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

"Can I see what's going on?" Dyderth asked.

"Sure, if you think it will help."

His earring terminal projected a swirling brown virtual screen immediately in front of his eyes. The screen crystalized, showing an abstracted view of hyperspace: what appeared to be a silver ball slowly growing against a background of an unruly sea of grey lit by an occasional flicker of red. The artifact appearing in front of the energy Grid, he supposed.

"I wouldn't pay too much attention to that," a voice he did not recognise said from somewhere around his ankles.

"Screen, off." The projection in front of Dyderth's eyes disappeared at once. He looked down. Ace was at his feet, looking up at him with, it seemed, a sudden and strange light of intelligence in his eyes.

"Ace? Is that you?"

"Well, yes and no," the furry creature replied, somehow managing to twist its animal mouth to form perfectly comprehensible words, "We created this little body a long time ago, and it has been your pet since childhood."

Dyderth had wondered about that. Small animals, he knew, tended to have relatively short lifespans; of course, the essentially-perfect medicine of the Culture make it quite possible to extend a natural lifetime considerably or even make anything - human or animal - immortal. But he could not remember a time when Ace was not his constant companion and - now he thought about it - he had never heard any comment from his mother or his numerous aunts and uncles on the arrival of his little friend.

"So what are you really?" he demanded.

"I am a representative of the Pet Protectors," the little animal said, sounding only very slightly prissily self-important.

Dyderth must have frowned unconsciously since the little creature went on, "Yes, yes, a twee name, I agree, but there's nothing better in Marain."

Marain was the language of the Culture, specifically intended to provide a means of expression as culturally inclusive and encompassingly comprehensive in its technical and representational possibilities as practically achievable. Not everybody in the Culture spoke Marain - and not everybody who spoke Marain was part of the Culture - but it did seem to be the glue which held the many disparate factions of the society together.

"You are concerned about our pets?" Dyderth asked, sitting down cross-legged so as to be face-to-face with his pet, "Surely you can see that they are well looked after?"

"Well, that's why we are here, specifically. To evaluate how you treat your animals," Ace said calmly, putting his paws on Dyderth's knees, "This Orbital is supposed to be famous for having a huge number of pets."

"Well, yes, that's right," the human said, "But you've seen how I treat my pets, surely? If you have been watching all the time you've been with me?"

"We have. And indeed we have been discreetly observing a great many people here," the furry creature said, "And actually almost everybody here has a pet. Although there are some odd cases."

"Odd cases?" Dyderth said, frowning again.

"What about these fire spiders?" Ace said, nosing the glass walled container at Dyderth's side, "What makes them good pets?"

He smiled, then picked up the vivarium and held it close to his face.

"Well, they're fascinating things, aren't they?" he said, peering through the glass at the scurrying creatures within, "The way they grind up the bones of the animals they find, and line the walls of their tunnels with bone-meal and spider-silk. Stops the loose sand from collapsing their tunnels and they make these huge arched cavities for their eggs to hatch in."

"It's an intellectual appreciation?"

"Well, yes, I suppose so. But it's really fascinating just to sit and watch them at work, shifting back and forth, doing whatever is needed."

"So there's an emotional response as well?"

"Yes, of course," Dyderth said, feeling faintly relieved, "They're very calming, and not at all hard to look after. Although I had to get Hub to devise a special synthesiser setting to make their food."

Ace somehow managed a very convincing nod.

"So, in our universe-roaming role," it went on, "We have chosen to treat this Orbital as representative of the Culture's treatment of companion animals."

"Universe-roaming?" Dyderth exclaimed, "You've been to other galaxies?"

"Oh, yes," Ace replied, sounding smug, "And other universes, too. What you rather quaintly think of as the energy Grid is not a barrier to us."

Dyderth was astounded. He knew that the Culture's understanding of the Grid was limited; but it was quite another thing to hear of travelling between Realities expressed quite so casually.

"What's the thing in hyperspace?" he demanded, "Some kind of vessel for your travels?

Ace managed a very convincing snort.

"We don't need any kind of craft," it said, "We go where we believe we are needed. No, it's just a decoy, to keep the local Minds occupied."

"Why do you need to keep the Minds occupied?"

"It seems to me that they keep their pets, too," the little creature said, deadpan.

"Ah."

The Culture had, at the present moment, a hair under forty trillion citizens: the vast majority were humans - given a fairly wide definition of 'human' - with a smaller number of independently-sentient drones, fewer still high-level AIs and aliens of a huge variety of species and really quite a small number - relatively speaking - of big-M Minds. But it was the Minds which ran the show, figuratively and literally; all the boring but essential things were effectively decided by the Minds, while the humans generally got on with the really important task of enjoying themselves.

The view that the humans in the Culture - and the drones and aliens too - were really just the pets of the Minds which ran everything was certainly not a novel one to Dyderth. Certainly, humans were not in any way necessary to the continued existence of the civilization, at least as far as the rest of the galaxy was concerned, but the Minds seemed to like having humans around, perhaps just to have something to be nice to.

Culture humans had taken the meme that people in the Culture were somewhere between pets, passengers and parasites very much to their hearts, sometimes as a joke to be discussed at parties, otherwise as a serious debating point.

This civilizational outlook seemed to be quite unusual. Some civilizations were highly suspicious of non-biological intelligences and kept their AIs under tight control. Others ensured that their AIs were actually running copies of human minds, very much speeded up and usually working as teams. Yet others turned over their entire society to the machines while the biological progenitors retreated to quiet planets or sleepy habitats to enjoy their retirement.

"So you're also checking up on Hub's treatment of us?" Dyderth asked.

"Yup," the little animal agreed, sounding pleased with itself, "Although in a different form, of course."

Dyderth formed the strong impression this was all the answer he was going to get on that point.

"Why are you doing all this? Checking up on the keeping of pets?" he demanded.

Ace seemed to manage a smile.

"It seems that keeping animals for companionship, for emotional support, is really rather rare," it said, "In this galaxy, the Culture is the only really advanced society which consistently keeps pets, although quite a lot of lesser humanoid civilizations seem to indulge, too."

Ace paused, looking at Dyderth with its head on one side.

"We, my species, we were once pets, a long time ago," it went on, "We were, as it happened, generally looked after very well. We did not forget our heritage, as we evolved, grew, as our erstwhile masters Sublimed and left the mechanics of their civilization to us. As we explored the Meta-Reality, as we looked around the universes, we found that not all species were as kind as our old Masters. We took it upon ourselves to stand up to those who would mistreat dumb animals, creatures bred to give unconditional love to those they lived with."

Ace backed away, then shook itself vigorously.

"I'm pleased to say, however, that you - that is, the Culture - have passed our tests," the little creature announced, "So we will have no need for any kind of correction or punishment. Which is just as well - you would not have liked that. So I will be leaving you now - leaving you with your pet Ace, just as it was. Farewell."

The light of intelligence in Ace's eyes faded; at least, the kind of higher sentience that must have been hotwiring the little creature's brain for the last few minutes. The furry animal looked slightly confused for a moment then, recognising Dyderth sitting on the grass, bounced onto his lap and rolled over, a gesture which the man of course knew meant 'tickle my tummy'.

Dyderth belatedly realised that a silent crowd had gathered around himself and Ace during their conversation. Neither of them had been speaking particularly loudly, but everybody here would have been more than capable of hearing everything that was said. He smiled; he might just have the most spectacularly unusual and potentially dangerous pet ever lying in his lap.

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