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

The huge flying creature drew closer and closer, apparently heading for a marked-off area of the paddock to which nobody had hitherto paid much attention. Dyderth let his vision return to human-basic normal and, amid Ace's excited yapping collected his - now, he supposed, rather unimpressive - specimen of desert fire spiders in their glass container and started making his way towards the marked landing zone.

As he walked, he could not help but overhear snippets from other members in conversation, who had the presence of mind to ask Hub for details via their terminals or neural lace.

"... a Hanlon's pterosaur, which ..."

"... about as big as any creature can get and still fly ..."

"... limited by standard Culture gravity ..."

"... bigger would need an AG harness ..."

"... could even be tamed? Must have ..."

They all sounded depressingly impressed. It looked like Malarkii might just have won this round.

Vast dun-coloured wings cast an impressive shadow over the sunlit meadow as the pterosaur circled lower, finally landing on its hind legs with powerful beats of its wings which blew grass clippings and dust around in a brief whirlwind before folding its wings in a complex way which would allow it to move on all-fours on the ground. It shook its head, the ribbed crest on its head rippling, then its long neck bent, nosing the grass as if in search of some nourishment there.

Malarkii stood in the saddle, waving with great enthusiasm at the crowds gathering all around, wisely staying behind the ropes and pegs which demarked the landing zone. He wrapped the long reins around the saddle horn a couple of times then slid smoothly to the turf slowing himself with the dangling reins. He dragged a pack from his back and pulled out some heavy-looking mass, which he tossed to the ground by the pterosaur's nose. Whatever it was, it was immediately swallowed by the great beast.

The suitability of any species to be a pet in the Culture was rigorously assessed; creatures of true intelligence, sentience or proto-sentience were left alone, to make their own way towards, perhaps, a civilization which one day might rival that of any of the Involved. Temperament, too, played a large part the assessment, as did personality. The Culture had mind-modelling techniques of unrivalled accuracy, allowing the actual behaviour of the creature in question to be predicted as accurately as if its biological brain had been scanned directly - the latter being anathema to any right-thinking Culture Mind.

Malarkii stepped forward, gesturing with his arms towards the flying monster he had so casually arrived with.

"What do you think?" he called.

There was a smattering of applause and several shouted questions. Even Dyderth had to smile at his friend’s impressive entrance.

Something happened. Everybody's terminal pinged an alert at the same time; drones, and those humans who had a neural lace - an internal version of a terminal entwined throughout their brain - stopped and stared vacantly, which tended to happen when a person's intellect was engaged with something immersive projected directly onto their own senses. Malarkii suddenly found himself not the centre of attention, much to his visible dismay.

Dyderth prodded his own earring terminal.

"Hub," he said urgently, "What's going on?"

It looked like Hub was speaking, individually and simultaneously with everybody here; possibly, with every one of the teeming billions on this Orbital.

"There's something unprecedented out there," Hub replied, sounding as if it did not believe its own sensors, "There's something emerging into hyperspace, not very far away."

"Emerging into hyperspace?" Dyderth said, "From where? How is that possible?"

"I didn't think it was possible, and I have no idea where it is coming from," Hub said, sounding gloomy, "I don't like this one bit."

A solid sphere passing through an immaterial plane - something projected by lasers, for example - in an otherwise dark room would be visible only by the laser light reflected as it moved. A single bright point would appear, growing into a circle which waxed to the circumference of the sphere then waned to a point before disappearing completely. Something analogous would happen in hyperspace: a hypersphere - such as the remotely-induced wormhole used for Displaces - impinging on the 3D reality of the skein would first appear as a shining point which then rapidly grew to a mirrored sphere before vanishing completely.

Minds, and any human who had studied physics as the Culture understood it, knew there were more than the four dimensions which described this reality: there were other universes, other realities separated from the hyperspaces they knew by the impassable barrier of the energy Grid used to power starships; further dimensions which allowed for the continued creation of universes, complications in seven dimensions that involved a giant torus on which the 3-D universe could be described as a circle, contained and containing other nested tori, with further implications of whole populations of such meta-realities and, beyond that, those tiny twisted-up dimensions eight through eleven which housed the realm of the Sublime.

The Culture knew of no way to travel between, or even communicate with these other universes. They knew it was possible; the energetic barrier of the Grid had been known to be traversed, these transitions observed by ships and Minds without any understanding of the processes involved. It remained, as far as the Culture was concerned, a mystery; now, it was a demonstration of something impossible was happening right under their noses.

"Is this some kind of OCP?" Dyderth asked.

"Quite possibly," Hub replied, sounding even more gloomy.

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass, when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

That was an Outside Context Problem; so was the suitably up-teched version that happened to whole planetary civilisations when somebody rapacious chanced upon them first rather than, say, the Culture. The Culture had had lots of minor OCPs, problems that could have proved to be terminal if they'd been handled badly, but so far it had survived them all.

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