Citizens of the high-level galactic civilization known as the Culture were in general rounded and well-balanced individuals, and tended to enjoy the company of many other people. There were, naturally enough, exceptions to this rule: introverted people actively preferring their own company, or small tightly-knit groups who kept themselves to themselves and seldom spoke to others.
"Hey, Khat," the voice from the tiny terminal said, "Are you still coming to the club this afternoon?"
Khat Dyderth was a typical citizen: born male and currently still the same, in his mid-fifties - so only just out of the kind of extended childhood the Culture tended to prefer - and currently having the social time of his life.
"Sure thing, Mathan," Dyderth replied, raising his voice only slightly so that the terminal masquerading as an earring captured his voice clearly, "I'll grab a travel car and see you there."
Mathan Malarkii was just as companionable and outgoing as Khat Dyderth and only a few years his senior. Naturally enough, Malarkii emphasised the advantage in years over his close friend by adopting a darkly swarthy appearance with a well-groomed beard and just the suggestion of a widow’s peak in his near-black hair, while Dyderth sported a mass of shoulder-length blond hair and a hairless baby-faced visage. The two men were also keen rivals, in a jocular kind of way, each striving to outdo the other in their presentations at their favourite club.
A highly-social society like the Culture would of course engender the creation of a great many clubs, sodalities, troupes, societies, confraternities and associations for a bewilderingly huge range of interests: the fabrication of machines of all kinds following ancient patterns and manufacturing processes; arts and crafts using an astonishing array of materials and techniques and, of course, sex. The club that Dyderth and Malarkii had agreed to meet at was none of the above - at least, for today - but was in fact a society for the nurturing of pets.
The keeping of pets - living cheek-by-jowl with animals of all kinds specifically to provide pleasure or satisfaction to both the person and the creature itself - seemed to be a distinctly pan-human trait, something shared by the Culture and any number of more primitive humanoid societies and, it seemed, almost nobody else. Only a tiny faction - much less than a tenth of a percent - of all the civilizations in the greater galaxy were even vaguely human, and pretty much everybody else thought the keeping of pets was variously absurd, insane, immoral, unhygienic, incomprehensible, pointless or just plain disgusting.
Certainly, a great many other species maintained lesser creatures for their own purposes: as genetically-indentured servants, perhaps, or bred to carry out dedicated tasks, or just as food. The Culture regarded all such usages as moral anathema: to support their citizens in the kind of effortless luxury they had come to expect, Culture habitats and ships used simple drones with no independent intelligence slaved to a Mind, running a spaceship or Orbital, or other lesser specialised AIs for individual buildings. And meat, in the Culture, was engineered to be tasty and satisfying, but without ever having been alive at all.
A disinterested observer - and Culture society was full of those - would undoubtedly have observed that pets of all kinds were very popular and might even have been mistaken for mandatory. At some point in their upbringing, most Culture children would demand something cute and cuddly as a companion - youngsters in the Culture were comprehensively and imaginatively spoiled - to sit on their lap, sleep on their bed and return extravagant amounts of affection, little realising that this was also an opportunity for the child in question to learn about the concomitant responsibilities - feeding, cleaning up and so on.
Older children would often demand more adventurous companions: mounts of various kinds, with two or four or more legs, or flying creatures - birds, reptiles or animals - to train and command. There were plenty of creatures to choose from: some popular Culture pets were descended from creatures native to one of the dozen or so worlds that originated the various humanoid species which came together to form the Culture, long ago; others were natives of any of thousands of planets across the greater galaxy with similar composition and atmosphere.
Inevitably, some children would grow out of the phase of keeping pets, finding other more exciting interests and pastimes as their bodies and minds matured. But for some few, a passion for the keeping of animals - often increasingly rare, specialised or unusual examples - would extend into adulthood. So, it was not entirely a surprise that Khat Dyderth and Mathan Malarkii had just agreed to meet at the local chapter of the Exotic Pets Club.