Two identical silver spheroids suddenly appeared a few metres from the railings at the edge of the topside park, then dissipated to leave Formali-Kai and Malias facing the chasm which bisected the ship's accommodation section and gave access to the engineering areas below. The sight that met them was entirely unanticipated, completely astonishing, startlingly alarming - and undeniably beautiful.
Instinctively, Malias dropped to one knee as hyper-sensitive defensive systems went to full readiness, alerted by her sudden confusion; she carefully backed them off a couple of notches before anything dramatic happened. Even Formali-Kai was shocked or surprised enough for its aura field to flash briefly rainbow.
The vast airspace between the rectangular kernel of the ship itself and its innermost fields was filled with flying people; people in float harnesses, AG rigs, simple aircraft or just powered wings. All were in constant motion, zooming and dipping; all were brightly coloured, no two alike. Foils and costumes and wings glinted in the light of the sunline which arced over the apparent sky above.
~Are you getting this?
Hub would be seeing through her eyes, and hearing through her ears, the entire gamut of her senses - natural and augmented - communicated via HS light. The Mind would be getting similar feeds directly from Formali-Kai.
~I am. It looks like some substantial fraction of the population is airborne out there.
Malias focussed on one of the nearer flying forms, using one subsystem which allowed for controlled magnification of her view. The flyer was a child, a girl of perhaps ten or eleven years, skilfully piloting a craft which used translucent vibrating wings like some vast dragonfly. She switched to a second flyer - another child of a similar age - and a third, and a fourth.
~There's lots of children!
~In fact, they're all children, Formali-Kai added laconically, No adults at all.
The arrival of the strangers had not gone unnoticed by the throng fluttering and weaving around the ship. Flying children went swooping and wheeling though the deep ravine which bisected the upper part of the ship, flitting in and out of open Bay doors; the Bays themselves appeared to be empty of ships or modules, but yet more flyers started to emerge from almost every one of the shadowed openings. It seemed like everybody aboard wanted to take a look at the newcomers.
After a minute or two, the whole - well, swarm might be the correct term, Malias considered - started to congregate around them, the apparent sky noticeably darkened by the mass of airborne bodies.
~They're talking to each other, somehow, Malias sent.
~Yes, Formali-Kai added, a node of surprise grudgingly slipping past the drone's formal demeanour, Every single one of them has a neural lace.
This was unusual. In the Culture, children were pampered, carefully nurtured - even spoiled, according to some authorities. They were carefully watched over by humans - usually mothers and a close-knit group of family and friends - drones and other AIs, and were accompanied initially by smart cuddly toys and animated companions, moving to more conventional terminals and limited-function implants as they grew older, until they reached the point, typically somewhere in early adulthood, where the fitting of a lace was advised. In some parts of the Culture, have a lace installed formed almost a rite of passage - although plenty of people eschewed such a sophisticated implant and preferred to rely on an external terminal in the shape of a brooch, pen or earring.
First one and then dozens of the airborne children swooped down, zooming over Malias's head so low that she had to suppress both the instinct to duck and her augmented systems' reactions. Forcing herself to stand still and appear unthreatening, she watched as one child, perhaps braver than the rest - or at least somehow selected from the multitude - pulled up on the turf a few metres from human and drone. She was wearing some kind of slatted wing-suit in a startling shade of turquoise; she twitched briefly, so that the wing-slats furled themselves neatly and almost invisibly into stowages along her spine and down the backs of her arms and legs.
The youngster regarded drone and adult quizzically for a few moments. Then, presumably reassured in some way, she extended her hand in a formal style Malias could remember being taught as a child.
"Hello. I'm Salfrain-Grosfillesa Roween Thallees dam Fropsheck," she announced in a surprisingly assured voice.
"Pleased to meet you, Roween," Malias said, taking the child's hand gently, "I'm Lafarif-Grusacksa Zadrana Petronz Malias da'Mascheck."
~Not old enough to have given herself a final name, Malias noted.
Roween stepped back, still looking puzzled.
"I thought all the adults had gone," she said, "Why are you still here?"