misdirection, stealth, cunning and general sneakiness. Malias had really enjoyed the sense of both freedom and purpose on her SC assignments.

She left the bedroom, silently closing the door behind her. It had been an exhilarating encounter with an imaginative and enthusiastic partner, but not one she expected to repeat any time soon.

Outside, one of Hub's silver-skinned Avatars waited for her. The slender sexless creature bowed fractionally in greeting, then waved an arm in the direction of some nearby seating.

"Good morning. I trust you slept well?"

The Avatar spoke with the same soft calm voice which had sounded in her ears earlier.

"I'm sure you don't really need to enquire after my well-being," she said, settling herself into a form-seat, "And you'll know that all those SC enhancements are carefully disabled and locked away."

The Avatar smiled gently, sitting down primly opposite her.

"Of course."

"So tell me what this problem is," she asked, "And what I'm supposed to do about it."

"There's an old ship I used to know. The LSV Famigeratist."

"Never heard of it."

"Indeed. It declared itself Eccentric and disappeared centuries ago."

"So?"

"So, it's re-appeared. I got a message, out of the blue. Specifically aimed at me. It's on its way here, and said it'll arrive in a couple of days’ time."

"Looking up old friends, I expect." Malias settled herself more comfortably in her seat, kicking off the sandals and tucking her ankles under her backside. "But I still don't see the problem."

"The Famigeratist said it's got a lot of people on board. A full complement, so to speak."

"That's unusual, for an Eccentric?"

"It is. And the LSV told me it's concerned, even worried, about the people. They don't seem entirely, ah, well-balanced, it said."

"Okay. And what am I supposed to do?"

The Avatar sighed.

"The Famigeratist isn't speaking to me now, although it's definitely still on its way. Assuming it gets here on schedule, I want you to go aboard, quietly, unannounced, and report on the people - before I let them onto the Orbital."

"Afraid of some kind of contagious madness?"

"Of course. It's the kind of thing Orbital Minds can't help but worry about."

"Okay, I'll do it. But why me?"

"Even on an Orbital like this, there are relatively few people with an SC background. And even fewer with the right kind of experience. And, of those very few people, you are the one I believe is best suited to this investigation."

Malias didn't bother to ask why she was considered best-suited. In her experience, you almost never got a straight answer to that kind of question from a Mind.

"I've asked a drone to accompany you," the Avatar went on, "Like you, it has an SC background, and doesn't seem to mind being recalled to duty."

"So I'm 'recalled to duty', too, then?" she asked, grinning widely, "Not retired anymore?"

The Avatar nodded.

"And I can turn my enhancements back on?" she demanded, "You'll help with enabling those where I can't do it myself?"

"I will."

Zadrana Malias suddenly looked ineffably pleased with herself.

"Cool!"

The Avatar looked sternly at her.

"Don't underestimate this situation. You may very well need those capabilities, where you're going."

Malias shrugged.

"When's this mysterious ship going to arrive, exactly?"

"I'm tracking an arrival in a little over thirty hours. Plenty of time to get most of your embedded systems re-enabled."

She nodded, already imagining the tingling of powerful systems a mere hair-trigger away from activation.

"And to conduct a more in-depth briefing," the Avatar went on, "Although there's little enough information anyway. One short message, after an eternity without contact. And plenty of ambiguous interpretations of the content."

There was a tiny pause, just enough for Malias to look up sharply.

"And you will want to meet your drone companion, I expect."

"Yes. Who is it?" she demanded, frowning.

"Ah, well. Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier." The Avatar had the good grace to look slightly sheepish. "It is called Roosh Formali-Kai Za-Handrahen Xato Roul."

"Ah. That drone," Malias said flatly, "I'd hadn't heard it had returned here."

"It's been keeping out of your way, I imagine."

"Yes, I think it should. After the last time we worked together."

She sighed theatrically.

"I suppose," she asked carefully, "there's no possibility of another drone being assigned?"

"I'm sorry, Zadrana," the Avatar said softly, "There really is no alternative."

"Well, it better be bloody careful, that's all I can say."

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